Monday, February 25, 2019

The Two Towers: A Decent Percentage of Those Who Wander Are, in Fact, Lost

Well, that's helpful.
            
We haven't had many games that support multiple parties adventuring at the same time, and each has handled the notion a slightly different way, depending on the reasons for the separation. For instance, some games support multiple players operating simultaneously, either cooperatively or competitively, such as the Stuart Smith titles, Swords of Glass (1986), and Bloodwych (1989). In contrast, Ultima VI's ability to send an individual party member off on his own was more a matter of expedience in exploration and combat. In some games, you need multiple independent parties to solve puzzles--a dynamic we saw in The Magic Candle (1989) and Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) .

The Two Towers is the first game to require multiple parties solely for fidelity to the narrative. It is also the first in which parties, by design, can never meet. They can't swap equipment, can't help each other out, can't arrange party members in the ways that makes the most sense given the nature of the area and the enemies that they face. I realize why this had to happen to preserve the link to the source material, but given the number of narrative fancies the game manages to introduce within each section, one wonders why they couldn't have taken the same laissez-faire attitude to the story as a whole.
        
Frodo's "lore" skill comes through.
          
When I started the game, I thought that the action would switch only between two parties: Aragorn's and Frodo's. It turns out there are three. The game actually found enough for Merry and Pippin to do in Fangorn Forest (most of it non-canonical, of course). Three parties is too much to juggle. Maybe it changes later, but playing the game in its first few sessions is like playing three separate games with the same engine, and no control over switching among them. The game's abrupt and arbitrary movement among the parties makes it easy to forget what one party was doing before it was so rudely interrupted. I'm not enjoying that aspect.

(Note: if you're already lost because you don't know anything about the source material, I'm afraid this entry is going to be rough on you. It's hard enough to explain all the deviations without explaining the original text, too. I recommend at least watching the film trilogy to get a sense of the original characters.)

The last session had ended when the action abruptly left Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and cut to Frodo and Sam, on the other side of the river that I originally thought was the Isen but now know to be the Anduin. Knowing that I had to eventually go south into the Dead Marshes, I began exploring in east-west strips between the river to the west and some mountains to the east. 
            
Gollum meekly joins the party.
          
The area was quite wide. I had to climb down several tiers of cliffs (using the "Climb" skill) in the opening stages. In between two sets of cliffs, I ran into Gollum. I expected some sound and fury from the encounter, but instead a simple use of the elven rope enlisted him into the party. There were no heated words from Sam. In general, party members in this game don't speak to each other very much, which of course is a notable change from the original story.

At the base of the cliffs, we found a small hut with a hostile man named Beredu inside. He yelled us not to enter, then yelled at us when we entered anyway, then attacked us when we didn't leave. We killed him. He had nothing. It didn't seem like an encounter that was supposed to go that way, but I've decided to just roll with everything in this game.
           
Gollum, you may be strong and crafty, but don't go up against the completionist tendencies of the computer RPG player. You'll lose every time.
         
Moving on, we came to a three-story structure that turned out to be owned by a vampire. The attic offered combat with some bats and nothing else. The main floor had a room with a bubbling cauldron where we freed some souls and got a casting of ELBERETH in return. The basement had four sarcophaguses, one of which held a spirit that asked me for the Star Ruby of Gondor, which he said I'd find in a sinkhole out in the marshes.
            
I have a bad feeling about this.
        
In the middle of the room was an obelisk that sucked us in to an area of darkness, and the vampire attacked. I wouldn't have thought two hobbits and Gollum would be very effective against a vampire, but we killed him in a few rounds.
          
Does Frodo canonically kill anything in the books? I don't think he does in the films.
        
Afterward, we found an elf named Gilglin lurking around the corner of the basement, overcome with ennui. I can't remember exactly what I did to rouse him--I remember running through all my skills--but he eventually livened up and joined the party. I assume he's original to the game. The newly-bolstered party had just wandered out the front door of the vampire's keep and started wading through the marshes when action suddenly shifted to Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest.
             
A momentous choice.
          
Fangorn was a large maze. We soon encountered an Ent named Longroot who offered to take us around. When we asked about Treebeard (which I guess was a bit of a cheat), Longroot offered to take us to him, and we accepted. Treebeard had a bit of introductory dialogue before he took us to some part of the forest called Wellinghall. When we spoke to him about Saruman, he agreed that the wizard must be stopped and summoned the Entmoot.
            
Part of the maze of Fangorn.
       
The game gave us the option to wait around for the Ents to come to their decision or explore the forest. I decided to explore. Treebeard warned us about evil living trees called "huorns," but he said they'd leave us alone if we had an Ent in the party, and he gave us one of the "hastier" Ents, called Quickbeam. (The adorable little icon looks more like Baby Groot than the Ents from the flms.) As we explored the forest, we had repeated notes that Quickbeam's presence kept huorns and perhaps other creatures from attacking.
            
What do you want? A cookie?
         
It didn't stop anything else from attacking, though. For a fairly weak party, Merry and Pippin were assailed far more than the two previous groups, mostly by orcs and uruks, and soon their health was at the minimum. Fortunately, Quickbeam had strong attacks and a lot of hit points, and I was able to use him as a tank in most encounters.

The health system hasn't changed since Vol. I, and it's a bit weird. While there are some items that provide minor amounts of healing (e.g., eating rations restores a couple of hit points), healing occurs more often by plot point than by player choice. The initial pool of hit points is expected to last for long intervals.

Characters get knocked unconscious if their hit points drop below 6, after which they lose 1 hit point per round until they die or combat is over. But if they don't die, they "wake up" with 6 hit points and are good to go. For a lot of Merry and Pippin's session, they remained on the edge like this, lasting only a couple of rounds at the beginnings of combats, but waking up slightly healed after Quickbeam had wrapped things up.
            
In battle with some orcs.
        
There were a lot of side areas and side-quests in Fangorn. One confusing questline seemed to ask the party to find the source of the "Entwash," a river that runs to the south of Fangorn and feeds into the Anduin. Some of the Ents I found were inert, and I needed water from the Entwash to revive them. I also needed Entwash water to hydrate a small seed that an elven ghost (Linandel, if that means anything to you fans) wanted me to plant somewhere. In any event, while exploring I ran into an Ent guarding a cache of Entwash water, so I think the whole business about finding the source turned moot.

The forest was full of (I suspect) non-canonical Ents--Greenroot, Longroot, Skinbark, Leaflock--who provided a variety of hints. I rescued some of them from orcs, who had apparently been tasked by Saruman to chop down as many trees as possible. Eventually, one of them joined us--a young Ent named Twiglate who we saved from a forest fire. That was late in the session, though; I could have used him a lot earlier.
              
And the two hobbits will survive a few more battles.
          
On the west side of Fangorn, we found an orc encampment of several buildings and multiple battles. Merry and Pippin got some chainmail and shields (they had started with just barrow daggers), so that helped a bit. On the north side of the camp, a tunnel went into the mountains and we found ourselves in a fairly large dungeon. I probably need to cover it more next time because I don't think I fully finished it this time. The opening room had some large trees, "parched husks," that we're clearly meant to do something with, but the obvious solutions (such as giving them water) don't work. There's also a large obelisk that I can't figure out anything to do with and a silver door that I can't open.
          
Saruman has parties of orcs everywhere trying to find us, and we're in his basement stealing his tobacco.
           
Past the obelisk, a tunnel took us to an adjacent cellar full of storerooms with rations and pipeweed and other supplies. Emerging up from this cellar, we were surprised to find ourselves on the main level of Isengard, and two difficult battles with uruks and Dunlendings. Clearly, we were extremely far afield at this point, so it was a slight mercy when, while exploring the edges of the area, the game intervened to tell us we'd gone too far, and warped us back to Fangorn. 
          
So "free will" isn't much of a thing in this setting, huh?
         
Merry and Pippin's session ended when we returned to the Entmoot. Treebeard told us that a couple of Ents hadn't shown up and asked us to go rouse them. I suspect they both need Entwash water, and I'm pretty sure I already hydrated one of them. Treebeard also gave us a "spell" of sorts that would summon Ents to help us in combat, something we really could have used for the bulk of this session. (Perhaps I was meant to wait out the Entmoot rather than explore while it was deliberating.) Anyway, the game didn't give me a chance to find the Ents or try out the new spell. It abruptly returned the focus to Aragorn's party instead.

My time with Aragorn his group--which included the recovered Gandalf--was mostly spent cleaning up quests discovered in the first session. The primary one was to satisfy the "weregild" set by the survivors of the ruined town of Estemnet. The leader of the town had wanted me to find her husband's sword, her son, and a bag of gold stolen from the town.

The latter two were both found on the edges of Fangorn on the north side of the map. In one clearing, I found the "youth" (although he's depicted as a middle-aged man with a mustache), Harding, fighting orcs alongside a woman named Folwyn. We helped them out and they joined the party. The bag of gold was in another clearing.
           
I suppose that if we were role-playing an "evil" fellowship, we could have just watched him die.
           
The main orc encampment was in the middle of a burned section of forest. Every time I entered, the game told me that there were too many of them and gave me a chance to take about one action before they attacked and we met a scripted ending. I attempted various skills during that brief pause and finally hit the solution with "Sneak." This caused the main body of orcs to drain away, and we were able to set an ambush for the remaining ones. When the dust cleared, we found the sword on the leader's body.
          
I just don't understand why one character's "Sneak" skill can hide the entire party.
            
Harding and Folwyn left us when we returned to Estemnet and delivered the items. The leader, Leofyn, promised that the survivors would try to clear orcs from the land. I'm not sure what that does for me, but perhaps it results in fewer random encounters.
              
You're a glass-half-empty sort of woman, aren't you?
         
Next, we solved the puzzle of the corrupted mearas pool by attacking the orcs' altar at night, releasing a bunch of barrow wights, and killing them. Nearby, a local resident named Heof told us that to finish purifying the pool, we would need to get one of the mearas to drink from it. I don't know why Gandalf is incapable of summoning Shadowfax at the moment, but our solution was to find one to the southeast of the pool and lead him to the pool. 
             
"...which, admittedly, wasn't that long ago."
            
At that point, before we could even take steps towards Edoras and the next stage of our quest, the game yanked us back to Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Gilglin, who I hope is non-canonical because his name sounds a lot like "Gilligan."
                
We're back with the Ringbearer. But for how long?
           
Aside from all the chain-jerking between parties, the one thing that really annoys me about this game is that despite decent graphics, it fails to visually depict important environmental features. It tells us about a tunnel into the mountains rather than showing us. We wander into what looks like an empty building but suddenly get a message that there are orcs all around us (and then, of course, they visually appear just in time for combat). The evil altar on the north side of the mearas pond doesn't appear until we first get a message telling us about it. NPCs show up suddenly in the middle of blank grassland. Too much, in short, depends on the party deciding to walk into what otherwise looks like empty areas, rather than seeing something interesting graphically and saying, "Hey, let's go check that out."
            
How did we get this far into the building before noticing a "group of angry orcs"?
Neither that shrine nor those wights were visible until we walked upon the right set of pixels.
            
But it's early, and the game may yet have some surprises. I look forward to seeing how it handles certain plot elements while also wondering how it justifies, say, the ability to freely explore Isengard.
         
Time so far: 7 hours

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Breadth, Depth, and Immersion (ft. The Seventh Link)

The party continues to explore The Seventh Link's large world.
             
This entry posits a thesis that I've never explicitly articulated before and probably haven't spent enough time thinking about its flaws. I thus particularly invite you to join me in the comments and add or modify the thesis's tenets. It doesn't feel to me like a particularly original argument, so I'd also be glad for any references to other writers who have argued something similar.

The thesis is that a perfect game (although this might apply to films and novels, too) is something like a cube--equal and balanced on three dimensions. I am calling those dimensions breadth, depth, and immersion.
           
Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) had an enormous game world and not enough happening within it.
          
Breadth refers primarily to the physical size of the game. It can be measured in dungeon squares or tiles, or in modern games the length of time it takes to travel from one end to the other. It also refers to the length of time it takes to play and win the game; while this is often a function of size, it can also be manipulated to make a small game seem larger or a large game seem smaller; for instance, in the use of fast travel (making a large game seem smaller) or the re-use of maps (making a small game seem larger).

Depth refers to the things that you find and to the things that happen within that game world. The specific elements depend on the game's genre, but for RPGs it includes things like the backstory, lore, NPCs, quests, and character development.
            
Two separate multi-volume book series covering the biography of a single NPC might be too much for some games--but not for The Elder Scrolls' huge game world.
           
We'll get to immersion in a minute, but for now let's pretend that my thesis has only these two elements, and I'm arguing that a good game is like a square: you want a breadth equal to its depth and vice versa. The easiest way to engage the thesis is to imagine the extremes. A game with extreme breadth and almost no depth would be something like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Fallout 4 if all you could do was explore the map. You'd get bored pretty fast.

The opposite--a game with extreme depth and no breadth--is harder to envision because it almost wouldn't be a computer game at all. Imagine a game of only a couple of dozen squares in which every time your character moves, you have to read paragraph after paragraph of text and engage in hours-long dialogues with multiple NPCs. The computer part would feel superfluous. The Star Saga games are the closest I can imagine in real life.
               
Star Saga (1987) mostly used the computer application to direct "players" to chapters in a several hundred-page book.
           
My thesis is that a good game doesn't have to feature a lot of breadth or depth, but rather than it needs to keep them in balance. It is thus not absurd to argue that Ultima IV is a better game than Dragon Age: Inquisition even though the latter is bigger and has far more story and lore. The issue isn't which has more but which does a better job balancing the two. Ultima IV has just enough backstory and in-game dialogue, lore, and other content to support the size of Britannia and the length of the game. If had featured 200 books with as much text as those found in The Elder Scrolls, it would have gone too far. It would also have gone too far if it had featured the same content as it does, but in a world four times the size.

I have seen the phrase "wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle" applied numerous times to Skyrim. I find it unfair, but only a little. I'd say that it's as wide as the Pacific Ocean but deep as the Arctic Ocean. The game has plenty of depth. It would be insane to argue that it has less depth (e.g., less content, less meaningful NPC interaction, fewer choices, less role-playing) than fan favorites like Dungeon Master, any of the Ultima titles, or even Planescape: Torment. But people aren't objecting to its absolute depth; they're objecting to its depth relative to its breadth. When I say a game is "too long" in my GIMLET, I'm not saying that crossed some objective threshold so much as I'm saying that it's too long for its content.
             
Ultima Underworld (1992), through a combination of graphics, sound, and interface, is one of the first games to make you feel truly "immersed" in the setting.
           
Let's talk about the third axis. I debated for a while about including it, but I do think it's important. Immersion deals with the game's capacity to make you feel like you are truly "occupying" its world, and it's primarily a function of graphics and sound--although we must allow for skilled developers who can engage the player's imagination in the absence of these things, as a good author does.

To understand the importance of this axis, imagine a large game that you believe balances breadth and depth well. Fallout: New Vegas seems to be a fan favorite. Now imagine that it has no sound and the wireframe graphics of Wizardry. Is it still on your top 10 list? No matter how well a game balances size and content, there's a point at which it becomes "too much" if it can't fully engage your senses and immerse you in its world.

None of these variables is completely objective, and immersion is probably the least objective of the three. Its importance has a lot to do with your age and experience level with older games. I still think the graphics in Morrowind are beautiful, but last week, I stumbled on a Reddit thread in which someone posted an image of a horse falling over in Red Dead Redemption 2 and leaving a horse-sized imprint in the mud, and half the commenters were complaining that the imprint wasn't realistic enough. Even among those of us with a high tolerance for primitive graphics, immersion is a mutable characteristic. A game that seems like a solid cube today will slowly flatten as we become used to better graphics and sound.
                
Watching the sunset in Morrowind (2003) still seems lovely to me, but to some people these graphics are hopelessly outdated.
            
The greatest developmental sins are committed by RPG authors who fail to consider these elements of balance. Take Fate: Gates of Dawn, which took me 272 hours to win and featured both an enormous outdoor game world as well as enormous, multi-leveled dungeons. It was a game of ridiculous breadth, and while it had a certain amount of depth--perhaps even more than the typical RPG of the time--it didn't have enough depth to equal the breadth. I still recommend that modern players limit themselves to the opening area and the Cavetrain quest, as those first 50 hours let you experience everything good about the game; the remaining 5/6 of its length is utterly superfluous. Knights of Legend, Wizardry V, and all three Bard's Tale games are all good examples of games whose size greatly exceed the amount of interesting content they provide.

It's tough to find reverse examples--too much depth and not enough breadth. I mentioned the Star Saga games earlier, in which you make a move in a computer application and then read pages of text in an accompanying book. I ended up rejecting them not because they weren't RPGs because they weren't really computer games. There are other examples of games that wanted to do something epic with their themes but struggled with an interface that could support their intentions. ICON: Quest for the Ring is a good example. The three Richard Seaborne games--particularly Escape from Hell and The Tower of Myraglen--had deep philosophical ambitions that weren't quite matched by the gameplay experience.
              
The Tower of Myraglen (1987) wanted to be more profound than the breadth of the game could really support.
             
But even games near-perfectly balanced in depth and breadth often suffer when we consider the immersion axis. I will grant you that there's a somewhat high threshold before it becomes important. It arguably never becomes important in simple arcade games, and even with RPGs, anyone who argues that Wizardry or Ultima or Dungeons of Daggorath are bad games because of their graphics is expressing an opinion so out-of-touch with my own values that I'd almost regard it as a character flaw. But even I would argue there's no place for a soundless wireframe game that takes 200 hours. There is a degree to which good descriptive text can substitute for graphics, which is why I often praise games for including it, but even I would probably balk at an all-text Fallout 4

Deathlord is a good example of a game that's reasonably square with breadth and depth but still largely fails because it's just too big for an iconographic game. I think we're going to start to see this a lot more with 1990s titles, as the use of hard disk installations allows for physically enormous games that are still a bore to explore. The first Elder Scrolls title, Arena, will probably be an example.

Most people probably wouldn't argue that a game's graphics and sound are too good for its breadth and depth, but there are times that you feel that the developer's wasted immersive engines on limited content. Myst is arguably a good example, if you don't love its type of puzzles. Eventually, we reach a point at which depth and immersion almost merge--where the graphics and sound are so good that they let you see, hear, and otherwise experience things that would otherwise have to be rendered as dialogue or written text--and that has implications for this thesis that I haven't fully considered.
                
Fully half of Red Dead Redemption 2's game map exists mostly to look nice, with no significant gameplay content.
          
This thesis gelled as I play The Seventh Link. If you haven't been paying attention, developer Jeff Noyle paid a visit in the comments to my last entry and offered some tips and maps, which motivated me to keep going with the title. The game is mechanically sound: Noyle did a good job replicating the basic experience of Ultima III and IV, including combat, while arguably improving the economy and inventory system. The problem is a reduction in content accompanied by an increase in size. Elira alone--let alone the three other planets--is as large as Britannia (from Ultima IV), has almost as many towns and dungeons, and its towns and dungeons are larger. And yet in the entire game, there is less dialogue than a single Britannian town. While an Ultima player has lots of side-quests and sub-quests to accomplish (find the mystics, find the runes, learn the words of power, meditate at shrines, etc.), the Seventh Link player has a much simpler quest with fewer stages. In short, the game's breadth far exceeds its depth.

When I last blogged about the game, I had explored a couple of dungeon levels but was worried about overextending myself. I think the developer intended a larger, stronger party before tackling the dungeons. Back on the surface, I soon encounter what I most needed: a pirate ship. After slaying the pirates in combat, I was able to board the ship.
           
Blasting enemies with the ship's cannon.
         
As in Ultima III-V, the ship has cannons that can be used to mercilessly wipe out approaching enemies, but doing so offers no experience or gold. They're best used to eliminate enemies you don't want (e.g., anything that causes poison) so you can spend your hit points and spell points on easier and more lucrative prospects.

I used the boat to reach previously-inaccessible land areas and thus visit a few more towns. In one of them, I got a third character, a cleric named Tharon. One of the towns sold a "flying disk," but it's a bit above my price range. I need it to continue exploring the town, although I don't know if you can take it with you when you leave.
            
A second NPC joins the party.
           
There are some interesting graphical vignettes in the outdoor area, including doors in the middle of mountain ranges, archipelagos connected by bridges, towns at the end of mazes, towns with lakes in the middle of them, and so on, but none of this interesting geography leads to any depth in gameplay. The towns have the same identical services and one or two lines each of useful dialogue. This makes the land somewhat exhausting to explore, which is why I'm now using the maps that Jeff provided with no shame.
             
An interesting environment, and yet the town has no more depth or character than any other town.
          
I'm going to make a push to win this in one or two more entries, before I get started with Star Control II, which will require a large devotion of time this weekend.

The final thing I'll say about breadth, depth, and immersion is that my GIMLET doesn't reflect them very well. The considerations aren't entirely absent, but the GIMLET definitely rewards more of everything rather than good balance among the three axes. So far, it hasn't been a huge problem,  but I think it will become one as time marches on. Mediocre games from the 2000s will end up getting much higher scores than excellent classics just because they have more of everything--more NPCs, more character options, more history and lore, better graphics and sound, and so forth. I'm concerned that the GIMLET's purely additive system will result in relative scores that I balk at, like Might and Magic IX ranked higher than Might and Magic III or a bore-fest like Kingdoms of Amalur outperforming Pool of Radiance.

I don't have the answers to this conundrum yet, but sometime this year we'll have a discussion about potential revisions to the GIMLET that better take these factors (and others) into account. This would be a good time to start organizing your arguments.



Monday, February 18, 2019

Missing and Mysteries

I thought I would centralize, in this entry, all of the games that we either can't find or that I've found unplayable or unwinnable in some mysterious way. This should make it easier for readers who stumble across the blog to offer hints. I'll remove titles (or otherwise flag them) when we find solutions and add titles as I verify their "missing" and "NP" status.

I appreciate any leads, but please do not take it upon yourself to reach out to the original developers unless you somehow know them personally. Chances are, I've already tried to contact the most promising leads, and I don't want the authors (or people with their names) to get repeated contacts. If you feel you have a promising lead I may have overlooked, please verify with me first.

Amulet, The (1983, DOS, Numenor Microsystems). Plagiarized version of The Valley. Can't write juicy expose because I can't get it to run. Every version I try crashes with an overflow error after character creation.

Bugs 'N Drugs (1977, PLATO). An early game of the DND lineage. The lesson name was BND. It isn't part of the lessons catalogued on Cyber1.

Castle of Tharoggad (1988, Tandy Color Computer 3). Nothing seems to happen upon reaching top floor and killing monsters. See this entry.

Dragon Lair (1981, PC-88). Attested by this HG101 article and video, but I can't find a version for download. Edit: A commenter came through with some links. This one has been crossed out pending my review.

Dragons Shard (1992, DOS). This game, also known as Terradyne, seems to only exist online in shareware versions. I need a full-featured version without the shareware restrictions. Edit: A reader found and sent me a non-shareware version.

Dungeon (1975, PLATO). A game of this title exists, and it's possible to load the title screen, but there doesn't seem to be any way to start the game. (Note: this is not The Dungeon, or pedit5, which I have already played and reviewed. This one is by John D. Daleske et. al.)

Dungeon (1975, PDP-10). This game by Don Daglow no longer seems to exist. See this Wikipedia article.

Dungeons of Avalon (1991, Amiga). Culminates in seemingly unwinnable final battle. If you cheat your characters to high enough values to win the final battle, nothing happens. See posts here and here.

Empire III: Armageddon (1983, Apple II). No one seems to have turned up a disk image.

GayBlade (1992, DOS). Famous lost RPG with LGBTQ themes. Some of my commenters were pursuing some leads, but that was weeks ago, and nothing seems to have turned up. Reviews, box art, and various commentary prove that the game existed, but no one seems to have a copy. See here for more.

House of Usher (1980, Apple II or Atari 800). Weird little quasi-RPG from Crystalware. May have some ties to an early Japanese RPG. The only Apple II version I can find is part of a compilation and the House of Usher option crashes. The only Atari 800 versions I can find crash the emulator. I figured out the right configuration.

m199h (1975, PLATO). Perhaps the first CRPG ever written, deleted by PLATO admins.

OrbQuest (1981, CP/M). Rare CP/M game derived directly from PLATO Game of Dungeons. No known publicly-available disk images exist. (Note: if you're going to try to help search for this one, please do not bother the individual with the initials B.L. who posted on his site that he acquired the game about a decade ago. Multiple people have already written him and he clearly either can't or won't supply the images; there's no point in continuing to harass him.)

OrbQuest: The Search for Seven Wards (1986, Macintosh). I've been unable to find a place to download this first Mac-only RPG.

Seven Horror's (1988, Atari ST). Read my entry for the full experience. I assembled the seven artifacts I was to find, and got a three-part code word, but never found the key for the final dungeon. I lacked documentation on the game in general and was never sure what I was doing. Edit: commenter Buck found what I overlooked. I may revisit it someday.

Star Crystal: Episode 1 - Mertactor: The Volentine Gambit (1985, Apple II). It seems that this game was never officially released. Edit: Solved in the comments!

TaskMaker (1989, Macintosh). I've been unable to find a copy of the original version, just the color remake from 1991.

Twin Morg Valley (Unknown, Commodore 64). See the bottom of this entry. We still don't know when this was released or what its "deal" is.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Final Word on Daniel Lawrence's DND

The title shows that, just as with The Game of Dungeons, "DND" was just a file name, not the game name.
        
If you haven't had a chance to check out the "Data Driven Gamer," it's worth a visit. The author, Ahab, is still building his readership base, much like I was in 2011. He's more expansive in his selection of games than I am, but his particular focus is to analyze the games' quantitative elements, while still supplying a lot of commentary on the qualitative ones.

Ahab did a great job in the last couple of years analyzing The Dungeon and The Game of Dungeons, prompting me to go back and win those games. But those contributions pale in comparison to what he did last month. For the first time that I'm aware of, he figured out how to get a version of Daniel Lawrence's DND operating on a VAX emulator. For decades, we've had to reconstruct this missing link between the PLATO Game of Dungeons and the commercial Telengard based on player memories, adaptations, and interpretations of source code. Ahab not only showed the game in action, but he won it and supplied a full set of maps (for one of the three dungeons) as part of the process. His material is key to understanding this particular, peculiar line of CRPGs. Among other things, the ability to actually play this game shows that only the file name was DND; the title was--copyrights be damned--Dungeons & Dragons.
         
Gameplay in the VMS/VAX DND. My graphics are all messed up because of a line feed issue that I can't solve. The dungeon walls don't really look this chaotic.
         
Untangling the history of this particular lineage has been difficult, largely because of horrendous misinformation, much of it perpetrated (or at least not corrected) by Lawrence himself, who died in 2010 at the age of 52. (Among other things, he explicitly designated this page, which is so hopelessly confused I don't know where to begin, as the "official DND site." The authors do deserve credit for aggregating and preserving important files.) To read some sites, Lawrence is the father of the entire CRPG line, having written the first DND as early as 1972--two years before tabletop Dungeons & Dragons! His game was so popular, some articles have alleged, that students at the University of Indiana decided to adapt it as The Game of Dungeons. (Of course, it was the other way around.) Even writers who haven't so thoroughly confused the timeline have accepted Lawrence's assertions that he wrote "his" DND entirely on his own, with no reference to any other game, despite that it clearly borrows elements from the PLATO Game of Dungeons and Lawrence went to a university (Purdue) connected to PLATO. In a 2007 interview with Matt Barton, he suggests that his "play testers" might have played The Game of Dungeons and brought ideas to him. To me, such a scenario doesn't begin to explain the similarities between the games.
          
Daniel Lawrence in an undated photograph. Credit unknown.
       
The best truth that I can determine with the available evidence is that Lawrence wrote his first version of DND in 1976 or 1977, clearly after being exposed to The Game of Dungeons on PLATO. I'm inclined to think that 1977 is the more likely date, since DND is closer in similarity to Version 6 of The Game of Dungeons, which wasn't released until 1977. Then again, elements of The Game Version 8 (1978) also seem to show up in Lawrence's work, so it's possible he went back to the well several times during the development of his adaptation. The existence of several mainframe versions would support this thesis.

As we'll see, Lawrence made plenty of additions, and to recognize that he plagiarized from The Game is not to deny his own skill and innovations. His primary contribution was releasing the game to the wider world, first by writing a version for Purdue's DEC RSTS/E system. (In Lawrence's own words, the game was "the cause of more than one student dropping out" and "made me very unpopular with the computing staff at Purdue.") Engineers from DEC maintaining Purdue's system became familiar with the game and liked it so much that in 1979, they asked Lawrence to come to their Massachusetts headquarters and write a port for DEC's PDP-10 mainframe running the TOPS-20 operating system. (There are hints within DEC documents that Lawrence may have been paid for this, and that DEC's intention was to offer the game with its installations. The specific agreement between Lawrence and DEC has not come to light.) This version was subsequently disseminated in many locations where DECs were installed. The VMS/VAX version that Ahab got running seems to have been ported from this mainframe version.

By then, Lawrence had already been porting the game to the micro-computer. In 1978, he wrote a version for the Commodore PET that he titled Telengard, which had been the name of one of the explorable dungeons in DND. Representatives from Avalon Hill ran into Lawrence demoing the game at a convention in 1980 or 1981 and offered him a publishing deal, which ultimately saw PET, Commodore 64, Apple II, TRS-80, Atari 800, and MS-DOS releases starting in 1981 or 1982.
          
The title screen from the Commodore PET version of Telengard. The 1981 date seems unlikely as the actual release year.
             
(None of the histories of Lawrence or Telengard mention the specific convention at which this meeting occurred, but I found a likely session in the GenCon XIV program from August 1981. Unless Lawrence ran the same competition multiple years [I can't find the previous year's catalog], it seems unlikely that Telengard had a pre-1982 release date despite the copyright date on some versions of the game.)
          
In 1981, Lawrence ran a "contest" in which players competed for high scores or other status in some version of DND. Someone from Avalon Hill attended the session, and the result was the commercial Telengard.
            
From then on, Lawrence and Avalon Hill waged war on the ubiquitously-released free versions of the game, ordering their removal from every system on which they appeared. For its part, DEC acceded to legal threats from Avalon Hill, resulting in the modern difficulty reconstructing what those early versions looked like. You can read a long, fun e-mail chain here in which DEC employees try to argue law with their own legal department. Hilariously, various employees request assistance in finding the Orb throughout the thread while their exasperated bosses remind them that the game isn't supposed to exist on any DEC machine anymore.
            
A DEC executive orders the deletion of DND from DEC machines.
            
If Lawrence was guilty of some disingenuous behavior in trying to quash free versions of a game he partly plagiarized, it came back to bite him in repeated plagiarisms of his versions. We've seen plenty of them on this blog, including the so-called "Heathkit DND" (in actuality, also titled Dungeons and Dragons) of 1981, R.O. Software's DND (1984), and Thomas Hanlin's Caverns of Zoarre (1984). There are other BBS and shareware versions of the game that we haven't tried.
              
A DND "family tree."
            
That's the history. But what is Dungeons & Dragons? It's a text-based game with ASCII graphics in which a single character navigates one of three 20-level dungeons in a quest to retrieve a magic orb from a dragon. The layout of the dungeon and the locations of many of the special encounters are fixed, but the locations of combats and miscellaneous treasure finds are so random that you could encounter a never-ending stream of them from the same dungeon square. Combats are with a small menagerie of enemies, each with different strengths and vulnerabilities to the game's various spells. The character gains experience through both combat and treasure-finding, with miscellaneous encounters increasing and decreasing his attributes and providing him with magical gear. When he feels strong enough, he takes on the final dungeon level, recovers the orb, and--if he makes it back alive--gets his name on a leaderboard of "orb finders."

As I mentioned, there are too many elements copied directly from The Game of Dungeons for it to be remotely possible that Lawrence never saw it. These include:

  • The basic approach to game mechanics and goals, including the existence of permadeath.
  • A character creation process that includes a "secret name" for each character, serving as a kind of password
         
The need for a "secret name" is drawn from The Game of Dungeons, but the full set of attributes, the choice of character classes, and the choice of dungeons is new to DND.
        
  • The number of dungeon levels.
  • A main quest to recover an orb.
  • Carrying treasure out of the dungeon converts it to experience points.
          
My character levels up from a treasure haul.
        
  • A list of successful characters called "finders."
  • The existence of a transportation device, called "Excelsior," that moves you among the levels.
  • Basic combat options of (F)ight, (C)ast, and (E)vade.
  • A small number of monsters who have numeric levels assigned.
  • Many of the magic items are identical. Items can be trapped (although Lawrence's traps are more creative).
  • Treasure is found in both chests and random piles. Chests contain vastly more gold than the random piles.
  • Magic books that can raise or lower your attributes.
       
DND's handling of chests and books is the same as The Game of Dungeons.
      
  • Pits that you can fall down, dumping you on lower levels.
          
Luckily, I spotted this one.
        
It's also possible that Lawrence took a few elements from the earlier The Dungeon, including the organization of spells into a number of "slots" per level as well as some of the treasures you can find in the dungeon and their relative conversion to gold.

But Lawrence also added some new things to the Game of Dungeons template, some making it better, some making it poorer. These include:

  • DND has no graphics. Walls and corridors are ASCII characters and the main characters is represented as an X. The Game of Dungeons had graphics for geography, the PC, monsters, equipment, gold, and so forth.
  • Instead of just "gold," the player finds a variety of different treasure types that are converted to gold.
  • DND dungeon levels are much larger.
  • The Excelsior transporter exists on every level in DND, not just the top one.
  • A full set of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons attributes. The Game of Dungeons just had strength, intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity. DND adds constitution and charisma.
          
A DND "character sheet."
         
  • While the character in Game was a multi-classed fighter/magic-user/cleric, DND has the player specify a choice of these classes. As such, combat is rebalanced so that you don't need to cast particular spells to ensure victory, and a pure fighter has a shot at winning. Spells, which could reliably one-shot certain enemies in The Game, are significantly reduced in power. They're also more in line with tabletop Dungeons and Dragons and, it must be said, a lot less silly than The Game.
  • There's no distinction between experience and gold in DND, as there was in Game through Version 5. The Game also changed to a single experience pool starting in Version 6, so Lawrence may have been influenced by the later one.
  • DND offers three dungeons to explore--Telengard, Svhenk's Lair, and Lamorte--each of which might contain the orb.
  • Game resolved combats all at once. DND shows round-for-round results.
            
DND's approach is generally better, but sometimes you wish it would just hurry up and get it done.
          
  • DND completely randomizes the appearance of treasure. The Game "seeded" each level with gold and chests whenever you entered, and you could clear the level, but in DND, treasure has a chance of showing up in every square as you move to it, including those you've already explored.
  • DND adds more special encounters at fixed locations, including thrones, altars, fountains, dragons' lairs, and doors with combination codes.
         
Special encounters with altars are a new element in DND.
       
  • Lawrence replaced the awkward "teleporters" with stairs that remain in a fixed location.
  • DND includes a greater variety of equipment, including magic weapons other than swords. The pluses go much higher, too. Where The Game capped at +3, DND allows higher than +20.
  • DND adds cute atmospheric messages as you explore. Examples: "A mutilated body lies on the floor nearby"; "'Turn back!!!' a voice screams"; "The room vibrates as if an army is passing by." There's even a reference to Colossal Cave Adventure and its hollow voice that says "PLUGH."

Finally, it's worth noting some of the changes between DND and Telengard:

  • Telengard has no main quest. The only objective is to get stronger and richer. For years, I thought this was a defining feature of the sub-genre, but it turns out that it's actually quite rare. Most variants have some kind of main quest.
  • Telengard's has only one dungeon, randomly drawn every time you start a new game.
  • The appearance of thrones, fountains, altars, and other special features are completely randomized, just like monsters and miscellaneous treasure. A player can encounter everything that Telengard has to offer by passing time in a single square. [Edit: This might only be true for some ports.]
  • Telengard has graphics.
  • Telengard has an expanded selection of items, including potions and scrolls.
        
Telengard is a nicer-looking game, but the greater randomization creates a chaotic experience.
          
Only the last item is a clear "improvement." Telengard is arguably a dumbing-down of gameplay in DND. The lack of any main quest is particularly notable, and one wonders why Lawrence or Avalon Hill made the decision to exclude one. Perhaps they thought the game had greater replayability if the only goal was to create a stronger character.

For all the ink writers like me have spent on Lawrence and his game, it arguably had the least impact of the major lineages that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During its day, DND offered perhaps the best simulation of the mechanics of tabletop role-playing on a computer, but its arrival on the micro-computer scene was far too late to have any impact. By the time that Telengard was released, it had already been outclassed by Ultima and games in the Moria/Oubliette/Wizardry line. The direct influence of DND can only really be felt in its few clones, for which there was so small a market that they had to be released as shareware.
             
Gameplay from the Heathkit Dungeons and Dragons (1981).

Gameplay in R.O. Software's DND (1984)
           
Gameplay in Caverns of Zoarre (1984)
            
There is one small exception, and to analyze it we must first note that DND did a reasonably good job anticipating the roguelike sub-genre. In fact, it's hard not to call it a pre-Rogue "roguelike," what with its random encounters, permadeath, and MacGuffin on the 20th floor. And yet it's hard to detect any direct influence on Rogue. (To some extent, Rogue feels like a game created by someone who heard about DND but never played it.) To my knowledge, the developers of Rogue have never acknowledged any direct influence except Star Trek (1971), Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), and a general desire to emulate table-top role-playing.

However, I do think that someone on the NetHack development team was exposed to DND, or at least Telengard. I base this on the variety of special encounters that were introduced to the game at some point between Hack and NetHack 2.3e, including thrones that do different things when you sit on them and offer the ability to pry gems out of them; fountains that have a variety of effects; and altars that ask for money. Granted, thrones, fountains, and altars are fantasy staples that may have been introduced independently, but the specific way that you use them is so similar to DND that I think there must be a connection. It's a minor legacy, but still worth acknowledging.
          
Sitting on thrones in NetHack has many of the same consequences as in DND.

       
Ahab was kind enough to send me the instructions I needed to emulate DND myself. I tried for a while, but I couldn't solve an issue (involving line feeds) that created chaos out of the dungeon maps. (The solution he offers on his blog didn't work for me despite us both having the same version of Windows.) Such a win would have been superfluous coming right on the heels of his own victory anyway. I may return to it at some point in the future, just for the statistic, but not soon.

This entry will serve as my final word on this line of games, which we've visited in bits and pieces since the first year of my blog. If any new information comes to light, I'll include edits in this entry rather than writing anew. In the meantime, there are dozens of web pages and Wiki articles that I don't imagine will be similarly corrected. Daniel Lawrence deserves credit for what he accomplished, but he is not the grandfather or even father of CRPGs.