The RPG Scrollbars: Manual Override

I miss manuals and their kin. They’re often still provided with games, I suppose; usually PDFs to explain how to play and to give jerks on forums something to insist you RTF if you dare complain that something isn’t clear enough. I’m not really thinking of that side of things though, but the ones that felt like they were part of the overall experience. The in-world documents. The bestiaries that didn’t just list enemies, but breathed life into them in a way that the often simple game you were playing really couldn’t. The snippets that told you that while, yes, you were going to be spending the whole game in a series of dungeons, there was a world somewhere outside them that cared too.

This week, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites, and related bits and pieces, and see which ones struck a chord with you, the person reading this. I have others from other genres too, including Galactic Inquirer from Space Quest V, which was all the funnier for coming in an era when toilet paper like National Enquirer wasn’t eally available in the UK, and Claw Marks, the official magazine of the TCS Tiger’s Claw. But you see the letters RPG up there in the title? They don’t stand for ‘rocket propelled grenade’. Unless you’re dealing with a modern era RPG, in which case I suppose they might. But never mind. Onwards! To the wonderful world of words!

Ultima VII: The Book Of Fellowship

Oh, goodness, what a surprise, Richard’s talking about Ultima again. Well, yes. But while a million words have justifiably been splashed here there and everywhere about the actual game, one thing that’s not often mentioned is the second manual. Ultima VII came with two – the boring one, about how to play, and the in-lore one, written by a certain Batlin of Britain. Or to be more accurate, the villain. Yep, you’re reading through the evil Fellowship’s Bible, and as you’d expect for Ultima, it’s pretty clever.

Much like Fellowship philosophy in the game itself, which hangs on seemingly innocent phrases like ‘Worthiness Precedes Reward’ (easily flipped to say that the poor therefore are unworthy, while the rich are worthy by default), much of the text is written at a distinct slant from the rest of the universe, in a way that vacillates between passive aggressive and misleading. When discussing Ultima 4 for instance, Batlin is rather quick to plant the idea that just maybe, the Avatar was inspired by his quest due to having so comprehensively fucked things up in the earlier games. Uh. No comment. He also invents stuff entirely, like the Avatar only defeating the evil sorceress Minax because s/he had a crush on her, and doesn’t exactly hide his true feelings with comments like “Those who would say that this terrible and destructive war could have been prevented entirely had the Avatar not appropriated the Codex from its true owners are merely dissidents who are grossly misinformed,” before quickly declaring the Avatar’s period as Britannia’s hero over and a new era begun.

Given this and the in-game handling of the Fellowship, it’s a real shame that everything from the very first frame of series baddie The Guardian showing up to gloat completely gives away the fact that they’re more evil than putting mayonnaise on chips. But as an introduction, this was a fantastic introduction to a great enemy – not a religion of evil, exactly, but one run by a master of psychological manipulation who’d managed to weaponise compassion and turn even good people onto the wrong path.

The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight

This isn’t a manual as such, but the official clue-book. Really, I’m including it for its gimmick. The whole thing is told as a story, of heroes about to undertake the game’s quest, visiting a wizard for guidance. He provides it by putting them on a vision quest, where they see the entire adventure play out in front of them.

…kinda.

The twist is that despite this, it all goes horribly wrong, with the result that by the time they get to the end of the vision, they’ve decided to sod all of it for a game of soldiers and let someone else go on the quest. That’s why it’s still available when your team – the right team – shows up to take care of business. Not much more to say about that one, especially the writing, but a round of applause for a clever idea.

Drakkhen

I’ve mentioned this one before, because while I think it’s honestly a pretty bad game, it’s a bad game that stuck with me. At least part of that was the manual, which in keeping with many novellas that came with games back in the 80s/90s, had pretty much exactly nothing to do with what was going to follow. In this case, it was the tale of a stupid knight killing the last dragon and so dooming the world. The actual game… honestly, your guess is about as good as mine. The only part of the plot worth remembering is this, my favourite Game Over screen ever.

Way to rub it in there, guys.

It was a fancy artifact though, shining in its gold cover in a shiny gold and green box, with the stupid knight’s death sticking with me for its amusing excess – the kind of death that makes Guy Fawkes’ end seem like a few minutes in a comfy chair. A pity that none of it mattered when you started the game and your entire team immediately got eaten by a shark in a castle moat… but hey, it was better than nothing.

Anarchy Online: Prophet Without Honor

I’m cheating here, I know, but I did technically get this book with my copy of Anarchy Online back in the day, so I choose to treat it as similar to the Book of Fellowship et al… mostly because otherwise I’m probably never going to mention what is one of the strangest bits of RPG world-building I’ve ever encountered.

Prophet Without Honor is the Anarchy Online backstory, and to give you some idea of how far that spans – it begins in the modern day, and ends in the game’s timeframe of 29,475AD. By this point, if we haven’t evolved into creatures of pure energy, I think we have to chalk it down to pure laziness. Anyway, much of the plot revolves around the invention of immortality technology and the expansion of humanity into space. It’s not sold any more, but Funcom released it for free years ago on its archive site – you can snag it here if you want to read it. It’s officially “Book One”. There was no Book Two.

The part that stuck with me isn’t the backstory though, but Chapter 18. This is a day in the life of a man named Philip Ross, the man in charge of the evil corporation Omni-Tek, and so at this point in the story, The Baddie. Anarchy Online had a half-hearted attempt to act like the two sides were different, but it wore its politics on its sleeve – Omni-Tek was oppressive, autocratic and dark, while the Clans were democratic, open, and friendly. At least, in theory. In practice, Omni-Tek was pretty liberal for an evil corporation, welcoming newcomers, offering them free housing, a choice of job, training, and starting equipment… but it kept blaring out orders to stop running, so… evil? Probably evil. Certainly a little petty, given the whole civil war thing going on.

Anyway. Philip Ross. This chapter is simultaneously one of my favourite bits of RPG writing and one of the most unfortunate, because it goes out of its way to humanise the villain to the point that it effectively kills the game’s drama. Even more so than when it launched, promising a four year war, and then spent the first of those years on a ceasefire. What happens, in a nutshell, is that he heads out to wander his city, his empire, and almost immediately bumps into a group of new arrivals. He greets them, only to be stunned and amused when they go “Oh, yeah, hi, can you tell us where we go to join the Clans?” No evil CEO has ever come closer to a facepalm.

In short, this is Luke Skywalker asking Darth Vader for directions to Yavin. Making it stronger, in his internal monologue, he outright states he wouldn’t have reported them – he’d have tried talking, but otherwise, wished them well. Now, it all goes wrong when it turns out to be a trap, but still, in my mind his reaction is an issue. The purpose of the scene is supposed to be his realisation that peace is impossible and that there must be much crushing… but instead he comes as a guy smart enough to go home, have a brandy, cool down, and realise that today wasn’t his best day. In that sense, it doesn’t work that well. The writing is ironically too good to support the game world and the needs of the story, at least in the early days before everyone realised nobody cared about that war and Anarchy Online started opening portals to Dante’s Inferno and having aliens pop in for a chat and an invasion instead.

But still, I like it. It was an early case of an MMO trying to go beyond basic good and evil thinking and craft the kind of stories and characters it was worth following and being caught up in, and endearing for that. I know that stories in MMOs are a contentious issue for some, but they’re something I’ve always appreciated – World of Warcraft’s continuing tale and cast of characters, Funcom’s own attempt to go further with The Secret World, and Knights of the Fallen Empire over in The Old Republic both giving the core game a shot in the arm and revamping the original levelling experience to focus entirely on class missions.

Those are some of the RPG reading experiences that stuck in my mind, though I can think of many others – not necessarily whole books, but just flipping through manuals and looking at the monsters I’d be fighting, regretting the inevitable giant spiders of course, and places I’d be visiting. The Famous Adventurer’s Correspondance School with Quest For Glory, including the unforgettable secret of Thief Sign (“This
consists of placing your thumb upon your nose with the hand held perpendicular to the face and the fingers outspread. You then wiggle your fingers while focusing your eyes on your thumb and patting your belly with the other hand.”) Redguard’s guide to the Elder Scrolls universe, all the stranger for the actual game being stuck on the tiniest piece of it thus seen. Wasteland’s Survival Guide, full of snippets of text that wouldn’t fit on the floppy disks and so had to be looked up at the appropriate time – snippets you weren’t meant to read, but totally did. So many fond memories from the back of the car, hoping like hell that the floppy disks in the box would actually work.

Ah, nostalgia. Steam and PDF files will never come close to that.

Though the part about broken floppies? That’s for the best.

41 Comments

  1. deiseach says:

    “‘Worthiness Precedes Reward’ (easily flipped to say that the poor therefore are unworthy, while the rich are worthy by default)”

    All right, who let David Cameron play Ultima VII? He clearly thought Batlin was the hero!

    • ansionnach says:

      The Fellowship’s philosophy is timeless in a way in that similar ideas arise again and again dressed in new clothing to make them look huggable. Its manifestation in Ultima VII is a good one as it does seem initially harmless enough. A similar phenomenon is how sometimes innocuous enough philisophies can become questionable when those who teach them are making tidy sums for themselves out of it. Especially where it is pushed as the answer to all problems rather than merely perhaps having some answers that can help people cope.

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        gritz says:

        VII was my first Utlima, played when I was just starting to switch from being a naive kid to being a cynical teen. I think reading the Fellowship’s tenets uncritically, and then watching them get twisted over the course of the game was foundational in shaping my worldview.

        • ansionnach says:

          I’m a big fan of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four as well. For all that it says it’s a wonder it’s such a short book.

        • RedViv says:

          It’s… yeah. It’s really good at teaching you meaningful things. Imagine that. Quite the contrast to the majority of Not Kicking A Cancer-ridden Puppy lessons that count as “moral decisions” these days.

          • ansionnach says:

            Can’t wait for the next Space Invaders or Pac-Man reboot – shoot or eat and you lose!

          • ansionnach says:

            Anything resembling a mindless mob of idealogues scares the bejaysus out of me, even if I actually agree with their point of view. McCarthyism is a terrifying thing I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Also see: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Liked the film version of that too. Has Winona Ryder in it.

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        Risingson says:

        Ultima VII is a fantastic story because of that, how it teaches that the powerful twist good things to make them evil. It also shows how Lord British is an awful ruler. It is very ambiguous, which makes it great.

        It is also full of bugs. Thanks, Exult.

      • Thirith says:

        Do I remember correctly that there was a gargoyle village where the Fellowship’s ideas actually did some good? Or am I misremembering?

        … I should finally replay Ultima VII (and Serpent Isle) fully with Exult, rather than wait for Nuvie to be perfect so I can play U6, Savage Empire, Martian Dreams, and *then* get to U7.

  2. quietone says:

    Gems like this article highlight the difference between a site about games and a site about gaming.

  3. BebopBraunbaer says:

    i was still young but i rly liked the fallout 1 handbook and it is still in my possession. As a kid with limited playtime i was reading it in me free time and started imagining all the possibilities. on i side note i rly thought you have to dig up latrines to take a piss in the wastelands (because the handbook said so ; -)

  4. Maxheadroom says:

    The collectors edition of Alan Wake came with a book containing case notes from the FBI guy and a few short stories ‘written’ by Alan Wake (which were actually pretty good). I love the physical immersion stuff like that

    Too often ‘collectors editions’ are just soundtracks and art books, i.e. stuff they have left over from making the game anyway so zero thought needed to go into it

  5. ansionnach says:

    I did enjoy reading Batlin’s snipings and distortions. Made you want to approach him and… hand him a strongly-worded letter that he’d no doubt later twist and use as evidence against you in his character attacks.

    Off-hand I’m going to skip manuals entirely and throw in the Dragonlance book Wanderlust, which came for free with the D&D-lite RPG Shadow Sorcerer. The game was fun enough, and came with a manual full of journal entries you’d be prompted to read by the game. It also did isometric real-time with pause gameplay. Primitive enough, but it was there. It’s probably not one to dig up, especially if you don’t get the manual with it (I seem to no longer have mine). It did have its moments, though – the dragons were a pretty special part of the Dragonlance world… and the red dragon Ember would appear on the game’s map at a certain point and kind-of pursue you. There were some other evil dragons as well as one good one. The text that introduced ember whenever he caught up for you suitably prepared you for your own extinction. Dragons were very hard to kill and always opened up with a fireball so your first job was to run like mad as several more would follow.

    Whatever about the game, I really enjoyed the novel. It wasn’t written by Weis and Hickman but was one of the background stories of how the main Dragonlance companions met. It really was the perfect companion for the game given that you could play as the book’s characters in the game. The game allowed you to select from quite an extensive cast of characters who appeared in the Dragonlance books. You could pick up to four at once for your party. The main difficulty in the game was leading a group of refugees to safety. They’d sometimes meet and splinter into different groups if you couldn’t convince them to stick together, making keeping them all from getting roasted by dragons or butchered by Draconians even harder. To change characters you had to go back to one of the refugee groups, as the companions not in your party would be guiding the refugees. The game was simplistic enough with no personality or even dialogue from the various characters – they were merely soldiers and all the decision-making was done by you. They did benefit hugely from their characterisations in the novels so I usually tried to keep my favourite characters together (Tasselhoff, Raistlin, Tanis and Goldmoon).

    • ansionnach says:

      Meant to say: with you on putting mayonnaise on chips, but only because I can’t stomach mayonnaise or anything particularly eggy. Had a nightmare last night that I had to force down about eight tubs (or some kind of bizarre container) of scrambled eggs. Otherwise, I’m probably a thought-and-action criminal of the highest order when it comes to chips – I’ll almost anything I can eat on them. Preferably not ketchup (or “red sauce” as we call it)… but salt, vinegar, pepper or else just brown sauce (the kind that’s essentially gooey vinegar). Curry woks too. Not sure if curried chips exist anywhere but here. Gravy can be nice (that’s something you UKnians do, right?). Possibly the holy grail is curried cheese chips: a finely-balanced meal rich in carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, salt and fat. Yum!

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        If you mean chips, as opposed to crisps, then both “chips wi’ curry sauce” and “chips wi’ gravy” are particular specialities in my hometown of Glasgow. However nothing beats a poke o’ chips wi’ gravy, curry sauce an’ cheese… An’ extra chips anaw!

        Mayo is great on chips, as long as it’s not too rich (eggy) Though it has to be fresh, nothing worse than oily old mayonnaise. (Well, except milk)

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          Actually this reminds me that when I was a student I once made a curry (from a jar of curry paste of course – the traditional Glasgow way) in which I substituted mayonnaise for cream. It seemed to go down ok, but I was royally sick afterwards. Didn’t touch mayo for years. In hindsight, I’d probably either undercooked the chicken, or cross-contaminated something with it.

          • ansionnach says:

            That gravy, curry, cheese and chips sounds like something!

            For me chips = chips (usually thick cut from spuds and fried in oil) and crisps = crisps (thin slices hopefully at least distantly related to the potato fried until crispy and tasting of cheese and onion, salt and vinegar).

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    phuzz says:

    Not an Arrr-pee-gee, but I did love the book of short stories that came with Elite 2.

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I just ducked home for lunch and don’t have time to read the full article right now (though I will when I get home tonight), but I saw the headline and just wanted to stop in to give Mr. Cobbett his props for taking our discussion from last week’s comments (link to rockpapershotgun.com) and running with it. He’s holding onto his strong lead as my favourite games journalist.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Why, thank you :-)

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Having actually had a chance to read the article now (and what a fine read it was), I’ve started reminiscing about something I had completely forgotten.

      When I was about four or five, my dad gave me his old Commodore 64 and a huge box full of 5.5″ floppy disks with games on them. There was also a big black three-ring binder with the manuals, such as they were, printed on plain white office paper. They weren’t at all bad, though – in fact, the quality far surpassed anything we get nowadays, as the guides were often written from an in-universe perspective and included plenty of anecdotes and short stories. I wish I could remember specifics, but the only game from that bunch that really stands out in my mind for the quality of it’s printed material was more about the art. Dragonriders of Pern was a shitty game about flying around cutting vines or something, but it was derived from a popular series of sci-fi novels with a well developed canon. My dad was a fan, and showed me some amazing images of Pern from a book of sci-fi art he owned (did I mention he’s a huge nerd?). I can’t find any of the content online, but it was fabulously detailed, like some of those classical pieces of renaissance art. The memory still makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside – I think that was really one of the first times I felt immersed in a traditional fantasy world.

  8. Sin Vega says:

    Not a manual (and a game that fell far short of its potential), but the game over sequence in Dreamweb is excellent. link to youtube.com

  9. JFS says:

    Very nice article. Thanks, Mr Cobbett!

  10. Mischa says:

    What I remember from ‘illegally’ reading that Wasteland Survival Guide: it contained extra paragraphs, that were not referenced from the game. Reading those would give you a whole story line that wasn’t in the game. (And would act as red herrings for those trying to find hints.)

  11. JamesTheNumberless says:

    Great article, I had completely forgotten about all the stuff that came with Wing Commander too. When I think of manuals I think of reading the helicopter specs in the Gunship 2000 manual in the back of the car on my way home from buying it. I think of trying to DM a D&D session using just the bits of rulebook and bestiary provided in the Eye of the Beholder manuals, scouring the Ultima 6 manual for clues, and about plotting my trade routes on the A2 size star chart that came with Elite 2. That they had these tactile components to them, adds a whole extra dimension to memories of these games.

    • Fnord73 says:

      The Apache manual was great. And the keyboard-cutout for the C-64 wich turned your computer into a dashboard was awesome.

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    syllopsium says:

    As an aside, if there’s any Ultima 7 fans here that haven’t cast the Armageddon spell and then talked to Batlin, it’s well worth while..

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      The Armageddon spell was a thing of beauty. I miss the way early nineties’ developers would give the player hilariously impractical weapons (glass swords, the BFG, etc). You rarely see that kind of pure, unadulterated lust for destruction from devs anymore, unless it’s the main theme of the game, a la Just Cause.

      By the way, if you haven’t read it already, you should really read Nakar’s U7 Let’s Play. The Avatar tries to use the Armegeddon spell to hunt a deer, so that she can eat it’s delicious fifth leg. It’s the epitome of all things Ultima. link to lparchive.org

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        Something that’s definitely been lost from mainstream RPGs is the ruthless streak of the design. I do kind of understand why, there were games like Ishar where you could make a seemingly arbitrary decision early on to do or not do something that would make the game unwinnable (but you wouldn’t know until much later) but with that we’ve lost the interesting ways to fail. In fact in most RPGs we’ve lost all the ways to fail, except for being killed in combat.

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        syllopsium says:

        That’s pretty impressive – I didn’t know all the secrets and thought myself fairly knowledgeable about Ultima 7/7 part 2 (although I’ve never tried the expansions)

        I agree about interesting ways to fail : let the player fail, I say. If you kill someone who is obviously important, live with the consequences. Don’t make them unkillable, at least do a Planescape:Torment and put up a brief ‘you have killed someone integral to the game ‘ (you idiot. reload).

        It was also in the joyous days before full voice acting, which has never been needed. Spot voice acting, as in Planescape:Torment, or some intros : awesome. Details of every damn quest – why bother, I can read text faster.

        • ansionnach says:

          Well said on the voice acting: it really isn’t that necessary, especially if including it limits the dialogue and choice in the game.

          I’d guess that allowing unwinnable states made more sense when games were shorter and could be finished quite quickly but for the trial and error required to learn how to finish them. Once they got much longer it became less and less fashionable. If an RPG sticks to a more basic template that there’s some bad guy who needs killing then it should be possible to allow the player to kill or not kill whoever else they want. That way the story the player experiences could range from relatively peaceful to full of tragedy and even carnage. There shouldn’t be any way a player can lose the trail of Dr. Badface by killing key characters so long as said villain wants to take over the world. All the player has to do to get his attention is to take over the world themselves!

    • welverin says:

      Talk to Lord British too, he gives you a right talking to.

      They were the only two to survive it as I recall.

      I wanted to cast it in Ultima 8 as well to see what would happen, but I had been leaving all of my money in building while I saved up for it and glitch ate all of it and I ended up not being able to.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        The Ferryman survives too.

        Ironically, Armageddon is the only way to make British acknowledge that the Guardian exists and there’s actually a problem in Britannia.

        • welverin says:

          Not sure if I ever knew about the Ferryman, of course seeing as it has been twenty years or so since I played it, details are fuzzy if not outright forgotten.

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    Arnvidr says:

    Redguard is actually available at GOG now, so not abandonware anymore. link to gog.com :D

  14. vitaminTcomplex says:

    Came for Torment. Left tormented.

  15. rabbit says:

    agree! have mourned the loss of chunky manuals many times. i have no idea how many times i read the NoX manual in class.

  16. welverin says:

    Oh, yeah, it is impossible to write too much about Ultima 7. It deserves all the coverage it gets and more.