Sunday, July 29, 2018

Game 298: Doom Cavern (1980)

I'm issuing a $25 Amazon gift card bounty on the identity of "Morwe."
Doom Cavern
United States
Independently developed; published by Synergistic Software
Released in 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 27 July 2018
Date Ended: 27 July 2018
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at time of posting: 14/299 (5%)

As a longtime Robert Clardy/Synergistic fan, I had been looking forward to Doom Cavern since a commenter named Keith first brought it to my attention back in 2015. From the "Campaign" series of 1978-1982 to the World Builder games of 1988-1993, Synergistic has always taken an unconventional approach to RPGs, freely mixing strategy, adventure, and role-playing elements. Players frequently go from moving armies across enormous landscapes one minute to one-on-one interaction with an NPC the next. I haven't always enjoyed the result, but they've never bored me.
The manual promises a computer version of tabletop roleplaying, and the game actually delivers. For a while.
Published in 1980, Doom Cavern came out around the same time as Clardy's Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure, which built upon his previous Dungeon Campaign (1978) and Wilderness Campaign (1979; links to my reviews). I rather expected something along the same lines: a basic maze game with lots of random combats and treasures. Thus, when I finally got it working (belated thanks to those in this thread for making that happen), I was shocked to find a fully-realized Dungeons & Dragons-style module in computer form, complete with NPCs, encounters with role-playing choices, and even the use of an adventure-style text parser.
A typical encounter on the first level. I can GET RUBY, GET CANDLESTICKS, say the magic word to transform the skull, or go back to the map.
None of these things are happening for the first time--the Dunjonquest games starting in 1979 followed a "module" format; we just saw a text/RPG hybrid in Dungeon (1979); and Eamon came out the same year--but it's still rare to find such depth in these early years. It's very different than Synergistic's usual titles, but then again, Robert Clardy didn't program this one. That distinction belongs to an unknown developer going by the name "Morwe," a Tolkien reference.

The backstory is amusing, insisting that the game is set in Norway in CE 1300, but almost immediately segueing into discussions of elves, the blood of Numenor, and an evil wizard from the "Moghul Courts." The setup is that the kings of Hammardoom reigned in peace and prosperity for centuries before an evil necromancer showed up and killed King Hammardoom XVIII. (Haakon V Magnusson is somehow missing from the story.) The kind wizard Rastgoft cast a protective spell around himself and the young prince, Theophan. The necromancer imprisoned them both in the Doom Cavern. He's been growing in power and will soon be strong enough to break the spell and finally execute Theophan. Enter the party.
I think the Vikings were gone by 1300, but that's hardly the worst offense against history.
You play with three characters assigned to magician, cleric, and fighter classes. During character creation, the game rolls random values from 3 to 18 for the standard D&D set of attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma), and you get four chances for each character slot to accept one of the rolls. Otherwise, you have to take the fifth roll, no matter what. After accepting the attributes, you assign the class and race. You don't have to choose one of each class, but it makes sense to do so. The characters don't have any explicit equipment at the outset.
I don't like this guy's chances in melee combat.
Clerics are told that they don't get spells until Level 2. Magicians can choose one spell from among "Sleep," "Read Magic," and "Read Languages." The selection can only be used once, so it's more like an inventory item for puzzle-solving than a classic D&D spell. Once you enter the dungeon, you can leave to rest, heal, and select a new spell (and delete slain characters to replace them with new ones), but the game warns you not to do this too often or there will be some negative consequence.
The assembled party.
Once in the dungeon, the game proceeds a lot like the later Phantasie, as you explore the structure and slowly uncover treasures and encounters. Each square has a quick description--often alerting you to more substantive things nearby--and may contain gold, an NPC, or a combat-related encounter. You use NESW to move and unfortunately have to hit (M)ap repeatedly to refresh the screen.
Exploring Level 1.
Unfortunately, successfully surviving the encounters requires you to hit them in a certain order, and getting through them is clearly meant to be a product of trial and error. Level 1's encounters, in a logical order, are:
  • A piece of paper found near the entrance. The "Read Languages" spell uncovers the text, which is a warning from a party of Ents not to hurry to the room east of the entrance because its doorways teleport you to random locations, including one which causes instant death. 
  • A couple of orcs are torturing an elven princess. Kill them, and the princess gives you a magic armband that, among other things, lowers armor class by 1. If you refuse the gift, the princess gets mad and randomly teleports you.
  • A Holy Sword found at the end of a hallway. A cleric can wield it.
Note the rare graphic.
  • A room full of skeletons with an evil cleric. The Holy Sword acts on its own, sweeping through the room and killing all the skeletons, leaving the cleric for the party. Once slain, he has a note on his body that can be read with the "Read Magic" spell. The note is from "Porru," another servant of the evil necromancer, whose first initial is identified in the note as "K." The note talks of a magic fireball disguised as a skull and gives the password to release it.
  • A room with a fireplace with a skull mounted above it. An invisible warrior in the room retreats if a character has the magic armband. Saying the password PILGAMESH turns the skull into magic fireball. The characters can also loot some silver candlesticks and a ruby. In this one room on the level, the player acts by typing verbs and nouns rather than simple directionals.
  • The central chamber with a frost giant. The only way to defeat him is to use the magic fireball. Doing so opens the stairs to Level 2.
Another chamber in the middle of the dungeon holds a "wizened old man" who gives you hints about the various encounters as long as you can answer his questions about the game's backstory. 
This was an easy one.
The characters fight only two battles on Level 1, and the combat system is pretty sparse. You get a grid with the character and enemies, and a series of random rolls determine damage done per round. It's very easy to lose a character in these early combats and have to exit the dungeon to replace him. There are no real options in combat unless the mage has the "Sleep" spell memorized. 
The combat interface.
I should also note that while the game is graphically sparse, there are some fun animations to accompany certain actions. In the skeleton room, for instance, a little graphic of the sword goes spinning through the room. When you fireball the frost giant, you get a red square followed by something that looks like a mushroom cloud.
"Nuking" the frost giant.
Anyway, I was having a lot of fun when I completed Level 1, and I was looking forward to what the other levels had to offer. That's when the game pulled the rug out from under me. Once I descended the staircase, I got a "congratulations!" screen that was about as elaborate as most game-winning screens. Then the game brought up a menu with options to play Level 1 again, quit, or "go on to deeper levels . . . [if] the dungeon-master's elves have finished deeper construction and the second disk is ready." Choosing that option brings up a message to enter a "continuation disk."
Okay, I got through a single level. Let's not overdo it.
I took to the manual, and sure enough it specifies that the disk only includes the first level. As far as I can tell, subsequent levels were never produced. I can find plenty of ads for the original game, but none for the second level and beyond. It appears that Doom Cavern was never a full game--just a tragic tease--a demo of a game engine that could have been authentically fun if it had actually been developed. As it is, the characters never even level up. Clerics never get any spells. More elaborate combats never occur. 

Perhaps to compensate for what is essentially a scam, Doom Cavern was bundled with a second game, Sorcerer's Challenge, written by Robert Clardy himself. It's a computerized board game in which two wizards battle for control of the kingdom of Thessalona. They take turns casting spells of various durations intended to trap their opponents. Unfortunately, I couldn't play because the game requires paddles and I couldn't figure out how to get AppleWin to emulate them. It's not an RPG anyway, although the map looks somewhat like the one used in Wilderness Campaign and Odyssey.
A lack of paddles prevented me from answering the question.
I toyed with not giving this one a number or rating, but screw it. I played and I "won." It scores 11 on the GIMLET, hurt by a lack of any equipment, economy (you find gold but can't spend it), character development, or main quest that you can complete. If the game had been finished and had featured some of these things, it could have easily crossed 20 points. As it is, it's bottom of the barrel.


  1. One more for the "Older than most people think" pile: Unfinished early-access games sold at full price.

  2. This would then pretty much immediately lead into the 80s/90s unfinished shareware boom.

  3. This has all the trappings of a poor man's "Alternate Reality: The City". I wonder how many other half-made games made it on the circuit.

  4. I do not believe that "Morwe" is a Tolkien reference. There is a character by that name in Mr. Tolkien's unpublished writings, but I do not believe it appears in the published version of the Silmarillion. The first published reference (that I can find) is in a 1993 compilation volume of his unpublished and draft stories, too late for someone in 1980 to use it as their nom-de-plume.

    1. The only lead I can find is this notice in Softalk V2n09 May 1982:

      "Morwe/Graphics from Henderson Associates (980 Henderson Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94086; 408-246-8939) gives the Apple Pascal programmer expanded control over the Pascal system character set, providing all twenty-one DOS Tool Kit character sets in Basic and Pascal, plus set editor and a utility to transfer new fonts to the Pascal environment. Speed tips enable development of animation graphics fast enough for real time gaming. Two disk drives, game paddles. $49.95; manual only, $6.95."

      I can't find a copy of that package. Henderson Associates seems best remembered for an early Mac poker game called Real Poker.

    2. "Morwe" is a word in Middle English/Chaucerian English (it shows up in The Canterbury Tales), meaning "morning".

    3. I guess you're right, Joe. He made so many other Tolkien references in the backstory that when a bunch of Tolkien sites came up when I Googled "Morwë" and got Tolkien links, I just assumed.

    4. Possible lead: someone named Geoffrey Puterbaugh is, at the very least, associated with Henderson Associates in a lasting way, and also had a letter published in the October 1982 issue of Softalk (as Geoff Puterbaugh). Worth checking out further?

      Henderson Associates also had a research project on gay male twins that sparked some Usenet discussion in 1991 after Puterbaugh posted about it, and that now appears to be his main research interest. His Internet presence dries up in 2013, however...

    5. ...and sadly, it appears that he died sometime in 2013 (a sketchy spam site has somehow, in its omnivorous aggregatings, preserved records of his probate proceedings).

      Everything I can find, though, strongly suggests to me that he had the skill set as a programmer and a wordsmith (he worked as an editor) to have written this game, and his letter in the May 1982 issue of Softline strongly suggests an interest both in programmers' intellectual property rights and an interest in RPGs (he calls out Wizardry for its "creative indebtedness" to Moria).

      I think this is our guy.

    6. Fantastic sleuthing! I have reached out to Robert Clardy, the CEO of Synergistic Software and he has agreed to dig this up in his files and tell us who wrote it... in a few weeks. (He's traveling until mid-August.)

      (I tracked him down at some point because I want to interview him for TAG.)

    7. Thanks! I also see that the phone number in the manual, 408-246-8939, is a San Jose number. That's within 15 minutes of Sunnyvale and Cupertino, where Puterbaugh was based for the 1980s (and probably beyond; he moved to Thailand at some point). Obviously a ton of programmers were based there, but it still points in the same direction.

    8. 408 includes Sunnyvale, which is where Henderson Ave is.

      The address 980 Henderson is a residential neighborhood, so Henderson Associates was probably just someone working out of their house.

      I also lived in Sunnyvale in the 80's, but I never met this guy. I was in Elementary School at the time, but, still... suspicious.

    9. Lots of good work here. I was skeptical until PK's post on the phone number. I didn't notice that it was different from Synergistic's number.

      I looked up Puterbaugh's letter in Softline. Lots of interesting issues raised there. The letter that he's responding to seems to make most of the arguments made by software piracy advocates today. Moreover, it's interesting to see an early charge levied against Woodhead/Wizardry. The article that he refers to appeared in the April 1981 Softline, which you can get here:

      I've been hesitant about jumping on the "plagiarism" bandwagon, but again we see that Woodhead is a least a bit disingenuous in telling the origin story of Wizardry without making any reference to the PLATO games, which of course were still very much alive in 1981.

  5. "Morten" is a common given name in Norway. Could it be a first-syllable mashup?


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