Saturday, July 24, 2010

Backtracking: DND (1984), Caverns of Zoarre (1984), and Heathkit DND (1985)

Note from the future: Writing from March 2015, I see several inaccuracies in this quick "backtracking" post. First, the "excellent web site" I mention in a minute actually has numerous inaccuracies, particularly as regards the dates of the games. Second, I say that Daniel Lawrence's DND is "not the same as the PLATO dnd," when in fact I later discovered that they're very much the same game. You can read more about the history of this line in my postings on The Game of Dungeons and Dungeon of Death as well as a full posting on Caverns of Zoarre and DND.

Note from further in the future: And now in April 2016, I've discovered that there is no such game as "Heathkit DND" and that the game given that title is from 1981, not 1985. Read my updated posting. Basically, you just want to skip this posting entirely.

Before I even begin my review of DND, I want to recognize an excellent web site.

The owners of this site have meticulously cataloged each version and outgrowth of DND, including the developer's earliest BASIC code as written on mainframes in the 1970s (unfortunately, by the page's own admission, it's questionable whether you could actually get these to run anywhere). The site has all the playable DOS variations released in the 1980s as well as some modern tributes and remakes, including one--Realms of Quest--made by one of my frequent commenters. More pages like this would make my work a lot easier.

The author of the original DND (which is not the same as the PLATO dnd, perhaps the earliest CRPG) is Daniel Lawrence. I haven't been able to find much about him, but regrettably it appears that he died in Lafayette, Indiana, just last month, at the age of 52.

In Dungeons & Desktops (2008), Matt Barton covers some of the history of the game and its variations. As I said, Lawrence developed the original version in the 1970s and for almost a decade ported it from one computer system to another, leaving various versions in his trail, some of which were picked up and tweaked by other developers. By the time Lawrence decided to commercialize the game, there were any number existing on servers all over the place. In 1982, Avalon Hill published Telengard (the name of one of the dungeons in DND), which I already reviewed. Around the same time, another developer (all of my references call him "Bill" but don't provide a last name; a little sleuthing determines it is William M. Knight, Jr., whose company is still around) modified the source code and created a shareware version called DND through R.O. Software and ended up in a legal conflict with Lawrence and Avalon Hill. Caverns of Zoarre (1984) and Heathkit DND (1985) are also variations of the original DND created by different developers.

DND (1984)

The upside to all of this is that I'm not playing the original DND, but the version created by "Bill," complete with an exhortation to send $25 to R.O. Software in Plano, TX. The version comes with five dungeons, but only two are listed as "ready for exploration."

In the game, you play a single character. You begin by rolling the standard six D&D attributes and choosing from fighter, magician, or cleric classes. You name your character--for some reason, the game also asks you to give a "secret name"--and boom, you're in the text-based dungeon, where you wander around, fight monsters (only two options: attack and evade), collect treasures, find random encounters like teleporters and thrones, gain experience, and--quite often--die. Almost everything I wrote previously about Telengard is true of this game, only with more primitive graphics. It's still slightly addictive, but not enough for me to linger. I got my character up to level 3 and was reasonably rich when I died for the last time.

Caverns of Zoarre (1984)

Caverns of Zoarre was developed by a Thomas Hanlin III of Springfield, Virginia. (This is getting eerie; I have friends in both Plano and Springfield.) He wants $25 for the instructions to the game, but I largely figured them out for myself. After rolling random stats (no wisdom), you choose from a fighter or sorcerer, decide whether you want a "freen" (yeah, no idea) and head into the eponymous caverns. As in DND, as you wander you enjoy random encounters (although less often) with monsters and treasures. The graphics are a little more advanced, at least in terms of your own character and the walls, but there are no graphics for monsters and other encounters. As with DND and Telengard, it's pretty tough to survive for very long.

Except for the freen--clue me in, someone, please--and the presence of "uruk-hai" and "ugluk-hai" monsters, there's nothing terribly original here. [Later edit: Again, please check out my updated post on this game, including a winning screen shot.]

Heathkit DND (1985)

That's what MobyGames calls the game, anyway. As far as I can tell from the splash screen, it's just "DND," although set in the "Heathkit Dungeon." I have no idea who developed it; there are no clues in the accompanying readme file or online.

The game adds color graphics and, like Telengard, forces you to play in real time, so if you're trying to write a blog entry at the same time, you keep getting attacked and dying.

The game also adds a quest. The objective, the manual says, "is to find the Lord Master of the Heathkit Dungeon" who is located in some kind of vault. You discover the combination to the vault piece by piece as you progress through the game. You can save your character in this one--death is not completely permanent.

Beyond that, the gameplay is again remarkably similar to Telengard in the nature of foes you encounter, objects you find, and commands to navigate around. It even has altars that call you "pagan trash" if you gyp them with too little gold! As the first game with an actual "main quest" since I started backtracking, I'm tempted to try to finish it...but I'm more anxious to get caught up to where I was before I discovered the existence of these extra games.

So that's my whirlwind review of the DND "franchise." In many ways, this has validated my original (albeit unknowing) exclusion of these games. I had already played their best exemplar in Telengard. They're not bad, exactly, but Caverns of Zoarre came out a year after Ultima III, and Heathkit DND is the same year as The Bard's Tale. The age of viable shareware and freeware CRPGs was coming to a swift (but temporary) end.


Further reading: Posts on the entire DND line: The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1975); The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975); Dungeon of Death (1979); Telengard (1982); Caverns of Zoarre (1984); DND (1984); and the Heathkit DND (1985).


  1. I didn't realize that Daniel Lawrence had died. That is too bad. I first learned about him from, and remember him most for, my favorite childhoold CRPG: Telengard. I have a website which has scanned instructions for Telengard, and back in April of this year Mr. Lawrence emailed me asking about it. It was fun to talk Telengard with actual creator! He will be missed, and the world lost a truly talented hacker / game creator.

  2. I remember playing DND very clearly- what a fun game. Just about anything free or shareware, I got my hands on, while wishing I could play the ones that cost money. It only really sank in a few years ago that I'm now able to go back and try all the games I wished I could try as a kid.

  3. Spell check man, spell check.

  4. Thanks for the shout out. I started on Realms of Quest IV a few months ago (this time for the Commodore 64 instead for the VIC-20--I upgraded, ha!). However, this year has been marked by personal family crises and I just don't nearly have as much free time as I did last year when I was working on Realms III.

    I wrote to the owner of the catalogged DND site about 10 years ago when I wanted to promote Realms I from my personal VIC-20 page. I did make the game in 1991 (with minor touch-ups in 1992), which is six years after the VIC-20's production was discontinued. It was a Telengard/DND-like game (the main objective is to collect 4 pieces of a magic amulet and then kill the wizard at the bottom of the dungeon).

    Realms II was made in '04 (again for the VIC-20) as part of an 8-bit "mini" game retro programming contest. It actually surpasses the original even though it fits tightly in 3.5K of RAM. I use algorithms to produce mazes and the Ultima-style map whereas the first game only had a single maze and they were stored on disk. I finished in 11th place in the contest. I re-did the game in '06 for that year's contest (where I improved it quite a bit) and it finished in 2nd place.

    I started Realms III in February '09 last year on a whim, but then it turned into an obsession (I spent 8 months working 4 hours a day). I decided then to use a fully-souped up VIC-20 (basically 32K RAM expansion) as the system requirement. Instead of DND/Telengard-style gameplay with a single character, the game let you have a party of 6 characters. There were 8 races and 8 classes (theme of 8, because this was an 8-bit computer for the lookup tables--ha!), 70 monsters, 8 dungeons (theme of 8 again), 40 spells, 1 final dungeon (where you needed to fetch 8 orbs of power from the other dungeons) where you kill off the evil wizard who has miraculously resurrected himself 1000 years later (as prophesied in the game's manual and the intro screen--a bit of retcon) after he was killed off
    in Realms I. Even when you "solve" Realms III, the game resets itself and you must kill off his son, an unholy being spawned from the wizard and his demon bride. From this, one can deduce that I glean influences and make tribute to Phantasie (multiple races, main villain getting resurrected), Ultima III (spawn of villain + bride) and other classic RPGs. It's basically Wizardry with an Ultima-style map. You can see a video demonstration of it here:

    (yes it is a 'commercial' release for the VIC-20... specializes in releasing games for 8-bit computers. They are able to produce very nice looking packages and get word out to video games magazines as well about their releases).

    I think that old-style DND/Telengard games are a great way for would-be RPG games programmers to use as exercises when starting out. Having only one character makes it fairly simple to build your RPG-making chops for bigger and greater things.

  5. Just stumbled across this. I know it's an old article, but interesting to read about. I played Caverns of Zoarre when I was probably 8 or 9 and after who knows how long, mapping out the entire dungeon on graph paper and everything, I actually beat the game! You find some random treasure down at the bottom somewhere and all you have to do is bring it back out. But it's tough.
    As for the freen, I think it was some sort of creature that attaches itself to you, and the effect is that it will absorb any poison you may get from an attack. I think they can die off and then you can call a new one that will come attach itself again. Very odd.

  6. So bummed about his death. DND was the only game I had for my Tandy 1000 besides morrafs revenge back in the early 90's. What a loss.

  7. I'm surprised you didn't find this, but Dan Lawrence had a website:

    Also note that the Digital Eel site you linked is a skeleton copy of the original Dan Lawrence DND tribute site that existed on and mirrored at

    Unfortunately, they copied the page from the Wayback Machine and none of the program files linked exist anymore. A horrible loss.

  8. The term "gyp" is a somewhat racist term in the context you used in your article, it is practically the same thing as writing "It even has altars that call you "pagan trash" if you jew them with too little gold!"

    I by no means am accusing you of being racist, I never knew this until a friend of mine who comes from a family of Gypsies pointed it out to me so whenever I see people use it in this context I point it out to them too.

  9. Cool, I came looking for Caverns of Zoarre info. Good to hear the game is beatable and what a freen is! I wish we could track down the instructions; I wonder if anyone paid for them ever? The interview with Thomas Hanlan,III floating around was fun, but basically he said he'd lost everything Zoarre-related along the way.

    Hm, interesting about 'gyp'. Do such words ever lose their history and become common unoffensive words? Makes me wonder how many words and country names were offensive Roman slurs, now just commonly used! :)

    1. In that case, I'm sorry I didn't write more about it. It probably deserved more than a paragraph, but I was trying to rush through a bunch of games that I didn't realized I'd missed on my initial pass.

      "Gyp": The liberal in me doesn't want to offend anyone on the basis of stereotypes. The writer in me doesn't want to lose some fun metaphorical terms like "Irish courage," "Scottish kiss," "French leave," and "Canadian tuxedo."

      My general feeling is that if the group in question is truly marginalized, discriminated against, or oppressed, then any stereotype-based term is wrong. "Gyp" falls into that category, and I shouldn't have used it.

    2. What on earth is a "Canadian tuxedo."? I've never heard that term, and this promises to be amusing.


    4. Googling stuff like that is risky. For example, I wouldn't want to google srypuvat for example, as you gt images poping up. Canadian Tuxedo certainly sounds like it could be something along those lines.

  10. Thanks for the blog!

    I ended up writing a map viewer for this game since I didn't have quite the patience to do it all by hand!

    1. The link has changed:

  11. I'm enjoying a few days with DND. Whenever I run across an altar, I routinely donate 100% of my gold. On one such occasion, I was blessed with the timestop spell. It lasted forever, only quitting when I was accidentally teleported out of the dungeon. By then I was 7th level.

    One nice feature I've noticed: if I find an armor or weapon that's inferior to what I'm already wielding, it doesn't bother me with the bookkeeping. It always uses the best that I've found. This works because you're not stumping equipment out of the dungeon to sell in a shop.

    At this point I've mapped the first two 20x20 levels, with a few unplanned excursions deeper thanks to the pits.

    All told, it's a nice little game that's quite similar to a roguelike, although with quite a bit less complexity than, say, Nethack.

    I would never have heard of these without your articles.

    Thanks for taking the time to go back and review these earliest examples of the genre!


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