Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Peace Out

I returned to Sil and took up a new challenge. One of the many things that had initially intrigued me about the game was the idea that it should be possible to beat without killing anyone. I am an enormous fan of games that provide alternate solutions to violence, which is part of the reason why I tend to be drawn to the thief/rogue archetype: they tend to have the most options to sneak past monsters, or fast-talk guards, or seduce the opposition. It's pretty insanely hard to get through a game without killing anyone at all, though. I think Planescape: Torment might let you do this, and it's theoretically possible in a few other games like Fallout 3, but while it's very satisfying from a lore perspective it doesn't make for fun gameplay: you mostly just need to run away really fast and survive being hit.
In contrast, Sil's mechanics can make a pacifist approach even more exciting than the standard kill-them-all solution. It's harder, as it should be: you won't get any experience from killing enemies, and will often need to pass up tempting items because they're in overly dangerous locations. However, it's another type of thrill to sneak around in the shadows, lurking with bated breath while a vampire floats silently by, tentatively following a column of marching orc soldiers and praying they don't turn around. And, if you are discovered - and you will be, sooner or later - Sil has far more options at your disposal to save your life other than depriving your foe of their own. You can raise your voice in fierce song, frightening them away. You can sing sweetly, lulling them into a stupor and eventually into sleep. You can swiftly flee, vanishing around a corner and leaving them befuddled. Ideally, you will have different tools available to deal with different scenarios, which will both increase your odds of survival and make the endeavor more fun.

I've uploaded my character dump to the Sil ladder if you'd care to take a peek. Pax is a Noldor male of House Finarfin. This essentially trades a DEX bonus for one of GRA. Since I heavily rely on Song and Perception, it was my most important stat for this character; DEX is also important, though, since it supports Stealth (always important) and Evasion (shouldn't be important, but will be). My initial stats were 0/4/3/6.

For my first few attempts, I actually played somewhat similarly to my earlier stealth archer, but without any archery. I invested those points instead into more Stealth, and generally tried to stay as far away from monsters as possible. I could get to Lore Master a bit more quickly this way, but always died very rapidly. Even while playing cautiously, I would eventually be spotted, and could not run away quickly enough. Corridors were the worst: I had loved corridors as an archer, since you can control the flow of enemies attacking you; since I didn't want to attack anyone, though, it meant immediate failure if I ever got trapped between two monsters in a hallway, since I did not have Exchange Places. I would generally quit as soon as I got stuck between two enemies, since there was literally nothing I could do but wait for death.

So, for a while I was skeptical that what I was trying was even feasible. After trying out a few different builds, though, I finally found they key: get Listen immediately. I had previously invested in Stealth and Evasion for early survivability; but the best way to survive is to stay way the heck away from all the bad guys, and Listen is the ability that shows you where they are. To do this, you have to dump 8 points into Perception right off the bat, then buy Keen Senses for the pre-requisite, and then you can grab Listen. This is only possible when playing as a Noldor from House Finarfin, since their first Perception ability is free, and as it is, you'll have almost no XP left after purchasing.

Still, that one ability changes the whole nature of the game. When playing as an Archer with Listen, I would look for lone stars of sound, so I could creep in and slay them. When playing as Pax, I would just walk away from wherever there were monsters. I didn't even bother with Stealth for many stretches of the game, since I had entire wings of the dungeon to myself.

This game went much more quickly as well. Selene and her cohorts were gradually building themselves up into fierce warriors, and so I spent a fair bit of time on each level, maximizing XP by killing monsters and discovering items to build out my kit. For Pax, though, every extra turn spent on a level increased the risk of discovery, and so my goal was simply to find the next set of stairs and dive down it as quickly as possible. Of course, this did mean less XP - Pax eventually won the game with a bit over 50k XP, in comparison to Selene's 90k - but you still get a lot of XP from just reaching the lower levels, and thanks to Listen you get a lot of XP from spotting monsters that are nowhere near you. Additionally, since I didn't need to invest any points at all in Archery or its abilities, I was able to take most of the abilities I did care about.

As before, Lore Master was a high priority, so I could gain more XP from identifying items. It was also useful so I could decide ahead of time whether it was worth the risk of walking into a room full of wargs to steal a Bronze Amulet. My next priority was acquiring Sprinting, so I could put some distance between myself and any pursuers. I also grabbed Exchange Places, which was more useful for Pax than for my fighters: it let me get out of those tight corridors without fighting. After that, though, I stopped putting any more points into Evasion. This was a relatively low-CON build anyways, and my entire playstyle was based around staying far enough away from enemies that they wouldn't have a chance to hit me.

In retrospect, I should have invested more in Song from the beginning. I was lucky enough to find the Cloak of Maglor early on (even before my first lantern! I had a 1-radius light circle for more than half of the dungeon), which granted me Unwavering Voice and a boost to Song. Thanks to some GRA-boosting equipment, by the end of the game I had a Voice of well over 300. I could have sung Silence nearly constantly and not invested so much into Stealth; or I could have picked up Elbereth, which might have eliminated the need for Exchange Places. As it was, I didn't start investing in Song until shortly before the throne room, and didn't really appreciate just how effective songs like Lorien were until I started ascending.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. I was planning to emulate Luthien and use the Song of Lorien to lull Morgoth to sleep, then use Silence and Sharpness to quietly remove the Silmaril. My Stealth was extremely high by the time I reached the throne room, and I didn't need to even activate Lorien until I was within a few squares of Morgoth. (An earlier incarnation of Pax had also made it to the chamber, and had sung her way nearly all the way to the throne, but then Gorthaur noticed her and raised the alarm. This led to a funny and terrifying cycle of events, where on any given turn 5 enemies would fall asleep, 10 enemies would become unwary, 2 enemies would raise cries of alarm, causing dozens more enemies to wake up and notice me. This ended... poorly.) I encountered yet another stroke of luck: while sneaking through the side-chambers (I'd grown nervous about walking down the column of Troll guards ever since the Gorthaur incident), I ran across the artifact dagger Angrist, one of the rare Sharp weapons in the game. So, I was able to skip buying Song of Sharpness after all.

I paused a few steps away from Morgoth, quietly drank until my belly was full of potions, then started singing. A dozen monsters fell asleep within the first turn or two, but Morgoth remained upright. After a few more turns, though, he too dozed off. His enormous iron crown crashed to the ground. My moment was ready.

I stopped singing Lorien and started singing Silence. I crept over to the dagger and tried to pry out the Silmaril. I was pretty pessimistic about how much time this would take: Selene had spent close to fifty turns whacking away at the crown, and Pax had a single dagger, 0 strength, and 0 melee. However, the jewel popped out on the very first try! I was delighted. I think that I might have gotten lucky with a critical hit: I had a fairly high DEX (especially after drinking a potion), the dagger is very lightweight, and Scatha says that the Crown has 0 evasion, so a lucky die roll plus armor-piercing could have given me what I needed.

Of course, as soon as I succeeded, I immediately started wondering whether I could get away with more (unconsciously emulating Beren now). My Voice could continue singing Silence for nearly a thousand more turns, and even if Angrist broke, I could still learn the Song of Sharpness and sing it as a minor theme while removing the latter jewels. What would be the harm in trying?

Well. On my very next attempt to remove a Silmaril, Angrist snapped. A shard from the blade flew out and grazed Morgoth's cheek. He immediately awoke. Still singing in agitation and fear, I immediately abandoned my task and flew back towards the stairs, clutching the lone Silmaril in my hands while the Great Enemy thundered behind me. (So, basically, yeah, this game ended up going down pretty much exactly like the Lay did, absent the latter unpleasantness with Carcharoth.)

I made much more use of my Song on the ascent, and was pretty astonished at just how effective Lorien is. Even if a monster noticed me, I could usually start singing Lorien, and he would immediately become unwary on the next turn. Sure, sometimes he would notice me again right after, but if I switched to Stealth and kept singing while quietly creeping away, it almost always stayed asleep. The one monster this didn't seem to work on was Morgoth; fortunately, he isn't particularly fast, and I was able to outrun him the two times he spotted me during my trip back to the surface. (I was probably lucky to not encounter any Grotesques in this game.)

As with my previous game, the ascent went very quickly. I didn't spend any extra time exploring or looking for items: the instant I found a flight of stairs up, I would take it. Builds seem less important on the return trip, but I dumped any more XP I got into upgraded Stealth, and finally added a little bit of Will.

The Gates went much more smoothly this time. I was spotted as soon as I came up the stairs, but immediately started singing Lorien, and kept it up for the duration, sending dozens of Morgoth's servants into dreamland. I paused again outside the gate, drank all my potions, then switched to Silence. This time, I was able to creep past Carcharoth without him even noticing me: I hugged the wall to the east and made my way all the way down and out. So, it looks like it isn't a hard-coded trigger for him to notice you, he just has enough Perception to make it extremely difficult.

So: Hooray! This is technically a less impressive victory than I had with Selene, since I only claimed a single Silmaril and left Morgoth behind to fight the War of Wrath. However, I'm far more pleased with it. It was more challenging to win after setting this severe constraint on myself, and I found that this forced me to play in ways that ended up being even more fun than the first game. Playing a stealth pacifist is far different from playing as a stealth archer: it's a bit like the difference between "Thief: The Dark Project" and "Metal Gear Solid," albeit in a totally different genre.

Again, that's one of the huge strengths of Sil. Like the best non-computer games, it's relatively simple to learn (at least for a roguelike) yet difficult or impossible to master, and will continue to challenge even seasoned players. No two games will play exactly alike, and you can win by following any one of a host of possible strategies.

Even if someone does feel like the game has gotten easy, they always have the option of setting more conditions on themselves. The Angband forums and ladders contain many of these self-imposed handicaps, such as winning the game without using any magical items, or without identifying any monsters. The most hilarious one I've seen yet is one enterprising soul who managed to kill Morgoth with a shovel. A shovel! I kid you not!

Anyways, that's the end of the tale of Pax the peaceful elf. It felt very rewarding to experience the flow (and not just the goal) of the Lay of Beren and Luthien, and also to complete the game with a very different play style. I think that I'm going to migrate away from the powerful Noldor characters and start exploring some other archetypes, like a dwarven smith or melee fighter. Sil still has a lot more left to give.

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