Wesnoth's Strange Legacy

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 29, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I usually avoid massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). The reason is not that I despise them, but the near certainty that I would like them too much, and spend too much time in them when I need to be productive. Instead, when I want more than solitaire or backgammon, I sometimes turn to The Battle for Wesnoth, avoiding online games and playing single-player campaigns, which are usually divided into campaigns, most of which can be finished in under an hour, giving me a convenient point at which to quit and do something else. However, that usually reliable strategy led me astray soon after Christmas 2015 when I discovered the Strange Legacy scenario.

You see, Strange Legacy is a hack that grafts roleplaying onto the Wesnoth engine. And like most roleplaying games, it is open-ended and has no obvious point to quit. There is always the temptation of completing one more aspect of a current mission, and, unless I practice avoidance, I can easily sit down after dinner and suddenly discover that it is midnight, and I've spent the entire evening playing.

Choosing Between Complexities
Written several years ago by a developer who goes by the name of Heindal on the Wesnoth forums, Strange Legacy concerns the career of a young man named John in a fantasy world. The uncle who raised him has disappeared, leaving him his trading business. John must choose his career path, advancing in statistics and skills while trying to find his uncle.

You can, if you choose, mostly ignore the search for his uncle, although doing so means that some aspects of the game are not unlocked. Yet, even if you approach the game free-form, developing the character still has the potential for hours of game time.

The first decision is to choose a basic career path. The career path determines John's starting statistics, supplies, and potential. For example, a bard should focus on developing his Music skill, so he can earn money in the taverns. Since he is going to spending time in the taverns, he might also develop his Carouse skill, so he can pick up useful gossip.

Similarly, the Bounty Hunter should improve his Constitution and Strength and continually upgrade his weapons and armor. Other career paths include the Scholar, the Trader, the Worker, and the Thief. Later in the game, players can branch out, but early in the game, concentrating on one career path is useful, because the opportunities visible in the game can differ with their skills.

For most players, trading, either for yourself or others, remains the easiest way to earn the money to buy supplies, spells, and other useful items in the game, such as a zombie chambermaid to keep your Uncle's house clean, or a potion to increase your Dexterity. As you might expect, the trick is to find the cheapest place to buy a particular item, and the most expensive place to sell. You also have to be aware that each of your transactions affects market prices, so that concentrating too much on a single item can drive your profits down.

Other goods appear sometimes outside the usual markets, and carrying luxury goods can make you a magnet for armed robbers. As you travel between habitations, you may also face random events and robbers who, until you reach the 10th level, can steal your goods (after that, they simply kill you).

Another way to make money and receive other benefits is to buy some of the properties scattered across the map. Each of these properties can give you small improvements in your stats each turn, and can be improved. An old tavern, for example, can generate a few gold pieces each turn, while a woodcutter's lot allows you to work to produce wood, exhausting you but leaving you with free goods to sell that are unaffected by market fluctuations.. As you advance in different skills, these properties can start giving you other benefits as well.

Along the way, you can also pray and be healed at temples, descend into dungeons, stop by a circus, and visit cities where you can equip yourself with supplies, spells, and potions, and other useful items. In larger cities, you can also register with guilds or receive missions from the local authorities, and hire mercenaries, whose quality varies with your Fame.

If all these activities grow stale, you can also buy a shovel and go treasure-hunting, or buy a ship and explore the settled islands or Merfolk's homes.

At first, where you can travel is restricted, but you can upgrade your trader's cart, increasing your carrying capacity and gaining the ability to travel across snow or sand or swamp to new regions. Later in the game, other regions open up, where non-standard items are available. At times, random events may close cities -- which can be frustrating when you need items only available there, and you have to find a way to re-open a city to travelers.

As a player, you need to juggle all these considerations against a constant lack of money and Fame. Then, if you are trying to find John's uncle, you can soon find yourself zigzagging across the map, distracted from mere survival by more missions.

You see what the trouble is? With so much variety, the game can and absorb all of your time for weeks, if you're not careful.

Limitations
Strange Legacy is not perfect. For instance, you can buy either one item for sale or as many as your carrying capacity and cash can afford. The only way to buy, for example, only ten items when you have space for twenty is to click ten separate times. Nor can you speed through the dull parts, such as working until exhaustion to produce salable items.

Worst of all, armed encounters have a limited number of maps, and a handful of strategies are enough for survival unless you are hopelessly outclassed. These limitations can make the Bounty Hunter career in particular become quickly repetitive, since it involves a lot of fighting.

Still, overall, Strange Legacy deserves as much recognition for its variety as for its ingenuity. Unfortunately, the quest for John's uncle never changes, but you can still see the game from a widely different perspective by starting again with a different career path. Many game elements can be easy to miss unless you have chosen a particular path. It says a lot, too, for The Battle of Wesnoth, that it can support such an unorthodox campaign with such success.

Now, if only the campaign was less seductive. Perhaps I should restrict myself to other scenarios. Here's one called Settlers of the Light -- no, wait, it appears to be a fantasy version of SimCity . .

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