Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Game 318: Swords and Sorcery (1978)

The castle ramparts depict all of the different enemies in the game.
Swords and Sorcery
United States
Independently developed in 1978 on the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois
Date Started: 28 January 2019
Date Ended: 30 January 2019
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Medium (3/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 68/333 (20%)
We've had a look at several PLATO games over the years, and most of them fall within two branches. The first is the single-character iconographic maze-crawler, represented by The Dungeon, The Game of Dungeons, and Orthanc, all originally released in 1975. The second is the multi-character, first-person sub-genre, represented by Moria (1975), Oubliette (1978), Avatar (1979), and Camelot (1982). I've at least dipped into all of these except for Camelot.
Swords and Sorcery has you navigate a series of map grids with monsters, treasure chests, and obstacles.
But in my survey, I overlooked Swords and Sorcery, which owes its lineage to none of these other titles. Instead, it is a variant of the prolific Star Trek, written originally by Mike Mayfield in 1971 on his California high school's SDS Sigma 7 mainframe. From there, he ported it to several other systems, and it became so popular that variants of the game began appearing in books of type-it-yourself game code. A decade later, it was tough to find a computer system that didn't have some version of it. PLATO has one, under the lesson name trek.

Star Trek featured gameplay on a gridded star chart, with 8 x 8 quadrants, each quadrant divided into 8 x 8 sectors. The player piloted the Enterprise through these various sectors, tried to complete his mission to destroy 17 Klingon vessels, and found refuge at the occasional starbase. Stars served as obstacles to navigation and combat.
Gameplay in Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) took place on a tactical grid.
Swords and Sorcery is a fantasy adaptation of this basic idea. The character gets quests from a king rather than missions from Starfleet. Instead of Klingons, he contends with orcs and goblins, and instead of phasers and photon torpedoes, he fights with a sword and arrows. The tactics associated with positioning and movement are otherwise all present, with trees taking the role of stars in the earlier game.

But Swords' developer added some elements that qualify the game as an RPG in the way that its science-fiction predecessor did not. First, the character is persistent. He doesn't "win" upon killing 17 enemies, but rather turns in the quest for a reward and then gets another. He gains experience, earns gold, finds items, and retains these things between quests. And the quests themselves vary, with the player able to specify the size of the overall game world and thus (to some degree) the quest difficulty.
Creating the game world.
"Character creation" is just a matter of specifying a name. Characters start with a regular sword and nothing else--not even any hit points. As the first mission begins, the player determines the size of the game world, from 1 x 1 to 10 x 10. This in turn determines how many enemies you face, treasure chests you have to open, and safe "magic circles" you can visit.

The first mission is usually just to chop down trees, the specific number dependent on the number of quadrants in the game world. Sometimes you get treasure-collecting missions or monster-killing missions as the first one. Tree-chopping never occurs after the first mission, which is merciful. Game begins in a random quadrant within the world you created.
An early-game mission on a small map.
The most difficult moments are the opening ones. Experience points are the same as hit points, and you have none of either. Monsters will kill you in one hit if they get adjacent to you. You spend these early stages avoiding monsters rather than engaging them. It takes some experience before you get a feel for how quickly monsters can close the distance, and thus how much room you have to play with on a given screen.

One of the oddities of Swords is the movement system, which works like it did in Star Trek but makes less sense than it did there. You specify a direction and "speed," which is the number of squares you move in one turn. You can choose between 1 and 3. Finding or buying adrenaline phials lets you crank it up to 4. Once you assign these variables, you'll keep moving that direction and speed each round (after whatever other action you take) until you change it or hit "0" to stop entirely. So if one round brings you adjacent to a creature and you choose to attack him on the next round, you can do that, but then you'll continue sailing past your foe whether you kill him or not. If you run into an obstacle, you'll take damage and stop. Any damage is enough to kill you at the beginning of the game, so until you get a feel for the movement system, a lot of your characters will commit suicide by running into trees.
This happened to me a lot in the early game, too.
To survive, you need to find treasure chests. These may contain arrows, which will allow you to kill enemies and build experience at range, or they may contain gold, with which you can buy arrows or experience at magic circles. Rarely, chests will contain magic items like improved swords, shields, armor, boots, and adrenaline phials.
Until you start opening chests, you don't have many options. These 5 bags of gold will now allow me to buy experience (and thus hit points) or arrows.
Finding chests isn't as hard as reaching them without encountering any monsters on the way. Fortunately, while the quantity and type of contents on a screen are fixed, the distribution changes every time you leave and return. So if you arrive on a screen to find a treasure chest on the opposite side with four goblins in between, you can pop off and on the screen, and hopefully the next time you'll find a better arrangement--specifically, one where you can avoid the goblins long enough to reach the chest.
Once you have some arrows and understand the movement system, it's not hard to keep enemies at bay and kill them from afar. Some arrows have damage multipliers that let you kill more than one enemy along the same trajectory. Once you gain a few hundred points of experience, you can engage enemies in melee combat without worrying about instant death; fighting is just a matter of specifying (S)word and then a direction, the only real "tactics" being the use of movement and terrain to ensure you strike first and don't get surrounded.
I'm in the upper-right corner. The three goblins lined up to the south will fall to a single arrow, leaving just the zombie at their tail.
"Magic circles," of which there are about one per four screens, serve in the role of the "starbase" in Star Trek. Monsters can't attack you while you stand in them. You can sell gems and jewelry that you've found and buy arrows, swords (as replacements for those that break), and adrenaline. You can also spend money directly on experience points.
For the tree-chopping quests, I found it easiest to clear out the enemies first, then walk along the border, hewing a tree every step. For monster-killing and treasure-finding quests, you generally complete them as you naturally explore the maps. When you're ready to go home, you enter one of the magic circles and hit "q." You're transported back to the castle and the king gives you gold and experience as a reward. From there, you just hit ENTER to create a new map and get a new quest.
After those initial difficult stages, the game becomes a bit too easy. I played several characters, and if they survived the first quests, they had enough money to keep a large stock of arrows and continue building experience and health. Subsequent missions introduce tougher creatures like werewolves, zombies, wizards, and dragons (along with quests to kill n numbers of them), but their difficulty doesn't keep pace with your own character development unless you get lazy or sloppy.
In my second quest, I face werewolves, zombies, thugs, and goblins in the same screen. It would be smart to just leave to the north rather than fight them all.
One way to force a greater level of difficulty is to create a map of 1 x 1. This leaves you nowhere to run. While your quest will be easier quantitatively (e.g., killing one dragon instead of seven), it will be functionally harder because you'll have to clear out all enemies on the confines of a single screen.
Some people must either like the relative ease or find other ways to make it challenging, because the player list shows 31 players who have each amassed more than 1 million experience points in the 18 years since the game was last reset. The top player, with a user name "paley" and a character name of "hi," has about 1.66 billion experience points. The creator has a character named "goodgulf" with 776 million. Dirk Pellett, one of the authors of The Game of Dungeons, also seems to be a fan: his "Aumkua" has 16 million.
Part of a list of rabid devotees.
Swords and Sorcery was written by Donald Gillies, who first alerted me to its existence in an e-mail. He was a student at Urbana High School, which had access to PLATO, from 1976-1980. Swords was based on a previous title that went under the lesson name think15 before it was deleted by system administrators. Gillies credits the author of that game, Jim Mayeda (a fellow UHS student), on his own title screen. (In between the two, another student's attempt to replicate think15 as think2 was also deleted.) Gillies wrote a first draft in 1977 but says it only included fighting; the full version was finished in the spring of 1978. By 1980, it was the seventh most popular game on PLATO at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Gillies--who went on to an undergraduate education at M.I.T., a doctorate at the University of Illinois, and a career as a software engineer in the private sector--kept a printed copy of the source code and re-typed it when Cyber1 resurrected the PLATO system in 2003.
For no particular reason other than I had the time, I chose this game to create a video review, which you can watch below or on YouTube. This is the first video I've narrated in about 5 years, and I tried to introduce some "production values" that will naturally improve as I gain experience. I'm happy to take recommendations on my approach to videos.

Swords and Sorcery is left off most lists of the classic PLATO RPGs, so I'm glad Dr. Gillies wrote to me, and I'm glad I had a chance to experience his game's unconventional approach. In the coming months, we'll have at least one more PLATO entry covering the last of its RPGs: Camelot (1982).


  1. Wow! Video! YISSSSSS...

    Great to see video back. Educational and informative. Far better at letting us know what the game is like than screenshots. Screenshots and text narrative are still great, though. But with video we're right there with you in the cockpit.

    The arrows track just like photon torpedoes. They hit unerringly, too. I always wondered why phasers even existed in that game. I just used photon torpedoes every time. The DOS version I played had a "computer" in the options, and it would tell you the exact angle to each Klingon on the screen. One of my first experiences with "why did they make this so easy?"

    I had a lot of problems with futility back then. I would just give up on games as they seemed pointless. I have learned since then I am a "challenge gamer" who likes figuring things out, but once things are figured out the game isn't so much fun any more.

    1. That's when you make your own challenge and story by not using the computer "because it's damaged" or something.

    2. damage could actually occur as a result of Klingon hits. But back as a teen I was a pure munchkin and not using something like that was sacrilege. It's there, obviously you use it. But it makes the game super-easy, so why is it even there in the first place? I didn't understand until a few years ago that developers scratch their itches, not yours. The guy put it in there as an option because he could, and he was exercising his programming skill, not because it was a good idea.

      A pity, great variant otherwise, it had friendly Federation starships that would help you, cloaked Romulans, a Mystery Death Planet, and even the Kelvin Doomsday Machine. You can play or download it here, it is NEWTREK.EXE.

      Looking at it again, it even has a "Romulan finder" in the Computer. It tells you "the Romulan is near 8,5" and another Computer option lets you calculate the exact angle in decimals between any two coordinates. Well, I suppose the real Enterprise would have had something like that on board.

      Even Swords and Sorcery refers to the forest in "quadrants".

  2. Our first family pc, an 8086, came with EGA-Trek installed, never realised it was part of one of the original lineages.

    1. Ah, I had to cope with the slower 8088...but VGA. Strange combo

    2. 8 mhz, 640k, 20mb HD. 6-pin dot matrix printer.

      Total. Beast.

  3. No GIMLET rating? Or will there be a second entry?

    1. I don't feel like it's important to focus on the GIMLET for these early, experimental games. I gave it an 18 on the spreadsheet.

  4. I think your approach to videos - just showing a few interesting/typical parts of gameplay that happen during an ordinary session - is very well suited to the types of games you pick and wouldn't gain much by fancy editing. So I don't have anything to critisize. It would be great to see videos more regularly from now on.

    1. I'll do my best. They do take a while, and it's hard to plan them for long games.

      What I need to remember to do is to take video clips of key moments in long games, then edit them together later. Right now, I don't have any software that allows me to put multiple videos together and then add an audio track. I made the Swords and Sorcery one with SnagIt, literally pausing every time I needed to show a new screen or skip to a later part of the game. Obviously, that wouldn't work for Ultima Underworld. Someone recommended Camtasia, which I'll have to check out.

    2. Personally, when I do video stuff, I tend to record with OBS, which is free, and edit it with Openshot, which is also free. If you want to do audio seperately, Audacity's fairly good, and is also also free

    3. DaVinci Resolve is also free, and is essentially professional editing software on the level of Adobe Premiere and Final Cut (almost.) The reason it's so good is that the company (Blackmagic Design) makes cameras, so the idea is you buy their camera, which records to files that sync perfectly with their software, and you don't have to pay for the software since you paid $$$$$ for their cinematic quality cameras. The plus side is that it's a great program, the negative is that it's a bit more complex than your average free editor, and requires some learning. That being said, if you wanted to give it a shot, and needed a few tips, I'm pretty familiar with it and would be happy to help, just shoot me an e-mail. I recommend it generally to anyone who wants to try their hand at high quality editing software, without committing to the cost.

      Great video btw! I like how you got creative and were able to do it without editing- it felt like I was getting a personal power point lecture from the addict himself!

  5. Hei,

    I have to say that I much prefer text and images - I can never commit myself to watching videos (I get bored of the slow pace, what ever the genre), whereas I love well-written articles like yours.

    1. Youtube has x2 speed option. I wish they would add up to x3.

    2. I try my best not to cover anything in the video that I don't put in the blog entry. The only reason to watch the video is if you want to see the game "in motion" or if you simply prefer videos.

    3. There are Chrome extensions that let you speed up ALL HTML5 video (not just Youtube), although the audio disappears around 4x.

    4. I concur with Miikka, I have a hard time watching videos for some reason. Much prefer reading your excellent prose.

      Although putting a voice to the name is pretty cool :)

    5. I'm in the team that prefers written articles too. I love reading your entries during the commute or during slow hours in the office, and text is just much better for that.

    6. This isn't an either or thing though, is it? Looking at the number of videos posted vs the number of block posts, it's pretty clear that the blog takes precedence. The blog posts stand on their own and the videos are just a nice bonus. I like them though and I think they give a beter feel of the games.

    7. block =/= blog

    8. Yay to written articles supplemented with videos that show off the gameplay - particularly for obscure titles that you can't already find videos of.

    9. Just chiming in to agree with some posters that I greatly enjoyed the video, as I do the written articles.

  6. Regarding the list of PLATO RPGs in the video, my curiosity was piqued by Bugs N Drugs (BND) and its hospital theme. Too bad it's lost.

    On Amazon, there's a review (of the book Friendly Orange Glow) by Michael Gorback, co-developer of the game, in which he says he "used to have a paper printout of the [source] code" that was "several feet tall". Sadly, I suppose that means the printout hit a landfill ages ago, given the past tense...

    1. BND has been found and is running on Dale Sinder's version of a CDC/PLATO emulator (similar to Cyber1), found here:

    2. That's terrific news! I figured it had a good shot at resurfacing sooner or later but didn't expect it to be so quick. Can't wait to read the Addict's coverage of it and see it crossed off the missing list for good.

  7. Is the maximum map size 10x10 (as the blog entry says), or 100x100 (as the video says)?

    1. It's 10 x 10. I was thinking 10 x 10 = 100 when I recorded the video, and afterwards I didn't feel like redoing everything just for that one part. I suppose if I had a proper video editor, I could just redub that one line.

  8. For me the video was simply too long, although very well done! I would prefer short videos (maybe 10 minutes) that just complement the blog entries with the motion part, that can‘t be transported in the text.

  9. One correction for the article: Mike Mayfield did not craft Star Trek at his high school. He was a HS student, but he hacked himself an account on the Sigma at UC Irvine.

  10. Actually, "goodgulf" has 67 million experience points as shown in the video, not 776 million.


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