Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Game 180: DND (1984)

The opening screen from the 1988 version. The original version lacks a title screen.

Bill Knight (developer); published as shareware
Released 1984 for DOS; version 1.2 released 1986; version 2.0 released 1988 and re-titled Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain
Date Started: 14 March 2015
Date Ended: 15 March 2015
Total Hours:8
Reload Count: 9 characters; 15 reloads on "winning" character.
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 32/182 (18%)

Here's another mid-1980s offering that deserves an official number and GIMLET, something I didn't give when I offered a few paragraphs on it as part of my "backtracking" series in 2010. I recently did the same with Caverns of Zoarre, where I covered the history of the DND line.

Briefly, DND goes back to The Dungeon ("pedit5") and The Game of Dungeons ("dnd"), two of the earliest known RPGs, created by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1975. It was adapted (or plagiarized, as some have it) to a variety of other systems by Purdue University student Daniel Lawrence in the late 1970s, and many of the people exposed to it decided to try a hand at their own versions, including C. Gordon Walton's Dungeons of Death (1979), Daniel Lawrence's Telengard (1982), Bill Knight's DND (1984), Thomas Hanlin's Caverns of Zoarre (1984), and another DND from 1985 sometimes called "Heathkit DND." What we're notably missing is Lawrence's pre-Telengard versions; most were discarded as potential copyright violations when Telengard was published by Avalon Hill.

Inspired (of course) by Dungeons & Dragons, the games all feature limited mechanics, rapid random encounters with both enemies and special objects, and death that is quick, frequent, and usually permanent.

All of them feature thrones that you can sit in or pry jewels from, but I'm not sure where this started.
This version was developed by Bill Knight of R O Software in Plano, Texas, in 1984, after he found some variant of Lawrence's DND kicking around on a DEC computer at work. In 1988, he re-released it as Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain after some legal threats. The source of the threats is a bit cloudy. In Dungeons & Desktops (relevant chapter offered online here), Matt Barton says of the dispute:

The game was successful enough to attract Lawrence's attention; he saw it as unfair competition and did what he could to prevent its distribution. For his part, Bill claimed that he had done enough work cleaning up the "spaghetti code" of the original game that he had in fact created a new product. In any case, Bill updated the game and rereleased it as Dungeon of the Necromancer's Domain in 1988, which he claimed was a "ground-up rewrite" in an effort to avoid future conflict with Lawrence.

While I have no reason to doubt Barton, I haven't been able to find any primary sources to corroborate this history. Slightly contrasting Barton's account is an account from this site (which is otherwise absolutely riddled with errors) in which the author claims to have corresponded with Bill Knight and that Knight didn't even know the name of DND's author until the time of the correspondence (which seems to have been in the mid-1990s).

In an e-mail to me, sent about a month after this post was originally published, Knight said that the legal threats came from "the folks that market the DND board game," by which he might mean TSR itself. It's thus possible that the change to Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain had nothing to do with Lawrence.

Whatever the case, no one's hands are perfectly clean here. I don't have Lawerence's DND to compare against Knight's, but it's clearly similar enough that it was a bit unethical for Knight to sell it, no matter how much code-cleaning he'd done. On the other hand, it was disingenuous of Lawrence to try to stifle other versions, given that he himself had copied DND from Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood's PLATO original. (While Lawrence may not have threatened legal action against Knight, there's evidence that he did against many earlier DND derivatives.) In a 2007 interview with Barton, Lawrence claims he wasn't aware of the PLATO game and feebly offers that "some of my play testers may have well been giving me suggestions from their experiences elsewhere." Given the similarities between the The Game of Dungeons and DND derivatives like Telengard and Bill Knight's game--let alone Lawrence's original--I believe that Lawrence was lying or at least significantly mis-remembering. I don't think the original PLATO dnd was available on Cyber1 yet, so he may very well have been counting on the fact that no one could really compare the two games. In any event, Lawrence died in 2010, so we can't get his clarification on any of this.

Ironically, Bill Knight's DND might be the most faithful recreation we have of what Daniel Lawrence's DND looked like on the Purdue mainframes, and it clearly shows many elements--a main quest involving an orb; "excelsior" transport between levels; use of WAXD for movement; magic books that increase and decrease attributes--that go all the way back to dnd on PLATO.

Combat in version 1.2 (1986).
Combat in version 2.0, redubbed Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain. The entire line offers minimal combat options, supplemented with spells (for some classes).

Both of Knight's versions play roughly the same, meaning I'm going to decline offering two separate posts about them. DND is more graphically primitive, using all ASCII characters, and even the 1986 version has all but two of its dungeons listed as "under construction." Necromancer updates the names of the dungeons (curiously, one of the original DND dungeons was called "Telengard") and doesn't indicate that any are incomplete. Necromancer also has more thorough in-game documentation where DND relies primarily on external files.

Character creation in the 1988 version. I admire how Knight pulled the dungeon names from the fathomless depths of his own creativity.

I like the original game's dungeons a bit better; they have more defined rooms and corridors; the Necromancer version's dungeons are more maze-like. Finally, the original DND offers more experience for battles than Necromancer. In the latter game, you hardly ever level up from killing foes, and the focus is on gaining experience points through accumulation of treasure. The first edition is better balanced this way.

In both versions, you can play a fighter, cleric, or magician. There's a selection of 24 spells for the latter two classes (in DND, clerics only get 16 spells), and fighters can find magic wands that give them spell-like capabilities. Unlike most DND derivations, this one has a reasonably complex inventory system, with the ability to spend accumulated gold pieces on weapon and armor pluses; magic items like Rings of Regeneration and Elven Boots; maps of the dungeon levels; and "transportation" among the different dungeons.
A cleric selects from a variety of spells.
Exploration is classic DND: as you move around--or even stand in the same spot--you encounter monsters, piles of treasure, and magic items. Fixed encounters include thrones, fountains, chests with buttons to push, altars, arcane books, and magic mirrors, and generally--like in most DND derivatives--the outcomes of fiddling with these things is completely random. You might gain treasure, find yourself in a difficult combat, take damage, get healed, lose attributes, get older, gain experience or an experience level, and so forth. Each level has an up and down staircase and an "excelsior" transport between levels. Pits, teleporters, and elevators move you up and down involuntarily.

Some of the game's many random encounters.

Monsters are drawn from the Dungeons & Dragons mold, and include trolls, vampires, giants, dragons, dopplegangers, dwarves, and harpies. Like the character, monsters all have a level. Moving downward in the dungeon adjusts the maximum or average level of the monsters you face but not the minimum; you might still meet a Level 1 ogre on Level 12 of the dungeon.

Hit points don't regenerate when you move, but it's not long in the game before you find a Ring of Regeneration to take care of this. Other magic items include shields, armor, weapons, and boots, all with a plus level between 1 and some distant maximum. As with the typical DND game, death removes the character file from the disk and forces you to start over.

This message is quite common at early levels.

The Knight versions have some elements I haven't seen in other DND titles, although of course I can't be sure which ones he invented and which he adapted from one of Lawrence's versions. For instance:

  • When you return to the surface, gold both converts to experience and remains in a stored inventory so you can spend it on goods.
  • Rather than spell points, the game uses a spell "slot" system similar to Wizardry. Spell slots regenerate slowly while still in the dungeon.
  • There are "magic torches" (as well as various light spells) that reveal the encounters in the squares around the character, not unlike the flares in the Wizard's Castle variants.
  • The game allows you to purchase level maps of the various dungeons. When you purchase one, it actually creates a text file in the DND directory with the name of the dungeon and the map level. Unfortunately, the maps are extremely expensive and don't annotate special encounters or stairs, so they're of limited utility.

In the shop. I guess it'll be a while before I can purchase this map.

The output of a cheaper map purchase.

As with most DND games, staying alive is very hard for the first few character levels. After that, it evens out, and a cautious player can stay alive effectively indefinitely (while rarely advancing, however). I had the most luck with a cleric character, who I managed to get to Level 9 in about 4 hours of gameplay, making liberal use of the "Hold Monster" spell on dragons, balrogs, and other nasty monsters.

This dragon is "helpless" from my "Hold Monster" spell, meaning I get to attack him for a while without retaliation.

Needed experience points double between levels, plus the game awards you fewer experience points for slaying monsters below your level, so advancement is very slow after around Level 7, and it's basically dependent on hitting lower dungeon levels and returning to the surface with huge treasure hauls. I think the maximum level in the game is 999; the help file says that will require 190,272,000 experience (about 1,000 times more than I earned in 4 hours). If you ask about Level 1000, the game says "you should be so lucky!"

The introductory help file has some text that suggests a main quest in the game:

The legend that holds the most interest for fools--I mean adventurers--such as yourself is that of the orb, an enormous eye-shaped gem which, if gazed into, grants its finder immortality. They say it was created and hidden by a mad wizard long, long ago and still waits deep in the musty tunnels and dank caverns, guarded by enormous dragons and, er, well, never mind.

I assumed the orb exists in all 5 dungeons and on the bottom level of each of them, and I decided to cheat just to document the endgame. After my Level 9 cleric died, I created a new character, a magician, and started using backups of the game file to make sure he survived. When he reached Level 9, I used the transporter to go directly to dungeon Level 20 (the highest level) and started scouting for the orb. I was there far too early, and I had to restore the character file very frequently (I think someone playing with permadeath would have to grind up to Level 20 or higher to survive "for real").

This is a pretty awesome spell description.
Eventually, I found the ORB in some corner on the level. I picked it up and headed back to the transporter, only to find that the transporter didn't work. I sighed and started the long search for stairways to climb up 20 levels to the surface. Fortunately a random teleporter on Level 17 took me immediately out of the dungeon. However, the game gave me absolutely no indication that I'd escaped with the Orb and won. So that was kind of lame.

The closest I can get to a winning screen.
DND scores only 18 on the GIMLET, hurt by a lack of any story and NPCs. It does best (3s) in the variety of special encounters, "magic and combat" (mostly for its spells), and the economy. I'd call it slightly better than Caverns of Zoarre but not as good as the wacky Telengard.

I destroy a Level 4 vampire with a spell.

The DND games are fun diversions, but their fundamental problem is that they depend too much on randomness and too little on skill. It's not surprising that the line didn't survive the 1980s while roguelikes--which offer much more complexity and creativity--did. I'll offer a quick post on the Heathkit version in 1985, but otherwise I'm not sorry to be leaving this early branch of CRPGs behind.


In list news, if anyone wants to see me play John Carmack's Wraith: The Devil's Demise, someone is going to have to help me out with an Apple IIgs emulator. The only one I could find for Windows, KEGS32, is impenetrable in its instructions. I managed to get a ROM file working with it and to (I think) mount the disk, but none of the regular Apple commands seem to work right, and there are no helpful menus or auto-launching options the way some emulators offer. Moreover, the emulator doesn't have a "save states" option, so I'll need to ensure that the game, if I get it running, is properly saving to a blank disk. Until I figure it out or some help comes along, I'm listing it as "NP."


Further reading: Posts on the entire DND line: The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1975); The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975); Dungeon of Death (1979); Telengard (1982); Caverns of Zoarre (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.


  1. Well, it does look like a decade of stagnation with this branch.

    1. Indeed. With Rogue and Moria already available by 1984, there were much better ways to play shareware games with limited graphics and permadeath. Maybe not yet for DOS, though.

  2. I remember playing a DOS game called 'dnd' back in the day. It didn't draw the screen properly, and I just didn't get why the game was fun. Featureless, dry, empty. This must have been it, I remember the text mode dungeon drawing and the "wait while the dungeon door is forced open" text. Yet another lousy game I got to play while all the classics went undiscovered.

    Didn't this game want to do something with your printer? I seem to remember some part of the game wasn't accessible because I didn't have a printer (I hated programs written by people who assumed because they could shell out the big bucks for a printer, that meant that everyone could).

    I found this bizarre story that includes an account of playing DND (search for 'dnd' to start at the relevant section).

    1. Back in the day, you would have had to print the maps on your printer in order to use them in gameplay. That might be what you're thinking of.

  3. One thing to keep in mind about people "copying" a game is that there is a vast difference between the look and feel of a game and the code required to implement it.

    In the case of PLATO games later appearing on personal computers, we're talking a complete rewrite of the game. PLATO used a very high-level language (TUTOR), which was designed for CAI (Computer-Assisted Instruction). That meant it was fabulous for making games - It was very easy to draw, animate, and move graphics; putting text anywhere on the screen was trivial, as was creating menus of choices; long-term data storage was a given; etc. There was also plenty of memory available.

    In contrast, early PC's were primitive. Most games in the 70's and early 80's were written in assembly language. Usually people had to create their own graphics routines to get anything at all on the screen, etc. I would not call any PC remake of a PLATO game "plagiarism" (even though copying the look and feel probably technically qualify), because each one was quite a technical feat.

    I had a slightly comparable experience, but much easier, in my first year at Sierra On-Line. My job was to convert the SCI interpreter to run on 680x0-based computers such as the Atari ST, Macintosh, and Amiga. About one-third of the SCI system was written in assembly language for the 80x86 processors, so I had to rewrite all of that by hand.

    Once I actually had an Atari ST to use, I think it still took about a month before I was able to light up a single pixel on the screen using a subset of the new SCI code. That was an exciting moment! A week or so later, I was able to display my first sprite.

    I'm mentioning that only to contrast with the early PLATO-inspired PC game developers. For my Sierra work, I had access to the complete PC source code of SCI. Much of my work consisted of instruction-by-instruction translation (I used yellow legal pads for the first pass!). Going from PLATO to the PC, developers only had their memories of what they had seen on PLATO. They likely did not have access to any source code unless they worked on the project. Even if they did, they were going from high-level code such as "MOVETO x, y" to having to implement their own graphics routines in assembly language. They were two different worlds.

    I applaud the early developers for their technical skills and perseverance. If they happened to use the same monster names and game mechanics as an existing non-commercial game, the real accomplishment was in getting it to even work on a different type of machine. As you've noted, Chet, most of those early games were already cribbing most of the stat/monster/spell names from D&D in the first place. Still, I applaud *those* developers as well, because it was not easy to go from a tabletop game to a computer screen even with the power of TUTOR. Writing a PLATO lesson is easy, but getting in the amount of detail those games had... well, time-consuming at the least.

    The "hacker ethic" of the period (see, for example, Hackers by Steven Levy) was that all code should be shared. Not everyone adhered to it, but it was common for someone to take a game like ADVENT and modify it to work on another system or to add some rooms. Admiring a game on PLATO and rewriting it on another computer fit with that spirit, in my opinion. Wizardry is not PEDIT5 or DND. :-)

    1. I think it's certainly possible to admire the effort involved in programming and still condemn the copying of content and mechanics. If I made a claymation version of a Harry Potter film and released it as my own, it would be an amazing technical achievement, but I'd still expect to get sued.

      It doesn't bother me that Lawrence or Knight saw a game they liked and programmed their own versions. It bothers me that they didn't acknowledge their sources and sold the games entirely as their own.

    2. Faithful translations of ancient texts are also incredible feats (eg The Odyssey, 1001 Nights), but similarly, you can't call them original works.

      I suspect if Nintendo ported the QFG series to be played on the DS (which would require a ground up rewrite), and billed it as 'developed by Nintendo', Mr Cole would respond with 'Hey, That's my game!' :P

    3. I guess the legality regarding program copyrights weren't much prevalent in the late '70s since the industry was so young that there wasn't even a curriculum for computer programming, let alone laws to govern it.

      I seem to recall reading on an early computer magazine that a few housewives became legit full-time programmers hired by big names like IBM and AT&T simply because they went through a week-long crash course in coding.

      That said, if the idea of a CRPG then was that a CRPG must have Orcs, Trolls, Fighters, Magic-Users and a character advancement mechanic based of obtaining XP, faulting the later entries for plagiarism would be akin to disqualifying a swimmer for imitating another swimmer's movement during a 200m freestyle competition.

    4. @Tristan: Yes, I might say, 'Hey, that's my game!' and then applaud because more people would get to play it. :-) I make no money from the sales of the original on anyway. Activision, which owns the copyrights, might take a more hostile view.

      I wouldn't be too bothered seeing "Fireball" in a game, but "Maporfic" and "Tiltowait"... Those would be a bit derivative. Still, if the game play, or even the maps, was unique, I'd be ok with it. Robert Sirotek might be displeased. I doubt Robert Woodhead or Andrew Greenberg would have a problem with it. They've long since distanced themselves from Wizardry.

      A bouncing Antwerp? Well, I'd consider that totally ridiculous... including in the original game. :-)

  4. I think the throne thing is a Dungeons and Dragons paper-campaign staple.

    I remember one being in the infamous Tomb of Horrors and the extra-long Temple of Elemental Evil.

    I don't know when the first one occurred, and I only remember the jewel-prying thing from the latter.

    1. I believe the gold retrieved granting XP when you return to town was also a feature of the early Dungeons and Dragons rules. It's been a while since I read through them though.

    2. In the earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons, experience points were given ONLY for getting treasure, with the expectation that players would always be trying to raid a treasure vault, and the various traps and monsters encountered were mere obstacles to this goal.

      As the game (and the metagame) evolved, this became much less practical, as more and more players were going on quests such as "save the princess from the wizard's tower" or "find the man hunted by the armies of darkness before they conquer the world, he somehow has the ability to stop them" instead of just looting dungeons. While this led to some amusing discussions (at least, as far as some old magazine fragments I've found over the years) about how many gold pieces a princess was worth, the system gradually evolved to the "grant experience by overcoming challenges" in use today.

      "Rather than spell points, the game uses a spell "slot" system similar to Wizardry. Spell slots regenerate slowly while still in the dungeon."

      This was not developed by either Bill Knight or Daniel Lawrence, but is a direct translation of Dungeons and Dragons rules mechanics, which used spell slots from the earliest renditions of the rules. Obviously, one of the two had to implement the system in a CRPG first, but neither came up with it, and it is one element that it is quite plausible (but unlikely) to have implemented independently

    3. 2nd edition AD&D still had it as the main source of XP, but ALSO gave treasure for monsters. However, a number of groups, including my Dad's thought that was dumb and just used the XP for monsters. This means they levelled very slowly, though if you played the published adventures as written they advance at almost the exact same pace as more recent editions.

  5. I remember a DOS game, _very_ simlar to DND that had occasional slot machines(?) in the dungeon. They were not random, however, and I quickly learned to exploit them for tons and tons of cash. This was converted to XP upon leaving the dungeon, and so it was trivially easy to level-up without going too deep into the dungeon.

    I played this game ca. 1990, but it was very probably older.

    1. You're probably thinking of the "door with four colored lights" shown in one of the screenshots. If you chose the wrong combination of lights, you got zapped for damage; if you chose the right combination you were rewarded with a large amount of gold (in the version I remember it was a truly ludicrous amount, several orders of magnitude more than you could obtain any other way in the game; in the version shown in the screenshot it seems to have been toned down a bit)

      IIRC the correct color combination for the vaults was random but their locations in the dungeons were not, so once you had a means to recover from the damage you could farm them. And that was indeed how I "won" the game.


    2. Ah, thank-you!

      The colour combinations were "random", but with a very skewed distribution. I actually developed a spreadsheet with the results of many, many plays, and some of the combinations were defininely more likely to work than others.

  6. I've been following this project for awhile anonymously. I've actually gotten KEGS32 working in the past, and I wanted to post on how you can play Wraith. But it turns out you don't even need KEGS32 - AppleWin works fine with the right image.

    I found an archive with two disk images, one of them is called 'Wraith Devils Demise (8-bit Friendly).2mg.' This is the one that works with AppleWin.

    Load AppleWin. Eject any floppy disk images. Go to Config->Disk. Check "Enable hard disk controller...". Select HDD1->'Wraith Devils Demise (8-bit Friendly).2mg'.

    OK out, click the boot button, and it should boot into the game.

    1. All right, I'll check it out. I was hearing things on multiple sites that the game ultimately crashed without a IIgs emulator, but perhaps that was a different version.

    2. I didn't play it long enough to know if it crashes on AppleWin or not. But here's how I got it working in KEGS32. You need the ROM, an OS disk image, and the IIgs game disk image. The OS disk image I found was called 'new.po.'

      Run KEGS32.
      Press F4.
      ROM File Selection -> Pick the ROM file
      Back to Main Config
      Disk Configuration
      s5d1 = Wraith (Works only with IIGS).2mg
      s7d1 = new.po
      Back to Main Config
      Save changes to config.kegs
      Exit Config

      Now you should boot into a IIgs desktop. Doubleclick the Wraith disk icon, then run PRODOS.

      Hope this helps!

    3. Thanks. I'll give it a shot.

  7. Hey, Addict!

    You just added "Flight from the Dark" to your 1984 play list and I am very excited! I am not sure it's a cRPG, but it will be interesting to see your take compared to the other gamebook adaptations. 1984 seems to be a very strange year, indeed.

    It is not on your master game list, but the sequel, "Fire on the Water", was also released in 1984. Those are the only two Lone Wolf adaptations that I can find prior to a platform game in 1991.

    Just in case you want to double-team them, though if you decide the first one isn't very good it's easy to "Reject" the second one.

    I played through about half of the first one but eventually kept hitting a battle that I could not win.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I'll probably do that (both at once).

  8. In Telegard at least, I remember using the thrones to good effect. There was a teleporter on the first level that led to a throne room on level 20. When you sat on the throne you had a chance to either die or gain a huge amount of xp (100K?). It was easy enough to just keep creating characters until one successfully sat on the throne 3 or 4 times without dying.

    1. My first real "campaign" in tabletop D&D was deadly, but the DM and players loved the "Deck of Many Things" magic item so much that the DM put a permanent deck in an easily-accessible room in a dungeon. Each character could use it exactly once.

      When someone rolled up a new character (after the previous one inevitably dying), the rest of the party immediately escorted him/her to the permanent deck and instructed the character to pull the maximum allowed number of cards (I think it was 3).

      About half the time, the character died and the player rolled up a new one. Most of the rest of the time, he would pull at least one card that gave 25,000 or more experience points. As a 6th level or so character, he was useful to the group. As a 1st level (without using the Deck), he'd die in the first encounter.

  9. I legit beat this game last year, and I was pretty pissed when I found out the endgame was broken. I figured that there must be a "true orb" in just one dungeon or something, but I was too angry to bother to find out. Somebody should hack into the code and see what's up.

    1. I'm partly glad to hear that my experience was typical of the norm. I thought maybe I had accidentally hit "no" when picking up the orb or something.

  10. I just recently started playing this again(I played it i the 80s), I use the 88 Plano Tx version. is there any point in the game after you powered up to become almost invincible(I am level 40 and have like +500 weapons and shields, etc). I found an orb in Lamorte, but I cant find anything else in any of the other dungeons on the last floor

    I found maps online so I went through every inch of level 20 in most dungeons.

    On a side note the best thing to do is pick the wizard, he can walk through walls which is a very useful spell

    1. Are you the same anonymous commenter who keeps posting absurdly enthusiastic Telengard postings? Either way, no, there's no point to the game after you find the Orb. There really isn't any point to the game period.

      I agree about the wizard. Being able to blast through walls helps with mapping.

    2. No different person.

      So there is only 1 ORB? or 5 of them

      The one I found was in Lamorte

    3. I think there's one on the bottom floor of each of the dungeons. I didn't try to assemble all of them, but I'd be surprised if anything different happens.

  11. TSR was famous for threatening legal action left and right, so that would make a lot of sense. See: people using HTK (Hits to kill) instead of HP.

  12. Started this recently and after many deaths I have a decent Level 7 fighter and hope they will make it to the orb. But when I buy a map in the store, I can't see how to view it, and I searched online for maps and couldn't find anything. The Shelob's Lair L01 picture above is great, does anyone know where to find maps for the other 99 levels?

    1. When you buy a map, it makes a file in the game directory for it. You should be able to open and view it in Notepad.

    2. Fixed now, I was wondering why my computer couldn't open the file, but changing the extension to .txt and trying Notepad worked. Thanks!


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