Dungeons and Dragons
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
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."