Friday, 18 March 2016

User Interface Evolution - Part III

Evolution of the D&D UI: Baldur's Gate to NWN2

Part II capped off my treatment of the Infinity Engine UI; holding its five examples in a favorable light with regard to aesthetics, functionality and ease-of-use. In this post I will treat two oddballs of the genre that were never popular and remain largely unknown to the mainstream: Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor & Temple of Elemental Evil. Both of these RPGs are turn-based and implement the D&D 3.x ruleset, with the former being the first to implement D&D 3.0 and the latter being the first to implement D&D 3.5. Both were also critically-panned on release for several reasons, not the least of which was for their notorious bugs.

While RoMD is mostly remembered in a negative light (if not entirely ignored and forgotten [1]), ToEE has achieved cult status among the "hardcore" crowd and respect has steadily grown for it [2]; in fact, I have long regarded ToEE as THE model for D&D RPGs, combining a top-notch implementation of the ruleset with genuine tactical combat that makes the Infinity, Aurora & Electron combat systems seem like a caricature in comparison. Moreover, its dialogue system is able to handle the role-playing aspect with consummate ease (that Troika failed to make meaningful use of it in their campaign is beside the point). RoMD is also not without virtue and is part of D&D RPG history, whether we like it or not. Yes, the game gets heaps of hate but it's not the purpose of this document to criticize its dungeon design and combat encounters; the UI, as you will see, is quite ok.

[1] The fact that GoG have not offered RoMD for sale is a major reason.
[2] Admittedly, this has a lot to do with the dedicated modding scene and its availability on GoG; however, this game would never have been lost to the mists of time because its combat system is the bee's knees.

Part III: The Odd Ones OutPool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, by Stormfront Studios (Sept. 24, 2001) & The Temple of Elemental Evil, by Troika (Sept. 16, 2003)

The Odd Ones Out
PoR: RoMD & ToEE title screens

Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor
(Sept. 24, 2001)

Installation Woes

Gah! Was my request for the Luck buff ignored? I predicted installing this would be problematic in current gen Windows but I could not foresee the lengths to which I would have to go in order to get it running smoothly and glitch-free. Compatibility modes, troubleshooters, toolkits and DirectX.cpl, for example. When they all failed I asked myself "Mmm, maybe I should just drop RoMD from my treatment range, sweep it under the carpet and pretend it never existed, just like everyone else?" But, that would be a cop-out and I would feel guilty...

So, finally I said to myself, "F**k it," and undertook the rueful task of installing Windows XP in VirtualBox, with only a glimmer of hope that it might actually work for me - and guess what? DIDN'T WORK! Well, not initially; but after lots of facepalming and swearing I managed to get RoMD running perfectly! So, save yourself the trouble and just install RoMD under XP, if you have that option. If not, you may just have to wait for GoG to pull their finger out and finally take this title under their wing (don't hold your breath, though).

Ok, with that out of the way let us treat the UI of RoMD!

General Remarks

Stormfront wisely standardized RoMD to 800x600 resolution and crafted the UI to suit (well, mostly). The screens, panels and icons offer basic functionality but are pleasing to the eye and fairly intuitive, responsive and easy to use. There is nothing glaringly wrong with the UI but also nothing mind-blowingly cool about it, either: it's pretty much stock-standard stuff that we're dealing with, here.

As with the Icewind Dale Series, RoMD chargen consists of Character Roster (Arbitration) & Character Creation screens; the former for composing a party and the latter for creating each of the (four) individual characters that constitute it.

Left: Character Roster Right: Character Creation

The Character Roster screen consists of a central, shimmering "Pool of Radiance" surrounded by a circle of slots holding four (undeletable) pre-gens; also with two additional slots allocated for player-made characters (another circle may be accessed when those slots are filled, supplying the player with plenty of slots for experimentation). To form a party the player simply clicks on the 3D miniature and adds each character to one of four empty slots at the bottom.  I like Stormfront's use of the word "miniature" and the rendering style that conveys them: they really do look like tabletop miniatures. The backdrop of the lush, elven forest of Cormanthor is lovely, too.

The seven-step Character Creation process is intuitive and well-presented; the player simply choosing their race, class, alignment, stats (point-buy), spells, miniature & name by clicking on the appropriate buttons lined up on the left side, causing the layout of the center to change each time. As chargen progresses the player's choices are listed on the right side, for reviewing.

Wait, what about gender? Well, the miniature stage of chargen offers an assortment of miniatures to choose from, both male and female (in most cases). Feats & Skills? To the dismay of all, they are not selectable by the player in RoMD.

Main Interface

The Adventure Screen consists of a scrolling isometric playing field (the Adventure Map) that parties navigate in a point and click fashion. Yep, nothing new to see here. Nested in the lower left and lower right are two control panels holding several icons. (The top-left panel indicates initiative order and therefore only appears in combat mode.)

Exploration mode & combat mode (with top-left initiative panel).

You manage your party by clicking the icons in the lower-right panel. (Up to) six colored bars may be clicked on to select the characters and center the viewpoint on them; also showing their current health (but not any status effects). There is no marquee or "shift/ctrl" selection to group units: the circular blue button toggles between single unit and full party grouping, and that's it. However, party formations may be set and then stored by the player while in single unit mode; then the party will move in the set formation upon returning to group mode. (This is superior to the pre-set IE formations because it gives the player full control of each unit's exact position within a formation; for example, instead of having a squishy unit positioned directly behind the tank, where they may still be targeted by the aggro, you can space them out more and they will always maintain that position of safety during group movement.) Beneath the save formation icon is a colored tent icon that changes to green, amber and red to indicate the danger of setting up camp (resting).

The lower-left panel icons call up Game Menu (an options screen just like any other), Quest Log (Journal) and the Area Map, a zoomable image of explored territory that allows the player to add their own notation markers - quite handy when delving the vast dungeons beneath Myth Drannor.

Modes and actions are called up by right-clicking the playing field, causing a Pop-Up Menu to appear. The contents of the pop-up are sensitive to the selected unit, branching into sub-menus for skill, feat and spell use. It's ok, but for its pitiful size and fiddliness. I mean, you gave us 800x600 resolution so why not scale the pop-up accordingly? Note the highlighted options below, and how thin they are. The pointer can easily slip off the menu and induce rage, if you're not careful.

Double the size of the pop-up, ffs!

The pop-up also grants access to the colorful Character Sheet; its tabs allowing for EZ switching between Inventory, Spell and Stat pages. To access more info, items and stats may be right-clicked to call up a transparent pane.

The grid-based inventory is impressive, featuring drag n drop of items from backpack to rotating miniature, and vice versa. Notice how the items are of different sizes? Aside from being a nice aesthetic touch and making them easier to recognize, it's more realistic (a set of full plate should take up more space than a potion).

That's right, there is no spell selection in RoMD: you get what you're given.

The two stat pages simply list modifiers and skills & feats. Again, right-clicking calls up a transparent pop-up pane that gives more info.

The combat log appears between the two lower control panels, showing just five lines at a time; moreover, its contents are non-reviewable and are lost forever, once faded. To be fair, the turn-based combat unfolds in a jaw-droppingly slow manner, so you're unlikely to miss any of the feedback. Also, unless dice rolls are toggled to on (Right Alt-key), feedback is limited to simple things like "You used the Improved Critical feat" or "You make a Sneak Attack!" So yeah, turn on dice rolls.

Conversational dialogue appears in two transparent panes overlaying the field of play, with NPC dialogue above the speaker and the player's responses just above the lower-left panel. The font used is clear; though again, its size could have been increased without causing issues.

Note the colored indicators beneath the units; these are toggled with the Left Alt-key. Enemy units may also be right-clicked to bring up a transparent pane showing their name, AC and hit dice. These are superior to the IE tooltips because they contain more info - and in RPGs there is no such thing as TMI.

Left: Combat log. Party is buffed with Bless. Right: Dialogue mode.

Pros, Cons & Conclusion

- A pleasing-to-the-eye UI.
- 800x600 as standard.
- Fairly efficient pop-up menu.
- The transparent panes are informative and avoid clutter.
- Tabs in the Character Sheet (used also by IWD2, ToEE & NWN2).
- Drag n drop inventory, miniatures and different-sized item icons (love all that).
- Notation markers on the Area Map, zoomable maps, flexible formations.
- All panels, icons, pop-up menus and transparent panes could do with an upscaling.
- The combat log is BASIC.
- There is no marquee selection.

Conclusion: The UI is solid, beating the IE UI in a few minor ways but overall not being as feature-packed and responsive. It's also much easier to make a UI when you dumb down the ruleset and remove many of its features...

The Temple of Elemental Evil 
(Sept. 16, 2003)

The backdrops in ToEE utterly destroy those of the IE RPGs

Troika's UI offers a few stand-out features that set it apart from most other titles in my treatment range; for example, the fully integrated rulebook, spell-targeting visual aids for fairly accurate AoE placement (they are not perfectly precise), and the feature-packed radial menu that offers tactical options other RPGs can only dream about.


Chargen consists of three main screens presented in the order of Party alignment, Character pool (Arbitration/Roster) and Character Creation. The scrolling backdrop is of the Temple interior, depicting stained glass windows, lit candles and burning braziers. Presentation, right there. Players may hide the pre-gens and also characters whose alignment is precluded by the party alignment, shaded red. Nice.

The thirteen-stage Chargen offers both "rolling" and point buy methods. I'm not going to bore the reader with every stage because it's standard fare that I've covered already with IWD2 and RoMD; in fact, that goes for the rest of this post in general, where I will attempt to highlight the key virtues and flaws, instead of laboring over every last detail.

Note the blue character abilities hypertext linkThe entire D&D rulebook is accessible from any hypertext link - and that is simply awesome. Who needs a manual, SRD or wiki? It's built into the game. And the best part is: the combat log is also hypertexted so that the player has full access to the rulebook DURING COMBAT.

Left: Point buy Right: Hypertext link.
"Right-click" or "drag n drop" adds (or removes) a Feat or Spell to the selection field. My criticisms are twofold; one, the window should have been extended vertically to allow for a longer list; two, mouse-wheel scrolling should have been enabled (it's enabled elsewhere, so why not here?)

Note the "paper-dolls"... just awful. The BG paperdolls of 1998 were never bettered...

Main Interface

Nested in the lower-right corner is the Main Icon Bar made up of eight icons that call up various modes. The inventory panel is similar in style to RoMD in that tabs are used to switch between skills and spell book pages. Inventory is drag n drop but I can't forgive the lack of sounds because the IE and RoMD featured them, and they are older titles. Every item icon is the same size, though they are large enough and well-drawn.

Portraits line the bottom of the screen, with little color-coded indicators for buffs and debuffs. Clicking on the indicator links directly to the specific entry in the rulebook. In combat, portraits of all combatants line up along the top of the screen and the order of allied actions may even be delayed by dragging the portraits up and down the initiative order (almost no one knows about this feature, and many who do forget to use it).

The visual aid for AoE placement is another highlight, a feature sorely lacking in other RPGs in my treatment range. Here you can see the circular targeting aid for Fireball and the cone-shaped one for Cone of Cold.

Here is the targeting aid for Lightning Bolt. Another nice feature is the ability to hold down the Left-Alt key to view any Attacks of Opportunity against your unit before it makes its move (below right).

As with PS:T's portable pop-up, ToEE's radial menu is called up by right-clicking over the playing field. Exploring the menu causes it to branch out wildly (in contrast to NWN's "switching menus"), meaning in some cases the player has to scroll the screen in order to see all options. Slightly annoying, that. Thankfully, commonly used options can be hotkeyed (e.g, the famous and oft-used "five foot step"). Note the sheer number of tactical options available to the player, probably the reason Troika thought to use a radial menu in the first place.

Despite being small and fiddly, the crafting menu is serviceable. In the below vid, my cleric crafts a masterwork bastard sword to +3 enchantment, adding Holy & Axiomatic properties to it for good measure. Note how I give my item a shorter name - the reason? Lengthier names result in CTDs... so yeah, major point deduction for that kind of nonsense!

Everything else is standard fare, though player responses in the dialogue window use symbols to indicate the skill check. Here, the "Ear" symbol indicates that "Gather Information" has been checked. The writing in ToEE is bland and uninspiring, but the point is that the framework was there for proper role-playing in dialogue.
Moreover, if the dialogue window is scripted to pop up during combat, it does so smoothly and without the jarring effect that plagues the IE RPGs. Though Troika failed to take advantage of it, this smoother sense of transition between combat and dialogue could have been used to make an enemy reactive to its situation, blurring the line between all-out hostility and dialogue, as the encounter is played out.
Ok, so what can we conclude?

- The UI panels are clear and full of info.
- 800x600 as standard and the UI designed with that in mind.
- A radial menu holding almost every single tactical option within it (and there are far more than any other RPG).
- Tabs in the Character Sheet (tabs rule, it's not up for debate).
- Fully integrated rulebook (no other RPG can boast of this).
- Draggable initiative order (again, no other RPG has this).
- Marquee selection.
- Spell-targeting visual aid for AoE placement.
- The crafting menu is annoying and its bugs may cause CTDs (fixed in Co8).
- Subpar portraits and paperdolls - to say the least.
- The UI is largely silent (there are almost no sounds to confirm selections, and the ones it does have are not agreeable to my ear).
- Slightly inaccurate, inertia-prone cursor.
- I'm annoyed by the inconsistency in the required method of selecting feats & spells: sometimes you can just right-click; other times you have to drag n drop to the empty field. (fixed in TemplePlus.)
- Likewise, in chargen you should be able to assign ability scores by right-clicking instead of dragging them to the empty field. (TemplePlus may address this in the future.)

Conclusion: Considering that Troika were able to draw from many UI examples of the past (what to do, what not to do), their effort is quite disappointing to me (Yeah, yeah - Atari: the Prime Evil). Sure, in some ways the interface has not been matched even to this day (what a disgrace), but the crafting menu bug, occasional fiddliness, annoying cursor and lack of sound are unforgivable. That said, it's still a great UI and I have put up with its shortcomings over the years, long before the advent of Co8 and TemplePlus.

If you're interested in seeing how the UI functions in the best D&D combat system ever, please refer to the vids in this post (Co8 + TemplePlus).

Next Up: User Interface Evolution - Part IV
The Aurora & Electron Engines: Neverwinter Nights & Neverwinter Nights 2!


1 comment:

  1. Hi Lilura! Any chances for this series to be completed anytime soon? It was a very original and promising one, and I’d very much have loved to hear your thoughts on NWN and KOTOR within the interface-wise approach. In any event, though, thank you for all your hard and scrupulous work on maintaining this blog.


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