|Unfortunately, not the original welcome screen. But probably close.|
Here I am, nearly two years after starting this blog, doing what I should have done in the beginning: playing the first CRPG, regardless of platform. The Dungeon was written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It is also known as PEDIT5 because of its original file name, kept generic (the prefix belonged to the Population and Energy group) to avoid signaling that it was a game.
In 2008, Mr. Rutherford described the history of the game in an e-mail sent to Matt Barton and published at Armchair Arcade. In it, he confirms the year as 1975 (in my previous posting, I thought it might have been 1974) and notes that dnd (of which you'll hear more about soon) was already in development. The game features single-character gameplay in a fixed 40-50-room dungeon with random encounters. The character is a generic fighter/magic-user/cleric based on the conventions of Dungeons & Dragons, which had been released the previous year.
We don't know, of course, whether PEDIT5 was the "first" CRPG. For all we know, there were hundreds of such efforts around the world after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, some only half-completed, some only played by the author and his friends. Lore tells of one named m199h that predates PEDIT5 and was lost. What we can say is that PEDIT5 was probably the first CRPG that is widely played, and it is the earliest CRPG that we can still play now.
|The manual documents the game thoroughly.|
I'm playing it thanks to the folks at Cyber1, who have resurrected the PLATO system and have been collecting its original programs (or "lessons," as PLATO was an educational tool). The manual sets the game in the year 666 in a dungeon called Ramething, beneath a castle of the same name in the town of Mersad ("ambush" in Persian) in the country of Caer Omn (as far as I can tell, "Caer Omn" and "Ramething" are original). You play a "brave young fighter" heading into the dungeon to collect treasure, with the ultimate goal of amassing 20,000 experience points before fleeing the dungeon.
|No re-rolling! These early games were brutal.|
The game begins by rolling you four attributes: strength, intelligence, constitution, and dexterity. You also get a random roll for hit points. Presumably, Rutherford couldn't think of a meaningful way to program in wisdom or charisma. After giving your character your name, you're dumped into the dungeon at the entrance. Since there are no safe havens, there's no reason not to just head out and go exploring.
|Casting a spell in combat. Unfortunately, the "Level 5 Man" defeated me.|
Navigation is with the arrow keys and the "b" key to "bash" doors (which has a chance of failing). There are even secret doors, which the manual says you have a 1/6 chance of detecting each time you pass.
|The first CRPG is also the first CRPG with secret doors.|
Although there are 16 spells in the game (8 mage and 8 cleric, divided into two levels each), you start with only one mage spell. The spells are similar to D&D (sleep, magic missile, cure, hold person, etc.) but with some odd rules influenced by programming limitations. There are no "saving throws," for instance: sleep always works (but not on undead); invisibility just allows you to flee; and charm causes monsters to instantly kill themselves.
|A "sleep" spell allows you to effect a satisfying coup-de-grace [dammit, I can't figure out how to make a circumflex in Blogger].|
I'm not sure how the game decides which of its 25 monsters (represented by 5 icons) to throw at you. My first encounters, near the entrance, were generally with level 1 rats and kobolds. As I explored, however, I invariably encountered something like a level 5 wight well before I was prepared to deal with it. I never found a dragon.
|it was too soon for undead.|
The initial attribute roll is enormously important in determining success. None of my characters who got less than a 10 in strength or dexterity survived their first combats. The manual notes that "when you and a monster have combat, you take alternating swings at each other until one is dead." In practice, the game told me that I either defeated the monster or was killed instantly. I don't know if this is because, at my level, the combats took only one round, or if the game just runs all the rounds quickly, in sequence, and tells you the result.
|The usual result.|
You can achieve up to 5 character levels in the game, although you get access to more spells in between levels. You can also improve by finding a sword +1 or a sword +2. Each monster has a certain number of hit points and is worth a certain number of experience points depending on its level. Level 1 kobolds have 1-3 hit points and are worth 10 experience points, while the toughest creature in the game--dragons--have 6-36 hit points and are worth 840 experience points. With the goal to get to 20,000 experience (though this also includes treasure you find), it takes an awful lot of combat.
|Why wouldn't you take it?!|
I'd like to be able to say that I played it all the way to 20,000 experience points and "won" the first CRPG, but after I fielded about 25 characters, all of them dying within the first 6 combats, none of them achieving more than 250 experience points, I realized it would take far too long. Some people did it, though: the "Hall of Fame" lists at least 10 players who got more than 20,000 experience; the highest is someone named just "Bob." I'm not sure if this is some original file that reflects players from the 1970s, or if it just shows recent players with Cyber1 accounts. RPGCodex user Elzair (who sometimes comments in my blog) did a "let's play" almost three years ago and had similar ill luck; his posting on it is worth reading if you want more screenshots and rage faces. I Googled a bit, but I was unable to find a testimonial or screenshots from anyone who won the game. I suspect that it doesn't really acknowledge the "win" or do anything special, and that you just have to smile in satisfaction at your high score in the Hall of Fame.
|Some day I shall sit around a campfire and tell my sons the epic tale of "the goose."|
I'm actually quite impressed. I would have forgiven the first CRPG for being really basic and dumb: perhaps a text-only game in which you managed some basic attributes against some random encounters. (In fact, I've played this game; it was called Braminar, and it came out 12 years after PEDIT5.) Instead, we get a fairly large dungeon, a solid set of attributes, challenging random encounters, 8 spells, monsters with resistances based on type, and graphics that the DOS platform won't surpass until Ultima III. It's a bit too hard, of course, but hell, when it was the only CRPG in existence, a little challenge--and the ability to rate your score against your friends'--was the whole point. For my money, this is at least as good a game as Akalabeth, one of the first commercial CRPGs, which had fewer monsters and encounters, fewer spells, and less sensible character progression. Obviously, I don't recommend playing it now, except as an archaeological exercise; any roguelike will give you a similar challenge with a better gameplay experience.
The manual has an optimistic "future improvements" section, including a multi-level dungeon, that never got implemented because Rutherford left the Population & Energy group in 1976. But Resch, Kemp, Hagstrom, and Nakada incorporated the suggested developments into Orthanc, which I will play anon. My next PLATO-related posting, however, will be on dnd, and I'll talk a bit about the information I picked up from one of its developers, Dirk Pellett.
If you're waiting for an update on Wizardry V, I'm still playing, but having trouble assembling enough interesting material for a blog entry. I'll post something this weekend on it no matter where I am. In the meantime, here are some final words from The Dungeon/PEDIT 5: