Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Game 95: Maces & Magic: Stone of Sisyphus (1980)

The late 1970s and early 1980s are full of evolutionary dead-ends for CRPGs: paths that the genre could have taken but didn't. We had Space with its detailed character development and training followed by very odd quest scenarios; Dungeon Campaign and Wilderness Campaign in which you controlled an army rather than a "party"; Dunjonquest with its tabletop RPG-like room descriptions; the brief square-based Wizard's Castle line; and storytelling text adventure hybrids like Eamon and Maces & Magic. All lost out in favor of dungeon-crawling and monster-hacking for about half a decade, but as memory and disk space improved, some of the features of these early lineages began to make their way into the CRPG genre again.

A detailed inventory, including weapons and armor, distinguishes the Maces & Magic series from other text adventures, and gives the series its CRPG credentials.
Maces & Magic is what you get when you combine the irreverent text adventure style of Zork, a character sheet with attributes and inventory, and the limited selections that you'd find in a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Each screen presents you with a scenario and a series of options, from navigation to combat. There are several standard keys, like "I" for "Inventory," that work on all screens, and you have to type verbs when you want to use an item in your pack, but in general, you play the game by reading and pressing a number key, with the success or failure of your actions determined at least in part by your attributes and equipment.

Some of the encounters and options in Stone of Sisyphus.

The Maces & Magic series consists of three soundless text games, written in BASIC, initially released for the Apple II and TRS-80: Balrog (1979; also known as The Balrog Sampler), The Stone of Sisyphus (1980), and Morton's Fork (1981). They were developed by Chameleon Software and published by Scott Adams's Adventure International; they are the only games published by this famous adventure game developer that stray into CRPG territory.

I've been unable to find Balrog (one Italian site had what appeared to be TRS-80 disk images, but they didn't work for me), but the other two are available in several places, though perhaps in unplayable versions (see below).

Stone of Sisyphus doesn't start you with many ideas in the way of plot or quest--only that it's a "thinking man's dungeon; a subterranean world of monsters, magic, traps, and treasures [that] demands brains rather than luck to survive." You begin by naming a character (the game signals its humor by asking "what's your handle, good buddy?" instead of something more pedestrian like "character name") at which point you're presented with a list of attributes and gold pieces and given a choice to use the character or "reroll." I put that in quotes because the game doesn't really seem to use random rolls. Instead, you get the same three sets of statistics every time. The first character is smart and lucky and well-balanced in other areas but very poor; the second is very strong and smart but with low constitution and charisma; the third is dumb but attractive, lucky, and rich.

I never got to find what the "language level" does.
You use your available gold to purchase weapons from a list of a stunning 80 options, including some I'd never heard of, like a cinqueda (an Italian short sword), a kris (an Indonesian asymmetrical dagger), a terbutje (a piece of wood with embedded shark teeth), a bullova (a type of axe), and a list of pole-arms that puts Dungeons & Dragons to shame. The list of armor is no less complete, with cuirasses, sollerets, basinets, gauntlets, shields, and so forth, each with its own encumbrance level, allowing you outfit yourself as a quick and lithe swashbuckler or an armored knight. You have to be careful about getting too encumbered because you won't be able to carry any treasure.

Purchasing armor from a long list on multiple screens. You have to balance protection, cost, and encumbrance

After you equip yourself, the game starts you at the entrance to the dungeon, with a choice of two doors. Each branches into other passages, but the freedom of navigation is a bit illusory (as it is in many adventure games), since ultimately you have to go into one room to get some keys, unlock the door to another room to get a shovel, and dig with the shovel in a third area to find some silver bars before you can proceed by giving the silver bars to some trolls guarding a bridge (fighting them doesn't seem to be feasible), and so on.

The opening of the Stone of Sisyphus dungeon.

At any point, you can leave the dungeon with your accumulated treasure (which you automatically sell) and get your score. I'm not sure if there's an "ending" to the game other than to gather enough treasure to achieve this high score.

Maybe with another 60 points, I can qualify as a "dilettante!"

Theoretically, the game should distinguish itself from a text adventure through combat, where the attributes, weapons, and armor truly count. But starting character in this game has virtually no chance of defeating any of the fixed or random monsters in the dungeon. I find it a bit mystifying because there's no indication that you gain "levels" or ever improve your base stats, so the only way I can imagine that combat becomes easier is through the purchase of better weapons and armor. But this equipment weighs you down so much that dungeon exploration essentially becomes impossible--there's no magical lightweight armor that offers good protection. The only way I could progress through the game was to avoid battles entirely.

Even the basest enemies were capable of killing me in a couple of hits.
Amongst my adventures were some interesting encounters, including a safe for which a combination was found elsewhere in the dungeon, a bridge that collapsed if you tried to walk on it while heavily encumbered, and a trapped room in which the walls closed in on me, and I had to brace them with an iron bar I had thankfully picked up at the beginning. The game acknowledges its debt to Star Wars on that one.

Surviving that room rewarded me with over 500 gold pieces, which helped at a nearby machine that took 200 of them for a jewel. Unfortunately, in the next room I was killed by a hellhound.

The games support saving both the games-in-progress and the character files, although neither worked for me (every reload produced an error). The back of the box says that the "average completion time" for both Stone of Sisyphus and Morton's Fork is one month--a figure I was entirely prepared to trounce, but alas such disk problems prevent me from getting far in either game in my Apple II emulator. Aside from the reloading issue, Stone of Sisyphus randomly dumps me to the prompt with an error at unpredictable times, and Morton's Fork does so right at the outset. I thus can't seem to find stable versions of either game, but if you want to have a go, you can find them both at Virtual Apple II listed under their subtitles, not Maces & Magic.

There are occasional graphics in the game.

Chameleon software (which developed no other games) was a side-project for three Indianapolis medical professionals, including X-ray technician Richard Bumgarner, who was the registered agent for the company and thus the person I was able to track down. (I'm happy to report that this posting will be the first time that Mr. Bumgarner is properly associated with the series on any web page.) He's no longer in touch with his co-developers and didn't know if they'd want to be associated with the games, so he declined to give me their names.

Now 68 and retired, Mr. Bumgarner has only foggy recollections of the events of 34 years ago, but he said that the trio was inspired by tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as well as a computer game whose name he didn't recall but what I suspect, based on the description, was the Dunjonquest series. He credits one of his colleagues, a doctor, for the exhaustive list of weapons (which he pulled out of a book), many of the story elements, and the game's titles.

The titles actually are quite clever. Stone of Sisyphus refers, of course, to the boulder that the mythological Greek king had to roll up a hill over and over, only to watch it roll back down every time. I wonder if it wasn't a metaphor for the game, in which you repeatedly enter the dungeon to find the same treasures. Morton's Fork refers to a kind of paradox in which two choices (or two lines of thinking) both turn out to have the same unpleasant outcome. It's named after a 15th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, who argued that a man living below his means was obviously saving his money, and could thus afford taxes, while a man living ostentatiously was obviously rich, and could thus afford taxes. It serves as a good metaphor for dungeon paths or roleplaying choices that ultimately converge on the same location or end in the same result.

I can cheerfully go along or I can threaten to turn him in--but either way, I end up with the damned quest.

Mr. Bumgarner recalls getting some threatening letters from TSR, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, which apparently regarded any two alliterative fantasy-sounding words separated by an ampersand as a threat to their trademark. Hence, most editions of the games emphasized the subtitles rather than Maces & Magic. He recalls that the trio had fun developing the series but it never made much money, and as amateur programmers, they felt unable to compete in an era in which every publisher seemed to want graphics. None of them worked on any games after this trilogy.

The games generated enough fondness for ports to the Atari 8-bit, along with some graphics by developer Dave Simmons.

Comparison of the Apple II and Atari 8-bit openings.

I made some efforts to play this version, but I'm having a miserable time trying to get an Atari 8-bit emulator to work, and I'm not sure that this is the game that I'm going to put in that kind of effort for.

It's startling how similar this game is to Eamon (which I just reviewed), which came out at the same time. They're both text adventure-CRPG hybrids, both featuring interactive story-telling with statistics-based combats, both allowing the player to amass gold, purchase equipment, and carry the same adventurer through multiple stories. And yet Eamon still has a dedicated fan following after 30 years, while Maces and Magic is so forgotten that, according to Mr. Bumgarner, in three decades no one has asked him about the game. (And there isn't a single fan page or walkthrough online.) The difference of course is that Eamon was designed as a construction set, with fans able to contribute their own adventures. But the quality of the writing and gameplay in Stone of Sisyphus seems promising, and I'm surprised there aren't more players who remember it fondly.

Back now to the interminable battles of Knights of Legend, but I anticipate several other early-game stopovers while I very slowly progress in Knights.


  1. "What's your handle, good buddy" is CB slang. CB radio, for you kids, was quite popular in the 70s. It was like Xbox live voice chat, but only when you were in your car on the highway. You could just talk or help others by reporting the position of "Smokey Bear" (police with radar guns).

    1. CBs are still used quite extensively by truckers; there's nothing else that can broadcast information to a large group of strangers on the road--although I suspect apps will eventually fill that void.

      Your comment reminded me about all the (horrible) movies that came out in the 1970s featuring CBs: "Smokey and the Bandit"; "Breaker! Breaker!"; "Convoy." Then, of course, you had "The Dukes of Hazzard" on TV.

      When I got my first car, a Mustang, in 1990, the first thing I did was install a CB radio. The fad was passing by then, though, and every time I tried to talk to people while driving around, I just got a bunch of angry truckers yelling at me to get off their channel.

    2. Alas, I always wanted one too :)

    3. I had a stationary CB when i was twelve, it was quite fun, besides everyone was much older than me...

    4. What I remember of my friends and acquaintances using CB's consists of getting into arguments and meet me behind the schoolyard type fights, and using it to find drugs, mostly pot.

      Granted this was in the mid nineties and as you said CB's had been in decline by then.

  2. Wow, it is really cool that you got a game designer's comments on this game. Excellent work.

  3. These guys were clearly the prototype for Bioware. :D

  4. Maybe it is worth noting that the in game RPG statistics come out of Tunnels & Trolls RPG game, at least from what I identified from screenshots.
    Maybe it will help you defeating some monsters in the game:
    The Hits and Adds for weapons for example - hits should be probably number of d6 dice, where adds are simply additions to combat rating. Combat rating is calculated from your strength, dexterity and luck (if they are higher than 12, then you get bonus for each point above, if they are lower than 9 you get penalty). To this number you roll the weapon dice and add adds.
    If you roll higher Combat Rating than opponent you can damage him, otherwise you receive damage. In the pen and paper version you could dual weild weapons and that helped a lot.

  5. Bullova is "mace" (not axe)


    1. nope, the Bullova (also spelled Bulova) is definitely an axe
      see here:
      or here
      (ironically searching google images for bullova mace gives the same images as bullova axe)

    2. That thing looks @#$&$^! wicked.

  6. Wow, this is some serious digging in CRPG history. How did you even find out about this game?
    I'm getting more and more convinced that an Archeologist is the right character for Chet in Nethack.

    1. MobyGames had the first two, and the MOCAGH had some info on the third. I just wish MOCAGH uploaded electronic copies of the disk images as well as photographs of the disks.

  7. Oy enjoys forking aburt wiv emoolaters en sech, so Oy mays fork aburt wiv dis jes sose Oy kin plays it. Amazin how my langerge skillz fall so lows Oy starts forking swearen so much, ah? Ah, fork ziss fer a lark, Oy gots a emoolater ta fork wiv, plays me a old vidyer game.

    Gedfly art.

  8. I was going to say that it was a good job New World Computing (creators of the Might and Magic series) weren't as litigious as TSR. But until I read the full article, I hadn't realised just how litigious the latter were!

    1. Oh, they were famous. People called them T$R until the end of the company. I have an old 3rd party adventure that uses HTK (Hits To Kill) instead of HP to avoid litigation.

    2. I'm always more surprised that the Tolkien estate didn't sue the whole lot of them.

    3. They did have trouble with the Tolkien estate at one point, resulting in Hobbits getting renamed Halflings, Ents to Treants, and a few others.

    4. It's amazing that was enough to satisfy them. It's like I wrote a novel set at "Bogwarts" with the main character called "Larry Cotter." No copyright violation there!

    5. Harry Trotter :)

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68VOqb1ScZw :D

    6. CRPG Addict: It seems that they changed the terms well before the Tolkien estate noticed, after they got in trouble with Micheal Moorcock.

      Chances are, it isn't worth suing them over the similarities, as a) Each edition they've made Halflings less hobbit like, since lazy farmers make poor adventurers, and b) TSR/WotC/Hasbro have lots of money.

  9. Thanks for digging deep.

  10. Even as an Apple II fan then and now, I'd never heard of these - very interesting! That's a bummer the disks won't save/restore properly. :(

    One thing, I love that you keep dipping back into the Apple II, but unless you're very fond of the raster lines, remember that with AppleWin you can click that joystick/sound icon (settings) at the bottom right, and then uncheck "50% SCAN LINES". ;)

    1. Thanks. I'm still learning this emulator (and the Apple OS in general).

  11. Nice Blog! I was just putzing about and the Balrog Sampler is definitely runnable under the TRS32 emulator.
    There's a Balrog.DMK disk image on one of the TRS-80 sites but it's in double-density prodos format so the trick was to boot up with a PRODOS disk under Model III or 4.
    Keep Prodos in drive 0 and place the Balrog.DMK in drive 1 then type "Basic -f:8" to enter the basic interpreter to avoid a maxfiles error. Then type: run"start".
    Figuring all that out was better than the adventure :)

    1. Oops, in above post I meant DOSPLUS not prodos. The working image of the Balrog found on trs80stuff.net

    2. Thanks! I just downloaded it. I'll check it out at some point.

  12. This game reminds me of a german C64 game series called "Schwert und Magie" (translates to sword and magic) which is very much alike - to a point where I think the author of Schwert und Magie drew his inspiration from this one.

  13. Is the Addict still planning to review Balrog Sampler? I'd love to see that get a post, as the oldest playable CRPG for personal computers that hasn't been covered.

    1. I've yet to find a working version. I tried a new one about a year ago, but it was full of bugs and unplayable.


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