The Dungeon is generally acknowledged as the earliest computer role-playing game that is still in existence. Also known as PEDIT5, it was written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford in 1975 for the PLATO mainframe. Rusty had been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while before creating the game; D&D was released in 1974, so it took very little time for the programming nerds to latch on to it and try their hands at recreating it electronically. There are a few such games that pop up around 1975: Moria, Orthanc, The Game of Dungeons (better known as dnd), and another game called Dungeon. There was supposedly a game with the prosaic title of m119h that was created in 1974, which would have made it the first game on my list if some overzealous system administrator hadn't deleted it. Alas, he did, so PEDIT5 gets to claim all of the glory.
Amazingly, the game still exists in a playable form. Over at cyber1 they have an emulator of the PLATO system that runs most of the old programs, including the games. It's a fairly simple process to sign up for an account and download the emulator, and it's worth doing if you have any interest in the earliest days of gaming.
|The title screen|
This is the game's opening screen, though the little historical note at the top was obviously added at a later date than 1975. It should be noted here that the keyboard controls of this PLATO emulator take a little bit of time to come to grips with. Whenever it tells you to press -NEXT- , as above, you need to press enter. Most of the other commands are entered by pressing CTRL and another key; in the case of the -HELP- file above, you have to press CTRL-H. It's not rocket surgery, but it did take a small amount of time to master.
|I think Rusty wants to tell you about his D&D campaign.|
The -HELP- file begins with this bit of back-story, which I have to say is a lot more than I was expecting. The simple set-up - a ruined castle with a dungeon below that is full of monsters and treasure - is pulled straight from old-school D&D.
The -HELP- file continues with a menu where you can request information on: your character's abilities; movement; monsters; treasures; spells; and future improvements that Rutherford intended to make to the game. It's surprisingly straightforward and forthcoming, even going so far as to outline all of the monsters and their relative strengths. I recorded the monster stats, as well as the spell descriptions, so that I can reference them during game-play.
Character creation is dead simple: the game generates your stats randomly, you give your character a name, and you're ready to go. There are five stats: Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Dexterity and Hits. The first four range from 3-18, and Hits begins at 1-8 (although it gets higher as you gain experience). Strength influences your effectiveness in combat, and Intelligence does likewise for spell-casting. Constitution modifies your Hits, and Dexterity determines who goes first in combat. Your Hits determine how hard you are to kill. The D&D influence is inescapable. Rather than choosing a class, your character begins as a combination Fighter/Magic-User/Cleric. These were the only three classes in original D&D, and it makes sense to combine their abilities for a solo adventurer.
The goal of the game is to gain 20,000 experience points so that you can "retire with honour". Experience is gained by defeating monsters, and by taking treasure out of the dungeon. Most of your experience comes from treasure, most especially gems and jewelry. One piece of jewelry can net you up to 6,000 experience points; jewelry and (to a lesser extent) gems are a fast ticket to gaining in power. As soon as I find some I usually make a beeline for the exit, hoping to gain a level or two.
|Yes, I called him Muscles. I've been through a lot of characters, alright?|
This is my character Muscles at the start of a game. Note his stats at the side of the display area; normally they aren't shown, but you can bring them up at any time by hitting CTRL-D. The character is moved with the arrow keys, and doors are opened with the B key (for Bash). It sometimes takes a few tries to Bash down a door, and they close behind you as well, requiring more Bashing to get them open. It can get pretty frustrating when you're trying to make a quick escape from the dungeon. There are also secret doors. Sometimes they appear when you walk past them, but you can also check for them by bashing into walls.
Surprisingly, the dungeon isn't random. It always has the same layout, although the monsters and treasures are generated randomly. I was expecting the dungeon to be different every time, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it's fixed (I don't really care for randomised dungeons). The game also seems to remember what rooms my character has explored. It means that every time I delve into the dungeon, I have to go a little deeper to find treasure. There's no hanging out near the entrance to grind for the 20,000 experience points needed to retire. I really like this; it can get pretty tense when you're all the way on the other side of the dungeon with no spells left, frantically trying to make your way back to the exit.
Because, of course, death in this game is permanent. The game saves your character between sessions, but if you die in the dungeon, that character is gone forever. Some people will balk at this, but I like it in this type of game. Short dungeon-crawl games really thrive on the anxiety generated by perma-death.
|I can't remember what happened here, but this character probably died.|
Monsters can be encountered wandering the corridors, but those offer no treasure. Treasure can only be found in rooms, and is usually guarded. Not always; sometimes you can walk into a room and just find a piece of jewelry lying on the floor. More often than not, you'll have to fight something for it.
Combat options are limited, but the game isn't completely devoid of tactics. Fighting resolves very quickly; all of the calculations happen in the background and you simply get a message at the end telling you whether you won or lost. The option to run is always given, but it only works in corridors, not in rooms. Even in a corridor there's no guarantee that you will be able to flee. Usually your best bet in combat is to use magic.
There are eight magic spells and eight cleric spells to choose from. At the beginning of the game you only have access to four magic spells, and you can only cast one of those per game.
Sleep is the most useful spell in the game. It works automatically on any creature of level 4 or below, except for undead, and once a creature is asleep you can put a sword through it with no trouble. A lot of my time in this game has been spent poking my head into the dungeon, blasting the first monster I meet with a Sleep spell, and running like hell back to the exit.
Charm works much like Sleep, but only on humanoids. It doesn't work on undead, and it isn't always effective, but it does work on creatures above level 4. It's handy for Ogres and high-level fighters. (Hold Person is just a more effective version of this spell.)
Magic Missile is your obligatory damage spell. Speed lets you go first in combat. Invisibility makes it easier for you to escape. Cure Wounds and Cure Serious are your healing magic. Protection from Evil makes you harder to hit, and Prayer makes you hit more often.
Light, ESP, Detect Evil and Continual Light are all supposed to reduce "surprise". I'm not sure how this works. The game has never told me that I've been surprised, so it's difficult to tell whether these spells are effective or not.
Dispel Myth gets rid of mythical creatures, but I haven't tried using it yet. By the time I have a character experienced enough to cast it I'm reluctant to take a gamble on a spell that may or may not work.
Blast Bolt, however, is a personal favourite; it expends all of your remaining magic to deal 5-30 points of damage, enough to kill most enemies. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's very satisfying. It's really a last-ditch effort, though, a spell to save for dragons and vampires and other foes that are too strong for regular spells. Once you've cast it, it's time to high-tail it back to the exit.
Spells are really the lifeblood of the game. Because your tactics are so limited, they're the only thing you have that can influence your survival. Once I've run out of spells I always head for the exit, and hope that I don't get a random encounter on the way out, because once the spells dry up your character is incredibly vulnerable.
I've been playing this game for about a fortnight, and I've lost a lot of characters. I've only just started keeping track of them, and today I fed 16 characters into the dungeon in just over an hour. The game is almost entirely based on luck; sometimes the first room you enter holds a level 5 Wraith, and sometimes it has an unguarded piece of jewelry that will bump you up a couple of experience levels in one hit. This level of randomness, combined with perma-death, is a challenge, and often a frustrating one. Most of my characters have been killed by undead; you can't cast Sleep or Charm on them, and although Magic Missile deals twice as much damage as normal to undead it's rarely enough to destroy them outright. I've also had problems with my internet dropping out; the PLATO emulator is always connected to the server, so if my internet packs it in while I have a character in the dungeon I can kiss him goodbye.
Even so, I'm enjoying The Dungeon. The tension that perma-death brings is a welcome element, and there's just enough tactical play to make me feel like I can beat it. I've given myself two goals with this game: advance a character to 20,000 experience points and retire, and map the entirety of the dungeon. So far, I feel like I'm about halfway towards achieving each one.