Monday, November 18, 2013

Game 124: Avatar (1979)


I feel like I'm on a roll with these PLATO games, and I wanted to finish up while I still had the other games, and my conversations with the developers, fresh in my mind. I gave a quick chronology of the PLATO series--the earliest computer RPGs that we know about--in my Orthanc posting. Avatar is notable as being the last of the series, and the only one initially developed after commercial RPGs were hitting the market for the Apple II and Commodore PET. (I wonder how the students exposed to the PLATO games reacted to the first commercially-released RPGs. They must have been a little underwhelmed.)

Wikipedia's entry quotes author Richard Bartle as saying that Avatar was written to "out-do Oubliette" (I blogged about that game in October). It was wildly successful--"the most successful PLATO game ever," accounting for "6% of all the hours spent on the system between September 1978 and May 1985."

The town section of Avatar.

I can certainly see why. Avatar is impressive now and must have been mind-blowing in 1979. It draws from the best elements of the PLATO games that preceded it (particularly Oubliette, but also Moria and Orthanc) and anticipates games to come, including roguelikes and MMORPGs. And it's still quite alive: the November 15 reset of "Vavatar" (one of the three versions) was big news on Cyber1, and when I signed in on Sunday afternoon, there were 35 other players. They're not just playing for historical curiosity; Cyber1 enforces strict cheating rules in the active versions of the game. There are fan pages, items lists, maps, and hint files all over the place on the Internet. If the community isn't quite as populous or tech-savvy as that of, say, NetHack, it's still very active.

The users when I joined the game. Even "Batkid" likes this game.

As with the other PLATO games, Avatar was continually developed after its initial release in 1979, so I'm not sure how much I'm about to relate is from the original version. The latest copyright date on all of the versions' main screens is 1984. I did most of my playing in the "2avatar" lesson, which Cyber1 says is the closest to the original.

The game takes place in a dungeon of 15 levels of 900 squares (30 x 30) each, with a town on top. Unlike in Oubliette, the town in Avatar is a menu town; exploration doesn't start until you actually head into the dungeon (I thought it had been Wizardry that first adopted this convention). The dungeon, like those of the game's predecessors, are filled with monsters and treasure. The player has no specific overall goal or quest except to develop in level and guild membership. His experience is bounded only by old age (every race has a max age) and the occasional administrative reset of the dungeon.

A typical Avatar exploration window. You can see my stats in the lower left, my equipment in the lower right, a door in front of me, and two--excuse me, one--goblin in between.

Like Oubliette, Avatar uses the standard six D&D attributes and expands upon D&D with a greater selection of races and "classes." Among the races, the player can choose the standard humans, elves, dwarves, and gnomes; monster classes like trolls, ogres, and giants; and exotic selections such as Cirilians ("most versatile"), Osiri (make good thieves), and Morlochs (who have a natural magic ability). I don't know the sources for any of the latter three except for the obvious connection between the last and H.G. Wells's Morlocks.

Creating a new character.

The game is the first to allow an alignment choice of good, neutral, or evil (Oubliette had alignments, but they were lawful, neutral, and chaotic) and the first to allow the player to choose a sex. It's also the first to have certain items of equipment aspected to particular alignments.

The player doesn't choose a class for his character but rather determines his attributes from a pool of points (with minimums and maximums based on race) and then later chooses which guilds to join out of 11 possibilities: warrior, ninja, thief, mage, sorcerer, healer, wizard, scavenger, seeker, paladin, and villain. Every character belongs to the "nomad" guild from the outset, can choose a different one for free, and can pay to join additional ones after that. The guilds all have minimum entry standards for attributes; for instance, you have to have a charisma of at least 16 and dexterity of at least 15 to join the paladins' guild. They also have alignment standards (no good villains or evil healers) and race standards (no ogre healers or troll paladins). My most successful character, a good Osiri with 16 strength, 9 intelligence, 6 wisdom, 12 constitution, 12 charisma, and 20 dexterity, was qualified only for the scavenger (fighter/thief) guild, mostly because of his low wisdom, but also because the warriors' guild (which he qualified for in attributes) doesn't allow Osiri.

Joining the scavenger's guild.

Guild membership not only determines your available spells but also what weapons and armor you can wield and what additional skills you have. When you amass experience points, you can choose which guild (i.e., class) to level in. Essentially, we're seeing AD&D 3rd edition multi-class rules here in 1978.

Combat, unfortunately, has the same limited options as Oubliette or Moria, basically amounting to hitting "f" to fight or "s" to cast a spell. Success is governed by the attack and defense scores--in both cases, the higher the better. I don't think there are any theoretical upper and lower bounds to either. You start with a base chance of 50% to hit, modified by adding your attack score and then subtracting the enemy's defense score.

Equipment, of course, modifies both attack and defense. You start the game with 500 gold pieces loaned from the bank. Items are limited by your class. They start cheap for leather and bronze equipment and then rise dramatically into the thousands of gold pieces for anything better. The game is unique in that it has a closed economy--a fixed number of gold pieces possessed by the bank, monsters, and the players. In between resets, some late-arriving players apparently find that gold is very hard to obtain.

Jesus, what's that padding made of?

I didn't get to experiment much with spells. As I noted, each class has a unique spellbook, with the spells organized into different types, including damage, healing, buffing, and navigation. The "seeker" class is an interesting one that specializes in being about to move about the dungeon quite rapidly with a variety of teleportation and information spells. New to this game is the ability to "quickslot" your spells by assigning them to number keys.

Spells available to the paladin guild members.

Avatar is fundamentally a multiplayer game. You can journey on your own, but you need a lot of luck. As the help file notes, solo journeys carry a risk "because you will only have one or two skills on a single character where three or four are normally required to be safe." The dungeon is horrifically deadly for new, inexperienced, solo players, as I discovered repeatedly with my initial attempts at characters. None of them survived more than a few combats, even when liberally retreating to the stairs to head back up to the town and restore health. Moreover, some of the game's best features are multiplayer-oriented, such as the messaging window, the ability to call for help, and the ability to trade items. New players on multiplayer servers have a much easier time if their companions allow them to tag along in the rear and give them better equipment and attribute-boosting potions.

Mostly from the documentation rather than personal experience, I found several other "firsts" in the game:

  • Guilds can give quests to kill certain monsters or find specific items, making this the first game to offer such quests. The monsters chosen seem to be random, though based on the player's current level. The dynamic is so similar to what Richard Garriott introduced in Akalabeth that it's hard to believe that one didn't influence the other, but I don't see how that's possible. I can't place Garriott anywhere where he'd have access to PLATO, and in any event the first version of Akalabeth was out the same year--but not widespread, making it unlikely that Avatar was influenced by Akalabeth.
  • Random encounters with monsters can be peaceful. Monsters may even join the party if the leader's charisma is high enough.

Chester meets a couple of friendly goblins. Alas, they did not remain that way.

  • Players can ask each other to "send reports" of monsters encountered in specific locations to make it easier to find them and solve the quests.
  • The game is deliberately vague about the monsters and items you can encounter in the dungeons, encouraging players to take notes, learn about them, and share their knowledge with other players, a dynamic that we see in many later roguelikes like NetHack.
  • The dungeon features traps and navigation obstacles that we haven't seen before but will find in dozens of later games, such as teleporters, pits, zones of darkness, revolving squares or spinners, and squares that extinguish active magic spells. There are also some obstacles that are rare or unique to this game, such as quicksand, "illusion squares" that show you things that don't exist, and corridors that gradually slope down, taking you to a new level without you realizing it.
  • Monsters can cause the large variety of special effects that we've come to expect from CRPGs, including poison, disease, stoning, aging, sleep, paralysis, attribute drains, breath attacks, and the ability to destroy or steal items and gold. Again, these features anticipate Rogue and NetHack over the coming years.
  • There are a large number of contextually-sensitive keyboard commands, with upper- and lower-case  variants having different effects. For instance, "t" moves you up or down stairs, but "T" has you track another player.

As I said, Cyber1 has three versions of Avatar, which it lists as "'2avatar' for the original, 'Zavatar' for the updated game, and 'Vavatar' for the 'lunatic fringe.'" I'm not exactly sure how to interpret that last bit, but "Vavatar" had the most players. Each version allows the same player to run more than one character, and the policies warn you that if you're caught exceeding a limit of two or four with additional logins, you'll be deleted summarily. It's a nice idea that allows a single player to control a party, but I couldn't get it to work. Perhaps you have to have login privileges that allow you to log in from more than one terminal at once (I don't), or perhaps you have to have different logins for all of them.

In any event, after experiencing as much as I could of the earliest version, I checked out "Vavatar." All I could really see that was different was a new "Warlock" class that's something like a fighter/thief and some new skills and abilities that come with each guild membership. Exploring the dungeon, it seemed to me that there were fewer enemy parties with multiple enemies, making things a little easier, but I still couldn't survive to Level 2. I thought about looking around for a party to join, but I didn't know how to find them, and anyway, I prefer single-player games for a reason.

While Avatar is improved from Oubliette, it doesn't do anything new or better in terms of things like story or NPCs. In fact, it does a bit worse, as it doesn't tell you anything about the game world, or even give it a name. It also lacks Oubliette's hirelings, which would have made the single-player experience a lot easier, and overall it's simply too difficult as a single-player game. But its more sophisticated than Oubliette in its economy, equipment, and limited quests. These positives and negatives almost cancel each other out, and Avatar ends up with a score of 32 on my GIMLET to Oubliette's 31.

The three original creators plus the later developers of Avatar seem to have enjoyed solid careers befitting their talent. Bruce Maggs went on to teach computer science at Carnegie Mellon and Duke University; Andrew Shapira is a principal engineer at Amazon.com; David Sides has had a series of management positions in software development; Tom Kirchman has been the chief technology officer for two companies; Greg Janusz is the president of his own company; and Mark Eastom I can't find anywhere. But we're 5 for 6.

A single-player, commercial version of Avatar was released for Windows 1995, titled Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol. Judging by Wikipedia's entry, it seems to have preserved the classes, 15-level dungeon, and guild system while offering a boss enemy (the "Prince of Devils") to defeat in a main quest. I don't know what kind of deal (if any) developer David Allen worked out with the developers of Avatar, so I'm not sure whether the game is a blatant copyright violation or a nice homage. Either way, I'll play it in a few years.

Now that we've finished the early PLATO series, lets see what conclusions we can draw from the games in general. The following come to mind:

  • The earliest CRPGs were based unabashedly on Dungeons & Dragons, liberally borrowing attributes, classes, and races. This adoption was immediate, with most of the computer games developed in the first two years of D&D's initial release.
  • Yet the PLATO developers weren't slaves to D&D. They didn't hesitate to adjust combat rules, offer alternate attributes, throw in their own monsters (some adapted from other fantasy stories), invent their own items, and define their own experience tables.
  • The PLATO games were built on a college campus using networked terminals. Given the setting, they weren't interested in isolated single-player gaming as much as a sense of community. Even the games that didn't allow cooperative multi-player still had leaderboards and discussion groups. The earliest CRPGs were thus, inescapably, multiplayer RPGs. Single-player games for non-networked computers had a more spontaneous generation as the PLATO CRPG era was coming to a close.
  • Perhaps as an extension of the point above, there wasn't a single PLATO RPG that didn't feature permadeath. There were some--Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar--in which slain characters could be resurrected by other players, but none in which dead characters could be revived from a save point. (It didn't occur to me until now how late "reloading" came to CRPGs. Looking at my list, I think maybe the first game to feature it was Ultima in 1981.)
  • Again, partly because of the multiplayer aspect, these games weren't concerned with ideas of "role-playing" as we think of them today. They didn't steep their games in history and lore or fill the dungeons with special encounters and NPCs. One wonders if these trappings arose precisely as a way to compensate for the lack of interaction with other human beings in offline play.
  • The focus of these games--combat statistics, logistics, and permadeath--reflected the realities of pen-and-paper roleplaying at the time. You couldn't "reload" a slain tabletop D&D character, they must have reasoned. Why should you be able to do so on the computer?
  • It was many years before the computing capabilities of home computers could match what was programmed on the PLATO mainframe. Some of the ones that did it the best took obvious inspiration from the PLATO games.
  • None of the PLATO developers, despite all their work and great ideas, seem to have gone into gaming as a career. The one small exception is Jim Schwaiger, who participated in a commercial version of Oubliette.
  • All the PLATO games featured excellent documentation.

Part of Avatar's help file, indicating what classes are available to which races.

Technically, though, we aren't done with PLATO. Cyber1's home page has an announcement about Camelot, a new PLATO RPG based on code originally developed in the 1980s. The home page lists copyright dates from 1982-2013, so I guess I'll call it a 1982 game and put it on the backtracking list.


Next up: either a return to Legend of Faerghail (if I can figure out the Amiga emulator) or an early start on Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday.

****

Further reading: Check out my coverage of "the Earliest CRPGs" written in PLATO and available on Cyber1, including The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1974), The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975), Orthanc (1975), Moria (1975), and Oubliette (1977). "The Game Archaeologist" covered PLATO games (not just RPGs) in August, and Matt Barton had an article on his experiences with the PLATO RPGs in 2007 plus a video review in 2009.

48 comments:

  1. I played through Buck Rogers several times on my Genesis/Mega Drive, so I'm looking forward to you covering the DOS version.
    Maybe if you feel like it you might check out the console version, just for fun.

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    1. Me too!
      Its my favourite RPG of all time! As I have mentioned here about 15 times (some of those comments deleted because they didnt relate the post :D )

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    2. Every game seems to have its fans.

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    3. Even F*ck Rogers... But seriously? Maybe the console version and PC version have some (game-breaking) differences.

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    4. The console version has an isometric walking movement screen, its much cooler than first person. The overall gui is very smooth too.

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    5. I enjoyed BR, not the best gold box ever, but still enjoyable. The massive amount of useless skills bothered me. Played through it and the sequel "Matrix Cubed".

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    6. Man, I have fond memories of the space combat in Buck Rogers. Seem to recall that ramming the other ship was a good strategy.

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  2. Heh, I was about to comment, that "This game sounds just like a game I remember playing on windows called Mordor", and then you directly reference it anyhow. I can say that Mordor is a great game, one that it is very easy to sink way too many hours into without realizing where the time has gone!

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    1. And I immediately thought of Demise, which is the sequel to Mordor. I had known of Mordor, although I never played it, but I didn't realize that they were built so specifically off of previous games (I thought they were just another evolution of Wizardry).

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    2. You know, Mordor is a game that I remember playing but could never remember what it was called (I didn't play very much of it though). Now I know. Thank you Chet!

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    3. Holy shit, I played a lot of Mordor back in win 3.11! The nostalgia hit me hard there.

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    4. I played a bunch of Mordor 2's demo (I think Mordor 2 was an early title for Demise).
      Is the finished game any good? And is there an easy way to obtain a legal copy?

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    5. Mordor would have been one of my favorite all time games if not for the ridiculous quest system.

      They'd randomly send you on quests for items and monsters, some of which you might see once every 50 sessions of game time if that, and you couldn't level up unless you completed a quest. They had a seer that would supposedly tell you where the monster or items could be found, but he was expensive, often completely wrong, and even if he was right the said monster still had to get the right random number to actually appear in that location when you went there.

      Demise had the same problem but worse IIRC. They'd quest you for a specific monster. So they'd send you to kill a skeleton, you'd kill a skeleton, but it wasn't the right skeleton. And the 'correct' skeleton was nowhere to be found, even if you completely cleaned out the level where it was supposed to be located.

      I think on both games you could forfeit the quest, lose a level, and hope for better luck when you were next eligible. That aggravated me no end.. I felt like I'd earned that level and the game had arbitrarily taken it from me.

      Ugh... I cringe just thinking about it because they were wonderful other than that. A great pair of games, messed up by a casually added feature that probably took about 10 minutes to code.

      @Equlan - Demise is a 3d rendition of Mordor. Very little difference. Mordor has an editor that you can use to modify characters or (yay!) delete quests, but Demise doesn't. I actually thought Mordor was a better game.

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  3. Quick rundown of the Amiga emulator (winuae):
    When you open up the emulator, it should say you lack kickv1.3.rom and send you to a config window with a tree menu on the left.

    What you need to play a game is the kickv1.3.rom
    It would also be good to acquire the kickv3.0.rom

    Google amiga kickstart roms but don't put on a SOUR expression on your face.

    Now when you download these roms, you're all set to go.
    Kickstart roms are similar to boot diskettes btw.

    To play any game on the amiga, you need to set up the kickstart. On the tree menu, click ROM and select the "Main ROM file"
    the kickstart 1.3 was used in the amiga model 500 and the 3.0 was used in the 1200 series. These two series are what most games run on. older games are run on the 500 and the newer ones on the 1200. If you can get a game to run on the 1200 you can have multiple floppy disk drives emulated, so you don't have to swap emulated floppies a lot. This is a very good thing as you will soon find out.

    Next step is to configure your amiga.

    The quickstart option on the tree menu will let you choose a model with every parameter already set so you don't have to fiddle with them yourself mostly. I suggest 1200 with 4MB ram expansion, and if that doesn't work choose the "500 most common" version.

    You might want to experiment with the amount of floppy drives on the machine in the "floppy drives" section of the tree menu. the more the merrier, tho the 500 has some issues with multiple ones. Basicaly, it doesn't have enough memory to handle all of them. you could tweak the memory and get them to work if they don't on the "RAM" tree option if you feel adventurous.

    Now, load your game roms into the floppy drives in the "Floppy drives" tree menu.

    Check out "Display" and "Game ports" tree options.
    Display will adjust your display obviously, while the game ports will determine what is plugged in to either of the two input ports on th amiga. Usually the mouse is plugged in the first port and a joystick in the second. Some games will need a joystick in the first port, depending on the game. I suggest "keyboard layout B" on the second port. Take note that the amiga joysticks only had one button. Use arrows and the ctrl button to operate the joystick.

    The "Miscellaneous" tree option has a save/load state buttons, so you can quickly save and load your game on the run.

    After you did all this it is time to play your game! Hit the "Start" button on the lower right of the emulator window!

    Usually, a white screen should jerkily fade in, followed by an image of a hand holding a diskette. in the lower part of th screen you should see some lights with numbers on them. The numbers represent what part of the floppy is being accssesed. if they're rolling, the amiga is reading stuff from the disk most likely. Here you can romantically imagine the sound a floppy drive makes when it reads from the disk.

    Most games are cracked, so you will probably be welcomed to some text about the game and the crack group. hitting the left mouse button will in most cases pull you to the actual game. And that's it!

    Oh, if the game asks for a disk swap, hit F12 to go to the emu screen, where you can swap the disks.

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    1. Add to that 5 minutes of pointless tech demos, intros and disk swapping and that's why I prefer to stick to DOSBox and console emulators :-)

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  4. I forgot to mention, there is a slider in the "floppy drives" section labeled "Floppy Drive Emulation Speed" A very few rare games require it to operate at "100% (compatible)". Setting it to "Turbo" will shorten the load times significantly.

    If I was you, and I'm not, I would check to see if a game I am reviewing at the moment has an amiga port along the DOS one. If it had I would choose to play the amiga one. Usually they have better sound and graphics. *cough*EyeoftheBeholder*cough*
    Err, seems I mentioned getting the kickstarts from a sour place in the post above. Ack, seems they don't offer a download. They do have a good game section with links to download roms and some reviews, along with scanned magazine reviews, manuals, faqs and maps if available.

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    1. I appreciate all of the effort in your two comments. I think I have the game running successfully using the Amiga Forever package, which I guess uses WinUAE as its engine but offers a front-end that removes some of the configuration hassle. I haven't tested the game extensively yet, but I did get it started.

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    2. Beware that there are apparently bugged images of the Amiga version around as well:
      http://eab.abime.net/showthread.php?t=34846&highlight=faerghail

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    3. I used WinUAE for years, but its newer fork, FS-UAE, is a better choice for an RPG fan. Most of the people getting into Amiga emulation are interested in games, not the myriad other functions these computers were used for, and FS-UAE is focused specifically on convenient gaming.

      You can check it out at fs-uae.net.

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  5. It sounds like the PLATO games suffered from the same problem as the Intellivision: technically superior games that required other people to play.

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  6. Not that my opinion is a deciding factor, but I would much rather see the Buck Rogers game rather than Legend of Faerghail again. The game was given a fair chance and it failed rather spectacularly.

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    1. Viscerally, I'm inclined to agree. But I have to learn this damned platform at some point, and now seems a good time. Also, my "win" column is unbroken since Bloodwych.

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    2. If you sort the table on the win column, you will always have an unbroken win-column. ;-P

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  7. You've really dug up some amazing stuff with this blog. I never realized how intertwined the history of CRPGs and tabletop RPGs are. I wonder how much (if at all) CRPGs influenced the development of D&D.

    I wonder if things like the rogue character class and the good/evil alignment axis were added to CRPGs first or to D&D. From the information covered in your blog, it seems like the latter. Wikipedia suggests D&D didn't get rangers and bards until 1981. Oubliette had them 4 years earlier!

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    1. All I can remember about D&D (tabletop) was developed before CRPGs.

      The evolution of D&D (tabletop) is something like this:
      1) Chess
      2) Someone felt that each chess piece should have more variations
      3) Tabletop wargames (Tactics)
      4) Someone felt that each piece should be given an identity
      5) Tabletop gladiatorial arena games (Chainmail)
      6) Someone suggested to have the gladiators band up to achieve something
      7) D&D

      Between (1) to (6), computer games from that era does not seem to have any RPG elements in them.

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    2. I was once told that Gary Gygax invented the Ranger class because his young son wanted to play a more powerful character. It was always unbalanced compared to other classes. (However, looking it up, this blog - http://blogofholding.com/?p=5753 - says that Gygax attributes the class to one of his players.)

      That article also says the Ranger class first appeared in Strategic Review #2, which came out in 1975. The SR character classes weren't technically official, but most groups treated them as such. I played a Bard in my second campaign. I think that class was introduced in SR #6 in 1976. Another SR article introduced the Monk class inspired by the TV series Kung Fu starring David Caradine.

      So these classes might not have appeared in the official player handbooks until later, but they were well-known to D&D players in 1975 or 1976. I'm sure the PLATO game developers picked them up from the gaming magazines.

      Trivia: I twice played in games run by Gary Gygax and still have my copy of the Greyhawk supplement with his autograph. Unfortunately, it also has a coffee ring on the cover, reducing its collectible value if I ever tried to sell it. Back then, we used our game books constantly. We didn't carefully preserve them in archival plastic bags.

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    3. I have a third edition signed PHB by him, as I got there and realized I'd forgotten anything for him to sign, expect the book I was planning on using that day. He was very nice even though I know he didn't like 3e and signed it. However, I then played with that book a LOT so it is in very rough shape; some pen-finger prints in it, torn pages, binding wearing out....

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    4. Corey, if it's any consolation, I think the value of your autographed supplement could actually go up even further if you put the following notation beside that coffee-ring - "This was stained by Corey Cole; Co-Designer, Lead Programmer, Voice Actor, Co-Director of Quest For Glory Series". XD

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    5. Seconding Kenny's consolation. Should have made the book a Kickstarter reward tier :D

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    6. Corey, thanks for the information. I suppose the early PLATO games had audiences too small to really influence the pen and paper games.

      And let me just say, the Quest for Glory series is amazing. I've been a big fan for a long time!

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  8. Ref "house variations" to the original D&D rules in early CRPGs, those were the norm in live campaigns as well. The original 3-booklet rule set for D&D was thoroughly confusing. Every DM I knew in the early days had first played in a game run by someone close to the source. You could say that every successful DM had a small "Gygax Number" (in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon sense). Mine was probably 2 or 3.

    Example: In the Judges Guild "Tegel Manor" scenario, a painting specified that it depicted a Ghoul. That could have just been a picture, but most DM's interpreted as meaning a Ghoul came out and attacked anyone looking at the painting. Earlier in the scenario, my character had been turned into a Stone Giant, and now he was paralyzed by the Ghoul. Only problem is that the rules never actually explained how paralysis could be removed. Our DM called his mentor DM, who was in the middle of a game with 3 or 4 other DM's. They all discussed it and decided that, based on Tolkien, the "touch of an Elf" could cure paralysis. We had an Elf in the party, but I was a Stone Giant. Our DM decided that the Elf's touch would have one chance in eight of curing me because I was eight times a normal human's mass, and that each Elf could attempt to remove the paralysis once an hour. Six hours or so later, I was cured. House rules because the actual rules never covered weird cases like that.

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    1. I guess it made sense that it took a while to sort everything out.

      The touch-of-an-elf thing is interesting. Are there a lot of arcane solutions to problems like that? In just about every D&D CRPG I've played, the only solution would be to cast "Cure Paralysis," but I've often wondered if the official rules had a lot more solutions to problems that computer RPG developers just never implemented.

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    2. I seem to recall that Dwarves and Elves can detect Secret Doors.

      Dwarves have the "Stonecunning" ability to sense or predict how tunnels/dungeons will branch out, increase/decrease in sea-level and check for cave-in possibilities.

      Also, the 1st Edition D&D rules are extremely unforgiving toward Level 1 Magic-Users; giving rise to the song "Always the First to Die".

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yXAEzp6W-U

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    3. As mentioned, the original D&D rules were (are) very confusing. Especially to our modern day sensibilities, where everything is perfectly spelled out in 400 page rulebooks.

      The originals were a series of 3 'little brown books' that covered Fighting Men, Magic Users and Clerics. The rules 'mostly' made sense, but the original Chainmail set was necessary for some of the details. There were four supplements that came out over the next couple of years, but until AD&D came out in 1978 / 1979 these small booklets and the Strategic Review magazine were all there was.

      Judges guild, the first 3rd party publisher, had a few supplements as well, but ultimately anything that wasn't clear was the purvew of the DM and how he thought things should work in his world - even odd 'arcane' rulings like paralysis being cured by the touch of an elf.

      The OSR (old school revival) a current movement in the tabletop gaming world has taken up the old 'rulings, not rules' adage as their warcry, and is the epitome of rulings like that. The idea is that there is a framework for the game, we all agree on some basic principles, the rest is left to your imagination - the players and DM's are encouraged to not get bogged down by the details.

      Ultimately, play style is up to the individual group. Personally, I find the more open ended approach more refreshing.

      Obviously, this doesn't work as well with CRPG's, as a players off-hand random ideas would have to be a preprogrammed option, as opposed to an insight (like in the example) randomly pulled from Tolkein mythology.

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    4. I heard that even Gygax didn't end up using the weapons vs armor tables in 1st Ed.

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    5. @Tristan - Which table is that? Is it the one about leather armor having lesser protection against bludgeoning weapons or some such?

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    6. It's a full matrix of each weapon and each armor class obtainable from shield/armor combinations.

      2nd Ed simplified it by categorising weapons as slashing/piercing/bludgeoning.

      Waiting while the DM consults tables is not the best part of roleplaying.

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    7. Oh, right! I remember that shit! Bec-de-corbin versus Plate Mail, Mace versus Padded Armor or something like that, right?

      That was terrible!

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    8. That's it for the most part. It was only to be used against people wearing proper mail though, so some people use it a lot more than necessary. The numbers presented only had adjustment for the initial armor / shield combos, and dexterity wasn't taken into account. Therefore, each person wearing armor had their Armor Class Type and their Adjusted Armor Class.
      For example, a person wearing chain mail (AC 5), carrying a shield (-1AC) and had a dex of 18 (-4AC) would have an adjusted AC of 0, all bonuses added in. Their armor class type though would only be AC 4, and there would be a modifier for each weapon against armor class type 4.
      A little time consuming, but not too bad. Dragon Magazine actually put out a combat wheel that had all of the information included.

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    9. I was just having a conversation where I laughed at the marketing of such things like the combat wheel and other "tools" to help with bad cumbersome rules. In hindsight why da fuq did we buy in to thinking those things were cool gadgets instead of just being blatant evidence of a bad system that needed to be rewritten.

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    10. I don't really think the rules are bad (but I'm an AD&D fan). If you chose to use them though, things like the combat wheel do make them much easier to implement. It saves a lot of time in flipping through the books. I use my combat wheel every week. :)

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    11. There're apps for that now, mate.

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    12. One of my issues with the rules was that it made already weak classes (thief, monk, assassin) worse.

      The other is that you want an RPG system to be one of two things: Freeform or what I'd call "Physics Complete" (D&D 4e seems to attempt this). The former is fast and requires a DM that can come up with rules on the fly, the latter is lots of fun for min/maxers and wargamers and requires a DM who knows the content well enough to keep things from getting bogged down in constant rules consultation.

      1Es strong point was not its ruleset but its abandonment of rules. It was open in a way that no boardgame had ever been. You weren't bound by the confines of a board, or the availability of pieces, or what the authors had even contemplated. Almost every spell required the DM to figure out what exactly would happen.

      Given that so much of the game embraced its openness, rules specifying what would happen in unusual corner cases seem out of place. Especially when they don't actually make sense...why do weapons perform the same way against studded leather + shield as they do against ring mail?

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    13. Good points Tristan. There are indeed a few subsytems (weapons v AC type, psionics, outdoor movement turns) that seem tacked on. It's a fine line between attempting to be realistic and getting bogged down in the details.
      And yes, monks get screwed by the weapon v armor table. Still, five open hand attacks for 2-40 damage is nothing to shy away from!

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    14. I don't know about you but I make a point to shy away from open hand strikes.

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    15. I suppose it depends on your game. If you use the weapons versus armor chart, it's rough against people wearing armor, but armor type doesn't affect creatures that aren't wearing standard armor.
      If you don't use the weapons v armor it's a huge attack for the monks. Besides that, once you hit 5th - 7th the only time it's not optimal to use the open hand attacks is against undead.

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  9. Nice write up. I really wish you would have progressed further though.

    "Each version allows the same player to run more than one character, and the policies warn you that if you're caught exceeding a limit of two or four with additional logins, you'll be deleted summarily. It's a nice idea that allows a single player to control a party, but I couldn't get it to work. Perhaps you have to have login privileges that allow you to log in from more than one terminal at once (I don't), or perhaps you have to have different logins for all of them."

    This restriction is referring to characters per signon. It is used to prevent people from creating a bunch of characters that they aren't actively playing in order to reserve the name.

    As you noted, it is hard to progress in avatar with a single character. That is why it is standard practice to have at least one other signon to PLATO and run two terminals each with their own character that you form into a party. This is known in avatar lingo as a "two bagger". Really experienced players can run a "three bagger", but I was never able to do it for deep runs.

    I actually worked for Greg Janusz at one point, I forgot he was one of the authors of Avatar.

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    1. Sorry to disappoint you. I liked the game, but I didn't think it was worth waiting for the approval for additional logins.

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