Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Top Ten Games

I don't have an update on Orthanc this week.  In addition to NaNoWriMo, I've developed an unhealthy obsession with the Legend of Zelda series.  Playing Orthanc has taken a back seat to all of that, and I haven't made a lot of progress since my last post.  I've mapped out the remainder of level two, and lost a few characters along the way, but it hardly merits a full post.

So instead of that, I'm going to break out the hoariest of chestnuts that a gaming blogger can break out: a list of my top ten games.  It might not be the most original thing, but I actually think it's beneficial to what I'm doing here.  If I'm going to give my opinions about a bunch of RPGs and adventure games and expect anyone to listen, it probably helps to lay out my all-time favourites so you can get a grip on my tastes.

So here goes, in no particular order.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
I could very easily have chosen Ocarina of Time, but I had to give the edge to the SNES classic.  I just finished playing through it again for the umpteenth time, and even though I know it back-to-front it still reeled me in.  This is the Zelda franchise at its best, with the perfect balance between non-linear exploration and plot progression.  It's not as obscure as the earlier games, and it doesn't railroad like the later games can.  It just has one great big world to dive into, with more areas opening up as you progress and gain new items.  It's a masterpiece, as close to flawless as a game can get.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny
There had to be an Ultima on this list, and I went with this one over Ultima IV.  It was a close call, but I'm trying not to let one series dominate the list.  As much as I loved Ultima IV, I don't think a game has ever sucked me in as hard as Warriors of Destiny.  I was physically shaking with anger at certain parts of this game, and I don't think I've ever wanted to kill a video game antagonist as much as Lord Blackthorn.  It's another game with a large, open world to explore, and that always wins points with me.  One of the best RPGs ever made.

Super Metroid
I fell in love with this game as soon as I loaded it into my SNES and that menacing, eerie music crept in.  Super Metroid just oozes atmosphere, and once again it has a large world to explore that opens up as you gain new items and abilities.  I spent countless hours combing this game for secrets, bombing walls and floors, and scanning everywhere.  I had to find everything, and eventually I did.  Man, just writing about this game makes me want to go back to it.  It's been a long time.

Pool of Radiance
There was inevitably going to be a Gold Box game on here, and despite its flaws I went with the original.  You might be noticing a pattern here, but it's the non-linearity of it that swayed me.  At first there are only a few areas to explore, but eventually the whole of the city of Phlan is open to you, and there's nothing stopping you from trying your luck in Valhingen Graveyard, or any other place too deadly for your party.  This is the best implementation of D&D yet done as a PC game, especially when it comes to the combat engine: they got it right the first time, and it's never been bettered.

Bard's Tale 3: The Thief of Fate
It could have been Bard's Tale I, but it took me while to warm up to that game's steep difficulty.  It was the third installment in the series that first grabbed my attention, as possibly the very first RPG I was utterly obsessed with.  Most of my high school years were spent playing this game, with coke and chips on one side and pen and graph paper on the other.  I still have those maps, and to this day I never quite feel right when I'm not mapping an RPG myself.  I never got all that far as a kid, but I roamed around those dungeons killing monsters for hours, making maps and amassing XP.  I eventually finished it, some 20 years later, and it was a hell of a satisfying experience.

Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap
The best reason to own a Sega Master System.  Wonder Boy 3 was a break from its platforming predecessors, presenting (let's say it again) an open world ripe for exploration.  You start the game being cursed into the form of a dragon, and must cycle through a number of forms during your quest before becoming a boy again.  It's a cracking good game that doesn't get enough love.

Mario Kart
The SNES original.  It's my favourite racing game of all time, and my favourite multi-player game of all time.  It still holds up, and Nintendo have yet to outdo it.

Quest for Glory
I had to include a Sierra game, and I agonised over the choice.  It could have been a King's Quest, or a Space Quest, but...  I went with Quest for Glory.  Or, to be more accurate, Hero's Quest, as I'm writing about the EGA original and not the VGA remake.  It's just a perfect adventure game.  The humour works, the puzzles are pitched at the right difficulty, and the skill system is integrated really well, providing a number of solutions to every problem.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
I'm kind of breaking my own rule here by including another Ultima, but this game is just too good.  If I'm being honest, the sequel is better, but there's something about the first one I just like more.  It gets points for innovation, being one of the earliest 1st-person 3D games (it beat Wolfenstein 3D by a few weeks, I believe, and with a much more advanced engine).  I love the dungeon setting, and the ability to interact with the environment.  I especially love the beginning, where you are thrown into the Abyss with nothing, forced to scrounge for weapons and food before being killed, or starving to death. So good.

The Last Ninja
I was an 80s kid, and the 80s there was one thing cooler than anything else: ninjas.  The Last Ninja was the best ninja-based computer game out there.  The soundtrack was killer.  Fighting past samurai, jumping from stone to stone over raging rivers, running from giant spiders in the prison, running past the samurai so that they commit seppuku...  The Last Ninja was rad!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Orthanc: What Level Am I On Again?

I haven't had a lot of time to play Orthanc this week, as I've been furiously prepping my novel for NaNoWriMo.  And, you know, playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.  I can't write all the time, you know.  I did manage to squeeze in a few hours of old-school gaming, though I wouldn't say that my progress was all that positive.

The most important discovery I made about Orthanc is that the dungeon is not purely linear.  Stairs going down from level 1 don't necessarily lead to level 2.  So, whereas I thought the level that I'd been exploring was level 2, it was actually level 3.  I discovered this when I found a new set of stairs leading down from level 1, and ran into a mapping discrepancy.  Alas, about the time I did discover it I ran into a Werewolf, and was promptly eviscerated; my Magic Missile spell wasn't enough to stop it.

So now when I use a new set of stairs, I also cast a Depth spell to figure out what level I'm on.  Orthanc has a good selection of non-combat spells, albeit ones culled pretty heavily from D&D.  The aforementioned Depth tells you what dungeon level you're on.  There are a couple of Cure spells of different levels, a Levitation spell to avoid pits and chutes, and a Light spell to reveal secret doors.  There's a Find Traps spell, though I've yet to encounter any traps just yet.  There are a whole bunch of spells I haven't tried yet, though some of them seem self-explanatory: Speed, Protection, ESP, Passwall, Pass Ceiling, Pass Floor, Invisibility.  I'll do some experimentation and get back to you.

I had a lucky break with my next character, as I found two stashes of gems that quickly got me up to 4th level.  Treasure provides XP when you haul it out of the dungeon.  There isn't a lot of variety: just coins of varying values (copper, silver, gold, platinum), and gems.  Gems can be worth a lot, and are the best ticket to gaining levels.  Carrying treasure adds to your weight, though I haven't figured out what effect this has.  Perhaps an increase in monster encounters?

Anyway, my current character's luck hasn't exactly held true.  While exploring level 2 I fell through  a chute and ended up on level 4.  Then, while frantically looking for some stairs I fell down a pit to level 6.  Currently I'm trapped on level 6 with not much spell power or hit points.  It's going to take miracle for me to escape, but I'm about to take a crack at it.  Wish me luck!

Postscript: I got murdered by a Dwarf without ever finding my way out of level 6.  If there's an upside to this scenario, it's that I got a good amount of levels 6 and 4 mapped out.  Huzzah for mapping!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Game 3: Orthanc (1975)

In my last post I said that I was going to be starting Moria, but sadly that isn't the case.  For some unknown reason I can't get that game to run on my PLATO emulator.  It worked a few months ago, and now it doesn't.  With any luck it will be up and running again by the time I've finished my next game, the similarly Tolkien-inspired Orthanc, but if not there are plenty of other games for me to kick on with.

 Orthanc was developed by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp and Eric Hagstrom for the PLATO system, supposedly at some point in 1975.  It plays quite similarly to The Game of Dungeons (aka pedit5), and it was in fact inspired by the deletion of that very game.  It's much more involved and expanded, however, with a larger dungeon, more monsters, more spells, and just generally more of everything.

The title screen can best be described as utilitarian, but I can't say that I have a lot of expectations for these PLATO games in the graphics department.  The documentation, on the other hand, is something that I have come to expect great things of, and Orthanc does not disappoint.  It's incredibly thorough, right down to a complete list of monsters and their statistics.  On the one hand I applaud the work that's gone into it, but I'm also slightly let down by the sheer levels of transparency on display.  For me, part of the fun of an RPG is figuring out how best to fight the monsters through trial and error, and having it all at my fingertips before the game even begins is a bit of a downer.

The one place where it is a bit vague is just how you win the game.  You play as a knight (of course) whose goal is to retire and go live in luxury with the king.  Unfortunately the king only wants to live with proven fighters, so you have to venture into the Orthanc Labyrinth and amass enough experience points to retire.  It's all a bit nebulous, and there's no indication of just how many points you need to achieve your goal.  With a bit of trial and error I found the Hall of Fame, and discovered the option to retire in there.  As it turns out my current character already has enough points to retire; it seems that all you need to do is beat the person who is last on the list.  (Funnily enough, that person is Chester, of The CRPG Addict, the very blog that inspired my own efforts here.)

I'm not going to complete the game just yet, however.  Orthanc Dungeon is ten levels deep, and I plan on mapping them all.  The documentation says that the dungeon is periodically redesigned, but I get the feeling that such maintenance has probably fallen by the wayside.   I hope so, because I don't want the dungeon to change before I've mapped it all out.

Like the other PLATO games, character creation is dead simple.  You have scores in Strength, Intelligence, Constitution and Dexterity, all rolled between 3 and 18, and all working very much as they do in other RPGs.  Though you are said to play as a knight, you also have access to a wide array of spells.  You have the ability to cast any spell when you begin the game, but higher level spells use up more spell units.  Naturally, you gain more spell units as you amass experience points and gain levels.

For some reason, my character's icon isn't displayed properly. 
It happens sometimes.

Gaining experience is the main goal of the game, and it's achieved in the most obvious ways: killing monsters and taking treasure out of the dungeon.  Like the previous two PLATO games I've played, most of the time is spent exploring the dungeon, getting into a few fights and high-tailing it to the exit when resources run low.  Also like those games, death is permanent, so there's always that little bit of tension and danger.

That said, the danger is sporadic.  I've gone for a good half-hour in the dungeon without a single combat.  I've also had periods where it seems like there's a battle every step.  It's hard to gauge just how difficult this game is, because the difficulty varies with no obvious rhyme or reason.  Right now, it feels like the easiest game I've played on the blog so far, but that could change as I delve into lower levels of the dungeon.

Currently I'm exploring level two of the dungeon, and have advanced to experience level five.  The monsters I'm encountering aren't all that difficult to handle.  In most encounters I act first, because my character has a high dexterity, and if I can fire off a sleep spell or a magic missile then I've probably won already.  The occasional tougher-than-usual monsters pop up, but even then I haven't had much trouble dispatching them.

Orthanc does have a very similar vibe to pedit5, but there are a few features that stand out.  The most obvious is the automap, which displays in the bottom right of the screen if you want it to.  It seems to have been added in a recent update, but it's impressive nonetheless.  You can also apparently encounter other players in the dungeon.  This hasn't happened to me yet, and given the amount of people likely to be playing it in 2014 it probably won't, but again it's an impressive feature.  I will undoubtedly flip out if I ever get to experience it.

I'm having fun with Orthanc so far, though it lacks the addictive, frenetic quality that The Dungeon had.  I'm hoping that it gets a little more interesting and original as I explore further.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dungeon (1975)

This post is going to be a short one, folks.  The business of finding games from the 1970s can be a tricky one, and this is my first encounter with this problem on the blog.  You would think from the snazzy title screen above that I got this game running, but no such luck.  Try as I might, I can't get it to do anything but display that screen.  It is rather good, though, isn't it?

So what do we know about Dungeon?  It was designed in 1975 by John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel and Mark Nokada.  This site describes it as a 3-D first-person maze with multiple players, but also says that it was incomplete.  It's described as a predecessor to Moria, which is handy, as that's the game I'll be tackling next.

Another game, also called Dungeon, was designed by Don Daglow for the PDP-10 mainframe.  Daglow is a pretty big deal in the early days of gaming, and his description of the game sounds pretty amazing: apparently it had "ranged and melee combat, lines of sight, auto-mapping and NPCs with discrete AI".  Sadly, the PDP-10 system doesn't seem to be running anywhere on the internet, so this game appears to be lost to the ages.

Next up I'll be tackling Moria, which thankfully is available to play on PLATO.  Hopefully it's as surprisingly enjoyable as pedit5 and dnd have been.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Game of Dungeons v5.4: Victory!

With more a sigh of relief than a shout of triumph, I can finally declare that I have beaten The Game of Dungeons.  Not that it's a bad game; far from it.  For the time it was made it was absolutely revolutionary, and I still had fun playing it in 2014.  That said, I wasn't looking forward to the prospect of starting over from scratch had my character not proved up to the task.  Thankfully he was, and I can report how it all went down.

When last I posted, my character Belal (the 208th character I had sent into the dungeon) had around 2,700 hit points.  My goal was to grind him up to 100,000; the game manual said that the Dragon could dish out up to 100,000 points of damage, so I wanted a character who could withstand that much punishment.

During the course of that grinding, I discovered where I had been going wrong with my other characters.  The Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells are all well and good, pretty much guaranteed to destroy the foes you meet.  The problem is that they occasionally rebound on you, and the damage done increases along with your power.  I was having Fireballs rebound on me for 5,000 points of damage.  What I discovered is that, after a certain point, your other spells are strong enough to deal with any foe.  I started to vary my offense, using spells like Flaming Arrow and Holy Water instead, and I found myself hardly losing any hit points as a result.  My dungeon forays became a lot less tense.

I gradually built up my hit points and made progressively deeper forays as I got stronger, though two things hindered my progress.  One, I had no Bag of Holding, so the amount of gold I could get was limited.  Eventually I found one, and was pleased to discover that the tougher enemies I attracted were still being killed by my weaker spells.  Two, I couldn't grind on Level 19 or 20 of the dungeon; both of those levels are rife with secret doors, and a layout that makes it very difficult to figure out where you are unless you have a Magic Lantern to reveal those doors.  I found the lantern as well, and was set for hours upon hours of grinding.

I found the Dragon and the Orb on level 20, when I had about 75,000 hit points.  As you can see, my Magic Amulet was telling me that it wasn't a good idea for me to fight this guy yet.  I fled, continued to gain more hit points, and periodically came back to see what my Amulet said.

At 90,000 hit points, my Amulet's message altered slightly, saying "Danger" instead of "Farewell".  It was not exactly an encouraging sign, but any progress was good progress, and I was getting closer to my goal.  Just a few more dungeon delves, and I would be there.

So, armed with 100,000+ hit points, I entered Whisenwood Dungeon with the purpose of killing the Dragon and retrieving the Orb.  I decided not to have my character pick up gold; you can toggle it on and off at any time you want.  The manual warns that the Dragon is extra-ornery when you're carrying treasure, so I opted not to do so.

My amulet's message was encouraging when I found the Dragon; "Warning" is one step less deadly than "Danger" where the amulet is concerned, so I felt pretty good about the impending battle.  At least, as good as I could feel with permanent death on the line.  If Belal lost, I would be going right back to the start of the game.  This one was for all the marbles, folks.

As I've mentioned before, you can kill the Dragon instantly using the Dragon Spell.  This sounds like a great idea, but it drains nearly all of your spell-casting ability.  It's what I did the last time I fought the Dragon, and it left me with too little spell-power to make it back to the surface.  This time, I was going to use my regular arsenal of spells.

With my hit points at maximum I wasn't worried about using Fireball or Lightning Bolt, and I wanted to deal as much damage as possible to ensure victory.  I decided against Fireball; some monsters have immunities, and I figured that if anything will be immune to fire it's a Dragon.  So I crossed my fingers, held my breath, and let loose with a Lightning Bolt.

Success!  My Lightning Bolt killed the Dragon, and you can see above that it damaged me as well: that's the gigantic ZAPP! running across the screen.  You can also see the words "Swiss Cheese" written underneath; I haven't mentioned this yet, but whenever you win a fight there's a mildly amusing message that pops up depending on what spell you used.  I don't really know how swiss cheese is relevant to a Lightning Bolt, but I'll go with it.  I was just happy not to be dead.

As I discovered last time, though, the game was not over.  I still had to make it to the surface, with super-powerful monsters on my tail.

Much like the Wizard shown above, the foes that beset me on my way out were all about level 6,000.  I was feeling confident with my first such foe, and I decided to test out one of my weaker spells.  The Wizard fell to a Light Candle, and that was when I knew I'd have no trouble getting out.  I had plenty of magic power, and I wasn't going to have to rely on the dangerous Fireball and Lightning Bolt.  Nothing short of my own stupidity could stop me now.

This is Belal on Level 1 of the dungeon, right next to the entrance, literally one step away from victory.  I'm surprised looking at it now at how few hit points he had left, but now I remember that at least one of my enemies survived the spell I chose, and I had to fight in melee.  I'm probably luckier than I thought to have survived to the end.

Upon exiting, I got the victory screen displayed at the top of this post.  It was satisfying to know that I'd won, but it's not the most rewarding conclusion.  I'm not really a fan of having my character forcibly retired, and I'd like to know what the Orb actually does.  That said, seeing this screen was pretty cool.

So that's that, I'm a Finder of the Orb!  I may be the only legitimate player on that list; those other names sound like fakes to me.  Either way, my time with this game is done, and it's time to reflect back on my likes and dislikes.


Unexpected Depth:  There's a lot to this game.  On the surface it's a pretty simple dungeon delving game; enter the dungeon, grab as much gold as possible, survive, and get out.    Dig a little deeper and you'll find a variety of monsters, spells and treasures that add new facets to the game in the ways they interact.  Then there's the scaling difficulty: the more gold you get, the harder the game gets, and finding the Bag of Holding can ramp up the difficulty unexpectedly. as can finding a treasure chest.  Finding the Orb ramps it up yet again (though I found that, with the amount of grinding I did, it wasn't too hard).

Tension: Like The Dungeon before it, this game features permanent character death.  Also like that game it means that your actions have real consequences, and here it's amplified.  The Dungeon has one level; The Game of Dungeons has twenty, which makes it that much more difficult to get back to the surface.  The resulting anxiety makes for fun, rewarding gameplay.


Confusing Start: As I mentioned in my first post, it took me a while to come to grips with this game.  The squares that teleport you to different dungeon levels are hard to identify, and it's not immediately apparent that they transport you to a random location each time.  I spent a lot of time being disoriented, and it wasn't until I started mapping that I twigged to what was going on.  It's not exactly a flaw with the game, but it did mean that it was a while before I could really enjoy the game.

Permanent Death: I know I've praised this feature above, but after a while it can get pretty deflating to lose a good character.  I spent three-and-a-half months on this game, but without permanent death I'd have been done in a couple of weeks.  Overall I feel that permanent death is an integral part of the game, but by the end I was ready to move on.  Going back to the start would not have been welcome.


For the time, this is an amazing game.  I'm not surprised that it became so widespread, and ate up so much of the time of computer programming students in the 1970s.  It's addictive, it's surprisingly involved, and, keeping in mind that my gaming tastes are old-fashioned, it holds up well today.  Every old-school CRPG fan should try it, if only for some historical perspective.


Some time after finishing The Game of Dungeons I decided to create a rating system, and give the games I play a score to compare against each other.  The time has come for me to definitively rank this one, so here goes.  (Ratings are out of 7, with a discretionary bonus point to be added to the total if I still want to play the game after I finished it.)

Story & Setting: This game has even less story than The Dungeon, which wasn't exactly bursting at the seams with narrative to begin with.  Basically, there's a dungeon with an orb at the bottom that's guarded by a dragon.  If you bring it to the surface, you can retire to the Elyssian Fields.  It's another backstory that does the bare minimum to set up the game.  Whisenwood Dungeon is a collection of featureless rooms and corridors, so it's not adding much to the rating either.  Rating: 1.

Characters & Monsters: There aren't many monsters in the game, but the ones that are there are distinctive.  Demons are immune to fire.  Death is a monster you can't run away from.  Each monster has its own immunities and vulnerabilities, and working them out is a vital part of the early parts of the game.  Rating: 2.

Aesthetics: It's another orange-and-black PLATO game with no sound.  It looks almost exactly like The Dungeon, so I have to give it the same rating.  That's not necessarily a bad thing: there's no flash, but it's highly functional.  Rating: 2.

Mechanics: In many ways this game is an extension of The Dungeon: it has random character creation, and a very basic combat system.  It shines in other areas though.  The spell system is where the game excels tactically, and the way the game scales up in difficulty as you acquire more treasure keeps the game tense.  The various elements of the game combine for a fun experience.  Rating: 5.

Challenge: Make no mistake, this game is hard.  Permanent death combined with a twenty level dungeon makes for a grueling experience.  Most of the process of getting good at the game is learning what not to touch, and what not to interact with.  It managed to stay fun for a decent length of time, but after a while it started to wear me down.  I probably would have ranked it higher early on, but the sheer length of time it took me to complete broke my love of the game somewhat.  Rating: 5.

Innovation & Influence: A lot of this game is taken directly from The Dungeon, but on the other hand this is like the second CRPG in existence.  And while it owes a lot to its progenitor, it improved on every single aspect of that game.  Rating: 6.

Fun: I enjoyed the hell out of this game, especially in the early stages.  It's a punishing experience, but it rarely felt like a chore to play.  You can load it up for a quick five minute game, or you can settle in for a few hours, and I often found that once I got started I couldn't stop.  A dungeon delve doesn't take much time, so it was easy to justify "just one more game".  A year-and-a-half removed from it, I'd be more than happy to play it again.  The only thing that brings it down is the repetitive nature of the game. Rating: 5.

The above scores add up to 26.  I'm going to award this one the discretionary bonus point, because it's by far the best of the PLATO CRPGs.  This gives a score of 27, which doubled gives me a final rating of 54.

Final Rating: 54 out of 100.


Somewhat later in this blog I made the decision to overhaul my Final Rating system, so I'm going back through and fixing all of the games I've already played as of March 2020.  I've ditched the Innovation and Influence category, and replaced it for CRPGs with a category for Combat.  I've also changed the purpose of the bonus points, saving them for games that are important, innovative, influential, or have features that are otherwise not covered by my other categories.

Also, the Final Rating is a boring name.  The CRPG Addict has his GIMLET.  The Adventure Gamers have their PISSED rating.  Data Driven Gamer has his harpoons.  So I'm ditching the generic name and calling my new system the RADNESS Index: the Righteous Admirability Designation, Numerically Estimating Seven Scores. It's a pretentious mouthful, but I'm going with it.

Combat: Melee combat is The Game of Dungeons isn't all that different from that of The Dungeon, with the same three options: fight, evade, or cast a spell.  Fighting simply calculates the winner in the background, and the game lets you know who won.  Evasion is much more useful, because this game doesn't distinguish between rooms and corridors, so you can try to flee whenever you want.  The amount of gold influences your chance of getting away, because gold is kind of the game's difficulty setting: the more you have, the harder it gets. The spells are more plentiful here as well, and it's a little more difficult to figure out which ones work against which monsters.  Also, I love that this game has autocombat: you can set a level, and any monster you encounter of that level or below will be fought automatically.  The combat here is fast and frenetic, but there's enough here to make it interesting.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2.  The Game of Dungeons gets the full array of bonus points. It's an early CRPG, and one of the most popular and influential ones that came out of the PLATO community.

The Game of Dungeons v5's RADNESS Index is 46.  So far it's on top, with The Game of Dungeons after that.

NEXT: I have four games to choose from: two that are called Dungeon (sensing a theme?), one called Moria and another called Orthanc.  I'll play around with them for a bit before choosing the next one, but I'm leaning towards Moria, yet another PLATO classic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Game of Dungeons v5.4: Magic Items

I'm still plugging away at this game, trying to grind my character to a super-high level.  Belal is my 208th character, and he's currently sitting on close to 3,000 hit points and 10 million gold.  It's not a massive total, but it's enough that I can delve into the dungeon and return with the maximum amount of gold that I can carry, without a great deal of risk.  I'm exercising patience, and trying not to extend my playing sessions too long, because as long as it's taking, starting from scratch is going to take longer.

The Chosen One!

Reading back through my posts on The Game of Dungeons, I realised that I haven't discussed magic items much.  There is quite a good variety, with some significant effects on gameplay.  One item in particular completely changes the way I approach the game once I've found it.

There are the staples, of course: swords, armour, helmets and shields, all with bonuses ranging from +1 to +3.  As you'd expect, these increase your effectiveness in combat.  They're not that essential, given that most monster-killing is done with spells, but having a good set of arms and armour increases the level of monster that you can kill without suffering damage, and helps you to conserve those spells.  So they are pretty handy.

There are loads of different magic rings as well. The ring of protection works just like armour.  There's one that lets you float over pits, and another that increases the power of your spells.  The ring of invisibility helps you flee from enemies, as does the ring of swiftness.  The ring of regeneration heals you with each move you make, and the ring of luck increases your chance of finding more magic items.  They're all useful, and the ring of levitation cannot be dispensed with.

There are magic boots that reduce the frequency with which you encounter monsters, and increase your chance of running away from them.  The magic lantern lets you see secret doors.  There's an amulet that tells you when you're next to a transporter to another level, and also gives you a rough idea of how likely you are to succeed in any combat; I find it especially useful, and it was even moreso back before I'd mapped everything.

The bag of holding is the real game-changer, though.  As I've mentioned before, the strength of the monsters you encounter increases based on the amount of gold you're carrying.  With a Strength of 18 you can carry 1,800,000 gold, and the enemies max out at around level 300.  Eventually you'll get to a point where you can handle anything the dungeon can throw at you.

The bag changes that, by increasing your carrying capacity a hundredfold.  With the ability to carry more gold comes the attention of stronger foes, and they just keep getting stronger the more gold you carry.  Without the bag, you can afford to get a little complacent.  Once you have it, the rewards are bigger, but the risk returns in spades.  It's really easy to get carried away and overwhelmed by hordes of powerful enemies.

It's actually a really clever little bit of game design.    Just as I thought I'd mastered the game, I found the bag and suddenly it got difficult again.  I don't anticipate getting back to a point of complacency, either; I've not even come close to carrying my maximum gold with the bag.  And not only does the game get harder with the bag, it gets even harder again once you find the Orb.  I continue to be impressed by this game.  It has a surprising amount of hidden depth for such an early effort.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Game of Dungeons v5.4: Back to Square One

Since I began this blog, I have been praising the way that these early games use permanent character death.  I've waxed lyrical about the tension of knowing that every step could be my last, and that should death come there will be no way to bring my character back to life.

All of that has come back to haunt me.

Since my last post, I lost Godric.  I had managed to map out the whole dungeon with him, and gained over 48 million gold pieces in the process.  He had over 12,000 hit points.  I decided it was time to find the Orb, and the Dragon that guarded it.

What could possibly go wrong?

I had actually encountered the Dragon while mapping Level 17 of the dungeon, but not being prepared to finish the game I fled.  The manual says that you can always run from the Dragon, which is great, because it also says that it can dish out 100,000 points of damage.  When I returned to fight him for real, though, I wasn't worried by that.  Because, as you can see above, there's a little thing known as the Dragon Spell, which will kill it automatically.  It does so at the cost of almost all of your magic, but I thought I might be able to fight my way back to the surface through sheer muscle.

My first battle while carrying the Orb dissuaded me of that notion pretty quickly: a level 6,000 Ghoul.  For comparison, the strongest foes that Godric was normally encountering were around level 300.  I tried to run, but failed, and died in the ensuing melee.  I have to assume that it wasn't even close.

Naturally, there's only one solution to my problem: grind, grind and grind some more.  Which I did, eventually building up a very strong character who was unfortunately named Fred.  (I've used a lot of characters.  Good names are getting scarce.)  Fred accumulated over 125 million gold, and about 30,000 hit points.  I was planning to build him even further, but...  I can't even explain what happened.  I was on a routine foray, laden with gold and heading for the surface.  I was wounded, but I thought I had plenty of hit points left.  Then, when encountering a Ghoul, I let loose with a Fireball that backfired on me, and...  I was dead.  I suppose I got cocky, not bothering to check how many hit points I had left.  It was a shock, to be honest.  I think I stared at the screen for a good minute before rolling up the next guy.  (The next guy didn't do so well, as he died with a grand total of 0 gold.)

Currently I have a character with about 400,000 gold, which is a good base to start from.  Barring stupidity, a lapse of judgment or plain old bad luck, I should be able to get him to the point where I want to fight the dragon again.  I'd like to get my hit points up to 100,000 before I do that, but that could be way too much grinding.  Time will tell if I have the patience.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Game of Dungeons v5.4: Slowly, Slowly

I think I have a handle on this game now.  I'm on my 158th character, but I've worked out the key to success in The Game of Dungeons: trust nothing.  Touch nothing.  Drink nothing.  Read nothing.  And know when to get the hell back to the surface.

I have found that the only way to survive in this game is to treat every encounter as though it could kill you instantly.  I don't drink potions unless I can identify them first.  I don't open chests unless I know they aren't trapped.  I don't pick up items unless I know that they're safe.  And I never, ever read books, because there's no way to tell if they contain explosive runes or not.  Anything you touch could explode and destroy your character.  Any potential gain is not worth the risk of permanent death.

I am absolutely not about to open that chest.

 Combat, funnily enough, feels less tense than finding treasure.  I'm at a point now where I can kill lower-level monsters with impunity, and any higher-level monsters I encounter will be destroyed with a well-chosen spell.  I only recently realised that there are only six types of monster in the game: Man, Glass, Wizard, Ghoul, Demon and Spectre (a Glass is basically a nerd with big glasses, and your guess is as good as mine as to how they made it into the game).  They're all easily destroyed with a Fireball or a Lightning Bolt, though you have to be careful not to use lightning on a Spectre or fire on a Demon.  Cleric spells like Holy Water and Exorcise work well on Ghouls, Demons and Spectres.  As long as you have spells, combat is a cakewalk.  You just have to keep track of them, and know when it's time to retreat from the dungeon.

To Fireball, or to Lightning Bolt?

Sometimes that's trickier than it sounds.  As I mentioned in the last post, the monsters get stronger the more treasure you carry.  If you have too much, you might be attacked by a monster that's too strong for your magic (although I still find that a good Fireball usually weakens them enough for a melee victory).  The option is there to drop your gold if the combats are getting too tough, but I haven't tried it yet; in this game, more treasure means more hit points, so I'm loathe to get rid of it.

There's a passwall spell that can be accessed by pressing the P key, which allows your character to walk through a single wall; it uses one magic-user spell slot and can come in handy for taking a shortcut to the exit.  There's also a Teleport spell (shift-T) that moves you up a level.  It uses two slots, and can be a life-saver when you're on a level in which you don't know the location of the transporter that will take you up.  Unfortunately, it has a 10% chance of backfiring and moving you down a level, and that can be a death sentence.  If you expend too many spell slots trying to teleport up to a familiar level, you'll be very lucky to escape the dungeon alive.

Some spare change lying unguarded on level 13 of the dungeon.

My current character, Godric, has nearly 10 million gold pieces, and is easily my most successful character to date.  I'm currently exploring level 12; the Orb that I'm looking for is supposed to be on a level somewhere between 17 and 20, so I might not be too far from success.  I just need to keep my head, take as few risks as possible, and progress as slowly as I can.  I really don't want to lose this guy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Game 2: The Game of Dungeons (aka dnd) v5.4 (1975)

My trek through the early PLATO CRPGs continues, with The Game of Dungeons, more commonly known by its filename of dnd.  The game was originated by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, two students at Southern Illinois University, and later expanded by two other students named Dirk and Flint Pellett.  (Let's just stop and ponder the names of these two brothers.  Dirk and Flint.  Those are some manly names right there.)

The Game of Dungeons is available at cyber1.org, though they don't have the earliest versions.  Versions 5.4 and 8 are playable, both with a copyright date of 1977.  I plan to play version 5 now, and version 8 later on when I cover the games from 1977.  It's probably not an accurate timeline of when these versions of the game were released, but it's what I'm going with.

This game has only been completed by pretentious gits.

It seems as though documentation was a big deal to the folks who programmed on PLATO, because like the one for PEDIT5, the manual for dnd is extensive.  It covers everything you could possibly want: character creation, navigating the maze, monsters, traps, spells, treasure, the works.  It isn't as precise as PEDIT5 was, though.  The monsters and spells aren't as well documented; I get the feeling that the programmers wanted the players to work things out through trial and error.

The objective of the game, besides raiding Whisenwood Dungeon for treasure, is to find the Orb located on the dungeon's lowest levels (anywhere from 17-20).  The Orb is guarded by a dragon, and if that isn't bad enough, any character carrying the Orb will be assaulted by all sorts of powerful foes on the way out.  Any character who escapes the dungeon with the Orb is retired to the Elyssian Fields, and has beaten the game.  That's what I'm aiming for.

Characters have five stats, all ranging from 3-18 (there's that inescapable Dungeons & Dragons influence again): Strength, IQ, Wisdom, Dexterity and Hits.  They generally affect the areas of gameplay you would expect: Strength helps with combat and the ability to carry gold, IQ helps with magic spells, Wisdom helps with cleric spells, Dexterity determines who goes first in combat and whether you can evade enemies, and Hits determine how hard you are to kill.  You can reroll these scores as many times as you like before settling on your character, and it's not too difficult to start the game with a character who has high stats for everything.

At first glance dnd seems very similar to PEDIT5, at least graphically.  The gameplay is very different, though.  The first thing I noticed is that treasure is absolutely everywhere.  Wherever you go in the maze there are piles of gold just waiting to be scooped up.  And you really want to scoop it up; every 4,000 gold pieces you retrieve from the dungeon gives you a permanent extra hit point, and more gold also increases your spellcasting ability.  There's no cap on the amount of hit points you can earn this way, and as you go deeper into the dungeon the treasure hauls get larger and larger. Treasure chests are especially valuable; it's not uncommon to find one that has over 100,000gp in it, which is a major boost to your survivability if you can get it back to the surface.  That's the trick: the more gold you carry, the stronger the monsters are that attack you.

If I fight, I'll die.  If I fireball, he'll die.

And they attack you a lot.  There are no set encounters in the dungeon (as far as I can tell) but wandering monsters are everywhere.  Combat is similar to that in PEDIT5, with the same options: fight, evade, or cast a spell.  The difference is that there are more variables in play.  Your ability to evade is influenced by how much gold you're carrying.  There are more spells, and their effects aren't as clear.  I've found it pretty easy to gauge whether I'm strong enough to beat a certain foe, and once I worked out the right spells to use combat became pretty easy.  But there's always that chance of being caught with no spells to cast, and that can be deadly.  Combat isn't all that tactical, but keeping track of your resources and deciding when to make a retreat from the dungeon really is.

A pile of gold just lying around.

Monsters aren't the only thing that can kill your character in this game: traps are absolutely lethal.  Chests and magic items can be found in the dungeon without much trouble, but any one of them could blow your character to kingdom come if you're not careful.  You can try to examine them for traps, or using a spell, but if neither of these methods are successful it's a big risk to pick anything up.  With a new character I will pick up anything just on the off chance it will make me stronger, but eventually there comes a point where my character is strong enough that I don't want to lose him. After that, I don't touch anything unless I know for sure that it isn't trapped.  With permanent character death on the line, it's too big a risk.

It's an even bet that this potion will kill me.

Did I mention the perma-death?  Just as in PEDIT5, if your character dies it's gone for good.  It makes for some tense game-play, more so in this game because the dungeon is larger.  Yes, losing a good character can hurt, but there's nothing like the feeling of escaping the dungeon with no spells, 1 hit point and a few hundred thousand gold pieces.

I must admit that this game took me quite a while to come to grips with.  When I first started I spent a good amount of time stumbling around the dungeon, convinced that the map made no sense.  After biting the bullet and breaking out the mapping tools, I realised my error: there are portals that transport you up or down a level, and they're not obvious until you walk into one.  Adding to the confusion is that their destination is random: they always lead to the same level, but the location on that level changes.  This took me a while to figure out.

I'm having fun with it now, though.  It's pretty addictive.  A trip into the dungeon doesn't take very long, and the speed with which you can rack up treasure makes it really tempting to play "just one more game".  I've fed 145 characters into the dungeon so far.  The most successful of those was Mondain, who racked up nearly a million gold pieces before I got cocky, and allowed him to get caught with no spells.  It's a deadly game, but there are tactics for survival.  And best of all, it's fun.  I'm writing this at 3am, but I think I've got time for just one game before bed.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Dungeon: Victory!

Huzzah for Fili!  He killed a lot of our buddies!

After a few weeks of playing The Dungeon on and off, I finally beat it last night.  It wasn't particularly a matter of skill - although the knowledge of what spells to use against certain foes is a big help - but more one of persistence and luck.

I had been watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug earlier in the evening (good prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies, terrible book adaptation), and this combined with a general lack of imagination regarding character names resulted in me feeding dwarf after dwarf into the Dungeon of Ramething (not to mention Bilbo and Gandalf).  Most of them died quickly.  A few managed to build some decent experience.  It wasn't until Fili, the sixth such dwarf, that I succeeded.

As I said, it was a matter luck.  I had been following my usual routine, slowly advancing room by room, collecting small treasures and retreating to the exit when my spells ran out.  Fili had about 12,000 experience when I decided to send him deeper into the dungeon to do some mapping.  That was when I stumbled across two pieces of jewelry lying unguarded.  One panicked beeline for the exit later, and I had gained 12,000 extra experience points, and the honour of a comfortable retirement.

(My character achieved this mostly through obtaining treasure, but spare a thought for the poor theoretical adventurer who gets all 20,000 experience points required via combat.  All he would have to show for his victory would be a life of poverty and a body crippled by the ravages of battle.)

Upon winning the game you get the nifty victory screen shown above, as well as a place in the Hall of Fame.  Check out Fili in his pride of place below:

First place.  Booyah.

I continued playing for a while after this, so that I could complete my map.  Once a character has retired you can't use him any more, so I had to send a lot of cannon fodder newbies in to map as much as they could before their inevitable demise.  It took me another twelve Tolkien characters before my map was complete; as far as I am aware, this is the only complete map of The Dungeon found on-line.

With the goals I set myself for this game out of the way, it's time to talk about its good and bad points.  I won't be rating any of the games on this blog on any kind of scale, objective or subjective.  I'm simply going to discuss the things I liked and the things I didn't, and leave it at that.  (EDIT: I later changed my mind about this; see below).


Spells: Seriously, there are 16 spells in this game, and I found myself using a lot of them.  You can't just stick with one or two spells and leave it at that; sure, Sleep is very useful, but it doesn't work on undead.  Charm only works on humanoids.  Magic Missile is twice as effective on undead.  A surprising amount of effort has gone into varying the spells, and making them work like they do in Dungeons & Dragons.  The only downside I could find are the spells that affect "surprise"; I couldn't really work out their concrete effect on game-play.  Even so, it's a system that works.

Variety of Monsters: There are 36 monsters in this game, some of which include Giant Rats, Orcs, Vampires, Giant Hogs, and Dragons.  Again, it's a menagerie drawn straight from D&D, but often that's exactly what I want from a dungeon-crawl game.  One criticism I have is that none of the monsters have special abilities.  They're all just a name, a type, and a hit point total, and combat flashes by so quickly that the monsters are all effectively the same.  This is offset by the spells, as mentioned above, and the various immunities that different types of monsters have.  Its just enough that the sameness of combat never really bothered me.

The Game Remembers Where You've Been: The game stocks the dungeon when your character is created, and after that it remembers which rooms you've explored.  At first I had thought I'd be able to stay close to the entrance, and continuously raid the rooms close by until I hit 20,000 experience points.  No such luck.  If you clear a room it stays empty, and every time you enter the dungeon you have to explore just a little deeper to find treasure.  It's a small thing, but it has a big effect on my next point.

Tension: You're deep in the dungeon, with no spells left and just a few hit points remaining.  The necklace you found is worth thousands of gold pieces, and if you can take it back to the surface you will be able to return as a much more skillful hero than before.  But there's a long way to the exit, and with every step you may be attacked by the foul denizens of the dungeon.  Will you make it?

This is pretty much every game of The Dungeon.  Your character can only be saved between missions, and if he dies in the dungeon he's gone for good.  This gives the game some proper tension.  The stakes are high, and they only get higher the more powerful you get.  Sure, once you've earned more hit points and spells you can deal with the easier foes, but there's always the chance of a dragon popping up and killing you.  Perma-death doesn't work for every style of game - I wouldn't want it in a longer, plot-based adventure - but for short dungeon-crawl games it's ideal.


Randomness: Success in The Dungeon is highly dependent on luck.  Every time you create a new character, the game stocks the dungeon with monsters and treasure.  You have no way of figuring out what's in a room ahead of time, so it's a matter of bashing doors down and hoping for the best.  If you find a wraith in that first room, well, bad luck.  Generate a new guy and try again.  I only won the game through sheer perseverance and luck in finding two unguarded pieces of jewelry.  It could just as easily have been a dragon.

Lack of Encounter Options: Before I go any further, I will say that the number of options in this game is surprising.  It was programmed in 1975, so the ability to Fight, Run or Cast a Spell seems pretty advanced to me.  Even so, it's not quite enough.  The spells mitigate this a lot, but once you've run out you're basically at the mercy of the game and its randomly generated foes.  You have the option to run away, but that only works in corridors.  As you can see from the map above, most of the dungeon is composed of rooms, and if you're attacked by a monster in a room then combat is your only option.  With just one change - the possibility of running away at all times - I would have been satisfied.


By modern standards, this is a primitive and simplistic game.  By the standards of the time, it's shockingly sophisticated.  I never expected the first CRPG to be this advanced.  The earliest game in the genre that I had played previously was Akalabeth, and I was braced for something much worse than that.  Surprisingly, I got something better.  I probably shouldn't have been surprised; a system like PLATO was bound to have more processing power than the first home computers.  But I was, and I recommend that anyone with an interest in gaming history check out The Dungeon.  It's probably going to be better than you think.


Some time after I completed The Dungeon I came up with a rating system with which to rank the games I complete.  Here goes:

Story & Setting: The backstory in the manual starts off with a cracking line to open: "It is the year 666 -- the year of The Beast".  It then goes on to describe the ruined castle of Ramething, near the town of Mersad, in the country of Caer Omn.  The "ruined castle near a town" set-up is pure old-school D&D, and I'd be shocked if these names aren't taken straight from Rusty Rutherford's old campaign.  That said, none of this ties into the gameplay at all, and simply serves as a backdrop for the dungeon's location.

The story is similarly thin: the protagonist wants to amass 20,000 experience points and then retire.  It's a fairly thin rationale for sticking your head into a monster-filled dungeon, but I guess it's a good enough motivation for plaing a game.  Rating: 1.

Characters & Monsters: This game has a lot of monsters, grouped into six categories with differing spell immunities.  None of the monsters have special abilities; they're simply differentiated by how many hit points they have, and how much damage they can dish out.  Rating: 2.

Aesthetics: The graphics for this game are primitive, but they're not ugly.  I'm actually rather fond of the orange/black colour scheme of the old PLATO games.  They're also very functional: there was never any confusion as to what I was looking at, and that's appreciated.  It doesn't have any sound, but that just gave me an excuse to play Iron Maiden's Dance of Death in the background.  Rating: 2.

Mechanics: The gameplay is simple, but it works quite well at what it does.  Character creation is random, and combat is dead simple, but the spell system gives the game a much-needed layer of complexity.  I also really liked the way the game forces you to explore deeper with every trip into the dungeon.  Rating: 4.

Challenge:  It's a bit short, but it's very well balanced.  The threat of permanent death gives it a great sense of tension, and there's never a moment in the game where you feel completely safe.  My only complaint here is that success in the game is far too dependent on random elements.  Rating: 4.

Innovation & Influence: Well, it's the first CRPG in existence, innit?  There's no way of knowing what was in the mythical m119h, so I have to give The Dungeon the maximum score.  Rating: 7.

Fun: I did enjoy this game, and it was much more fun than I was expecting.  It wasn't very long or complicated, and it was never going to hold my attention for more than a few sessions, but it was enjoyable while it lasted.  Rating: 3.

The Dungeon doesn't get the coveted bonus point, as I doubt I'll ever come back to it.  The ratings above add up to a score of 23, which doubled adds up to a final rating of 46.

FINAL RATING: 46 out of 100.


Somewhat later in this blog I made the decision to overhaul my Final Rating system, so I'm going back through and fixing all of the games I've already played as of March 2020.  I've ditched the Innovation and Influence category, and replaced it for CRPGs with a category for Combat.  I've also changed the purpose of the bonus points, saving them for games that are important, innovative, influential, or have features that are otherwise not covered by my other categories.

Also, the Final Rating is a boring name.  The CRPG Addict has his GIMLET.  The Adventure Gamers have their PISSED rating.  Data Driven Gamer has his harpoons.  So I'm ditching the generic name and calling my new system the RADNESS Index: the Righteous Admirability Designation, Numerically Estimating Seven Scores. It's a pretentious mouthful, but I'm going with it.

Combat: Combat is incredibly rudimentary in this game: there aren't even rounds, the game just tells you who won without giving you the chance to influence the result.  You can run away if you're in a corridor, but most battles happen in rooms where that isn't possible.  The only actual tactic is to use spells before melee begins, which is good but not quite enough to lift this one out of the doldrums.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2. I'm giving The Dungeon the full two bonus points for being the first CRPG ever, and inspiring the other games that went on to become more popular on PLATO.

The Dungeon's RADNESS Index is 36 out of 100.  So far all I can tell you is that it's rating higher than Akalabeth. (I definitely scored this game too high for Challenge, but these were the early days and I'm not changing anything else but Combat and the Bonus Points.)

NEXT: I continue my trawl through the primordial age of CRPGs, with another PLATO game: The Game of Dungeons, aka dnd.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Game 1: The Dungeon (aka pedit5) (1975)

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.