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Quarterstaff: Finished!   Leave a comment


I was indeed, as predicted, very close to the end.

I decided to go with no preparation at all and used my newly-found tomb key to go through some obstacles, and ignore a demon, hellhound, and some side rooms along the way.

Fighting Setmoth was simply a matter of using KILL SETMOTH over and over again with all my party members; as you can tell from the image below, he can do some formidable damage numbers, but for some reason he spent the first five turns of combat somewhat confused and only started hitting back when he was almost dead.

After defeating Setmoth the game says you can just “quit” or keep exploring. I think I can safely say I’m done.

. . .

So what went wrong?

Really, as a paper description, this is *exactly* the sort of game I’m looking for. I like adventures. I like CRPGs. I like Beyond Zork (which is another Adventure/RPG hybrid). The promotional materials clearly indicate an aspiration to feeling like an in-person RPG session where situations feel custom-made to be dynamic and monsters are intelligent; I’ve never had an experience that quite matches that.

This game instead hit an “uncanny valley.” The term usually refers to the fact that robot-like-robots are fine, and perfectly-human-looking-robots are fine, but in between the two there’s a sort of revulsion at somewhat-human-but-not-there-yet robots. The halfway-ness of the uncanny valley is what I mean here. The overlapping of CRPG and Adventure elements managed to cover up some of the redeeming features of each.

For instance, in the final battle, I used four characters and the default inventory I had started the game with. They had “stats” represented their abilities in combat but they were essentially no different than when they started. The appeal of a CRPG is often in character growth, and getting to the point of being able to overcome obstacles that seemed impossible early on; here, while this ostensibly every trope up to an including experience points, none of them applied in a way that was meaningful.

While there was a fair amount of interesting gear, none of it was important enough to gather, and there often wasn’t enough information to even tell if a particular item was an upgrade. (It’s clear by convention a “mithral sword” is better than a sword, but what about a halberd versus a broadsword? Or a nasty mace versus a club?)

On the adventure end, a lot of the appeal is feeling like the world is an interconnected puzzle, and each part that gets solved reveals a new piece. There were puzzles that essentially did nothing; I spent ages getting to a “treasure vault” on the first level, for instance, and then subsequently working out how to get into a chest inside (just breaking it works) only to find some golden objects that were entirely unhelpful for the quest. I also mentioned a puzzle leading to a cure disease potion last time; I never at any point had a character afflicted by disease.

The presence of food, thirst, sleep, *and* light source timers also clashed pretty badly with the adventure aesthetic. There’s good reason why these are mostly dead in adventure games; they add a sense of urgency that discourages experimentation.

There’s likely a way to develop this type of game further so there’s less problems; just going light on all the timers, for instance, or finding a saner way to command multiple party members. Alas, this was a stub of sorts in computer game history; while games like Kerkerkruip do bear the torch slightly, an adventure game that feels like a tabletop RPG is still elusive.

From the cover for the Japanese version of the game, via the Museum of Adventure Computer Game History.

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Posted June 8, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: The Threshold   Leave a comment

I haven’t had many games so actively hostile to the act of playing them as Quarterstaff. After multiple concerted attempts I finally made enough progress to write about. (Two large puzzle spoilers are included below.)

1. My biggest discovery since last time is that “break X” actually works on a variety of things as long as you repeat it enough times.

This issue came up with Adventure 500 where it took multiple tries to take down a dragon. With this game when I was testing out various ways of destroying a door, I made enough attempts with “this isn’t helpful” messages that I assumed you just couldn’t just club doors down (or at least assume they only needed clubbing in specific circumstances).

At the time I theorized this sort of thing was totally ok in an RPG, and here I am getting fouled up by the same behavior in an RPG. So I should add the condition that there should be some feedback that what you are doing might be useful, even if it will take more attempts. I might compare it to boss monsters in a bad 80s platformer that don’t give any feedback that you are doing any damage (flashing, health bar, or the like), and where you only find out 10 minutes later you were supposed to be shooting the monster in the feet and not the eyes.

2. Inventory capacity is a bear. Some sessions I’ve spent fully half my gameplay commands just trying to juggle objects so people could carry them.

Especially bad was my archer Eolene, after I used some arrows out of her quiver. Each arrow was a different object (with a different color name). I had to pick up and put each arrow back in her quiver individually. Except sometimes, she would mysteriously be able to carry less than when she started, so she wouldn’t actually be able to pick up all the arrows she just used, so I would have to drop some items, then pick up the arrows and store the arrows, then pick up the items again.

While all the inventory shuffling is going on the other part members keep insisting on commands. You can try to set them on GUARD or turn them off in various ways, but quite often there would be some complication to muck that up; plus a lot of the inventory juggling ended up being between characters.

3. Some things were entirely not worth the effort of figuring out.

Last time, I was stuck on a puzzle where one door had a “no man may pass” message and the one following had a “no woman may pass” message. This is where I finally broke down and used the hint system. and found out that I could bring a large container, stuff one of my smaller men in it, have a woman drag the container past the “no man” threshold, and then the man could hop out and go through the remaining door.

This is incidentally a case of magic not revealing enough mechanics to understand a puzzle. Apparently the “no X may pass” was done by “sight”, but there’s no indication of a “magical eye” or such; until I saw the hint I expected the “no X” simply just sensed gender. (The hints also mention getting a character who can change gender or one who is non-binary, but I don’t think either exists in this game.)

I’m not going to get into detail on the convoluted process of setting up the character-dragging (teleportation and two separate inventory juggles were needed) but suffice it to say it took me an hour to set things up, at which point I found … a cure disease potion, and a bag that let me teleport out.

4. There is an almost spectacularly evil puzzle that required parsing the instructions of a poem inside of an iron pentagram.

Star of frames.
Multi-headed breather of flames,
Make its blood like its breath.
You must seek your death.
Thrust quick to thy heart,
‘Tis dour doing but your part
Take the key from the trap,
‘Ware the plaque where it be.

Again, I needed a hint. This turned out to involve a.) finding some “hydra blood” from a room far back b.) setting the blood on fire (??) and then c.) killing yourself, not with ATTACK ME but with the special command SUICIDE (???)

If it was easy to experiment, this *might* have been a reasonable puzzle (in retrospect, all the pieces are there), but as I already pointed out the game has a brutal inventory limit, and heading back through a maze / traps / rooms that require two people to open / etc. to find more items can be an expedition in itself, so there’s no good way to do a lot of testing.

5. The apparent end goal (from some random backstory book I found, but also the subtitle of the game) is to get to the Tomb of Setmoth (who seems to be a demon) and destroy him. I now have a Tomb Key, and know where to go. Expect either “Finished!” or possibly “Deleted from my hard drive and then I took the hard drive out of my computer and buried it in the desert” next time.

Posted June 7, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: “Deathbots” vs. “Ordinary living things”   2 comments

One of the most eye-popping claims in the marketing for Quarterstaff is this excerpt from The Status Line, Fall 1988:

In Quarterstaff, monsters are not merely “deathbots,” whose only purpose in life is to maim and destroy, but ordinary living things whose actions are guided by real life drives such as hunger, anger, and the need for friendship.

Monsters even learn from their mistakes and accomplishments through an artificial-intelligence learning system. Some creatures will react negatively to your party, resorting to combat and force. Others, however, will try to help your party, or even join forces with you; and so, though you begin the adventure with only one character, you’re sure to quickly acquire a formidable band of adventurers.

One of the things I was most curious about with Quarterstaff was, does the above claim hold up?

Before getting into that: a status update.

Level 2 consisted mostly of an annoying series of traps. Every time the players got knocked over or fell in a pit the party would separate, so the interface trick I found last time of being able to “de-select” members of a party ended up being mostly useless. I sometimes killed off all my characters except one just so I could explore a little without feeling like I was being hit over the head by a brick repeatedly.

I can’t totally drop having other characters, because sometimes one character will hold a secret door open or otherwise help another character. In one frustrating instance, I tried having my character “on hold” use the GUARD command to wait around after holding open a secret door while my other two characters went in to eliminate enemies. However, I ended up stuck, because there doesn’t seem to be a way to end the GUARD command (it ends itself if there is an encounter, but none were forthcoming); so after 15 minutes of combat and fiddly inventory managment, I had to restore to a saved game and undo all my progress.

(Both the box and the Status Line promotion mention continuous play without the frustration of constant “saves and restores”. Ha ha. Ha. Hahahahaha. No.)

The traps in level 2 have no warning. Only this spot is polite enough to warn about danger, but there’s a locked door I haven’t gotten through so I have no idea if it’s really more dangerous than the other parts.

Incidentally, if you’ve been annoyed by hunger puzzles in adventure games, this game has hunger, thirst, *and* sleep. In the middle of a combat and one of your party member starts feeling thirsty? Better juggle a wine bottle over to them, otherwise they’re start suffering 3 damage per turn. Except the moves you wasted juggling the wine bottle also gave the monsters extra turns to hit you, so you’re probably dead anyway. Guess it’s time to restore again.

Level 3 starts out with what I’m sure everyone wanted, which was to turn off the handy auto-map feature and put the player in a straight-up old school maze. I had to get out Trizbort.

After the maze I found a puzzle with a large number of colored balls, with a hole, and the message I was supposed to insert the one that was different. The appropriate solution was oddly meta and one of those circumstances where I was reminded strongly this was a Computer Game and not just a World. More detail encrypted in rot13: Zber fcrpvsvpnyyl, lbh arrq gb xrrc na rlr ba gur “jrvtug” gung lbhe punenpgre vf pneelvat va bar bs gur zrahf. Vs lbh cvpx hc nal bs gur abezny onyyf, lbhe jrvtug tbrf hc ol 1. Vs lbh cvpx gur fcrpvny bar, lbhe jrvtug tbrf hc ol 2. Fb gur onyy jvgu gur jrvtug bs 2 vf gur bar lbh’er fhccbfrq gb vafreg.

After the maze I found two new characters (including “Sandra” the dwarf) and a throne which concealed a secret portion of the map.

Here I am stuck. I think the puzzle I’m supposed to be solving involves a room which says “no man can pass”. You can send a female character through, but that room has the message “no woman can pass”. So either I need some clever teleportation or a method of gender-swapping my characters.

In any case, back to the artificial intelligence. I did experiment quite a bit, and I’m not that impressed. For one thing, there seems to be a fairly strict delineation between hostile and friendly; I haven’t had a situation yet where I can just make friends with an enemy, although I suspect it’s possible in a few places.

In some cases, the monsters clearly aren’t here to make friends.

In general, I haven’t seen them do much past being “murderbots”. You attack an enemy, and keep attacking and they keep trying to hit you back. The very first fight had a scripted element (you are fighting a “chief torturer” who tries to lock one of your party members in manacles, and will try to run away if he gets hurt enough) but I haven’t seen any evidence of “hunger” or “anger” somehow being influences.

It’s quite possible if you had time to sit an observe a particular NPC they might stop to eat or show some other sign of life. However, every meeting so far has been either friendly or hostile so the game is unable to produce evidence of this number crunching. How much evidence of life can a monster give when they live for only a couple turns? While AI often systems have admirable goals, if what they do is indistinguishable from a little custom scripting, what’s the point?

On the other side of the coin, friend-making is a matter of using the SMILE verb repeatedly and possibly using BRIBE with whatever treasure you have around. (If they join your party, since you have control of them, you can just have them give any treasures back.) There’s no intermediary state descriptions of what the NPCs are thinking; you just wait some set number of turns and they join. Again, there might be some complicated machinery behind the characters, but with zero transparency, their behavior might as well be random.

(I write this with the back my head knowing the fact that three interactive fiction luminaries now work at Spirit AI, whose whole goal is to make more realistic AI characters. In fact, they’re all probably reading this. Hello there! I’m sure your AI system rocks!)

Posted April 28, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: The Infamous Puzzle   6 comments

In a curious way, even though I just started, I’ve been playing Quarterstaff for four years.

It’s long been one of the two Infocom games I’ve never tried (Shogun is the other one) and at one point when I was organizing my files I wanted to make a directory so I could play Quarterstaff when the time was right. I set up a Macintosh emulator (a bit of a ritual in itself) and gathered the documentation files I knew I would need. According to my file dates, this happened in 2014.

I had heard that in particular there was a puzzle reliant on the documentation that was quite nasty to solve.

The most significant “real” puzzle is that of deciphering a set of magic words using a parchment and wooden coin included in the game package. (Apparently quite a few players were stumped by this — Infocom actually gave away the entire solution in the very last issue of “The Status Line,” which is included in manual download below).
Home of the Underdogs

The documentation included the “parchment” on the top of this post, as well as a wooden coin.

Knowing about the puzzle’s reputation, intermittently I would take a glance at the image files in my directory, idly trying to solve the puzzle. Was there an acrostic or something of that sort in the poem? What did the difference between the coin and the parchment pictures mean? Do the animals to the side have a meaning?

Fast-forwarding to now:

This is the way to the second level, but this is also the location of the identify wand, which seems to be critical to the game, because examining it says “The glowing identify wand is in the gouged hole. A wand that looks to be used for copy protection. You had better read the documentation to figure out how to use it.”

The manual states the format for wand use is [MAGIC WORD] [TARGET OF MAGIC]. The mystery seemed to be what magic words could be used, and thus the puzzle boiled down to finding “magic verbs” the game would recognize. The four mini-poems at the bottom seemed to be applicable.

To glean the secret of a Wand,
Spy the rising sun, and pace
Southward six.

Here I was stumped, likely as stumped as the poor Status Line readers, until I had a lateral insight. Let’s clip an image from the game as a bit of spoiler space …

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(don’t go on unless you want the puzzle completely spoiled)
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… before mentioning I remembered that the coin was a physical object, and while it was not certain from the pictures, it appeared to fit inside the compass circle on top of the parchment itself.

Additionally, I noticed there was an arrow on the coin; I originally assumed it pointed to north, but then realized because of it being physical the coin itself could be rotated to match whatever the poem wanted. That is, if we “spy the rising sun” (start pointing east) the arrow on the coin can can be rotated to face east. Then from the eastmost point we can read off six letters rotating clockwise (“pacing southward”).

This gets ODEEPS which is indeed recognized by the game!

>Odeeps identify wand.
The identify wand glows faintly and suddenly Titus clearly understands exactly what it can be used for: Using this wand will allow the wielder to identify scrolls, wands, potions, and keys. They key words necessary for using the wand can be deciphered from the scroll and coin included in the game packaging.

I know I promised I would get to combat this time, but I’m going to wait a little longer while I explore Level 2; the game makes some very extended claims about artificial intelligence and I’m trying to verify if any of the claims hold out.

Posted April 20, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff: Great in Concept, Painful in Execution   Leave a comment

The back of the Infocom box, via an Etsy auction.

It’s been a while! (You might want to reread my first post about Quarterstaff and then come back here. TLDR version: Quarterstaff is a Macintosh-only hybrid text adventure RPG with multiple characters.) While I’ve been busy with other projects, to be fair Quarterstaff itself is trying really hard to be unplayable.

1. The multiple characters sound good in principle but are painful in practice. Members of a group can act separately, so you get a series of prompts like:

L Titus? DRINK POTION
F Bruno? Z
F Eolene? EXAMINE BELT

so while one character is trying to do something finicky like adjust their inventory, you have to control the other characters at the same time. (“L” stands for leader and “F” stands for follower. You can change who is the leader and also separate groups.)

This gets really bad with something like DROP ALL or TAKE ALL because each item is considered a separate action, so if someone is dropping three items, your other party members are prompted multiple times for actions in between each item getting dropped. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds:

Fortunately (although I only found this out about 2 hours in) it’s possible to turn off this feature by deselecting a character name from one of the menus (it just has the “clover” symbol, no name). Multiple character control is still needed for things like combat, though.

2. There are lots of circumstances (at least early on) where a character is too heavily weighted down to enter a particular area. This not only requires the aforementioned inventory shuffle, but if somone who gets stuck is a follower, whoops! — your regular party goes ahead and your follower stays behind in the dark.

3. The interface uses multiple windows for player control and messages, map, and graphics. This doesn’t sound bad at first, but if a character gets separated from their group it pops up a new window, and the graphics are wildly inconsistent in size so that particular window grows or shrinks on every turn.

Note I’ve left the top left free because the picture sometimes takes up the entire area I have allocated. If I accidentally click in that blank space with no picture I get sent to the desktop.

4. The parser is on shaky ground at times.

Once I tried to >OPEN CLOSET and the game just picked it up instead.

5. Party death results in this ignominious screen (and the famous “Macintosh beep”) and then a summary exit to desktop.

6. While this is not the game’s fault, I’ve had my emulator crash on me multiple times. I’m going to switch software and see if that helps. Fingers crossed!

I’ll try to get into combat next time; I haven’t seen enough of it to really write about it properly.

Posted April 19, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quarterstaff (1987)   Leave a comment

I was going to get back to my regular sequence from 1980, when I found out The CRPG Addict was about to start Quarterstaff. Quarterstaff was originally written by Scott Schmitz and Ken Updike for Macintosh and published in 1987, but picked up by Infocom in 1988 and republished (with new color graphics and extra writing by Amy Briggs of Plundered Hearts fame). It remains one of the few Infocom games I’ve never beaten, so the opportunity seemed too good to miss.

I tried this sort of simultaneous blogging before once when The CRPG Addict embarked on Fallthru, but that game turned out to be far more RPG than adventure, and I only squeezed out two entries before my body gave out. (“The numbers represent actual numbers of steps, so reaching Biclif to the north by walking requires typing N for north 250 times.”) I can safely toss that game on the “not an adventure” pile and move on.

Quarterstaff, on the other hand, looks to be more adventure than RPG. The plot premise at least is typical RPG; find evil, go slay it. (Or make friends with it, or join forces and become evil yourself, or teach it scrapbooking and then slay it because it used too many sparkles, or …?)

However, during the last six months, the usually-stable Tree Druids have begun to act unnaturally. Their attendance at the Druid Council has become oddly erratic, and the sect’s communication with other Druidic colonies has mysteriously dwindled to nothing . . . Three months ago, all traces of the sect vanished entirely. Three scouts – famed warriors named Bruno, Jaroo, and Eolene – were sent by nearby colonies to find out what had happened. Several weeks have passed without word from them, however, and once again the people of Rhea have grown restless for news of the sect. Casting about for another warrior to send, the Druid Council has called on you to journey forth and discover what unspeakable terror has destroyed the once-prosperous people.

Despite the plot, Quarterstaff manages to squeeze off its own supply of uniqueness:

1.) There are multiple game windows that can be rearranged however you like. I remember seeing this in the Magnetic Scrolls Collection but even now this isn’t that common a thing in text adventures.

2.) You start out, alone, as this guy:

TITUS may look muscle-bound, but he’s got brains to match his enormous muscles. Titus used to be a blacksmith, but then again, he used to be a lot of things. The Druid Council chose Titus for this mission because he was the toughest looking and talking person around and also because he was just drunk enough to accept the mission.

However, you can control multiple characters. From the manual: “Some creatures may find it beneficial to join forces with you, and so, while you begin the game alone, you may quickly become the leader of a sizable party. Of course, as your party grows, you gain control over the actions of its individual members; you may wish to split up into several groups, or even to elect a new leader.”

The very first party member you get (Bruno) is just a few steps away, and all you need to do is >GREET BRUNO to get him to join the group. This game isn’t much for conversation menus.

Once you have more than one party member, if your lead character does an action other than movement, you set commands for all the characters in your group simultaneously. (That is, Titus can examine an item at the same time Bruno is busy unlocking a door.)

3.) The game keeps track of stats, which qualifies it for RPG-status:

4.) There’s a macro system, a built in verb list, and the ability to pick any item in the room or in one of your character’s inventory straight off the menu. The interface would be considered awesomely advanced by the text adventure community if it was in a current game.

There’s also some physical materials that came with the game that match in-universe items (as was standard with Infocom). I’ll show them off next time. In the meantime, I’ll wander and see what trouble I can get into.

The Tree Druids, world-renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappeared without a trace, leaving this empty complex. Where could the two score inhabitants have gone, so suddenly? This thought haunts you as you travel down the damp, cool passage.

Posted November 28, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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