2016-10-31: Might & Magic: Book I

Might & Magic is thirty years old this year. I did some light perusing for a more precise release date but it seems no one can agree on exactly when Might & Magic: Book I actually released. Such is the way of things when one person develops and self-publishes a title, I suppose.

Might & Magic is part of a sub-genre of RPGs that I could never really get into: the first person dungeon crawl. These are typically some of the hardest, most unfair games you can find out there (at least in my opinion). So what brings me to Might & Magic: Book I on its thirty year anniversary if I'd dare open this rambling that way? Because there's a gem under the difficulty and I want to ruminate on my journey to find it.

It started oddly enough. I follow a Twitch streamer who's attempting to beat every game on the SNES who took up playing Eye of the Beholder. In watching him, I discovered a style and modality of gameplay I liked. He went in blind, and mapped the dungeons himself, not with graph paper but an awesome little mapping program and made the discovery part of the game. I loved it.

I grabbed the mapper and gave some thought toward what I wanted to attempt myself. I decided eventually to start with Might & Magic because it was one of the Big Three to popularize this genre, and because as a fan of its side-series Heroes of Might & Magic, I wanted to see where Heroes drew inspiration.

As a side bonus I wasn't aware of at the time, Might & Magic is probably one of the kinder introductions to this genre you can pick if you go old school. You can't completely destroy a character and total party wipes let you reload rather than leaving a dead party you have to rescue. That doesn't mean it's easy though; in fact Might & Magic introduces itself with a difficulty curve akin to stepping off the wagon right at the foot of Mt. Everest.

In 1984, the computer RPG formula was ill-defined. A large number of offerings into the genre were attempts to port Dungeons & Dragons to a platform that didn't require gathering a game group and shuffling books and paper. Unfortunately, this meant that the base flaws of Dungeons & Dragons were canonized, for quite some time, into the genre. These flaws are made worse by the fact that a computerized Dungeon Master isn't capable of pulling your party back from the verge of disaster in the name of keeping the game fun, or nudging you in the right direction if you're just not getting the plot. Might & Magic is not exempt from these shortcomings.

You're dropped into the game with no opening and no hint on what to do. Even the manual and clue book have very slim information on your actual quest. You create a party of 6 PCs using the old school random stat rolling system from D&D. You're given a club for each of them, a few days of food, no money, and no direction. So here you are in front of the inn in Sorpigal, what do you do? Go out and kill things to grind of course. Here's the first major flaw of the game: at level 1 with no gear, even the trash fights are an even match for your party. To even set out to get your first quest, you need experience first.

If you were like me and were thinking in terms of D&D, you rolled your characters aiming for about a 14 or 15 in your primary stats. This is woefully inadequate to get a solid foothold in the game. Getting your first level and starting gear is extremely brutal when your party has 6 to 10 HP, no armor, and a 75% miss rate in combat.

I imagine this is where most folks who try the game today quit: trapped in Sorpigal because they can't string together enough successful battles in a row to do anything. You need gold for gear, gold to level up, and gold to buy food to let you keep resting after every battle to restore health. I eventually rerolled for better stats, putting a focus on Accuracy, and only then was I able to win enough fights to get my party a level or two. Even 17-18 Accuracy wasn't enough to give me a decent hit rate. It wasn't until far later when I raised my Accuracy to 20 ("Super-human" on the D&D scale) that I felt my physical attackers were effective in combat.

In addition to the grind, save scumming on level-up is almost mandatory. The amount of HP you get is random and can be anywhere from 1 HP to 12 HP (or less for squishier classes). Getting a 1 for your level 2 HP bonus is devestating. I started force-quitting the game any time I didn't get a perfect or near-perfect roll so I could try again. This added about 30 minutes of padding to my playtime for each level my party gained.

The grind to level 3 to be able to get my quest and finally be able to leave Sorpigal took an entire play session: four or so hours if I had to guess (not including the four I sunk into the first party before giving up on them and re-rolling for better stats and scummed HP). Four hours stuck running back and forth between the same three forced battle tiles and the inn, in the same 16x16 map, with the same brick wall motif, and no progression; "grind" doesn't do the drudgery justice.

Once you're geared and leveled, getting the quest is a sadly simple affair compared to the work you put in: you find an old wizard hidden in the caverns under Sorpigal and get a scroll to deliver to a man in Erliquin. The game doesn't tell you where Erliquin is, but if you have the stylized map that came with the original boxed game (thanks GoG for including that), you can tell it's vaguely northwest of Sorpigal. Finally you can exit the one map you've been in for probably several hours now!

The overworld is a grid of 20 16x16 maps all linked together. Might & Magic has no auto map; the closest thing it has is the Location spell, which tells you which map you're on and your x/y coordinates. Sorpigal is in the center of the world in map C-2, and the further from that center you stray, the stronger the foes become.

At this point you're nudged into a fetch quest chain that sends you around the world to all five major towns. Navigating the overworld is kind of a pain for two reasons:

  1. Passable and impassable walls are hard to distinguish and require you running into every texture of wall to learn what can be passed and what can't. One style of tree can, the other cannot, for example.
  2. Entrances to towns, caves, and whatnot have no visual representation in the world. Most are represented by tiles surrounded by walls on three sides, but this is not always the case.

Of course if you're spoiled, or you searched Sorpigal with a fine-toothed comb, you'd find an NPC hidden in a secret room that can teleport you to any town in the game. Again, I wasn't aware of this during my unspoiled phase. I imagine if I was more seasoned in this type of game I would have found it. In either case it's a one way trip, but walking back to Sorpigal is easier since you know where you're going.

This exploration quest teaches you a few things about the game, or rather tests your knowledge of them before letting you progress. Several of the NPCs that continue the quest are hidden in secret rooms, one of the towns has traps that only harm men, and one of the towns is in the far corner of the world where encounters are extremely dangerous. I hit a wall on the latter-most of these. Unable to cleave my way to Dusk, in E-1 in the far northeast corner of the world, I finally cracked open a walkthrough.

Armed with the knowledge of the existence of the town warp NPC, and a few side dungeons to run for experience and loot, I finally got out to Dusk. In doing so, something miraculous happened: I hit level 5.

Why is level 5 significant? Level 5 is when you suddenly gain...

Also at Dusk you get the ability to delve down into its dungeon and find a fountain that gives a much needed 4 Accuracy boost to your party. Remember how I said I couldn't hit anything in combat until I hit 20 ACC? This is what did it. Suddenly I went from a band of zeroes blindly stumbling about in the woods to a party of heroes who could actually get things done.

This is when the game truly begins. All of this conveyance of pain comes to one anti-climactic moment when I hit level 5, found the Accuracy fountain in Dusk, bought the gear available in Dusk's blacksmith shop, and suddenly things that were slaughtering me were doable and I could travel where I needed to go without fear of being instantly wiped by one bad encounter. I feel like this was an intentional development decision because all of this happens at the same time if you follow the main quest.

It took me about twelve hours of gameplay to get to this point. I honestly feel like that entire twelve hour block was just a waste. I'm having an immense amount of fun with the game now. With the Fly spell I can teleport to any of the game's 20 map grids and explore to my heart's content, knowing all I have to do is cast Fly to C-2 to return to Sorpigal. Combat with 15 foes isn't a chore when I can kill five with one single cast of Fireball. The game truly begins at level 5.

This is sadly a plague of the early installments of this genre. The early game is long, grueling, and boring. Mistakes are punished harshly and are so easy to make when your party members have 6 to 10 HP and can do nothing but swing their sticks. It's hard to explore and progress when just surviving is so difficult.

The people who view the original Might & Magic in a positive light seem to only talk about the middle game, about freely exploring this huge world with all this stuff to do. They don't mention the beginning, because the beginning is a grind to level 5 to actually start the game. I understand that now, and I understand that this is sadly the case with a lot of the first generation dungeon crawlers because they all take from the same source material.

If someone was considering trying Might & Magic Book I, I'd say go for it, but I'd wholeheartedly recommend engaging in at least a few early game spoilers. For certain...

With these you should be able to bootstrap yourself with a level 5 party with Accuracy that'll let you actually land attacks, and actually start the damn game.

I give the game a 9 out of 10 once you get past the start. The start is just mean.

tags: might_and_magic, rpg, game_writeup