Thursday, December 29, 2011

Game 68: The Dungeon/PEDIT5 (1975)

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:


For further reading: I continue my adventures in the PLATO series with The Game of Dungeons, Orthanc, Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar.

For a fuller account of this game, check out Nathan Mahney's posts on "CRPG Adventures," where he manages to win the game in only 2 days--and provide the only complete map of the dungeon online!


  1. "Mersad," "Caer Omn," and "Ramething" are anagrams of, respectively, "Dreams," "Romance," and "Nightmare." They might be a reference to the book Something about Eve by James Branch in which there is a magic "Mirror of Caer Omn" that is found in the "land of Dersam." Cabell is referenced in some of the recommended reading lists for D&D, although those reading lists postdate this game.

  2. Thanks, Welcome. That seems like a dumb thing for me to have overlooked!

  3. I hardly think it's dumb. Anagrams aren't that obvious especially when you already have an 'alternate theory' for the names. I don't think I would have caught it if I hadn't thought of the mirror from the Cabell book (which is full of anagrams.)

  4. Pretty impressive graphics for 1975!

  5. HE DID A NON-DOS GAME! Get him! Make him play all CRPGs EVER! Bwahahahahaha. *Chases after the CRPG Addict waving a Gameboy Advance with Dragon Warrior I & II in it, the first console RPG of note*

  6. It's very educational and fun reading about these early games. Thanks for taking the time to review them.

  7. This game is a sensible adaption of the 0edition d&d ruleset (a cryptic three booklets if there ever were such).

    1 in 6 for spotting secret doors unless you're a dwarf is as old a rule as any.

    Combat is fascinating because early era d&d did not resolve combat in succession of turns like we're used in crpgs today. Early d&d resolved ranged attacks & spells, and then a melee phase simultaneously. You declared what your character wanted to do at the preemptive phase and the dungeon master selected what his dudes would do and then the actions were resolved by phase. There are many variations of rules about initiative, as 0D&D was very vague. PEDIT is trying to simulate simultaneous melee, it seems to me. You can trace that version of the ruleset even in Rogue, where you and your enemies take turns simultaneously.

    Gold and treasure counting for XP is also an ancient d&d trope.

    I am very impressed with this game, thank you for playing it. I even like its iconic graphics.

  8. for more on this subject

  9. Totally agree with Helm. It's so interesting to me that this is so close to the OD&D rules released one year earlier. It being the first RPG, and everybody with programming skills immediately trying to figure out how to adapt it to computer.

    Without shops to buy more powerful gear, I think the main motivation to collect treasure was to up your experience points back in the day. Same thing in The Dungeon/PEDIT5.

    Also interesting, that the OD&D character classes are combined into one character. Instead of having multiple people playing around a table, you had to combine those functions if you had a single-player computer game. And of course, soon after, programmers were designing multiplayer games that took advantage of early networks, to further simulate the tabletop experience and have people specialize into discrete classes.

    It would be a process before CRPGs went beyond trying to simulate as much as possible the tabletop experience to establishing new conventions of their own that took advantage of the medium, to create single-player games designed for the mass market. It seems that Akalabeth became the first commercially successful CRPG because it started to do that.

  10. "Make him play all CRPGs EVER!"

    I think it's pretty cool that the crpg addict will make the occasional exception for key non-DOS rpg games. pedit5 is quite legendary in the history of the genre so it's quite fitting that he give his impressions of it.

  11. I don't see a problem with doing all RPGs regardless of platform. The challenge would be to find programs that would run the games on those specific platforms. Sidetracking would of course push back discussions and commentary, but CRPGAddict has missed some good games with the PC only rule.

  12. Given how little he seems to like console RPGs, that would only lead to:

    *bad review*
    *200-page insulting comment thread*

  13. I WAS JOKING! JOKINGGGGGG! I am sorry for bringing this up again!

  14. In 2012, I am going to surprise you by going back and picking up some of the non-DOS classics. I'm not promising to play every one, but I'm eager to fill in the gaps.

  15. Helm and ronaldsf, thanks for the info on OD&D. I'm going to read that entire page when I get a chance.

  16. I managed to evade death long enough, when I was playing a few years ago, and am one of those on the Hall of Fame shot you have there. Treasure, luck, and a liberal use of "Sleep" early on are key. If I remember correctly, the newest inductee is always on top of the list, and the ending was nothing noteworthy... just a forced retirement. I also managed to get the orb in dnd (starts out hard, but gets super easy after a while). Okay, I am done gloating.

    The PLATO CRPG that I try my hand out every few months or so and still has me pulling out my hair is orthanc. Things will always seem to be going well, smashing my way through monsters with ease, and along comes a monster which I've already easily killed dozens of times before to return the favor. Super conservative play seems to be a must at all times. Orthanc does have auto-mapping, however, so it is worth a look just for that.

    1. Congratulations on your wins. I probably should have given these early games a little longer. Orthanc is on my short list for when I finally clear out some of these 1988/89 games.

  17. Hello Chet,
    today I am win the PEDIT5 dungeon ;-)
    Finally, you can see my "Congratulations" screenshots, and let's play odyssey on my website
    Sorry for non english version, but I add the google translator drop-down menu at the top of the article...


    1. WOW, DJ!! That's a heck of an achievement! I translated your entry and read it. It sounds like the keys to success were persistence, using spells a lot, and getting lucky with some of your treasure finds. It also sounds like after you get over a certain hump, it doesn't take that long to get to the end.

      Even with the poor quality of Google translation, I understood enough to make your entry interesting. I'm going to do a quick feature on my front page.

    2. Thank you,
      you are right, the keys to succes was the "Sleep" spell and LOT of luck with finding treasures (jewelry).

      Nice feature this "Breaking News" top bar. It's an honor for me...

  18. --"Since there are no safe havens"--

    If a haven is not safe, is it still a haven? ;)

  19. It looks like Telengard borrowed a lot from this. The layout and gameplay look very alike.Though Telengard didn't have a high score list (which would have been a good idea), or secret doors.

    This is a really impressive effort for the mid-70's. I don't think even Space Invaders pre-dates this. If this game had been written on a more widely distributed platform, it could have made someone a LOT of money.

    1. Indeed. Check out my latest post on DND (1984). This game inspired Daniel Lawrence's mainframe DNDs (which we no longer have), which in turn led to the commercial Telengard and a handful of shareware adaptations.

    2. I'm getting there. :)

      I'm going in chronological order and I'm on 1980 now, though I couldn't resist looking ahead to see what you thought of Treasure of Tarmin. I had thought you were harsh on it, but when I see titles like this which came out 7 years earlier, I see that you were probably pretty fair.

      Gotta say this is a great site. I've been killing a lot of time here over the past few days, and I'm staggered to realize how much I didn't know about the beginnings of CRPGS, and how few of them overall I've played. I had thought I was pretty knowledgeable. Keep up the good work.

  20. Ars has a feature article on PLATO with info on this and more games

  21. Heyo, millennial student of history here excited to find your blog. Have a similarly overambitious game list I built 5 years ago, but not even limited by genre...that I've only made minimal progress on so far out of being otherwise industrious. It's far beyond the scope of a single lifetime :(

    Anyway, I managed to best ol' pedit5 here and am glad to see I'm not the first commenter to do so. To add to what they said and further complete the information here:

    1) The player character is basically glass and completely vulnerable without magic. I always beeline for the exit after a single enemy encounter, and sometimes without even facing a single enemy when relying on enduring effects that are running out (Speed and Protection).

    2) It took me a LONG time to realize you can reroll characters by simply executing "Back" instead of starting the game, exiting the dungeon, and restarting pedit5.

    3) It's probably only worth considering playing a character that has a Strength of 17 or 18.

    4) Even later in the game, the vast majority of combat relies on casting Sleep on non-undead enemies under Level 5. Everything else is risky. A Level 6 Dragon can ruin any run, no matter how well played. Yes, a character with 25 hitpoints and a +2 magic sword will most likely defeat a Level 5 enemy straight up, but it's just an unnecessary risk that should ideally be avoided. Everything else is just maximizing the chances for survival on unfortunate un-Sleepable encounters.

    5) Not sure if it's just me, but some spells don't seem to work? Light, ESP, Invisibility, Detect Evil, and Continual Light. I can't seem to activate them whether I'm in a Room, in a Corridor, or just encountered an enemy. Curiously, all of the aforementioned spells also have an asterisk by their name. Perhaps they hadn't been coded yet, were disabled due to malfunction, or I'm just a total idiot and missed something? They're all out of combat enemy detection buffs. The in-game Help states that they help prevent you from getting "surprised" by enemies, although it's very unclear what exactly that means.

    6) The only out of combat buff spells that seem to work are Speed and Protection, both of which I always have on once I gain access to the spell charges. Speed's very good in that by doubling your action rate, it also doubles the duration of Protection. I see the two spells as incremental probability of survival padders in the event of encountering an un-Sleepable enemy.

    7) As of the time of writing, the only complete map I've found online has been on the CRPG Adventures blog.

    8) I probably had explored about 85% of the dungeon when I eclipsed the 20k experience, and the game ended upon my exit.

    Anyway, none of this probably means anything to you right now, but thought I'd leave this here so that maybe the 5 people per year who might play this game find some more data!

    1. I really appreciate all this additional detail. I spent so little time with the game and uncovered so few of its quirks. Thanks to you and Nathan (of CRPG Adventures), we have a much more complete picture of how the game works.

    2. Thanks for the reply! Glad to contribute. I was going to comment on his blog as well, but it's too much commitment for me rn to create a blogging account and he doesn't have Anonymous enabled like you do :/


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