History Lessons: Betrayal At Krondor (part 3)

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Also be sure to read part 1 and part 2 before continuing. When you’ve finished you may wish to read part 4. Other History Lessons posts can be found here.

It’s been a while since my last post about Betrayal at Krondor, but if it makes you feel better, I’ve gotten farther in the game this time. I was nearing the end of Chapter 2 then, now I’m just starting Chapter 5. And I’m glad I waited until now to talk about the game’s overarching narrative, because it got a lot more interesting right after Chapter 2 ended.

In part 2 I discussed how the game’s open world is designed to funnel players through certain narrative experiences, offering a series of clues and encounters along the roads the player must take when traveling. The result is an experience that feels organic and emergent while still providing a set story. Chapter 3 offers even more freedom than the first two, and is the best example of Betrayal at Krondor’s unique narrative design so far.

Each Chapter in the game has a primary objective, and for the first two Chapters, it was simply a destination. Travel to a certain place. The player is free to take any route to get there, or to wander off in another direction entirely, but the story is guaranteed to proceed as planned once the player finally arrives. The third Chapter, however, has an entirely different objective: to solve a mystery. That was the only guidance I was given. No destination, no quest markers on my map like I would have in a modern role-playing game. Just the command to solve the mystery. And it proved to be the best melding of story and player freedom yet, a perfect example of why Betrayal at Krondor’s design works so well.

In the earlier Chapters I would travel along the roads, exploring their limited surroundings, and uncover tidbits of information along the way. Now, with no set destination, I was free to wander where I pleased, with no guide other than my wits. It was fairly obvious where to find my first clue, which naturally provided a trail to follow, but soon I was finding more clues, in many different places. Best of all, the clues pointed in different directions. The decision of which leads to follow was entirely up to me. And, just as the story was opening up like this, the game’s world did as well. Now in the eastern part of the Kingdom, I found the strictly confined roads of the mountainous west were replaced with open plains, full of farms and other dwellings. Even the towns were larger and more likely to have an inn and other services than those in the west. This is all in keeping with Raymond E. Feist’s novels, which describe the eastern sections of the kingdom as older and more cultured than the newer frontiers in the west. The designers showed great foresight in setting the third Chapter there.

And so I happily explored, tracking down clues and investigating new leads, and I was even genuinely stumped as to what to do at one point. This is something that has become taboo in modern game design, but was common enough in games of the era. Riddles, puzzles, and other brain-stumpers were a mainstay during the classic era of adventure games, for example, but today designers are very careful to never confuse the player. Tutorials, quest logs with arrows pointing out where to go, and other player aids are ubiquitous, and ensure that players will never find themselves unsure of what to do next. The thinking is that a frustrated player will simply give up and turn to a different game. There is merit to this concern; today there are far, far more games available than ever before, often for discount prices, and my own backlog continues to grow as I purchase games faster than I can play them. In the early ’90s, however, there were far fewer games to choose from each year, and they tended to be longer and demand more patience from the player.

And here’s the thing: getting stuck was great. I was trying to solve a mystery, after all. If I had an arrow pointing out every step of the way, then I wouldn’t have been solving anything. Unsure of what to do, I opted to keep exploring, to revisit some places and look for more clues. And I found them, discovering some people I’d neglected to speak to the first time, and others who had new things to say about things I’d learned since we last spoke. New leads sometimes led to information I already knew, and other times opened up new avenues of investigation, but the final solution to the mystery was never spelled out directly; it was up to me to figure it out. I finally located the hint (and it really was a hint, rather than a direct instruction) that led me to the solution, which was immensely gratifying. Later, I learned that there’s an alternate way to solve the mystery, one that’s arguably more interesting than my solution, and which I very well might have stumbled upon if I’d found the various clues in a different order.

And that’s what’s so brilliant about the third Chapter: it’s designed to be followed in a completely non-linear manner. Collect clues for various threads in parallel, which may unlock more clues in places one’s already visited, or may lead to new locations with new smatterings of clues to find. And there are many ways to learn each piece of the story, be it finding a secret note hidden in a chest somewhere, or simply talking to the right people at the right times. When it all comes together it’s a marvelous experience, and one that can’t be found in most modern games.

Chapter 3 also features one of Betrayal at Krondor’s relatively few dungeons, which I haven’t written about yet. Mainstays of many role-playing games, dungeons aren’t nearly as common in the types of fantasy novels that Betrayal at Krondor is trying to emulate, and so their relative infrequency in the game makes sense. They’re also one of the game’s weaker aspects, thanks to the limitations of the 3D engine. Little more than a set of corridors at right angles to one another, occasionally opening up into rectangular rooms with groups of enemies to fight or treasure chests to loot, they’re far less interesting to navigate than the outdoor areas. What’s most disappointing, however, is how little imagination is on display in their layouts. Might and Magic: Book One proved that limited technology need not impede a sense of place, and that good level design can do wonders in giving character to different locations. But the dungeons in Betrayal at Krondor are too often a random set of corridors and rooms, with little rhyme or reason.

In some cases, the layouts kind of make sense: a Dwarven mine would have passages leading in random directions, as they follow seams of ore, and the sewer system beneath a city would have a more grid-like design to follow the streets above (and incidentally, both those locations play major roles in Feist’s books, so they benefit from detailed histories and lore). But most dungeons don’t really feel like the places they’re supposed to be, and quickly become tiresome to explore. So I was a bit disappointed when, after the fantastic, free-form mystery solving of Chapter 3, I found myself spending quite a lot of time underground as I moved into Chapter 4.

Once I emerged, however, I found Chapter 4 to be interesting for completely different reasons than Chapter 3. Shorter, more focused, and taking place in a smaller area, it places more emphasis on the events that are taking place in the world at large, and in many ways it feels the most like a chapter from a fantasy novel. Chapter 5 is shaping up to be a similar experience, and while I expect the game will return to a more open-ended structure in later Chapters, I am curious to see how it will be reconciled with the rapidly escalating events of the main story. Incidentally, I’m now past the point I reached long ago when I tried playing the game before (briefly recounted in part 1), and I’m happy to report that I sailed right through without a trace of the game-stopping bug that halted my progress back then. In fact, I learned that that bug was actually a common occurrence, and that I could have bypassed it by disabling both sound and music before proceeding through that specific event in the game. Sadly, it was a time before Google, when such information was not so easily obtained. But I’m glad I have the chance to play the game now.

Now that I’ve gotten a good ways into the game, I’ve had a chance to see how the combat encounters evolve as my characters grow in skill and get better equipment, and I have to say I’m quite impressed with the combat in the game. In part 1 I mentioned how combat occurs less frequently than in most role-playing games, and how this helps make the game feel more like a fantasy novel. Enemies are usually human (or at least humanoid), and there’s usually a good reason for them to be there, be it to defend a position or to lay an ambush for the player’s party. The heroes can even attempt an ambush of their own if they spot the enemy first and their stealth ratings are high enough. This means that each encounter feels significant, and the mechanics allow for appropriately careful strategies.

Taking place on a square grid (which is hidden by default, but can be toggled on or off with the ‘G’ key), combat encounters proceed in a turn-based fashion, with each character and opponent moving and attacking one at a time. The grid itself is actually shown from an angled view, so distant enemies appear smaller, while those near the player’s back lines dominate the foreground. Each character can only move as far as his speed rating each turn, and his speed rating will never improve, so slow characters will always be slow. In practice, the speed rating makes a big difference; a fast character can run around the battlefield, engaging the enemy where needed, while a slower character must be very careful about positioning and will often find himself isolated from the action and unable to provide assistance in a crisis. This is only exacerbated when characters get wounded. In part 1 I discussed how wounds play a much bigger role in Betrayal at Krondor than in most role-playing games, due to how characters take damage. Instead of a pool of hit points, characters have separate health and stamina ratings; stamina is reduced first when taking damage, but once it’s gone, a character’s health will deplete. Depleted health is very bad, because it proportionally lowers a characters skills, strength, and speed. So a heavily wounded character will find himself barely able to move, and completely lacking in any ability to attack an enemy or defend himself. Fortunately, these rules apply to one’s enemies as well, so it’s safe to leave a wounded opponent to limp around harmlessly, while diverting one’s attention to a different part of the battlefield.

I should say a few words about equipment. Many role-playing games are brimming full of equipment, with all sorts of shiny weapons and bits of armor to collect and dress up in. Betrayal at Krondor opts for a more simplified approach. There are no separate breastplates, greaves and helmets; an entire set of armor is treated as a single item. As for weapons, magicians wield magical staves, but everyone else uses swords. There are no axes, maces, polearms, or any other weapons one might expect from a fantasy game. Just swords. I expected that this would be limiting, but it’s actually one of the game’s strengths. Finding new equipment is a momentous occasion, and usually comes with significant benefits, which more than make up for the relative infrequency of the event. Plus, every piece of equipment benefits from the wonderful flavor text that graces the rest of the game, and each feels like it belongs in the world. Ditching a cheap, mass-produced suit of armor for a hand-crafted Dwarven set not only provides a lot more defense, but fits with the lore of Midkemia. Also, the relatively rare upgrades match the type of story the game is striving for. What was the last fantasy novel you read where the hero keeps getting a newer, better sword every few pages?

Surprisingly, the limited equipment does little to hamper the strategies in combat, either. Sword fighters can perform two types of attack: a thrust or a swing. Thrusting is more versatile, as a character can charge up to an enemy and thrust all in one turn. A swing, on the other hand, requires a character to already be in position next to an enemy at the start of their turn, and in addition requires the expenditure of a small amount of stamina or health to perform. But the payout is (usually) a higher-damage attack, but with a lower chance to hit. Pleasingly, each sword has its own statistics for thrusting and swinging, so some may favor one attack type while others are more balanced. Then there’s the racial modifier, which gives a bonus to a character’s attack if the character is of the same race as the manufacturers of his equipment. So an elf will be more effective with an elven blade, for example. These all lead to interesting decisions about how to equip one’s characters — should the faster but weaker fighter wield the blade with a powerful swing attack, to make up for his low strength? Or should the slower, mightier character take it, to deal massive damage? What if that means they’ll be using items that don’t match their race? Once battle is joined, the player must take pains to get the slower but more powerful characters into the right position to land their devastating swing attacks on key targets.

There are also ranged attacks thrown in the mix. Characters can wield crossbows and fire a variety of quarrels at opponents, but only if there’s no enemy standing next to them. Early on, I barely used ranged attacks, as they did little damage and it was usually better to move my characters into better positions or to close the distance on a dangerous spellcaster. But later on, crossbows became much more useful. Once I’d found some more powerful bows and a wider selection of quarrels, I found myself with many new strategic options. I could pick off fleeing enemies with the higher-accuracy quarrels (so I wouldn’t miss out on their loot; more on that later), or fire something with higher damage into a pack of enemies before they closed into melee range. Or I could use a flaming quarrel to do extra damage to a fire-susceptible enemy. A cool feature is that a missed shot can actually hit another nearby character, be it friend or foe. Sometimes enemies will miss and strike down their own, and other times I would find myself stymied as one of my slower characters dared not fire at the enemies on the other end of the battlefield for fear of striking down his ally by mistake.

The most interesting strategic decisions, however, are related to magic. First I should say that I really like the magic system in the game; it’s bursting with flavor that really gives it its own identity. For example, another role-playing game might have a spell that paralyzes an enemy for a short time. This spell would probably be called “Paralyze” and it would have a description that reads something like “paralyzes an enemy for 2-4 turns”. In Betrayal at Krondor, I found a spell called “Grief of 1000 Nights”. The spell description informs me that the spell attacks an enemy’s mind and overwhelms him with memories of grief and despair. The enemy is overcome, and stops fighting while these memories storm through his mind. In effect, this spell is the same as the “Paralyze” spell mentioned above, but boy does it have a lot more personality. It also only works on humanoid enemies, which is a nice touch. Another spell is called “Unfortunate Flux”, and it causes a glowing resin to seep out of the pores of an opponent’s skin. A group of sprites then appear to eat the resin, and they consume the enemy along with it. In practice this spell is simply a single-target spell with highly variable damage, but again it feels so much more interesting with the unique description. Brilliantly, the battle animation matches the description, showing a cloud of sprites eating away at the target, and the player gets to watch and see how many bites they’re taking as a hint of how much damage the enemy will take.

The mainstays have a similar treatment, and are tactically interesting too: the standard fireball spell does a lot of damage on a direct hit but will also damage those nearby, friend or foe. This means that the positioning of everyone on the battlefield is very important when firing one off. Other spells can damage and freeze enemies, to keep them out of action for a while, or confuse enemy spellcasters so they may turn on their own allies. Some of the most interesting spells, however, are the simplest. The “Invitation” spell will pull an enemy towards the caster, which is useful for catching a fleeing enemy or pulling a an enemy spellcaster into melee range. But combine it with another spell that plants an explosive magic “mine” on a certain square on the battlefield, and one can lay elaborate traps for one’s opponents.

The best part about the magic system, however, is the fact that magicians do not draw from some mystical reserve of power, but rather from their own health and stamina pool. Couple this with the fact that most spells can be boosted by spending more health and stamina, and the fact that spellcasters can only cast when there are no enemies adjacent to them, and spellcasting becomes quite the strategic dilemma. Should I pour everything into a powerful fireball aimed at that pack of enemies, knowing that I might completely miss them and leave my caster weakened and unable to act? Or should I single out certain targets with subtler castings, moving them around the battlefield or selectively taking them out of play? If I opt for the latter approach, how will I keep the enemies away from my magician so he can keep casting? The interplay between a magician and his sword-fighting allies is critical, with the fighters trying to get into position to engage the enemy while leaving the magician free so he can fire off a critical spell. The spells are quite powerful, and getting one off can easily turn the tide of battle, so proper teamwork is needed to emerge victorious.

Once the battle is over, there’s a recovery period. My characters check their equipment, and repair their weapons and armor. They search the enemies’ bodies for equipment and supplies. They tend to their wounds, and decide if simply resting for the night is a more prudent course of action than pressing onwards. Then, once everything is in order, they continue on their journey.

There are a few things I don’t like about the combat system. Magic spells are split into several “circles”, which seems to be an attempt at interesting lore but ends up just making it harder to find the spell I want. I think each circle is supposed to have a theme, with one containing direct damage spells and another spells that affect the mind or something, but they don’t actually make that much sense and I’m too often fumbling through the different screens trying to find a specific spell. Then there’s the plethora of boosting items I find everywhere. These are either imbibed directly to improve one’s skills for the next fight, or applied to one’s weapon or armor to protect from certain effects. For example, a Dragon Stone can be used on a suit of armor to protect the wearer from a flaming weapon during the next combat. But, there’s never any hints as to when one might encounter enemies with flaming weapons, so I found I was hardly ever using these items. The imaginative backstories behind each item are just as good as the descriptions of everything else in the game, making these items far more interesting than they would be in a different game, but I find that they simply clog my inventory. I have been running into some tougher fights recently, however, so I may force myself to actually use these more often. Lastly, while I appreciate that new weapons and armor are significant improvements, the discrepancy in their effectiveness doesn’t really make sense. Would a Keshian tapir, favored by the soldiers of the empire to the south, really do six times as much damage as a standard Kingdom broadsword?

Also, you may have noticed that I’ve referred to the combatants universally as “he”. Betrayal at Krondor is very much a story about men, and the few female characters I’ve met have held limited social roles, as wives or maids. The most independent might run their own shop, but there certainly haven’t been any going out for adventures with my party. To be fair, this was largely true of the novels as well, and was of course true in the medieval society from which the novels take inspiration. Also, I was pleased to find that in some of the other cultures in the game, women can and do hold positions of power and leadership. Still, the major characters are all male, and it’s a noticeable discrepancy. Players thinking of giving the game a try should be aware of it.

Overall, however, I’ve really been enjoying my adventures so far. I’m eager to see how events unfold from here; while I’ve solved one mystery in Chapter 3, there are still more to uncover, and I feel I’m on the brink of some big reveals. It will be tricky to discuss those without spoilers, but I’m sure I’ll come up with some more interesting stuff to write about for the next installment. Stay tuned!

Read the other entries in this series here: part 1, part 2, and part 4.

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3 Responses to History Lessons: Betrayal At Krondor (part 3)

  1. Damjan says:

    As always a beautiful article and a true joy to read. I’m looking forward to the next one!

  2. Jefequeso says:

    Enjoying reading this series of reviews. You remain one of the more thorough and informative reviewers out there. Keep up the good work!

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