|The title screen, such as it is.|
In the annals of video game history there are many missing pieces, particularly from the days before the internet was a thing, and even more particularly from the days before commercially released games were a thing. One of those missing pieces was DND1, the earliest work of Richard Garriott. I gather most of you will be familiar with Garriott's Ultima series. It's one of the primary CRPG series of the 1980s, and every bit as revolutionary as its reputation states. Before Ultima, his first published game was Akalabeth in 1979, but before Akalabeth he wrote 27 different versions of a game he called DND. Akalabeth was actually the 28th in that series, and for the longest time it seemed as though versions 1 through 27 were lost to the ages.
Well, that's what everyone thought, until Garriott unearthed his original code for DND1 back in 2014, and released it to the community for his current project, Shroud of the Avatar. This was done as part of a competition, in which he asked the community to create versions of the code that would be easily playable today. The community came through, Garriott awarded the winners with various prizes, and now the rest of us can play the game as well. You can apparently play DND1 on a recreated teletype as part of Shroud of the Avatar, but of more use to most people is the browser version that can be found here: https://www.kirith.com/dnd1/.
Garriott was about 16 years old when he created DND1. He'd already been coding for a while on the teletype he had access to at high school. The teletype he used, as I understand it, was a sort of typewriter terminal that could communicate with a mainframe computer via an acoustic modem. Garriott had been teaching himself how to write BASIC code on it as part of his school curriculum, and his father made a deal with him: if he could make a working RPG on the teletype, he would help him buy an Apple II home computer. Obviously, Garriott succeeded.
When the game opens, it asks if you want instructions. The instruction file isn't included as part of the code, so you need to enter "NO" or you'll be booted from the game with a somewhat rude message. It then asks if you want to start a new game, or continue a game in progress. Again, this early save feature wasn't implemented in this version. After that the game gives you a choice of dungeons, numbered 1 through 6. Here's the most unfortunate part of this recreated game: the original source code references separate dungeon files, so the ones in the recreation aren't Garriott's originals. It's a shame; I was hoping there might be some little nods to later Ultima lore within the level design. (It's not entirely impossible. Garriott was an early player of Dungeons & Dragons, having started in 1974, and his original games were supposedly set in Sosaria.)
After choosing a dungeon, the following is displayed: "Continues Reset (1)=Yes (2)=No". I never figured out what this means. I might have to poke around in the code and see if anything presents itself. You then need to type a name, but for reasons I can't fathom the game only allows the name SHAVS. Type in any other name, and the game ends, with the same rude message as before.
The game then generates your stats, with the same basic array as Dungeons & Dragons: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, Wisdom, Intelligence. I assume that Strength allows you to fight better, Dexterity gives you a bonus with missiles (and maybe defense), and Constitution gives you more hit points. It's not clear what Intelligence and Wisdom are for, although perhaps they might influence spell-casting. As for Charisma, in a game that features no interaction with other characters I have no idea. Starting hit points tend to range from 10 to 20, in my experience.
You can choose to be a Fighter, a Cleric or a Wizard, the three character classes from the original D&D rules. Fighters can use all weapons and armour, but cast no spells. Wizards can only wield daggers, and wear leather armour, but they get the most spells. Clerics are kind of halfway between, being limited in weapon choice to the mace, and having less spells than the Wizard.
You begin the game with 1,000 gold to spend. The equipment list has a number of weapons (sword, mace, dagger, spear), some armour (leather, chain, plate (misspelt as "TLTE instead of PLTE"), and some miscellaneous gear like rope, spikes, flasks of oil, and a silver cross. As you'll see, loading up on spikes is vital to surviving for any length of time. You can also buy Mjolnir, if you feel like blowing almost your entire savings on one thing.
The game then begins, with the surrounding dungeon displayed by ASCII characters. The player is represented by the number 9, while monsters are number 5. Walls are marked with an asterisk, while doors use the number 4. It took me a little while to figure out what was what through trial and error, but soon enough I was tooling around the dungeon killing monsters and collecting treasure.
The game has 11 commands, each activated by entering the relevant number. For instance, to move you need to enter 1, and then the direction: (L)eft, (R)ight, (U)p or (D)own. Doors are pushed open with their own command, though you can bash straight through them with regular movement as well. Moving into walls and doors isn't recommended though, because occasionally it results in a lost hit point. Having to press two keys for every movement can be a little annoying, but it's a thing you get used to pretty quickly.
|I'm the '9'. You can see a monster just above me ('5') and a number of doors ('4s'). The Os are treasure chests.|
The Search command looks for traps and secret doors in the areas surrounding the character, but it's not always successful. The Look command displays the dungeon surroundings, in a similar way to the window that's under the input bar in the version I played. I suspect that on the original teletype machine this was the only way of knowing your surroundings. For an idea of what it might have been like, there's a possibly more authentic version here: http://slashie.net/dnd1/dnd1.html. I didn't discover it until just an hour or so ago, so I'll need to have a go to see how different it feels.
The later options are for spells, which you need to buy during the game. Each spell you buy can be cast once before it disappears, but you can buy multiples of each. They cost from 75gp for Push (which opens doors, I assume), up to 1,000gp for Cure Light #2 (a healing spell, I guess). I'm a little vague on the spells, because I haven't used them much. The main one I've been casting is Detect Secret Doors, which gives you the coordinates of any secret door in your immediate vicinity (i.e. within range of the Look command). I haven't even been able to get any of the Wizard spells to work; every time I cast one nothing happens. I'll have to investigate further.
The final option on the list is to Buy Hit Points, which you can do at a cost of 200gp for each point. This is the only part of DND1 that has an obvious link to Ultima, where you gain hit points by paying tribute to Lord British (at least in the first few games). In D&D you gain experience points for finding treasure, and those experience points allow you to grow more powerful. Here, Garriott just cuts out the middleman. It's similar to how The Game of Dungeons did it, but I gather that Garriott hadn't played any other CRPGs before creating this one.
Treasure can be found in chests, which might be trapped with poison. The poison only knocks off a few hit points, so it's no big deal. Monsters also drop gold when you kill them. In addition to standard treasure, you can find "strange vapours", which will increase one of your stats by 1 point. The treasure chests are always in the same place on the maps, but the vapours are placed at random.
Combat with monsters is pretty simple. You just press 5 when you're standing next to one to attack, with the monster attacking when you're done. Or better yet, you can equip a bow, and shoot from a distance. It even allows you to shoot through walls, and hit any monster that's visible on the screen. You can do the same thing with Mjolnir, which usually results in an instant kill. Obviously, there were still some bugs to be sorted out. I've encountered a decent variety of monsters: men, goblins, trolls, skeletons, balrogs, gnomes, kobolds and mummies. I haven't noticed any significant differences between them, though I'd say that trolls take the most damage to kill. One thing I've noticed is that there's never more than one monster at a time on the map. There's a message when a monster spawns, and if you don't find it in time it will slink off into the shadows, to be replaced by another shortly thereafter.
There are also traps, in the form of pits. Before you figure things out, these are by far the deadliest part of the game. If you land on one (and they're not indicated on the map) you might take a small amount of damage, but that's not a problem. If you don't have any spikes though, it's an instant death, as you have no way to climb back out. And even then, climbing out is only automatic if you have a rope as well. Basically, I load up with about twenty spikes before every adventure, because without them you're toast.
The pits aren't all bad though. You can kill monsters by luring them into traps, which has to be a first, and a legitimate surprise to me the first time it happened. Little touches like that are the things I love in early CRPGs.
|Luring a goblin into a pit trap.|
Aside from the pits, though, the game isn't super deadly. There's only ever one monster on the map, so you can't be overwhelmed by numbers. Admittedly I rarely last long as a Wizard, but when playing a Fighter I hardly ever die. Eventually, though, the game gets to a point where you can't lose. I'm not sure if it's a bug, but after a while the monsters just start dying instantly, and when they do you get their treasure. My gold was increasing by a few hundred with every move, which allowed me to keep increasing my hit points at a pretty quick rate. Not that I needed to, there was nothing to attack me.
So far, I'd say that DND1 is more of a historical curiosity than an enjoyable game. There's no point to it beyond the accruement of gold, and it's always a negative for me when a game doesn't have any sort of goal. I'm going to play it a few more times to test out the spells, and some of the items on the equipment list, but I should be back pretty shortly to wrap this one up.