Thursday, February 7, 2013

Game 86: Dungeon of Death (1979)

This is the best you get for a main screen.

Every few weeks, Irene has some kind of computer glitch that causes me to run Malwarebytes on her laptop and clean off a dozen viruses, unwanted toolbars, and other bits of malware. Meanwhile, I'm downloading .rar files from suspicious-looking Eastern European web sites, and I manage to stay clean. I have no idea what she clicks on.

It was deep in the recesses of one of these sites that I managed to find a copy of Dungeon of Death, the second of two games released solely for the Commodore PET. MobyGames said that it was a version of DND, and they're right. Specifically, it's an inferior version. It's not any mystery why this platform doesn't cause a lot of hearts to glow with nostalgia.

The history of DND is a bit confusing, and there's a lot of conflicting information floating about the web. The best I can piece together from various sites, Barton's Dungeons and Desktops, and my own experience playing the games is as follows:

The original dnd (called The Game of Dungeons on its title screen) was programmed for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign back in 1975 by a team of students led by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood. I reviewed it almost a year ago. As one of the first handful of CRPGs, it was reasonably advanced for its time. At some point, Purdue University student Daniel Lawrence was exposed to it, took the game's code, added his own innovations, and reprogrammed it for the TOPS-10 operating system on the DEC mainframe at Purdue. After he graduated, Lawrence saw commercial potential in the game and reprogrammed it as Telengard (1982; also available for the PET). But by then, dozens of variants had been floating around and traded as freeware. A version called DND showed up for DOS in 1984, another called Caverns of Zoarre in 1984, and Heathkit DND in 1985 (I reviewed them all in one early posting). There's a bunch more listed on a site called "The Unofficial DND Home Page," but be careful: much of the history given on this page is suspect (for one thing, they have Dungeon of Death as a 1982 game).

Analogous screenshots from the original PLATO dnd (top), Dungeon of Death (second), Telengard (third), and Heathkit DND (bottom)

Today, it's tough to see what made this line of games so popular, but the simple fact is that at the time, there wasn't much else available. We've seen how primitive games like Beneath Apple Manor, Dungeon Campaign, and Dungeon could be. The DND line, by contrast, featured:

  • Characters with multiple attributes, including experience and levels
  • Randomly-placed treasures and encounters within a randomly-generated dungeons
  • A selection of spells
  • Fun random non-combat encounters, such as chests, pits, teleporters, altars, fountains, and thrones

It would take some time before other games--Wizardry, the Ultima series, Rogue--caught up to this level of sophistication. Until they did, DND was the best example anyone had of Dungeons & Dragons-style attributes, combats, and treasure, and it makes sense that the game was so thoroughly copied and traded.  

Dungeon of Death is one of the earliest dnd variants, developed independently by C. Gordon Walton after he had a chance to play the PLATO dnd. It is also thus one of the few extant games in the dnd line that didn't come from a Daniel Lawrence version.

The objective of Dungeon of Death is to descend to the twelfth level of a dungeon and recover the Holy Grail from the lair of Smaug the Dragon (sigh). As you travel, you find random piles of gold, potions, chests, and of course random encounters with the game's monsters, which include vampires, dragons, rust monsters, balrogs, rock trolls, black wizards, "evil men," ringwraiths, demons, and Death himself.

Facing a rock troll with no sword but some other advantages.

Combat consists of  choosing to fight, evade, cast a spell, drop all your gold and run, or surrender. If you fight or cast a spell, the game simply informs you whether you won or lost; you don't see the underlying calculations or rolls. Losing doesn't necessarily mean dying, although it usually leaves you fairly close to death. When you "win," you generally take no loss of hit points (labeled "power").

Chester staggers about blind, with no sword. He will not last much longer.
 
The port illustrates the limitations of the Commodore PET platform. It's hard to imagine an uglier and cruder version of the game. As you can see, the "map" on which you move the characters is miniscule, and the "graphics" are hardly deserving of the term. (There is no sound.) In contrast to some of the variants that randomly generated their dungeons, Dungeon of Death uses a fixed dungeon layout. The encounters are random as you move around the dungeon--indeed, you can just go back and forth between two squares and keep finding monsters and gold--but to progress, you need to find a notch in the outer wall that leads to a set of stairs.

Chester contemplates going to Level 3 (stairs in the notch to the south).

The version I was able to find also has fixed character attributes. You always start the game as an elf and always have the same strength, agility, and wisdom scores. The manual, however, shows different characters with different scores, so I don't really know how these are set or altered.

Oddly, the early encounters (at least in the version I downloaded) are also fixed. No matter which way you step from the beginning, you find 38 gold. On your second step, you always find 65 more gold and encounter a vampire. The third step always brings another 57 gold an an "evil man." Only after that does some level of randomness appear.

Encountering a chest.

Other things about the game seem buggy. "Evade" hardly ever works. My gold level rolled over on me a couple of times to 0, and with one character froze at 13,974, never increasing no matter how much I found.

There are some small innovations with the encounters and combats. For instance:

  • Chests can be trapped with explosions, blindness, or curses, or can contain shields, armor, magic maces (why maces in particular, I don't know), cubes of power, or lucky rings.
  • Found potions include the usual poison and strength, but also an "astral form" potion that strips you of your items (including weapons) but greatly increases your spell power; a "spell storing" potion that gives you unlimited maximum magic spells; and a "polymorph" potion that changes you into a different character.
  • Monsters have some special attacks, strengths, and weaknesses. Particularly annoying are Rust Monsters, which destroy your armor and weapons.
  • Monsters have various resistances to different spells. The manual includes a table that gives the figures. Vampires are vulnerable to "fireball" but resist "sleep"; Rock Trolls are easily "charmed." Unfortunately, you start out with only three spells and only gain them back when you go up and down stairs, so you have to be very conservative with them.

About to Dispel Death.

After I played the game for a few hours, a pattern became clear. You encounter the same monsters on every level, but they get harder (they "level up") as you descend. The monsters don't really seem to vary in difficulty by type; a balrog is the same as an "evil man." At the outset of the game, you have a slight advantage over monsters on Level 1, and if you can find a suit of armor, a magic mace, or some other bonus, you'll reliably win against them every time. To succeed at higher levels, you need either more bonuses or higher character levels. Repeat all the way down to Level 12 and the Holy Grail. You need to save spells for Rust Monsters or they'll destroy your sword and armor.

Unfortunately, it would take unimaginable hours playing to get all the way down to that level. After more than 70 combats at an average of 10 experience points each, I still hadn't made character level 2 when I decided to give up. I would have liked to win it--and to be perhaps the only player online to have done so--but I didn't want to invest the hours.


Dungeon of Death was published by Instant Software of Peterborough, New Hampshire, which is about as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get. The developers are given on MobyGames as C. Gordon Walton and John Polasek, but the name "Wayne Green" appears in the manual. Instant Software is credited with only one other game--1978's Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio, a strategy game that you really have to read to understand. In a comment below, Walton says that he was inspired by the PLATO dnd but didn't have the source code to work from, so he ended up programming it fro scratch for this platform.

C. Gordon Walton achieved legitimate fame in gaming circles in the following decades. As an Electronic Arts and Bioware executive, he appears on the credits of 21 games after Dungeon of Death, including Ultima IX, Star Wars: Galaxies, Mass Effect, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. His entry on Wikipedia indicates that "he played his first computer game in 1977 on the PLATO system," which essentially solves the mystery: I'd bet the rest of my hair that that game was dnd. I've been trying to contact him to verify, but no luck yet.


I am not in any way sad to be finishing the last of the two Commodore PET games. Based on my experience with it, I don't understand how Commodore remained viable in the age of the Apple II. But I'm glad I played it: there's hardly any information online about Dungeon of Death, and I like when my blog can fill in gaps like this.

Later edit: It's hard to tell because Blogger mangled the user name, but developer Gordon Walton commented below. I made some edits based on his comments.

*****

Further reading: Posts on the entire DND line: The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1975); The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975); Telengard (1982); Caverns of Zoarre (1984); DND (1984); and the Heathkit DND (1985). For a discussion of Lawrence and plagiarism, see this account by one of The Game of Dungeons's original authors.

57 comments:

  1. As others have said before, these archaelogical entries are very welcome. I find myself really enjoying reading about these uber-retro titles.

    The sentence "After I played the game for a few hours [...]" express how seriously you are reviewing this paleogames. Alas, I don't think I could play more than five minutes...

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    1. Glad you like them. To be fair, I was watching Mad Men while I played.

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    2. Good! I was fearing for your sanity...

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    3. Seconded! I don't know why, but I find it particularly interesting to read about how the early games came about, what they were like, the people involved, what the computers were like (as they're so foreign to what I've always known) and so forth. Maybe it's just me, but there's something almost awe-inspiring about the idea of being among the first to meld creativity with technology in a particular way and be driven enough to truly succeed.

      (I'm catching up on your posts after being tied up for a while, but a tad out-of-it/rambly as the reason I have the time is that I have the bleeping flu.)

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  2. That anyone would want to play this while in the middle of a game of Chaos Strikes Back is mind boggling, baffling and almost offensive...

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    1. BAH...not a fan of DM style games. Seems more like a puzzle adventure game than an RPG.

      NEED MOHR NETHACK :D

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    2. CSB is a production. I need my widescreen monitor attached to my laptop to play it properly, so I can have the game, my map, my notes, my spell list, and a blank blog posting all open and visible at once. I certainly can't play it on my laptop without an attached mouse--the trackpad doesn't suffice for a mouse-driven game.

      Hence, if I go on the road for a few days (like this week), I need something simpler to pass the time.

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    3. Heh, I forgot just how addicted you are to CRPGs.

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  3. I enjoy this a great deal. I used to play some of these hoary things and its nice to see them get their due. Electrronic Arts used to put out Archon/Adpet - excellent takes on chess for the atari 800XL.

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    1. Man i used to play the heck out of Archon on my C64. Still remember how fast the unicorn was, and the little beaver thing and golumns that lobbed the stones. Good times.

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    2. Archon is available for the iPhone.

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  4. Again, thank you. This is a service.

    As to what Irene seems to be clicking on, it's usually adult content that is so riddled with malware. You might have to have a talk with Irene and the results could end up being positive in many areas, computer safety being the least important of them.

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    1. I read recently that adult sites are actually relatively safe (they want your money, and they won't get it if the site is blocked by the browser's security check service), but celebrity news sites are the real danger - easy to reel people in promising something naughty about a celebrity, you'll often get non-computer-savvy people, and then all you need to do is get them to download some virus laden celebrity photo thing.

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    2. sykobee: Not true at all. I've hauled more malware off computers from clicking popup infested adult sites....

      Basically, it is really easy to grab a bunch of adult photos, put together a website, then buy some popups on other websites. Suddenly you can install a bunch of keyloggers, steal credit cards like mad, and make a lot of money.

      There are high quality adult websites that make a lot of money selling content. There are even more that throw up a page in an afternoon to get money less legal ways, and probably a wide range in between them.

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    3. Let me tell ya. My personal system at home never gets anything.

      Now my mife and kids.....all they look at is kids java games and celebrity news...CESSPOOL there.

      -Chris

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    4. I think a simple correlation between the quantity of malware and those most likely to get it (mothers and grandmothers) suggests that it's not pornography that delivers it. Or there's an alternative I don't want to be thinking about.

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    5. Addict; it is *far* from the only vector. Free Screen savers, bonzi buddy, deal of the day sites, popups....

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    6. Symantec actually released a report a little over a year ago saying that the most dangerous sites are now actually religious/ideological, like churches -- they're three times more likely to infect visitors than porn sites. They don't install the malware themselves; the problem is that they tend to rely on amateur/volunteer webmasters that have no clue about Internet security.

      Irene might fare better in a user-friendly version of Linux, given it takes real effort to infect and can install alongside Windows. My favorite is Simply Mepis (mepis.org), which has the nicest community anywhere; you/she can try it without affecting the computer by burning the CD image to disc & booting from it.

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    7. I caught a virus last night for the first time in 5 or 10 years. The culprit? I got a new version of TortoiseSVN, a critical tool for my work. Their site had an ad with an obvious "Download Now" button that I mistook for the real Tortoise download. It took me over two hours to completely clean up the resulting mess using ComboFix.

      Anyway, my point is that I got infected from a normally completely legitimate site that hadn't vetted their ads properly. Trojans and malware frequently disguise themselves as antivirus software, download managers, computer performance boosters, and other productivity software.

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    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    9. Sheesh, good call Corey. I use TortoiseSVN for work as well and I'll keep an eye out when updating.

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    10. A good solution to limit your exposure to malware, that anyone with ads on their website will hate, is to install an ad-blocker, since a large portion of malware on the Internet is disguised in the form of ads.

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  5. I'm surprised you managed to find this game; I imagine the website was either Russian or Ukrainian. On a related note, I've found it strange how some people manage to get tons of malware from seemingly benign Internet activities, while I've hardly ever had trouble with malware despite the fact I trawl the Internet far and wide in search of obscure things.

    Also... The objective of Dungeon of Death is to descend to the twelfth level of a dungeon and recover the Holy Grail from the lair of Smaug the Drgon. Tolkien AND Monty Python? That's so epic, haha!

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    1. The Holy Grail is NOT a Monty Python reference. It's a Chretien de Troyes reference, or a Wolfram von Eschenbach reference, or a Robert de Boron reference, or a Sir Thomas Malory reference. Or Tennyson. Or T.H. White. Monty Python made an obscenity out of it.

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    2. Well I'd say that's going too far, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a hilarious and well-made response to King Arthur legends.

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    3. It was meant to be a joke related to a comment by Andy_Panthro, who suggested you'll encounter plenty of Monty Python references in the future. Nothing more. I understand you hate Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but you came across as being pedantic, though I don't think that was your intention.

      Regardless of that, considering this game was made just a few years after the successful Monty Python film, I don't think it's a stretch to assume the idea of an outrageous quest for the Holy Grail came from or was included because of that film.

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    4. Personally one of the things I enjoy about Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the fun it has with the traditional romance material. Terry Jones knows his stuff pretty well in this area - see his book on Chaucer's Knight, for instance - and the film contains a lot of sly references to Chretien, von Eschenbach and the other sources for the Arthurian romance tradition. I know I'm not going to convince you to like it, though!

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    5. I loved Spamalot (a play production of the Monty Python movie) during a college trip to London. It was perfectly silly and the jokes were well delivered... but I am afraid that not breaking out in fits of hysterical laughter over my shrubbery and holy hand-grenade may make you unsalvageable... just kidding, we're cool.

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  6. I think there were several factors that made the PET viable in the age of the Apple II, and in fact allowed the TRS-80 to be the best selling personal computer into the start of the 1980s. The most basic reason was that the Apple II was priced higher than both the PET and TRS-80. Another factor in the PET's favor was its all-in-one design, which was likely appealing to many potential buyers. Certainly a big plus in the TRS-80's favor was Tandy's superior distribution through its massive chain of stores. As always, the best technology rarely wins, which is part of the reason why the Atari 400/800 computers didn't come to dominate after their release in 1979...

    Also, for the record, there's a somewhat rare and little known version of Avalon Hill's Telengard for the Z-90 or H/Z-100 with CP/M-85 and MBASIC. Naturally, being character-based, it's more similar to Dungeon of Death than all the other, more familiar (and graphical) versions of Telengard. I discussed it a bit a while back here: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/4827 . These are clearly all the same type of game and must have shared at least somewhat similar code foundations.

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    1. Is it possible for you to get that Telengard CP/M game off the discs and onto a PC and then somewhere to be downloaded? I'd be interested in getting it running on an Amstrad CPC (which can run CP/M). I'd probably require MBASIC as well. Failing that, the BASIC listing could suffice for porting the game - again, getting that onto a PC could be difficult.

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    2. I know this is something of a cop-out, but I'm booked solid through August. After that, I could certainly devote the time. I do have back-ups as a backup...

      I'm not sure how tied it is to the Z-100 either. I'm thinking, like you, not in any way that can't be overcome...

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    3. No worries, it's tough to get the time when you're busy :-)

      I suspect that it should run on any CP/M system that MBASIC can run on, and that should run on them all if it uses CP/M calls rather than relying on any specific system hardware, which seems unlikely for this game.

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  7. "Every few weeks, Irene has some kind of computer glitch that causes me to run Malwarebytes on her laptop and clean off a dozen viruses, unwanted toolbars, and other bits of malware. Meanwhile, I'm downloading .rar files from suspicious-looking Eastern European web sites, and I manage to stay clean. I have no idea what she clicks on."

    Ha! Sounds like my mom. I'm not exactly hanging around the most savory internet places, but I've only had one major virus that required major actions on my part. My mom, however, seems to need me to reinstall windows and recover as many of her files as possible every few months.

    One thing I found recently are Eamons. Its an Apple II game that's kinda like old text adventures that give you a text description of areas, and you type in commands. However, what makes it amazing, is that you have a character that persists through different dungeons. The guy who made it actually made it freeware way back when it came out, and released the tools to make new dungeons. So there are around 250 dungeons for the thing. Makes me wish I had an Apple II growing up.

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  8. Another interesting look into an almost lost corner of computer history, thanks for putting this online for us :)

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  9. I loved Telengard as a kid. Perhaps it was because I was a kid. The other thing that amazed me so much was when voice and music first got good... and my computer could actually talk to me... now it's like "wtf is special about that, my damn phone does it"..

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  10. First game I ever wrote (and the 2nd published). Doesn't sound like it was working right as you could choose a race, which changed stats/gameplay, and the randomization was clearly not working when you played. In my defense, it was only a 7k basic program, since it had to work on the 8k PET. I did not have access to any source code on PLATO, so it was not port of the dnd there, just inspired by it. I wrote a much better dungeon crawler called MicroWarrior on the platform in assembler ~2 years later, which was accepted for publication but I don't think it made it out before Instant Software folded (at least I never got a copy or any money for it!). Lots of people played it at Texas A & M, where it was responsible for several worn out keyboards on the computer club PETs. I'd have certainly started on Apple II if it hadn't cost 50% more to get one at the time!

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    1. btw, I'm Gordon Walton, though it's probably not clear from the post header above. :)

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    2. Gordon, it looks like Google mangled your user name, but thanks for commenting! (I had just finished sending you an e-mail when I saw this.)

      Occasionally, I'm embarrassed when I realize how my postings must sound to the original programmers and even players of these games, and I trust everyone (my readers included) recognize that I'm commenting from a modern perspective. One of the goals of my blog is to find older games that even modern gamers would find it worthwhile to try out, but they didn't come along until we had slightly better hardware in the early 1980s. (We've had a few debates about when that "good enough" point was reached.)

      Thanks for clearing up the relationship between Dungeon of Death and dnd and my issue with the race/stats. Do you think my inability to reach Level 2 was a similar bug, or was the experience point threshold just set really high?

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    3. It sounds to me like the random seed is being set to the same value every time the program initializes.

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    4. The experience thing is definitely a bug too, which may be related to the randomization seed issue.

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    5. That's too bad that I couldn't get the experience of the original game. I delved around for another copy, but unfortunately didn't turn up anything. I also tried it with different emulated verisons of the PET, but unfortunately it didn't play any differently.

      If you check back, do tell us what happened when the player recovered the Holy Grail.

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  11. Wow, The PET was literally the first computer I ever touched, in my first computer class. it was such a novel idea at the time the local news did a segment on it. "Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio" was probably the first "computer" game I ever played, a couple years later.
    Your really taking me back here!

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  12. On Irene's problem --

    The chances are very high that there's a persistent bug that Malwarebytes fails to remove, a problem I've seen several times on my own systems and friends'. Although you remove most of the stuff, as long as even one thing suvives, it will over time install other malware again without the user having to click on anything. I would check for this possibility like this:
    1. Run Malwarebytes and remove everything it finds.
    2. Reboot the machine.
    3. Run Malwarebytes again. If it finds anything, then that's your problem.

    The problem is caused because malware has gotten quite devilish in finding ways to persist if it's running in memory while a removal is carried out. The solution is to use a bootdisk removal tool that can scan and run without giving the malware a chance to execute that bootcycle.

    I suggest downloading Microsoft's free Windows Defender Offline tool (http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/what-is-windows-defender-offline), making a CD bootdisk or USB boot drive from it, and scanning from that. Also, make sure to keep Flash and Java updated to their most recent versions, those have been the sources of several very bad vulnerabilities.

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    1. I second this. Browse safley, my friend.

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    2. If it crops up again, I'll keep your advice in mind. She just got a new laptop, so whatever problems she had before might be gone if what you suggest is the case.

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  13. Sounds like the random number generator is not being seeded correctly (maybe an emulator problem). Perhaps try PRINT RND(0) before loading the game may do something.

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  14. The Commodore PET was made primarily to be a business machine, and was a very early system, perhaps predating even the Apple I (I've seen places claim either one was first). It's BASIC is almost certainly made by Microsoft.

    Checking into a PET BASIC manual I found on Google, RND(0) seeds the pseudorandom number generator based on a system clock, but that function isn't available on the earliest, 8K PET. Even if it was, it should be remembered that most computers at the time didn't have a battery-backed clock function, and so the seed of the random number generator is more the time since the machine was turned on, and not based on real-world date and time.

    If you're starting the game from an autostart function (like autoloading and running the game), then it's likely that the internal clock's state isn't varied enough between plays to give you different event sequences. Can you load the game and then manually enter a RUN command to start it?

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  15. @Gordon Walton:
    Do you still have some original copies of the game? Ans if yes, you are willing to sell one to me?

    I am a early CRPG collector and this is one of the few i am still missing in my collection.

    Even if the tape is not functional any more, i would still buy it. Finding this early CRPG from 1978 to 1982 is extremly hard, so you would make me very happy. :-)

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    1. No I don't sorry! Don't even have one! I did find this online btw: http://www.mocagh.org/firstera/dungeonofdeath.pdf

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    2. No problem, some day i will find one that i can buy.

      This is Howard Feldman website, he is a great collector and his website is a invaluable source of information for any RPG and adventure collector.

      I think i even bought a few item from him.

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  16. Hey, for those interested in PLATO, Matt Barton did a Matt Chat on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5k_QQV9sj4I

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    1. Also, it mentions some CRPGS that you haven't hit on yet: Orthank and Avatar.

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    2. I'm saving those for the book so people will have a reason to by it.

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  17. I remember playing this on my PET computer as a child. I also remember my dad using some sort of hack to get his character high enough to fight Smaug. After that, I was never able to get very far with the game without it freezing up with some syntax error. It was rather frustrating, since I have often mused at the idea of trying to play it through without cheating, but never being able to find a copy. Is there still a way to play this game on a modern PC? I couldn't find any links in your blog, but would love to be pointed in a direction to try it out, in spite of what you wrote about. hehe Thanks.

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    1. You have to download a PET emulator first. I recommend the VICE emulator, which has separate applications for the PET and C64 (among others). Then you have to get the DOD files, which I can e-mail to you if you send me a message at crpgaddict@gmail.com.

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  18. Was wondering if it was a bug that in your screen shots most words start lower case and go all caps like this, cHESTER, or if it would normally run the way the picture on the manuel's cover shows, Chester?

    I know its not a big deal, just seems curious to me.

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    1. That's a good question. A lot of early games seem weird with their capitalization, so I just assumed the reversal of the norm was for arcane 1970s geek reasons, but it's possible it was some strange emulator glitch.

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