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.