Sunday, October 13, 2019

Game 32: Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai (1979)

The mood lighting in this dungeon is wild.

For the beginning of 1979, I opted to go with Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai.  It was either this or Akalabeth, and I was in the mood for something new.  I've punted Akalabeth further down the list, because I'm quite familiar with it, and I also wanted to give myself something to look forward to later in the list.

Besides being the first game I'm playing for 1979, Temple of Apshai feels like something of a watershed moment for the blog. It's a game I'm vaguely familiar with (having played a little bit of Temple of Apshai Trilogy on the Commodore 64 back in the day), it's historically significant, and it's been on my extensive CRPG bucket list for years.  This is exactly the sort of thing that I started this blog for, and it's exciting to finally get to this point.

Temple of Apshai was created by a trio of Dungeons & Dragons players in 1979: John Conneley, Jon Freeman, and Jeff Johnson.  Its roots began when Conneley purchased a Commodore PET to help him organise his D&D notes, but found that the computer was far from up to the task. Instead, hoping to write the computer off as a business expense, he decided to write some games. Being a better programmer than a games designer, he recruited Freeman, and the two of them formed Automated Simulations, which would eventually be known as Epyx. Their first game was a space strategy game called Starfleet Orion, and their second game was Temple of Apshai. For this they brought in fellow gamer Jeff Johnson to help, and together they created one of the first truly significant CRPGs of the home computer era. (I don't want to say that it was the very first of significance, because I'm not sure when it came out in relation to Akalabeth. I'm pretty sure that Apshai was first, as Akalabeth is generally believed to have been released late in 1979, but I don't know for sure.)

Not only is Temple of Apshai significant in its own right, reportedly outselling both Ultima and Wizardry in the early 1980s, but it's the first game in the Dunjonquest series, the first series of CRPG games ever, with ten individual titles. While it lacked the staying power of its contemporaries - the last original Dunjonquest game was published in 1982, compared to Ultima and Wizardry lasting for decades - it was the first, and you have to admire the confidence of Conneley and co. for going whole hog with a series before there had even been a big CRPG hit on home computers.

The game was originally released for the PET and the TRS-80, but I wasn't able to find a version on-line that I could get working for either platform. The earliest version that I could work with was the 1980 port for the Apple II. Just now I discovered another TRS-80 version at The Digital Antiquarian (where I got most of the historical info about this game), but I'm immersed in the Apple II port now, and I don't like to switch versions partway through a game. Maybe I'll tool around with the original for a bit when I'm done.

Before I start with the game proper, I should mention that it has an honest to god manual. This is a rarity in 2019 and was seemingly a rarity in 1979, especially in terms of the size and quality of Temple of Apshai's manual. It begins with an introduction that waxes rhapsodic about the possibilities of tabletop RPGs, and the experiences they can provide, going on to relate that to the Dunjonquest series. It runs through the rules in a fairly thorough fashion, though not so thoroughly as to lay all of the game mechanics bare. Similarly, the monsters are described in general terms without giving away their stats. It even provides a fictional backstory for the temple, from the perspective of an adventurer named Brian Hammerhand. It's not quite up to the standards that Ultima would set later in the 1980s, but it's still very good.

The back half of the manual is taken up by descriptions of traps, treasures, and rooms, divided up by dungeon level. These are to be referred to during play. When you enter a room, you read the relevant description in the manual. You do the same when you find a treasure, or set off a trap.  It's an ingenious way of providing a D&D-like experience on the highly restricted memory of the earliest computers, and for me brings back fond nostalgic memories of the journal entries from SSI's Gold Box games. Admittedly, from a modern perspective it can feel weird to be constantly consulting the manual for in-game information, but I got used to it very quickly, and it certainly does provide a higher level of immersion than previous CRPGs have done.

Temple of Apshai's title screen

The game begins with character creation, which is done by answering questions posed to you by an innkeeper. You can have the computer roll stats for you randomly, or you can use a character from your favourite tabletop RPG. The latter choice is an interesting one, as it basically allows you to set whatever stats, experience level, and magic armaments you like. It's a built-in cheat system, really, and one that I abused pretty mercilessly, but more on that later.

Each character has six attributes, rated from 3 to 18 because that's the way D&D does it. These attributes are Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Intuition, and Ego. The first three function much as you'd expect. There's no spell-casting in the game, so the main use for Intelligence is haggling with the innkeeper and talking to monsters. Intuition helps with finding secret doors and traps. Ego apparently measures mental toughness, and allows you to do better when the tide of battle turns against you, but whatever effect it has was invisible to me.

After your attributes are determined you're given an amount of money in silver pieces. I'm not sure exactly what the range is, but I'd lay odds that it's 3d6x10 (30-180), because that's how D&D did it at the time. With this money you can buy armor (leather, ring mail, chain mail, partial plate or full plate), a weapon (dagger, shortsword, broadsword, hand-and-a-half sword, or great sword), a small or large shield, a bow, arrows, and healing salves. Starting gold varies, but generally I was able to start with a broadsword, leather armor, a large shield, a bow, and a decent number of arrows.  You can haggle the innkeeper's prices down, and as mentioned above this is easier if your character's Intelligence is high.  There are Strength requirements for some of the high-end weapons, but I never rolled a character who was unable to wield a broadsword.

You don't want to load yourself down with too much gear, especially if your Strength is low, because encumbrance is very much a factor in this game. The more loaded down you are, the more moving and fighting adds to your fatigue, and running out of energy during a battle can be deadly.

After purchasing equipment you can enter the Temple of Apshai, which has four levels. You can choose which level to enter, with level 1 being the easiest and level 4 being the most deadly. I won't go too deeply into the backstory from the manual, because it doesn't affect the gameplay all that much. The Temple was founded long ago by priests of the insect god Apshai, who carved out tunnels in the ground beneath, growing strange crops and mining gold and gems. They practiced dark rites, while young people from the lands around disappeared, and insects swarmed from the nearby swamps. The people of the land prayed to their gods, and eventually the Temple of Apshai collapsed and was destroyed. Only recently was the temple excavated. Only four levels were cleared before the work parties started to disappear, and nobody would enter the place. Now the temple lies open, full of monsters and treasure as such places tend to be, and the player's goal is to get in there and take as much of that treasure as possible.

Temple of Apshai doesn't have an end goal, so I gave myself a simple one: map out all four levels, find every treasure, and visit every chamber described in the entries at the back of the manual. I managed all of these, but as you'll see the legitimacy of that victory is somewhat debatable.

The first chamber of level 1.

"The smooth stonework of the passageway floor shows that advanced methods
were used in its creation. A skeleton sprawls on the floor just inside the door, a
bony hand still clutching a rusty dagger, outstretched toward the door to safety.
A faint roaring sound can be heard from the far end of the passage."

The dungeons are pictured from a top-down perspective, with each chamber being drawn on the screen as you visit. I've heard that this is excruciatingly slow on the TRS-80 (often a problem with games written in BASIC), but on Apple II the speed was tolerable. Movement takes a bit of getting used to. You need to turn by pressing R (for right) and L (for left), or V to do a 180 (I think this stands for volte face, which is the sort of tortured construction you end up with when each key on the keyboard is used for a separate command; see also Ztats from Ultima). Once you're facing the desired direction, pressing a number key determines how far you want to move. The further the move, the more it adds to your fatigue. As usual when a game doesn't use the arrow keys for movement it can be baffling at first, but it's simple enough to grasp after the initial confusion.

The non-movement commands are mostly related to opening doors (regular and secret) and looking for traps. There are plenty of secret doors around, but thankfully finding them isn't very hard; if you're facing a wall when you hit the (E)xamine key it will search the entire wall, rather than the section directly in front of you. You can also listen (with the command (H)earken) at doors, which might tell you what monster lurks in the room beyond. Traps are similarly easy to find, as the (S)earch command works on the entire room, causing any trapped area to flicker for a second or two.

Locating a secret door in the east wall. Note that it's in the upper right, while
I'm way down near the bottom of the screen.

"A finely carved and painted mural fills the east wall of the passage, opposite the
opening, depicting men tilling the soil. A ransacked backpack rests under the
mural. A roaring sound can be heard from the north."

Combat is simple, although managing your fatigue gives it an added dimension. There are three basic melee attacks: (A)ttack, (T)hrust and (P)arry. Thrusting does more damage but uses more fatigue, while parrying does less damage than a regular attack but lowers your fatigue. Arrows can be used to attack from a distance, but you have to be lined up with the enemy to have a chance of hitting.  There's no shooting on diagonals, unfortunately. You can also talk to monsters (using the ! key for some inexplicable reason), and occasionally they will allow you to pass without harm. As I mentioned above, the likelihood of success here is based on your character's Intelligence.

Your "Wounds" are measured as a percentage, and when you're reduced to 0% you're dead. It's pretty hard to die permanently in this game though: usually you'll be found by another adventurer who takes your body back to town to be resurrected. There are three such NPCs, each of whom demands a different price. Olias the Dwarf takes all of your treasure and magic items, while Lowenthal the Wizard is satisfied with taking just your items. Benedic the Cleric does it for free; the manual says that he asks for a small donation to his church, but as far as I can tell the game doesn't take away any of your treasure. Very rarely, the monsters will eat your corpse, and in that case your character is dead and gone.

Fighting a swamp rat, with the combat messages displayed under my stats.

"The room is well lighted by the phosphorescent glow emanating from the greenish-
yellow algae covering the high ceilings of native rock and well worked stone walls
to the north and south. A broken bow lies in two pieces near the east wall."

You can get stronger by earning experience points, which is done by killing monsters and exiting the dungeon. I don't think you get experience for finding treasure, but I'm not entirely sure about that. As is usual with such things, gaining experience allows you to hit more easily in combat, and sustain more damage.  The Apple port that I was playing keeps track of your character's experience, but from the manual I gather that the TRS-80 version didn't. You had to note it down yourself, and type in the total every time you wanted to use that character. It sounds like something from the neolithic era.

Treasure is represented on the screen by a brown square, and it's nature is usually indicated in the room description from the manual. For example, the opening chamber has a treasure that is described as a skeleton sprawling on the floor with a rusty dagger in its outstretched hand. When you (G)rab a treasure, you're referred to the manual to find out exactly what it is and how much it's worth. This ranges from items that are worthless (an all too common result) up to emerald bracelets worth 5000 silver pieces. As with experience in the TRS-80 version, the game doesn't actually keep track of how much treasure you have (this goes for the Apple II port as well). Whenever you end a dungeon expedition you're given a list of the treasures you found, and it's up to you to record their values and add them to your current total. There's nothing stopping you from giving yourself loads of treasure aside from your own honesty.

There are also magic swords and armor, books, boots, cloaks, rings, talismans and potions. The magic items weren't something I really got to explore, because by the time I started finding some I was using a horribly overpowered character that was effectively invincible. More on that later.

My first character, who I named Nathan because my creativity has been atrophied by the rigors of adulthood, was far from stellar. His scores were all low to average, with only Intelligence rating above 12. Nevertheless, with no reroll function I was convinced to buy this guy some weapons and armor and take him into the temple.

The first level seems to be some sort of garden. It features a number of streams and pools, and many of the rooms are covered with moss and fungus. My initial foray ended when I tried to take a wooden box containing a shimmering cloak; the box was trapped with a needle that killed my character. Luckily, I was taken back to the surface by Benedic the Priest, and after being resurrected I was ready to go back in. Exploration of the level was slow going. The Swamp Rats weren't too difficult to kill, but the Antmen were much tougher, as were the various giant creatures such as Spiders, Beetles, Wasps and Leeches. Things got much easier once I was able to afford a suit of full plate, and I was able to clear out the level except for a section to the southeast. This area was infested with Giant Ants, which were incredibly tough. I found them to be almost impervious to arrows, and melee combat with one was about a 50/50 proposition. I eventually cleared them out with sheer persistence and a reliance on being resurrected by NPCs, and by this time I had a few thousand silver pieces and little to worry about financially speaking.

A rough map of level 1, with room descriptions from the manual noted

The second level was where things fell apart for this character. There was an Antman in the entry corridor, but I was pretty confident that I'd be able to beat him. After all, I'd killed a dozen or so on level 1. This guy was much harder though. I swear I fought him twenty times, seemingly with little effect. I had the best armour in the game, and the best weapon that my Strength would allow, but it seemed that nothing I did would be enough to kill it. Still, I kept going back in and trying to whittle him down (the game can save the state of the level, which it stores in a different file to the original level; I'm pretty sure that monsters retain any wounds you inflict on them between forays). He killed me every time, and eventually I copped a death where my character was eaten. It was time for a new guy.

(Having reread the manual, it does note that certain monsters will be stronger on higher levels of the temple. The only one I noticed this with was the Antmen, but from memory that's the only monster that is found in any significant number across dungeon levels.)

At this point I didn't want to start fresh though, so I decided to abuse the character creation system. Calling him Cheatus, I gave him an 18 in every stat, around a million experience, +5 weapons and armor, and a hefty supply of healing salves and magic arrows.

With my new, over-powered character I was able to get my revenge on the Antman and get to the business of exploring the second level. What I found were mostly living quarters for the ancient priests of Apshai, various storerooms, and a prison section to the east. My memory is a little hazy, as I'm writing this some time after finishing up with the game, but I remember fighting a lot of Antmen, and Ghouls in the prison cells. The Ghouls didn't have a paralysing touch, but they did receive multiple attacks per round. Even with the over-powered Cheatus I still died a few times (mostly to Antmen) but the level was not too difficult.

A rough map of level 2

Again, the difficulty ramped up on the third level. This was a series of mines and natural caverns, infested with Vampire Bats and deadly cave-ins. I explored it a little with Cheatus before stumbling into a secret room where I fought a Wraith. Every blow the Wraith struck drained my Strength score, until eventually I was forced to flee and v e r y  s l o w l y inch my way out of the dungeon. With a Strength of 1, pretty much anything other than moving at minimal speed dropped my Fatigue below 0. I was able to escape from the temple, but with no way to restore my Strength, Cheatus was hopeless as an adventurer, and I had to retire him.

Thus arose Cheatus Jr. He was a genetic chip off the ol'  block, with an 18 in every stat. This time I gave him the most experience I possibly could, a total of 9,999,999. Going out on a limb, I tried to give him weapons and armour with a +100 bonus. Much to my surprise, the game accepted this as perfectly fine. D&D tops out at +5 generally, and I expected that Apshai would follow suit, but the power scale is much higher here. I did some experimentation, and it accepted bonuses up to 200, but anything of 300 or more would cause the game to crash.

I took Cheatus Jr. into level 3 and stomped that wraith in a single hit. To be honest, I stomped pretty much everything in a single hit, and I barely took any damage from monsters or traps. This time, I had broken the game pretty thoroughly, but I was too fired up with the spirit of progress to feel bad about it. I have a lot of games on my list, you know, and if a game provides the systems for me to legitimately cheat I'm going to take them if things become too frustrating.

A rough map of level 3. The Wraith was in Room 60.

Leaving a lot of dead Vampire Bats and Amoebas in my wake, and loaded down with gold nuggets, I took on the final level of the temple. This was the temple proper, where the priests conducted their worship. The barracks were seemingly here as well, because there are two rooms in the west where I fought 40 Antmen in a row. Luckily they fought me one at a time or I'd never have stood a chance (the game never has you encounter more than one monster at a time, but some rooms will have monsters appear one after another until you've killed them all). What seems to be the main chamber of the temple has an altar with a statue of a praying mantis that has rubies for eyes. Of course the mantis comes to life when you try to take the rubies, but I have no idea how difficult the battle really is because I obliterated it in a single blow. The rubies are worth 3,000 silver pieces each, which is a hefty sum, although somewhat meaningless by this stage of the game.

A rough map of level 4. Room 25 had the praying mantis statue.

So, my Temple of Apshai experience was somewhat marred. I was keen to move on, and rather than take the time to grind and become stronger, I took a shortcut and made a powerful character from scratch. When even that wasn't enough, I caved even further and created an invincible character. I still had fun mapping the place out, and exploring all of the chambers, but I don't really feel like I experience the game as intended, at least after the first level or two of the temple.


Story & Setting: In terms of backstory, setting, and the integration of the two, Temple of Apshai is unparalleled in the CRPG field at this point. The use of the manual to flesh out the temple might seem odd from a modern perspective, but it provides an atmosphere and the sense of a lived-in world that would be impossible using just the computer hardware available. Of all the CRPGs I've played for the blog, this is the one that comes closest to recreating the feel of a D&D game. Rating: 3 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The only NPCs in this game are the innkeeper, who is simply there to facilitate character creation, and the three characters that are there to bring you back from the dead. Interaction with them is nonexistent, and they count more as game mechanics than characters. As for monsters, there are a good variety, but most of them boil down to sacks of hit points. Only the Wraith presented any obvious special ability with it's Strength drain. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The game has no sound effects or music, but the graphics are pleasant enough, and more colourful than anything else seen on the blog so far. Most importantly of all, they're functional. The writing of the room descriptions is also quite evocative, and should definitely be a factor here; they're as much a part of the game as anything else. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: This one is a little hard for me to judge, because I broke the game in the second half with my rampant cheating. The movement system is a little odd and unwieldy, but searching is quite streamlined; the creators anticipated how irritating it would be to have to search every section of wall, and made the player's search area very generous. There are also other nice little touches, like the ability to talk your way past monsters, and listen at doors. The fatigue system is the major mechanic of the game, and managing it is your main concern in combat. It's not much to go on, but it's a step above hitting A repeatedly until somebody dies. Mostly, I would say that everything in the game works well enough without anything in particular standing out. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This is another tricky category for me. After level 1 of the dungeon I might have scored this higher, as I found it challenging with only moments of frustration (the giant ants, mostly). The difficulty ramps up too quickly on level 2, though. After clearing out the first level I would have thought I'd have a chance against the first enemy of level 2, but I got murdered over and over again. Even with a weak character, the difficulty curve felt much too steep. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation: As the first game in the first CRPG series this deserves to rate highly, but it should also be noted that Dunjonquest in itself was not all that significant or influential in the long term. Temple of Apshai is much better known than the series that it was a part of, and even it didn't provide an obvious influence for a lot of games that came afterwards. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Fun: I enjoyed mapping and exploring this game more than I enjoyed playing it, if that makes sense. The atmosphere and evocative writing is good, but the game itself can be a bit of a slog, full of frequent combats and frequent deaths that necessitate starting back at the dungeon entrance. Rating: 3 out of 7.

I'll give Apshai the bonus point, because I'd like to go back to it some day and try to play it properly. This above scores total 23, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 46. That puts it on a level with Orthanc and pedit5, the earliest top-down mainframe CRPGs, which feels about right. It's not as good as those games mechanically, but it makes up for it with evocative descriptions and atmosphere.


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 adventure games with a category for Puzzles.  For CRPGs I'm using a Combat category.  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 can devolve into attacking repeatedly, but managing your fatigue does give it something of an extra dimension.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2.  Temple of Apshai was a big hit, and the beginning of the first CRPG series.  Even if that series didn't amount to much, Apshai itself remains significant.

That gives Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai a RADNESS Index of 40. That puts it equal 5th overall, and makes it the equal 3rd highest CRPG (tying Orthanc).  A very good showing!

NEXT: It's time for Secret Mission, the third of Scott Adams' text adventures.