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I first learned about Tom Proudfoot’s games years ago, probably around 2007 or 2008. At the time I was looking for some free, classic turn-based role-playing games, and found mentions of his work somewhere online. The first game of his I tried was Natuk, which is the more polished sequel to Nahlakh, but I eventually got bored of it. Later, I also tried a game called Helherron, which is not by Tom Proudfoot but draws heavy inspiration from his games. I eventually tired of that as well, although I was very surprised to see, when looking it up now, that its developer has resumed work on it after a decade of inactivity, with a bunch of new updates this year. Perhaps I’ll take a look at it again soon.
But I didn’t know about that when I saw a discussion of Tom Proudfoot’s games on the GOG forums, and decided to take another look at them. This time I wanted to start at the beginning, with his first game, Nahlakh.
Nahlakh was released in 1994 for DOS, as a shareware title (although it’s now available for free). For those too young to remember, shareware was (and still is, I guess, although it’s far less prevalent now) a method of software distribution whereby a large chunk of the game or program was available for free, and customers could purchase the rest. Some famous games, including Doom in 1993, were released this way, but it was a more common method for independent developers. Today, the line between big budget games from large publishers and games released independently has blurred, which I think is great, but in the early ’90s games from indie developers were harder to find, often spreading simply by word of mouth. Without ubiquitous internet information at one’s fingertips, searching for these games could feel like unearthing secret treasure, and was often an enjoyable pursuit in itself.
I never unearthed Nahlakh back then, and if I had I’m not sure I would have wanted to play it. Citing inspirations from older fantasy role-playing games that I’ve not played — some that I’d heard of, like the Ultima series (which I plan to give the History Lessons treatment at some point) and some I hadn’t, like Wizard’s Crown and The Eternal Dagger — Tom Proudfoot describes combining the best elements of these games into Nahlakh, resulting in a game with a heavy focus on complex tactical combat. “It’s like a wargame with a plot and character development,” he writes. I think that would have scared off my younger self, who read about wargames from afar and was completely baffled whenever he stumbled across a shareware wargame, full of menus and buttons and obtuse strategic decisions.
In reality, Nahlakh is much simpler to learn than those behemoths, but it doesn’t have an easy start. Players must create a party of eight adventurers from scratch, assigning statistics and “rolling” (simulated dice rolls, recalling character creation in pen-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons) a vast array of skills for each. Mistakes here can be catastrophic, since characters only improve skills through practice, and Nahlakh has a fixed number of battles in which to train them. Enemies are often tough, easily taking out poorly-optimized adventurer squads — like the completely worthless pre-made party, which I assume was only included so players could test if the game was working. To make matters worse, the starting skills available are actually determined by the character portraits one chooses for each character (although you can change them later, so your party can look however you like). Sometimes these make sense — burly fighters are good with weapons, archers are good with bows — but others are unclear, and are not helped by the very simple graphics.
Players trying the shareware version may well have given up before even getting started, stymied by the confusing character creation system that’s only cursorily described in the text file that serves as a manual. Tom Proudfoot made an interesting decision with his shareware strategy: the entire game is available for free, but purchasers are sent the “Information Booklet” which is like a combination of game manual and hintbook. Some of the information in it is essential — like the details of how the character portraits affect skills, and what various tactical options actually do in combat — but some of it could be considered spoilers, like maps of areas and detailed information on every enemy in the game. Nahlakh is renowned for its difficulty, however, so even those are unlikely to compromise the challenge.
Much of that difficulty stems from a lack of knowledge on the part of the player. I benefited from Nahlakh’s small but vocal fanbase, who offer a wealth of advice (mostly in online forums) to new players to get them started. Tips on party composition (two mages, two priests, three fighters, and one archer seemed to be the consensus) and skill prioritization (make sure you have someone who can use two-handed swords) were invaluable, but I still messed up my first attempt at creating a party. When choosing the four statistics for each character — health, strength, dexterity and intelligence — I didn’t specialize enough, so while I had the right set of starting skills they were at too low a level to be effective. Fortunately, this became clear very quickly, when my inept priests couldn’t even cast healing spells. I restarted with a better sense of how to distribute my statistics and did much better.
All those skills come into play in the tactical battles that make up the bulk of the game. Sure, there’s a cursory story about investigating and stopping a mysterious evil that’s encroaching on the world, and there are towns to explore and people to talk to, and a few skills like Merchant that are useful in those situations. But the main draw of the game is the tactical combat. Nahlakh’s fans describe the combat system as one of the richest available, ripe with strategic and tactical decisions that can turn the tide of battle. These fights are completely turn-based, with each player character and computer-controlled enemy getting a chance to move around the large square grid, attack someone/something, cast a spell, throw a weapon or shoot a bow, and more. Characters can move in eight directions (cardinal directions and diagonals) and can also face in any of the eight directions. Flanking someone or attacking from behind gives a bonus to hit, and can’t be blocked. Both melee and missile attacks can be aimed at different body parts (e.g. arms, legs, groin, neck) for different combat effects (only explained in the Information Booklet). There are also different types of weapon damage (bashing, slashing, piercing) which have different damage multipliers and can be more effective when targeting certain body parts. Terrain plays a small part: some terrain, like rocks, blocks movement but not missiles or spells, while others, like trees, block both. There are also spells that can alter the battlefield in various ways, which has a bigger impact.
The way magic works in the game is one of the most interesting parts of the design. Spellcasters do not have a pool of “magic points” or anything like that to power their spells; instead, they use their strength. Casting a spell lowers a character’s strength by a few points, and if their strength is depleted they will start to lose health instead. They may spend a turn resting during combat to recover a small amount of strength. This means that a high strength is critical for spellcasting characters, which is quite different from the standard fantasy cliche. Even better are the spells themselves, which are cast by chaining together three magic “syllables” to create the word that casts the spell. This means that players can learn spells by carefully watching enemy spellcasters to see what syllables they use. It also means players can guess new spells themselves. For example, if I know a healing spell which is cast with the syllables that translate to “heal great wound”, and I know an attack spell that’s cast with “throw small fire”, I can experiment with the syllables “throw great fire” and might stumble upon a more powerful attack spell. Characters never “learn” spells per se; each time a spell is cast I have to manually type out the syllables, each one mapped to a letter on my keyboard. This is really imaginative and a lot of fun.
The problem with it, of course, is that there’s nothing stopping a player from learning a really powerful spell early in the game. And in fact, the syllables for all spells are given in the Information Booklet, although I treated that section as a spoiler and did not look at them (with only one or two exceptions, late in the game). To prevent players from having powerful magic too early, each spell has an inherent difficulty and successfully casting it depends on the character’s Magic or Prayer skill. All skills in the game increase with use, so by the end spellcasters can throw powerful spells around easily, but in the beginning they’re stuck with simpler and less useful spells.
In fact, early on, even an optimally created party is pretty bad at doing anything. Spells, even the simplest, fail often, and fighters miss more often than hit with their attacks. But I found this was assuaged by exciting exploration. The early areas are interesting places to search through, and everything I found, be it a new weapon or piece or armor or a spellbook with the syllables to a new spell, had a big impact on my party’s effectiveness. There are secret doors, hidden treasures, scary monsters, and more to find, which acted as a strong driver to keep going. That, unfortunately, didn’t last.
My main problem with Nahlakh is with its pacing. Character skills increase very slowly, usually through battles which take a long time and often consist of a dozen or more of the same type of opponent, over and over. If I’m exploring a tunnel full of kobolds, I’m going to fight big packs of kobolds and kobold warriors a lot. Maybe sometimes there will be some shamans thrown in for good measure. But I’m still going to be sick of kobolds before I’m done. And as I continued exploring, the locations got much less interesting. Soon I was delving into caves, which were just a bunch of short passages and rooms, without any secret areas or points of interest. And the cave full of frogmen was no different from the cave full of trolls, or the one with hobgoblins, or beastmen, or ogres, or orcs. Each of these places could take several hours to clear out, since they’re full of big battles against packs of similar enemies.
The joy of finding new equipment and spells dried up too. At first, I was excited by all the possibilities: characters have eleven distinct slots for equipped armor and weapons, most of which are randomly generated. Tom Proudfoot boasts that there are over 400 item types in the game that can also be made of 50 different materials and have 6 special properties (and different levels of magical enchantment), resulting in a whopping 14,000 possibilities for weapons alone. In practice, the vast majority of them are useless. One cool thing about the game is that it doesn’t limit itself to medieval European weapons and armor like most fantasy games, it also includes equipment from other cultures around the world. For every axe there’s a biliong, for every broadsword a firanghi, for every bow a tomeang. But these usually have no mechanical difference, so the number of items in the game is misleading. Worse, there are fifteen categories of weapons, each governed by its own skill, but none of them “cross train”, so a character may be amazingly good with an axe but completely useless with a mace. That not only meant that I couldn’t use a lot of the cool loot I found, but also that I lacked the courage to specialize in something unorthodox, like Brawling or Fencing, fearing it wouldn’t be as viable as a more standard category of weapon.
All this meant that once I’d found some semi-decent items, I almost never swapped them out, and instead meaningful progress was dictated by certain fixed items that always appear (hence the advice to be sure someone is good with two-handed swords). Most of what I found was meant to be sold for money. Things like golden idols, statuettes, fine tapestries and paintings clogged my characaters’ packs until I carted them back to town to turn into cold, hard cash. There’s so much of this treasure that I spent a lot of time managing my characters’ inventories, prioritizing which items to keep and which to leave behind.
Some players might be tempted to just make lots of trips back to town to sell absolutely everything. Fortunately, I’d learned from Nahlakh fans not to do this, because the game gets harder (in ways I don’t want to spoil) if the player takes too long. Time passes slowly while exploring indoor locations like caves or castles, but traversing the outdoor maps to head back to town takes a lot of in-game time, so players should minimize those trips. It’s not as punishing as I feared, however, and as long as players are aware of it they should be fine.
But when you do finish clearing out a cave, haul all that loot back to town, and sell it for cash, what is there to spend it on? At first I wasn’t sure, since the items for sale in the shops are rarely useful, and ammunition for bows and crossbows is cheap. Soon I discovered that the real use for money is to pay trainers to increase your characters’ statistics. Unlike skills, stats do not increase with practice. The only way to increase them is to pay for training, and it’s expensive. This system made me nervous, worried that I might prioritize wrong and end up with a party that couldn’t handle the legendarily tough opposition later in the game. And in a game as long as Nahlakh — Tom Proudfoot estimates a whopping 200 hours to complete it, and while I didn’t count, I could easily believe that figure — that’s a big problem, especially when players are only allowed a single save slot, and cannot return to an earlier point in the game. Strength is obviously important, as it keeps spellcasters in the fight longer, and was usually my main priority, but I also wanted to get more health for everyone, and higher dexterity so I’d be able to act before my enemies in combat. Intelligence is something I mostly ignored; it’s important at the start in determining some starting skills (low intelligence is why my priests were worthless, before I restarted), but later on it’s mostly used to resist enemy spells and I never felt it to be that critical.
The decision of what to train is made somewhat easier by the need to find trainers in the first place. Since towns may only have one trainer (or none at all), I’d often simply train in whatever was available at the time, and this worked out OK. But it also means that progression felt like it came in spurts. I’d explore a large area of the world, fighting hordes of monsters in many locations and accumulating wealth, and eventually find a new town with a trainer and blow all that money on my characters’ stats, suddenly getting much more powerful. Again, the pacing is odd. Long stretches of uninteresting play in between the exciting parts. After a bunch of boring caves I would find engaging locations again, only to find more boring caves afterwards. At times, I was really enjoying myself, but at others I was forcing myself to continue.
Part of the problem was that, for all the tactical options in combat, many fights didn’t feel that tactical. Positioning is really important in Nahlakh, since characters will die quickly if surrounded, and frail spellcasters must be kept out of harm’s way entirely. But the positioning is often determined before a fight even starts. Enemies can be seen on the screen when exploring, and the ensuing battlefield is a zoomed-in version of wherever the party and the enemies are standing when they engage. If I retreated into a narrow corridor — almost always easy to do — then enemies couldn’t flank me and my front line of fighters could block access to my back row of spellcasters. Once in that position, most fights were simple. Early on, I’d keep in tight formation, with my fighters adopting defense stances so they’d automatically attack if an enemy came within range. Later, I realized that my front line could advance while still preventing enemies from getting around them to my spellcasters, and I could be more aggressive. Big packs of enemies were still threatening, but one of the peculiar details of battles in Nahlakh is that characters and most enemies may fall unconscious if they drop below half health, and they won’t wake up unless someone heals them. Unconscious characters cannot act, but they still take up space on the battlefield, so I was able to use unconscious enemies to make chokepoints. I won most battles like this. It didn’t help that the enemy AI was poor, unable to maneuver diagonally between obstacles, and even trying to fire missiles at my party through walls.
Battles did get more interesting in the middle part of the game. My fighters were getting good enough with their weapons that they could start targeting different body parts on enemies for special combat effects or extra damage, and my spellcasters learned some area damage spells and other spells that could manipulate the battlefield. I could spread webs everywhere to ensnare enemies, or set the ground on fire to damage anything caught inside. Or create sheets of ice so enemies would slip and crash into each other. Some of these battles were indeed very memorable. In one example, I faced slow but very tough opponents who hit really hard. Eventually I realized I could have my fighters aim for their legs, which would prevent them from moving and acting even if it didn’t do any damage. Essentially, my fighters kept tripping them up while my spellcasters chipped away at them with projectiles. Alternatively, I could have filled the battlefiend with rubble so they could barely move and just blasted them from afar, or summoned creatures to distract them while I attacked.
In another memorable battle, I faced a pack of evil priests in a forest. The trees meant my mages didn’t have a clear line of fire with their spells, so my ranged attacks were useless, but this didn’t bother the enemy priests, who could damage my party with Prayer magic without needing a line of sight. My own priests were too busy healing everyone to retaliate. I tried having my mages light fires under the priests’ feet, but they simply moved aside and kept blasting. Then I realized that the enemy wasn’t going to advance on my position, so I didn’t need to fight defensively anymore. I had my mages cast “buff” spells like Haste and Strength on my fighters, who then broke ranks and went out on search and destroy missions to flush out the enemy. When engaged in melee by an angry, magically strenghtened warrior, the priests soon fell.
These fights were exciting and rewarding, forcing me to make smart use the tools at my disposal to win. But they were the exception rather than the rule, and as I progressed farther in the game I found myself falling into the same strategies for every fight again. Spells that manipulate the battlefield, like Web and Create Fire, became obsolete, and my fighters became less and less useful as well. Everything was dictated by my spellcasters slinging powerful spells around. In the late game, I would have Quickness and Haste cast on my entire party before starting any fight. These spells let my characters perform multiple actions every turn instead of just one, and also gave them extra movement points to take actions with. A quickened and hasted mage, unburdened by armor since I never let enemies get anywhere near them, could fire off eight or nine powerful Death Bolts in a single turn, devastating the enemy army. Then my second mage would do it again. Then my priests would hit enemies with less powerful but still damaging spells eight or nine times each. By the time my fighters made it to the enemy lines, the enemy was likely dead already, and even if they weren’t, a fighter might drop only a single enemy, or two on a good day. The only time my fighters were really important was when facing demons, who resist the most powerful spells but take extra damage from certain types of weapons. Even then, however, my spellcasters were the stars.
It was kind of fun to dominate the battlefield like this, but I got to that point when I was only about two thirds of the way through this huge game. For the last third, I had little reason to use any other combat tactic, and as enemies got tougher they got more resistant to any other sneaky tactic I might try anyway. I kept playing, partly out of a stubborn desire to finish, and partly because I wanted to see the famously difficult endgame. Nahlakh’s fans tout its extreme challenge, and I was hoping that the final confrontations would truly test my party’s mettle, and my tactical prowess. There were a lot of boring fights between me and that goal, but I persevered, and after many more playing sessions I made my final preparations and headed for the finale.
I did benefit from some forewarning, having seen some of these fights discussed online. Even so, I was shocked to find that I won the first of these on my first attempt, without even returning to town first. I had engaged just to see how bad it would be, fully intending to reload my game after losing, trek back to town, sell things, and pay for some final training before facing the battle for real. But instead, I emerged victorious, using fairly standard tactics and only part of my stock of valuable rejuvenation potions. I’m happy to report that what followed was more interesting and more challenging, requiring me to piece together clues I’d found throughout the game in order to understand the nature of the danger, and adequately prepare for it. Turns out my conclusion wasn’t quite right, so I spent some time retrying things until I figured it out, and then realized I hadn’t prepared optimally. I was glad to see that this wasn’t too much of a hindrance, and I was still able to triumph after a final battle that was a much steeper challenge than what had come before. It did take me several attempts to figure out what I was up against, and how to counter it, and in that sense was a satisfying conclusion.
But in many ways it was too little, too late. Back in 1994, long games were highly valued, because there were simply fewer games available and running out of games to play was a real possibility. Having no games left and little money to spend were big driving factors to go searching for shareware titles in the first place, and I’m sure many who stumbled upon Nahlakh loved its epic playtime. Today, however, it feels way too long, and too much of it is simply boring. This is a shame, because it has moments of brilliance, like some of the battles I described above, that demonstrate the potential of its combat system. I would have loved a version of Nahlakh that trimmed out the boring parts, sped up the progression of skills, had more interesting and useful loot to find, and focused on battles that require changing tactics rather than falling back on the same approach. There are over 300 different enemies in Nahlakh, but each is used ad nauseam in its own location. Imagine if all those enemies were mixed together in more interesting ways, leading to fights that must be approached differently? Basically, if the array of tools at a player’s disposal feel essential rather than superfluous, it makes the game far more engaging to play. That only happened rarely in Nahlakh.
Still, I’m glad I played Nahlakh and I’m glad I persevered until the end. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about how even games that might be considered “bad” can be interesting, and worthwhile to play. Nahlakh was not always enjoyable, but it was interesting, and I could see the kernel within it that makes its fans love it. I never found it as hard as it was reputed to be, but I did have advice from veterans to help me out. I’ll offer a little advice of my own here, in case you’re interested in trying the game. I think I had an easier time for two main reasons. First, I didn’t dawdle. Players who waste time, probably because they’re trying to sell every little thing they find, will end up with much harder (or at least more interminable) fights later on. I left a lot of less valuable loot behind until I got very close to the end, and while I explored every area fully to find every last battle (and therefore chance to improve my skills), I tried to do so efficiently. Second, I suspect that I prioritized training strength and especially dexterity more than other players might have. I ignored intelligence, and only modestly improved my characters’ health. Some improvement in health is needed, but really tough enemies will knock out a character in one hit even if they have high health. Having high dexterity, however, lets your characters act first in battle, and with powerful quickened and hasted spellcasters this means you can eliminate the biggest threats before they can do anything. I gave my mages the most dexterity, fighters less, and priests even less so they could heal my party after the enemies acted. In retrospect I would have given my priests more dexterity so they could go on offense too, but it’s definitely most important for mages.
I’ll conclude with a few notes about running Nahlakh today. It’s available for free from Tom Proudfoot, but the installer he provides did not work on my 64-bit Windows machine. Fortunately, abandonware site My Abandonware also hosts the game as a simple compressed archive that can be unzipped and played directly. As a DOS game, I had to run it with the DOS emulator DOSBox, and had to configure that myself, since I didn’t have a digital retailer like Steam or GOG to set it up for me. But in Nahlakh’s case it’s pretty easy. There are only very simple sound effects and no music, so there’s no need to tinker with audio settings. Pretty much all I had to do was set the number of cycles to get the game running at an optimal speed. This is just trial and error, and the optimal value will depend on each player’s specific hardware. There are also shortcut keys to decrease and increase cycles while playing, which came in handy when I needed to catch the magic syllables uttered by an enemy spellcaster, which tend to fly by quickly. Incidentally, Tom Proudfoot has shared a work-in-progress soundtrack that was never included in the game for technical reasons, and I listened to it while playing at first, but later on I just listened to whatever other music I wanted, which helped somewhat with the more tedious sections of the game.
After Nahlakh, I definitely need a break from tactical combat. But I am interested to see the improvements that Tom Proudfoot made in the sequel, Natuk. Yes, I have tried playing it before, but I didn’t get very far and didn’t have the insights into tactics and strategy that I got from my time with Nahlakh. Natuk casts players as orcs, which is an unusual and clever move since it goes a long way towards explaining why they fight and kill almost everyone they meet. That’s how orc society works: the strong dominate the weak, and your party is no different. I’m hoping that the combat encounters are as refreshing, and live up to the promise shown in Nahlakh. Look for a post about that at some point in the future.
In the meantime, if you have a hankering for some meaty turn-based combat, Nahlakh can keep you busy for a long while.