Thursday, February 25, 2021

Ultima III: Dungeons, minmaxing, and robbing Death Gulch again and again

My party, beaten to a pulp in Ambrosia, needed a ship, and my cleric needed a bit more meat on his bones before returning.

I rode around Sosaria for awhile, in search of a pirate ship, but also took every opportunity to level up my cleric as they presented themselves. Even with only 5 strength, 5 dexterity, and 150 max HP, he still had exotic weapons and armor, could still take on most overworld monsters 1 on 1, and occasionally 1 on 3. I just had to make sure to leave everyone else out of each fight once their numbers were whittled down sufficiently.

Sometime later, my cleric at level 3, I heard the distinct pew pew of cannonfire on the east coast of Sosaria, and I quickly took over the ship and steered it away before the whirlpool could gobble it down. And then I farmed Death Gulch again for awhile - my thief's trap avoidance wasn't perfect this time, and he even ate a few poison traps, but it was still worth it to farm this way rather than use magic to disarm traps; I could keep him alive with my healers until I was done farming, and then have the healer at the castle cure his poison status.

After farming, healing and buying more keys, I had about 6,600 gold left over, which I took with me to Ambrosia. This time my weakling cleric had 350 HP, not a lot, but perhaps enough.

It was enough. This time, after entering the gulch in the northeast, I took the east door instead of the west, which led to one last forest maze, and at the end of it, the shrine of wisdom, where I pumped my cleric to 91 wisdom. This maze also had two more locked doors, one of them opening right into a dead end, and the other a useless area guarded by some orcuses who poisoned me, but now I could finally cure poison in the field.

The dragons and griffons were no problem either. I didn't even need my cleric's magic power to beat them; my party's improved HP and offensive power were enough to outlast them. The forest region where they were kept had nothing else of note in it, but finally, my map of Ambrosia was complete.

My cleric now had 91 max mana points and access to every spell in the Liturgy of Truth (names are mine):

  • 0MP - Turn undead
  • 5MP - Disarm chest
  • 10MP - Heal
  • 15MP - Light
  • 20MP - Ascend
  • 25MP - Descend
  • 30MP - Teleport
  • 35MP - Cure Poison
  • 40MP - Escape dungeon
  • 45MP - Lasting light
  • 50MP - Great heal
  • 55MP - Map
  • 60MP - Kill
  • 65MP - Resurrect
  • 70MP - Mass kill
  • 75MP - Recall

This upgrade has a downside, though. The cleric's mana recharges pretty slowly - only one point per four moves (except in Sosaria where it's one point per move). With so much maximum mana, it can take a pretty long time to recharge after an expensive spell. It took me several minutes to recover from the fights against the dragons and griffons from all the heal spells I had to cast and keep casting, and that was with my druid and his double mana regeneration rate helping!

After returning to Sosaria, I noticed I had just one key left, so I went on one more Death Gulch run, bought a bunch more keys, plus some torches and gems. And then, finally able to cast a Lasting Light spell, I entered my first dungeon, one located due north of Britain. On the way I got to test out Mass Kill against a swarm of wizards, taking out all but one and earning the underleveled cleric a whole bunch of XP.


One thing that struck me was just how fast the pseudo-3D first person rendering was. If you've only played games like Ultima and Wizardry on DOSBox, then this might not seem like a big deal, but the wireframe view in Akalabeth was slow, and in Ultima it was even slower. Wizardry was a bit faster but you could hardly call it fast, and the wireframe view was constrained to a tiny window. Ultima II was finally fast enough to be bearable. But Ultima III, which ditches the wireframe in favor of a painter's algorithm, is even faster than II. Granted, the viewport isn't fullscreen, but it's bigger than Wizardry's, the scenes it renders are more complex than any dungeon crawler yet, and movement is brisk.

To see a map of the dungeon, I used one of my gems. The cleric's vision spell would do the same thing, but I didn't feel like waiting for his mana to recharge.

A sign at the first junction identified this place as "Dardin's pit." Question marks indicate points of interest - often these are food-stealing gremlins, or party-damaging traps, or "strange winds" that blow out your light source, even if it's magical, and less often, treasure, but I came here to find marks, so I had to check them all. The dungeon wraps around on the sides, and thankfully isn't very big, but it goes down a few levels.

Ultimately I found myself using torches, since Lasting Light spells can get blown out by wind, and the mana needed to re-cast Lasting Light just takes forever to recharge. Surprisingly, torches lasted quite a bit longer than normal Light spells had. If I had known that, I'd have visited the dungeons much sooner.

On level 2, I found the mark of kings, hidden behind a series of secret doors that were revealed by a mapping gem.

One annoying aspect of dungeon crawling is random encounters. In previous Ultimas and Akalabeth, you could see enemies in the first person view. Here, it's more like Wizardry, in that they just attack without warning, interrupting your exploration as the game switches to combat mode.

On level 3, repeated fights and dwindling HP forced a retreat, but thanks to the Mark of Kings, Lord British was willing to boost my HP to previously unprecedented levels, and the gold I gathered went toward rapidly filling it at the healers'. And so I returned to the dungeon stronger than ever.

Level 4 was a pretty annoying stage of endless identical corridors, with nothing to find in them except treasures, traps, gremlins, and monsters. Even with a map from peering at a gem, the constant random encounters kept making me forget my location, and between the traps and gremlins I started running low on food and torches, and had to retreat and restock.

Level 5 had a few fountains that conferred effects, including poison, curing poison, and restoring HP. The layout of this level partitioned it in two, and only the smaller part could be reached by climbing the ladder from the floor above. To reach the larger part, I had to cast Descend from above. This part had the ladder down to the next floor, but also had a long corridor full of gremlins that stole ALL of my food. Thankfully, starvation doesn't kill you immediately like in previous games, but instead slowly drains your HP, and with so much HP to spare I had no trouble escaping and returning to Britain to buy some more.

Level 7, a "colassal" cavern, was a mostly wide-open 16x16 arena, peppered with lots of traps, treasures, and gremlins, which I traversed lawnmower-style to try to hit every point of interest. Here, as before, the threat of starvation forced me to leave and retry it. A second attempt just barely made it to the end with nobody dying, just poisoned by repeated daemon attacks and nearly out of food and HP. At least this was good for multiple levels up.

Throughout the exercise, I couldn't help but notice a certain counter-intuitiveness in my battle tactics; the fighter and thief, with their ranged weapons, tended to attack from far away, while my druid, whose mana ran out very quickly, and cleric, whose glacially-recharging mana couldn't be wasted on offense, attacked up close with their exotics. At least until their HP ran low, at which point I kept them away from the fight and tanked with my thief and fighter, firing their bows at point blank range.

Level 8 at the bottom is once again partitioned into two sections, though they are inter-accessible through secret passages. The lower-right quadrant is full of traps around the perimeter, which I mostly avoided thanks to my thief being in front. Two fountains here cure poison and totally restore HP, which is very nice and would be extremely useful if the encounter rate weren't so through the roof that it barely feels worth it to traverse back here from any meaningful distance. The upper-right and lower-left quadrants are full of treasure, and the secret room in the upper-left contains another mark of kings. Absolutely no point in having two of them.

Next I went to the dungeon on the other side of the British gulf.

This one was called "Perinian depths." I found more marks of kings here very quickly. Level 3 is where things got interesting, as the only ladder you can reach goes straight down to level 8, where I found the mark of fire, and four ladders leading up to the rest of levels 8 through 3.

Level 4 was probably the strangest, as each quadrant is self-contained, but any of them can be entered from the "outer ring" of either the level above or below. One quadrant contains nothing but traps, one nothing but gremlins, one nothing but wind, and one nothing but chests.

With the proceeds from this stage, I went to Dawn where I bought a very expensive +4 bow for my fighter, and some more torches and gems for the next dungeon, "Mines of Morinia."

This place has six shafts on the first level, which lead straight down to levels 2 through 7, respectively. To reach any of them, though, you've first got to magic yourself down a level, from where you can find a ladder up to this staging area.

Most of the areas are pointless, though, with winding tunnels of wind, traps, gremlins, and not much treasure. Early on, gremlins ate all my food, so I explored most of the dungeon while starving to death - a surprisingly sustainable situation if your HP is high enough. One later area is a wide open cavern with light-extinguishing wind EVERYWHERE and some magic fountains in the middle. And throughout the whole exploration, there seem to be fights every few steps.

God I got sick of seeing this screen.

The shaft to the eighth level, though, is easily missed. It's right under your feet as you enter. Two marks are here, but they were ones I already had, so apart from the treasure and XP this place just wasted my time.

After this, Lord British stopped increasing the HP of characters who reached levels beyond 25, declaring "no more!" The absolute HP cap here is 2550.

The dungeon by the lava flow was appropriately titled "Fires of Hell." It was fairly straightforward, for the first four levels. After that I trudged through two open plan floors including a nasty "gremlin city" full of wind and gremlins, and a sprawling two-floor maze that had to be traversed up and down repeatedly to reach the goal.

Just imagine traversing all this nonsense, hitting every '?' in case it might be a mark, getting a random encounter every few steps (one time I got three in a row without even leaving the spot), only to find out that there's nothing here but pits. The combats were the worst part; not challenging, but slow and tedious, and I got so bored that I kept pressing the wrong buttons, wasting turns by issuing bad or meaningless orders, making combat drag out even longer. At least level 8, whose rooms could only be fully explored by entering from several different ladders, had lots of gold.

But to get the real prize, I had to first climb back up to Gremlin City.

This place really sucks.

The ladder in the lower-left corner here goes straight down to the last unexplored sector of level 8, where I found the mark of force in a small room deemed "chamber of fire."

With this, I could finally finish exploring Lord British's Castle and Death Gulch. I did the castle first to see what was in the previously inaccessible areas.


Twelve treasure chests in the storeroom and nine in the southeast tower, behind two guards that you have to bribe and a force field. Underwhelming - Death Gulch pays out better even without the mark of force.

So I went to Death Gulch next.

The only thing of note in the lava flow east of the gulch is a daemon who tells you "Exodus is four as one!" The mark of force, however, lets you enter the armory's front area, where you can help yourself to another 21 chests, but the merchant complicates things.

This is because if you take any of the chests in the top row, you'll have to fight him, and unlike stealing, this alerts every guard in the place. You can probably outmaneuver a good number of them by following an exact pattern, but I expect the best approach is to negate time before pilfering the front chests and avoid that trouble altogether. For this first time, though, I just took everything and fought a crapton of guards. I've fought worse at this point.

I had well over 10,000 gold at this point - to exceed the 9,999 piece limit, I had purposefully used the Join command to consolidate about 9,000 gold to my fighter before continuing to enrich my thief. I took the opportunity to return to Ambrosia and visit the shrine of strength, where I boosted my fighter's strength to 99 and my thief's to 75. Once your party has more than 9,999 gold combined, using Join to transfer money will make you lose everything but the 9,999 that the recepiant can carry, and the only other way to transfer money is by manually transferring 99 gold at a time, which bites.

I decided, with my ability to farm Death Gulch now optimized, it was time to build my endgame party, and get the gold farming done with.

I rolled a fuzzy mage "Nimax" and swapped out my druid, who lagged far behind in levels, not being especially good at anything but rapid mana regeneration used exclusively for casting magic missile. I got my new mage her exotics, then took her to the Fires of Hell and Mines of Morinia to get her marked like the rest. Once I knew exactly what I was looking for and where, these were surprisingly quick journeys; to get through the Fires of Hell I used magic descent to reach Gremlin City and took the stairs from there direct to the bottom floor where the chamber of fire held the mark of force, and in the Mines of Morinia, the shaft to the bottom floor is right at the entrance. Nimax held her own quite well - even with just 25 intelligence, she took out a bottom floor Orcus with magic missile. I just had to be diligent about keeping her out of harm's way and heal her regularly, as getting marked hurts you for 50 points and she only had 150 total, like everyone else when they started.

Then I bought some time powders and put my Death Gulch optimization theory to the test. It worked - you need two powders to get all of the chests without fighting the merchant, but took me exactly three minutes to complete a run that got all 46 (I must be getting faster at this), and three runs made me 7,737 gold richer, including sold gear. With the cost of two powders and a key, that made out to about 2,350 profit per run.

Many Death Gulch runs later, plus two visits to Ambrosia, I had a properly minmaxed party, with the highest possible value in every character's useful stat, even the dubiously useful dexterity. For good measure, I also loaded up my spellcasters with daggers so they could attack at range when they ran out of mana.

My new mage, with 99 mana, could cast these spells (names again are mine):

  • 0MP - Goblin slayer
  • 5MP - Magic missile
  • 10MP - Light
  • 15MP - Descent
  • 20MP - Ascend
  • 25MP - Fireball
  • 30MP - Teleport
  • 35MP - Horror
  • 40MP - Lasting light
  • 45MP - Lesser cleric spell
  • 50MP - Mass fireball
  • 55MP - Kill
  • 60MP - Time stop
  • 65MP - Mass horror
  • 70MP - Mass enfeeble
  • 75MP - Mass kill

All that remained was to give her some levels and the HP to go with it, and I did this in the most hilarious way I could think of. I used Mass kill to murder Lord British's guards, rode away on horseback, waited at sea for my mana to recharge, and then rode right back in to get my reward from Lord British and do it again.

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