Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Game 219: Dungeons and Dragons (1981), AKA "Heathkit DND"

Dungeons and Dragons
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1981 for Heathkit computers, ported to DOS at an unknown time.
Date Started: 23 July 2010
Date Ended: 17 April 2016
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 51/217 (24%)
This will be my last post on this curiously long-lived branch of RPGs, a line that started with the earliest known computer role-playing games and soon becomes twisted and obscure. During our exploration of the other entries in the lineage, from 1975's The Dungeon to 1984's Caverns of Zoarre and DND, we've reorganized several incorrect chronologies, dispelled several myths, and raised a number of questions. It is fitting, therefore, that our exploration should end on a mystery.

The game in this title is known on some sites as 1985's Heathkit DND, as it was originally created for Heath DOS, an operating system offered on the Heathkit line of computers starting in 1977. Its startup screen gives its real name--copyright be damned--as Dungeons and Dragons. But the title isn't the only thing that MobyGames and other web sites have wrong. It wasn't created in 1985. That might be when it was ported to the IBM PC, but it seems to have first appeared in 1981, as attested by the April 1981 issue of REMark, the magazine for the Heathkit User's Group.
To understand why this revelation shakes our entire understanding of the DND line, we have to go back to the same history I've recounted several times before, starting with the games that make up the DND family tree. Minus 1990s and 2000s tributes, they are (with links to my postings):

  • The Dungeon (1975), by Reginald Rutherford for PLATO, more commonly known by its file name: pedit5. The ancestor of all RPGs, and particularly those in this line.
  • The Game of Dungeons (1975), by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood for PLATO, more commonly known by its file name: dnd. An attempt to revive pedit5 gameplay after the earliesr game was deleted, also making it more complex.
  • DND (c. 1976), by Daniel Lawrence, written first in TOPS10 BASIC, then in Pascal for DEC Systems. Popular but later purged after legal threats from both TSR and Avalon Hill. No known playable copies exist. It was clearly influenced by the PLATO dnd (see below).
  • Dungeon of Death (1979), by C. Gordon Walton for the Commodore PET based on his memories of the PLATO dnd.
  • Dungeons and Dragons (c. 1980-1981), this game.
  • Telengard (1982), by Daniel Lawrence for any number of platforms, published through Avalon Hill. When this deal was struck, Lawrence waged a campaign to get the free DND variants purged from the DEC mainframes.
  • The Standing Stones (1983) by Peter Schmuckal and Dan Sommers for the Apple II and Commodore 64. (This one clearly starts with a PLATO dnd base but offers more on top of it than most of the variants.)
  • DND (1984), by Bill Knight for DOS, later republished as Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain. A recreation of Lawrence's DEC DND.
  • Caverns of Zoarre (1984), by Thomas Hanlin III for DOS, another variant based on Lawrence's original.

The line is distinguished by quick, deadly, action-oriented gameplay. Combat is very basic--boiling down to fight, cast, and evade. The monster list is short, but monsters have levels just like the character, so you might encounter a "Level 2 Dragon" on Level 1 or a "Level 49 Minotaur" on Level 50. As you explore, you find magic items, treasure chests, piles of gold, and special encounters like thrones and altars. Treasure gets converted to experience when you return to the "inn" at the top of the Level 1 stairs. The plot is minimal; many of the games have no main quest. Most important, even though the dungeon has walls, corridors, and secret doors, almost all of the encounters are completely random. You can stand in one spot, pass time, and find limitless combats, gold, and items.
A high-level character encounters a throne. Any of these options has the chance of something good or bad occurring.
For years, various web sites and book authors have insisted that Daniel Lawrence's DND is no relation to the PLATO file, but anyone who has played the full series sees the similarities immediately. As Lawrence was at Purdue University, which had access to PLATO, during the time that The Game of Dungeons was in the height of its popularity, it seems vastly unlikely that he spontaneously created a game with the same name and many of the same elements. Indeed, Dirk Pellet, one of the later contributors to the PLATO dnd, accused Lawrence of blatant plagiarism in a history file available only on the Cyber1 revival of PLATO.

For his part, Lawrence always denied that he based his game on the PLATO original. A key moment comes in Matt Barton's 2007 interview with Lawrence:
Q: There is also another program called dnd that was apparently written by Whisenhunt and Wood back in 1975 for PLATO. Is there a relationship between these games other than the names? I’m guessing that their “dnd” and your “DND” are two entirely different games. How does your game compare to theirs?

A: Not to my knowledge at the time. I did not know/see the other game, but note I was in the same area of the country as they were. Some of my play testers may have well been giving me suggestions from their experiences elsewhere.
One is naturally hesitant to speak ill of the dead (Lawrence passed away in 2010), but quite frankly, I think Lawrence was lying in this exchange. We don't have Lawrence's original DND to compare to The Game of Dungeons, but we do have enough derivatives--primarily the two 1984 games--to reconstruct what Lawrence's DND looked like. Lawrence's explanation that "some of [his] play testers" brought him ideas only makes sense if you can envision them saying, "Hey, Dan! You know what would be cool? If there was some magic item called the 'excelsior' that allows transport between levels!" or "Dan! Make sure you include in your game a spell called 'Kitchen Sink'. Also, include all these other spells and list them in this precise order."
In this variant, a "gray misty cube" takes the place of the "excelsior" transport.
There are just too many similarities: the screen layout, the real-time gameplay, the combat options, the types of magic equipment, WAXD as the movement keys, magic books that increase and decrease attributes, the spells, the way "quaff" is used for drinking potions, the main quest object being an orb. There's simply no question in my mind that Lawrence personally copied almost all of his game's elements from his PLATO source. If not, he didn't have an original idea in his head and his play testers brought him all of the game elements, which still fundamentally makes Lawrence's DND a copy even if he wasn't the one responsible for it.

But if Lawrence was the first cribber in the DND line, he was far from the only one. Every other author listed above played either the PLATO version or one of Lawrence's variants and decided to make (and sell) his own. Their defense seems to be that they only copied the game elements, not the code. Thus, whether these developers, including Lawrence himself, are "plagiarists" relies heavily on whether you think the term should apply to the substance of the game or just the literal code.

Where, in any event, does the Heathkit Dungeons and Dragons fit into this whole mess? The curious thing about this game is that it seems like an early variant of Telengard. Telengard isn't a lot different from other games in the line, but it does have some similarities that it shares only with Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, when you're at the stairway below the inn, both games mention that "you see light above," with the word "light" bolded or highlighted. Both offer similar timing in their rounds, and write "stay" if you don't offer any input in a couple of seconds. Both have a death message that says "another not so mighty [class] bites the dust." The types of magic items and special encounters that you find are nearly identical, and the list of spells--36 spanning 6 levels--is 100% identical.
Combat in the 1981 Heathkit game. All monsters are represented as # signs.
Analogous screen from Telengard.
It's possible that Lawrence's lost DND had all of these elements and both spawned from it, but I doubt it, primarily because the two 1984 games lack many of these features. I think the family tree, rather, goes from Lawrence's DND to Dungeons and Dragons to Telengard, which suggests that Lawrence is most likely the author of the "Heathkit" Dungeons and Dragons, and that this was a pre-Telengard attempt to make money on the series. [Edit: Check out the comments for alternate explanations.]

While Telengard is clearly later--the graphics are more complex, among other things--it's notable that Dungeons and Dragons has a main quest and Telengard doesn't. Moreover, this main quest is unique to this particular game: find the "Heathkit Vault" and defeat the "Lord Master of the Heathkit Dungeon" inside. As the game progresses, you slowly (as random encounters) find pieces of paper that reveal the combination to the dungeon as well as a special password that's supposed to protect you from its various ills.
The dungeon is 50 procedurally-generated levels that change between characters, or even between visits for the same character. "Misty cubes" and a high-level "Teleport" spell can help you move around, but for the most part, you don't have to go anywhere. Stand at any fixed point in the game, and a never-ending succession of monsters, gold, and treasure comes to you. You only need to explore to find staircases and, ultimately, the vaults that either contain magic items or the final encounter with the Lord Master of the Dungeon.

The hardest part about this version, much like Telengard, is surviving to Level 2. You start with no equipment except a Ring of Regeneration that restores 1 point per round. The moment you enter the dungeon, you start getting assaulted by Level 2 vampires and Level 3 fighters and whatnot. They're almost all capable of killing you in one blow. When you finally get a character that takes hold, gains levels, and starts finding some of the other types of magic gear, survival becomes much easier as long as you don't descend too quickly (the game recommends that you keep the dungeon level within +/- 3 of your character level). Eventually, you start finding swords +10 and elven cloaks +20 and Rings of Regeneration +30, after which survival becomes a combat-by-combat thing.
Leveling up by turning in gold to the inn.
However, Dungeons and Dragons is easy in a way that we don't find in Telengard: slain characters are not deleted from the disk. Plus, you can save anywhere in the dungeon in addition to the inn. Thus, keeping a character alive long enough to win is much easier here than in the game's cousins.

The number of experience points needed to level-up doubles in between levels, so pretty soon you need millions. The toughest creatures deliver only a few thousand experience points in combat, so you pretty much end up rely on converting gold to experience. At lower levels, you routinely find hundreds of thousands of gold pieces in a single chest or pile of jewels. After Level 10 or so, there's no reason at all to fight monsters, and the successful character hides or evades as much as possible.
Gold gets pretty ridiculous at higher levels.
You gain one spell level about every three character levels, until a Level 15 character has access to all 36 spells. Unlike hit points, spell points don't regenerate as you explore unless you're lucky enough to find an altar and donate a ton of gold. But they're also not all that valuable. Offensive spells generally equal, or under-perform, physical attacks, so I found myself mostly using spells for travel and navigation: "Passwall," "Continual Light," "Teleport," and so forth.
Fireballing a dragon.
Overall gameplay is more annoying in this variant than in the others. There's an obnoxious pause between every action you take, and cranking up the CPU speed in DOSBox doesn't do anything to solve it. Moving around the dungeon is torturous, since every time you move into a new square, the game rolls to determine if you have an encounter with a monster, treasure, or items in the square. As soon as one encounter is resolved, it rolls to see if you get another one. You might spend several minutes stuck in a single square, dealing with multiple monsters, chests, piles of gold, potions, and so forth. Between all these encounters and the various pits, teleport traps, and elevator traps that can move you around and between levels, it's virtually impossible to systematically explore the entirety of a single level.

There are two things the game does well with numbers. The first is to adjust the maximum level of enemies as you move downward, not the minimum or average level. This means that you might still find a Level 2 skeleton on Level 50. Wherever you end up, there's a decent chance that you can survive at least some encounters. I wish most games that had level-scaling adopted this approach instead of always jacking up the minimum level (cf. Oblivion). The second has to do with finding equipment. When you choose to pick up a sword, shield, suit of armor, pair of shoes, cloak, or ring, it replaces the one you were already carrying. To determine the "+" of the item the game rolls a random number using your current dungeon level as the average. So if you already have a sword +20, you're on Level 2, and the game asks if you want to pick up a sword, the answer is almost assuredly no. If you get the same question on Level 20, you're taking a gamble as to whether you'll get a better or worse sword.

Winning the game is pretty hard, not because of the enemies--you can always just reload--but because of the associated probabilities. Since the vault containing the Lord of the Heathkit Dungeon isn't at a single location, you can't just explore exhaustively until you find it. You have to keep opening random vaults. But before you can even open them, you have to have the passcode and magic word. The passcode, consisting of 3 digits, you find randomly on bits of "refuse" that occasionally appear as random encounters. "Refuse" might appear in 1 in 20 random encounters when you move or stand still. If you find it, there's a chance it's trapped. If it's not trapped, there's a chance it has nothing on it. If it has something on it, there's a chance it's "gibberish." If it's not gibberish, there's a chance that it just tells you the current level. But if you manage to pass all these probabilities, you get one digit to the vault. Since the digits are always between 1 and 4, if you can find two pieces of refuse with the correct digits, you'll have a 1 in 4 chance of guessing the third.

The magic word comes to you through mystical whispers that you get from random encounters. But fighting undead runs a high risk of making you forget the password. So you have to struggle to keep that in memory.

Then, if you're lucky, you find a vault. If I read the game's code correctly, as long as you have the magic word and are on a level higher than 5, there's a 1 in 10 chance that the vault contains the Lord of the Dungeon and a 9 in 10 chance that it contains some treasure: gold, a magic lance that drives off dragons, increased statistics, or a "Scroll of Entry" (no idea what that does). But even if it's the Lord of the Dungeon's vault, there's a 50% chance that he's "on vacation" and you get nothing from the vault.
This screen was responsible for the destruction of many Heathkit keyboards.
Regardless of what's in the vault, the game automatically generates a new passcode, so now you have to sit around looking for pieces of refuse before you can open another one. All in all, you're looking at dozens--perhaps hundreds--of hours trying to stay alive long enough to find bits of refuse, assemble the combinations, and find vaults.
Guessing on the vault combo before I knew that the digits were always between 1 and 4.
Not willing to spend that much time on such a limited game, I took a different approach. It turns out that the game stores your character data--including the combination to the next vault that you'll open--in a moronically simple-to-interpret plain text file. You don't even need a hex editor to open it and adjust your statistics. I used it to avoid having to keep finding pieces of refuse. The next time I found a vault, I saved the game next to it, consulted the text file for the code, and opened the vault. If I didn't get the Lord of the Dungeon, I reloaded and tried again. After about 8 tries, I got the final encounter. It turns out you don't fight the guy or anything: he just welcomes you.
Like Telengard, the game does pretty poorly on the GIMLET. There just isn't enough RPG substance: no story, no NPCs, limited character development, limited combat tactics. It has a smaller variety of non-combat encounters (like altars and thrones) than Telengard, but they're all based on random probability, so it's hard to regard them as fun or challenging. It's final score is 19 to Telengard's 25.
What I thought was going to be the last of a line turned out to be an early variant instead, and it was really Caverns of Zoarre and 1984's DND that closed the chapter on this series--at least until the remakes began in the 1990s. The true history of DND probably died with Lawrence, but perhaps some associate or co-developer out there will one day be able to confirm my hypothesis about Lawrence's authorship of this mis-named "Heathkit DND." 


  1. Hah, an Internet sleuthing quest :) The version floating around on abandonware sites in fact has credits on the top of the DND.BAS file:

    ' R. Wild, OSO11 Nepil, Wheaton, IL 60187
    ' GW-BASIC adaptations: R. Sciamanda, 3110 W. 40 St. Erie, PA 16506
    ' Turbo-BASIC adaptations: Eric J. Kahle, ejkahle@neo.lrun.com

    And there's a Heathkit collector who has a disk image of the original: http://sebhc.lesbird.com/software.html (in the HUG Library archive). The game there is credited to Robert E. Wild, no mention of Lawrence or Telengard.

    I found this very comprehensive collection of DND variants, but it doesn't help explain much.

    Perhaps this game is based on a very early Telengard version, perhaps before the name "Telengard" was chosen? That would fit the timeline.

    Also, at some point an official Telengard version for Heathkit computers was published:

    1. I saw the names but I assumed they were just responsible for the adaptation. The original disk image is better evidence, though, and more damaging to my theory.

      I simply don't understand how this game cannot be connected to Telengard. Too much is exactly the same between them. But if this game really was created by a Robert Wild, it leaves only a couple of possibilities:

      1. Lawrence adapted his early versions of DND from PLATO, then plagiarized AGAIN from Wild's Heathkit version in the creation of Telengard. This one seems unlikely for a lot of reasons.

      2. Lawrence's original DND looked an awful lot like the Heathkit/Telengard versions. Wild plagiarized the Heathkit version from Lawrence. Lawrence (who may have never known about Wild) later sold his DND as Telengard. I feel like this is unlikely because the Hanlin/Knight versions seem quite different from the HK/Telengard version, yet close enough to each other that they probably look like Lawrence's original DND.

      3. Lawrence created his DND in 1976. Knight's and Hanlin's versions were based on this. Lawrence later created a different version of DND that informed both the Heathkit version and Telengard.

      Maybe this Robert E. Wild, if we can find him, has the answers.

      FYI, that "comprehensive collection of DND variants" is so riddled with errors that we can't really use it for anything.

    2. "Lawrence adapted his early versions of DND from PLATO, then plagiarized AGAIN from Wild's Heathkit version in the creation of Telengard. This one seems unlikely for a lot of reasons" - What are those reasons? To me it seems that if the guy resorted to plagiarism once, he'd have no qualms about doing it again?

    3. Chet, you're probably right that the commentary on that page is not very reliable. Still, the collection of old programs is interesting. I tried to see what I could find out about the old DND versions given there.

      TL;DR: They represent a DEC branch of the game, none are "original Lawrence" versions.

      This Facebook post from Jim Burrows, the author of the DND ban memo, was quite helpful:

      The DEC branch begins in 1978 when Lawrence gives a copy of his TOPS-10 BASIC program to some people at DEC. Given that the DEC folks apparently agreed not to distribute the source code, he must have been quite unhappy about everything that is about to follow.

      Various people work on the game, and it looks like there were fairly substantial changes. For example, one of the changelog entries from Jim Burrows is "Rewrite Combat system". In a round-about way, a version of this branch was included on a DECUS tape. (It was part of a collection of games that was contributed by a third party, after the game was banned at DEC itself. The included changelog shows its origin though.)

      DECUS was DEC's user group -- this version would have seen fairly wide distribution. It's still available, and if somebody has access to a VMS system they probably can get this to run. The tape is dated 1984, but most files, except some auxiliary programs, are dated November 1979. http://ftp.digiater.nl/openvms/decus/vax84d/ncs/rec/recsrc/dnd/

      The Chuck Cranor versions on the "unofficial home page" are descendants of this release. The Lars Persson versions seem to be missing some maintenance programs that were in the DECUS release, so it might be earlier or it might have followed a different path. The "TOPS20 executable" is weird, I don't think it's a TOPS-20 program at all. I don't know what it is.

      A second branch originated at DEC's Pascal group who created a clone of the game in Pascal. According to Burrows' post, he was the only one of the people who worked on it that had seen the code of the BASIC version. They intended to ship this version as an example program with their compiler. When DEC's lawyers discovered that this program with a very murky history was about to become part of an official DEC product, they killed it. In this telling of the history, there was no external pressure on DEC, rather DEC's lawyers acted out of caution.

      Anyway, some copies made it out of DEC. Bill Knight used this as a basis for his version. Perhaps others as well.

      Now, as far as I can tell, these DEC versions don't have anything to do with Telengard. It seems that Lawrence might not even have been aware of any of this until he encountered Knight's version.

      That was enough sleuthing. I don't even care about these games :)

    4. VK: "What are those reasons?" You might be right. It just seems to me that if you found that someone had copied your work, you'd be more likely to fight him than to say, "Wow, he made some good additions. I'll copy HIS version!" But this whole history is so tangled I suppose anything could have happened.

      "That was enough sleuthing. I don't even care about these games :)" That's kind of how I felt writing this post. I don't know why I've invested so much ink on a minor, stunted branch of RPGs that was obsolete even in 1981.

      Wrote to Mr. Wild, but not necessarily expecting a reply.

    5. Well, *I* feel it's important to know the actual history of what happened and give credits where it's due.

      "Victors might write history but those who outlive the victors gets to rewrite it." - Nobody Ever

    6. I'm really curious about the family tree here. There's a detail about Telengard that I don't see mentioned anywhere; the earliest version in the wild is for the Commodore PET 32KB, and is copyrighted 1981, same as Heathkit DND. The graphics are a lot more primitive than the DOS Telengard. Lawrence also claims that his first version of Telengard was in 1978 and only used 8KB, but this is hard to verify.

      I downloaded the BASIC source code from the "comprehensive" website for analysis. Even if it isn't a true original, I'd guess it's closer to the Lawrence original than any microcomputer version. The comments in the code date 1976-1978, and the biggest 1978 changes are converting text to lowercase. Some things that I noted:

      There is an Orb to collect, presumably the end goal of the game.

      There is an Excelsior transporter.

      Names are not abbreviated. We have "Elven Cloak +" rather than "ELVN CLK+" as in Telengard.

      "Another {IF LV<4|not so} {Warrior|Cleric|Magicion} bites the dust"

      "You have found a circular stairway"
      "Do you want to {IF LV<>1|go (U)p, } go down, or stay on the (S)ame level:"
      No mention of LIGHT above.

      It doesn't look like there's any sort of realtime element. You can skip a turn with a command for it.

      Helpfile prints this:
      0 OR S stay and wait a turn
      1 OR W Move north
      2 OR D Move east
      3 OR X Move south
      4 OR A Move west
      C Cast spell
      R Drop the orb (if you have it)
      Lists stats and equipment
      List experience,gold,hits and spells
      Replots current position
      K Fall on your sword
      Q Temporarily quit expedition
      (It will be restarted where you left)
      U Utter a pray for escape to the Nameless God.
      H Types this list

      These spells are listed. They don't seem to 100% match any known microcomputer version:
      "Magic missle",Charm,Shield,Sleep,"Protection from evil",Light
      "Phantasmal forces",Web,"Lightning bolt"
      "Hold monster",Fear,"Continual light"
      Teleport,"Power word kill","Prismatic wall"
      "Time stop","Wall of fire","Summon demon"
      "Protection from evil",Light,"Cure light wounds","Turn undead"
      "Detect traps",Silence,Pray,"Hold monster"
      "Cure serious wounds","Dispell undead","Continual light",Plague
      "Holy word","Finger of death","Blade barrior","Raise dead"

      There is no option to select a dungeon to explore. However, the file "VMS dnd" contains two other versions, and both disk image contain the strings "TELENGARD" "SVHENK'S LAIR" "LAMORTE" and "WARREN". The second disk image also contains this readable string:
      "You may now choose the Dungeon for your adventure.The choices are (1) Telengard, (2) Svhenk's Lair, (3) LamorteAnswer 1,2 or 3. If you answer otherwise, I will choose."

      That last thing is kind of a big wrench. But it's my working theory that this order of events happened:
      1976: Lawrence creates his first version of DND, based heavily on the PLATO dnd.
      1976-?: Various mainframe branches of DND
      1978: Lawrence creates an 8KB version of DND for the Commodore PET. It may or may not have been called Telengard. This version is realtime and unwinnable, and was never published.
      1981: Heathkit DND is based on PET DND '78, adding a winning condition and some new scenarios.
      1981: Telengard for 32KB PETs is published by Avalon Hill.
      1984: Knight/Hanlin versions of DND are based on some mainframe branch, skipping the PET/Telengard line.

  2. There is a Dr. Robert E. Wild who recently retired from Purdue, where he was a graduate student in the timeframe in question. Possibly a lead to follow up? https://www.chem.purdue.edu/media/news/2015/Dr.%20Wild%20announces%20retirement.php

    1. Hmmm. I'll see what I can do.

    2. For what it is worth, with some internet sleuthing I was able to confirm that the chemistry professor and software writer are the same Robert Wild. An obituary of his mother gives his parents' names and property records show them as former owners of the address in Wheaton, IL that was provided by Robert in the original distribution.

  3. Nothing substantive to add, just wanted to thank Chet for the incredibly interesting read. Posts like this are the reason I love this blog.

    1. Same here. Debating the merits of different gold box games is great fun, but this is fascinating and valuable stuff.

    2. Agreed. I find documentation of this nature on the history of CRPG's to be incredibly interesting.

  4. I'm looking forward to when we start seeing action-based RPGs more regularly, and I don't mean games that just have you select things from a menu in real-time. To my understanding, it was difficult to put together a good action RPG back in those days - you either did an RPG or an action game, but doing both just required too much resources and complexity.

    Also, the way the big hyped-up boss just welcomes you and ends the game is probably the best subversion of expectations I've seen in an RPG like this.

  5. But the title isn't the only thing that MobyGames and other web sites have wrong. It wasn't created in 1985. That might be when it was ported to the IBM PC.

    MobyGames doesn't yet support the Heathkit as a hardware platform, so it can't be reasonably expected to track release dates to that unsupported platform 8) I always urge them to complete support for all the earliest machines for exactly this reason but sadly especially in the case of systems with small game libraries, they don't rate high priority.

    1. Fair enough. I sometimes forget that release year is associated with each individual version and not the entirety of the game. Couldn't they just have an "other" category?

    2. Also, I have encountered multiple times that the date displayed in the main page is the one for the American version. You have to go to the "releases" page to see the earlier foreign date.
      This happens often with Japanese games that, even for the same platform, didn't get an American release until years later.

    3. Yes! That drove me crazy when I was trying to compile my master list.

  6. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm gamesApril 19, 2016 at 3:10 PM

    Yes, that is definitely plagiarism. Someone should have been sued, like Bioware should have been sued by Christopher Tolkien for copying the plot of Lord of The Rings in Dragon Age: Origins and Harlan Ellison for stealing the plot of Babylon 5 in Mass Effect. Harlan Ellison sued the creators of Terminator for copying his ideas, so I have no idea why he let Bioware go free.

    1. Harlan Ellison was a name I once assoicated with Science Fiction, and having Isaac Asimov as mentor. Nowadays his name is only mentioned in sentences containing the word "sue". Hmm...wonder if his wife's name is "Sue"?

    2. Susan, actually.


    3. Christopher Tolkien should sue the entire fantasy genre for stealing the plot of Lord of the Rings...

    4. As well as the characters and races and mythology and everything else...

    5. That's like saying Muddy Waters should have sued every blues musician because they used the same notes and chords and riffs.

  7. I've followed this controversy both during and since it happened. No one can prove that Lawrence plagiarized the earlier manifestations of this type of game, but ultimately that is not really the point since everyone (Lawrence included) was sort of building on each other (as continues to happen today).

    What Lawrence did to draw such well-deserved anger and disdain is this: He attempted to copyright and personally profit from this whole base of gaming knowledge that was not his sole creation. This line of games was one of the first projects that fed into what eventually became open source programming. I can't substantiate that with documentation but I saw it happen over the course of time. Perhaps your growing body of knowledge can be used to show the importance of CRPGs in bringing developers together world-wide to collaborate on projects.

    Nethack was of course created specifically with that goal. But the idea of Nethack and the desire to keep CRPG code in the public domain was heavily influenced by the attempts of Lawrence and others to personally take ownership of what had been developed by the developer community in the early ages of the university-based internet.

    1. "No one can prove that Lawrence plagiarized the earlier manifestations of this type of game, but ultimately that is not really the point." I'm not sure I agree with either of these clauses. The article on DND on Cyber1 gives the impression that the creators of the original game really did care that Lawrence made copies of it off PLATO and were angry about it. As to whether it can be proven, I guess not to 100%, but if Lawrence's DND looks exactly like the PLATO DND, I don't see what other conclusions that you can draw.

      But I agree with the overall spirit of your comment, and particularly that selling the game was Lawrence's biggest sin. The funny thing is that he is joined in that by at least three other developers that we know of. And it's not even that good a game! I'm not sure why this particular series so lent itself to plagiarism and profiteering.

    2. I meant that no one can prove 100% that he plagiarized, even though I personally believe he did. As regards "that is not really the point", I meant that there were many people all playing each other's games and developing their own during that time. Due to that, there was quite a bit of plagiarizing and building off each other's work to create an even better version throughout that period. It was sort of an iterative group think process which is why I followed that up with the rest of my comment. Even though that line of games is not fantastic, they sowed the seeds in many developer's minds for other bigger and better things!

    3. Did you ever connect with Mike Stephenson (the Nethack license holder)? He could speak to the overlap between the "Free Software Movement" (which became Open Source) and the genesis of Nethack. Nethack's 1989 license was based on Richard Stallman's 1988 GNU Bison license. Stallman is the founder of the free software movement as you probably know.

    4. I don't disagree that the movement existed, only that it hadn't really started in 1976 and the authors of the original DND weren't a part of it. Thus, I don't think Lawrence's actions can be excused as being part of some kind of social norm.

    5. This reminded me a bit to the Bill Gates' open letter: http://www.filfre.net/2015/12/a-pirates-life-for-me-part-1-dont-copy-that-floppy/

    6. Yes, if you read the rest of the article that shankao posted (beyond just the Bill Gates note) then you'll see reference to the "scruffier, more independent-minded hacker culture" that Bill Gates was addressing when he referred to all the hobbyists who were using but not paying for his software. What is most interesting is that Bill Gates was a member of that culture until he (like Lawrence) wanted to profit from software development and then he was suddenly chastising his own community. I'm not taking sides, merely being a historian.

  8. This game is like a recurring villain that's a master of disguise. I look forward to it unexpectedly showing up again in the future.

    I half expect to download the new Baldur's Gate expansion and find out it's just this.

  9. Seeing THAT final "encounter" after your long exposition of the tortuous journey to get there... made me laugh out loud.

  10. I sort of wonder whether the 'magic lance that drives off dragons' isn't the source for the Holy Lance ( very effective against dragons ) in the Talisman board game published in 1983

    1. It's probably more likely to be derived from the myth of St George.

    2. Although, funnily enough, the artistic depictions of St George differ from the legend - in the legend the spear snaps and he ends up slaying it with his sword.

      Regarding Talisman - here's another possible derivation: the Holy Lance is another name for the Spear of Destiny, which was used to stab Jesus as he hung from the cross. As a holy relic, it would presumably have power over Satan, who is also known as 'The Dragon'. The fact that it can only be used by 'good' characters is further indication that that may have been the source material.

  11. The first PC we had in our house was a Heathkit H89 that my dad built (because half of the point of Heathkit products was having to assemble them yourself). I remember learning how to boot CP/M so that I could play Super Star Trek, and typing in BASIC games from Creative Computing books and magazines. I wonder if this game would have run on it?

  12. Oh, Mandragore's coming up. That is one odd game. I never got anywhere in it, but I remember the weird interface. Just picking up an item or equiping something requires a sequence of actions that would pass for a puzzle in other games. I don't know if it's any good, but it's certainly interesting.

  13. Wow, I see you have gone an rejected a great swathe of the 1985 games. Looking at the games left I can see you rejecting most of them too, only Swords & Sorcery looks genuinely like an RPG out of the ones left, and Totally Smashed is a typo, it's a 1995 game. I guess you still have to get a 'Y' in the win column for Wizard's Crown, but 1985 could be over rather quickly.

    1. Yeah, I wasn't even callous about it. I took a sincere look at each one, but none of them were RPGs under my definitions. Thanks for the note on the typo.

  14. A seemingly playable version of the DEC Pascal DND compiled for an early MSDOS computer is at http://oldcomputers.dyndns.org/public/pub/mirror/os2site/sw/dec/rainbow/msdos/games/dnd.lzh

    1. About this dnd version, see http://www.dizzydragon.net/dnd.lunaticsworld.com/dnd_ban_thread.txt :

      "The versions here at DEC added a new dungeon--the Warren--and a new algorythm for combat, and then reimplimented it in Pascal (largely without access to the original sources). In the Pascal version we added all sorts of nifty new things.

      Somehow someone got a copy of the Pascal version without either the permission of the authors of that version, or so far as I know with the authors of the original software and was providing it as "pay as you go software" if you like it you send them money for it. Pretty neat since they didn't write the code. I know, I wrote large sections of the Pascal version, which was done solely by DECkies." (Jim Burrows, 2-Sep-1986)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Sorry for the self-replies. I finally realized the version in my comment above is the "Bill Knight" DOS version reviewed as crpgaddict #180. According to Jim Burrows, then, the history is Jim and others at DEC had a copy of Dan Lawrence's BASIC dnd. They rewrote this in Pascal, added additional features and dungeons (re-using also some dungeons from the original). Then DEC got worried about legalities. (More on that here : https://facebook.com/notes/jim-burrows/the-dnd-ban-at-dec/10150195644192850; apparently the actual worry was about a verbal NDA regarding the source code.) Jim wrote a memo asking everyone to delete DND from DEC machines and not to distribute it. Many folks misconstrued this as aggression from Dan's side, but it seems to have been worries on Jim's side. Bill Knight obtained a copy of the pascal sources which survived destruction, and used it to build binaries for MSDOS computers. He kept up maintainance of this for several years, making some bugfixes and such along the way. He sold this as shareware, without mention of the code origins.

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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