Monday, January 6, 2020

Camelot: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

There I am, third from the top, above even the creator himself.
United States
Independently written and released on university PLATO system in 1982
Date Started: 20 April 2019
Date Ended: 5 January 2020
Total Hours: 69
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)


The last of the PLATO RPGs, Joshua Tabin's Camelot united the two previous traditions present on the terminal-mainframe system. From the Dungeon/Game of Dungeons/Orthanc line, he took the single-player approach using a multi-classed character. From the Moria/Oubliette/Avatar line, he took first-person dungeon exploration (with a menu town on top) and a combat system where you fight "stacks" of multiple monsters. Players control individual characters but can message each other as they explore the same shared dungeon, which resets on the hour or whenever all the rooms of a level are cleared. The ultimate goal is to get strong enough to explore Level 10, get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, and use it to force Lucifer to cough up the Holy Grail. It takes a while to learn the game's features, and it's pretty hard even with its "relaxed permadeath" approach, but it has an addicting approach to leveling and inventory acquisition


I've often wondered how I would have fared if I had been a student at one of the PLATO universities in the 1970s or early 1980s, and now I have my answer: my life would have been ruined. I would have skipped classes, missed deadlines, plagiarized papers--anything to spend more time on the computer. I know because that's basically what I did this week. I procrastinated on an already-overdue report to win this 40-year-old game. The fact that money, and not just a grade, is riding on this report probably makes it worse.

Like all of the PLATO games, Camelot is about mechanics. It hardly has any story at all. Its allure comes from its constant sense of character development--the idea that the next level, the next epic item, the next 10,000 points (putting you one position higher on the leaderboard) are all just around the corner. This is the kind of game that transitions you from 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM before you've noticed what happened.

I don't often schedule my games to offer compelling comparisons, but what an amazing lesson in contrast we have between Camelot and Challenge of the Five Realms, written 10 years apart for very different audiences. Challenge has all of the content of an excellent RPG--game world, NPCs, dialogue, and plot. Camelot has the mechanics of an excellent RPG--statistics, inventory, and combat tactics. I think it's fair to say that I appreciate and enjoy Challenge's approach, but I am addicted to Camelot's.

Part of the fun of my experience came from author Josh Tabin's occasional presence as I played. (He and his son stayed up with me until 1:00 AM the other night, cheering me on as I won.) I couldn't experience the game the way it was with 20 players swarming the dungeon, but at least I got some of the experience. He helped me fight a few tough battles (the game divides the treasure among the number of people in the room, I discovered, even if you can't see each other) and alerted me where he'd seen a particular foe or item. I want to say that he gave me a lot of hints, but perhaps a better way to say it is that he led me to a lot of hints. He avoided most outright spoilers and instead said things like "Hey, I saw a TARDIS in the shop--you should buy it and see what it does."

Unfortunately, players can't directly help each other by giving each other money or equipment. But they can alert each other to where they've seen, say, a group of lizard men with a particularly large chest, knowing that lizard men often drop magic boots. They can say stuff to each other like, "I just sold a Manual of Quickness to the store if anyone wants to buy it." And of course they can help each other directly in combat.

I think it's been a while since Tabin had anyone take such active interest in his game. He used the occasion to make some tweaks while my own experience was in progress. One was to add a "difficulty setting." He said the programming was already in there, but he had never turned it on. Now any player can customize his own difficulty from "easy" to "nightmare." Easier games make enemies less effective but also give you a lower score. "Nightmare" lets you build your character fast for some extra risk. He also added a few more trap types and introduced a system by which low-level enemies run away from high-level characters. I'd often wondered why some of my charmed companions would up and ditch me for no reason, and it turns out that they do it when you attack other enemies of the same type. In a recent update, he made that explicit by having the companion say "he was my BROTHER!" as he leaves your service.
The author added a difficulty setting during the middle of my session.
In my previous entries, I talked a lot about the game's difficulty. It is perhaps most accurate to say that like a good roguelike (which Camelot does an excellent job anticipating), it is very difficult until you get a lot of experience and get a natural feel for what's going on. I was well into my 40th hour before combat tactics really "clicked," and I started to learn instinctively when to use spells, when to attack, and when to run. It took a while before I got to the point that I always had my hands on the right keys as I entered a room, allowing me to act before the enemy. I died a couple dozen times in the first 30 hours of the game and only half a dozen in the last 30.

Another important insight was learning how to strategically develop inventory. Each item has a level (the game calls it a "table") from 1-12 associated with it, and these levels are highly calibrated with the monster levels. A mithril sword (Table 3) simply isn't going to do much against a red dragon (Table 8) no matter how high your level or attributes. So instead of blundering all of the dungeon hoping to find anything, you prioritize trying to upgrade your lowest-level items. The average "table" of a looted piece of equipment is the same as the dungeon level on which you find it. So let's say that most of your stuff is Table 7, but you're still stuck with Table 4 armor (Frosty Plate Mail). Hopefully, you've noticed that dragons tend to drop armor, so you want to be on dungeon Level 7 looking for a Table 7 dragon (blue dragon) carrying Tale 7 Azure Plate Mail. If you've mapped carefully, you've noted that dragons tend to show up in rooms with scorch marks on the walls, and you thus head for that room on Level 7. No luck? Wait for the hour to roll around and the dungeon to reset, or reset it yourself with a TARDIS.
Running into a high-level enemy with a high-level chest in a "stud room," I use my Scroll of Identification to check the odds.
I had originally thought that a lot of the dungeon room messages were just flavor text, but they actually alert you to the type of enemy you're most likely to find there. Monsters of the "slime" table (green slimes, yellow molds, ochre jellies, black puddings) are usually found in rooms that say "the ground is very soft here." If you want to avoid slimes, you avoid those rooms. If you're trying to find enemies from the "bad cleric" list and the potions and scrolls that they often carry, you look for rooms described with "crosses and an altar." Thieves are in rooms with "empty wallets" on the floor. The specific composition of the rooms resets on the hour, but the locations of the rooms of each description do not.

The dungeon levels are full of the types of navigational obstacles that you've experienced if you've played any first-person wireframe game. These include spinners, pit traps, one-way chutes, and teleporters. Some of these are necessary to navigate the dungeon, and you have to map carefully. For instance, you can take regular stairs all the way to Level 6, but to get to Level 7, you need to take a teleporter behind a hidden door on Level 3. Level 8 can only be reached via a teleporter from Level 5, which is in a section that can only be reached via a teleporter on Level 7. Despite the complexity, you learn the steps pretty fast, and I found I could make it from the town on Level 1 to Level 10 in about 3 minutes--faster, of course, if I had the rare Wand of Teleportation.

As you explore downward, it's a good rule of thumb to make sure that either your weapon or your spell item is one or two levels higher than the current level you're exploring. You can do this by repeatedly attacking each level's "stud room"--cued with a note that the walls are covered in blood--which reliably offers monsters and items 1-2 levels higher than the level's average. So if you defeat the stud room on Level 6, there's a decent chance you'll find a Table 8 item.

I was lucky to get a Ring of Wizardry (Table 9) at the stud room on Level 7, and it let me blast my way through the rest of Level 7 and Level 8. (Downside: every time you use a spell item, there's a chance it will run out of charges, and re-charging it at the store is expensive.) Then, early in my Level 10 explorations, I ran into a "friendly" Asmodeus and bribed him $140,000 to drop his chest and leave the room. It had the Level 12 Ruby Staff of Asmodeus in it, which let me kill most things on the level.

Leveling is pretty constant during this process, but it caps at Level 60. I don't like level caps, but in this case I think most players would be hard pressed to hit the level cap long before the end of the game.
My map of Level 10. The numbers are all teleporters.
Level 10 has the game's final encounters with Lucifer and the Lady of the Lake. Lucifer has the Holy Grail but kills you instantly if you don't have Excalibur. The Lady of the Lake, meanwhile, won't give you Excalibur unless you're fully outfitted with Table 12 gear. How do you get Table 12 items when there are only 10 dungeon levels? You can get extraordinarily lucky, as I did with Asmodeus, or you can camp out at the Level 10 stud room, which will feature a new Table 12 enemy every hour on the hour. The Table 12 enemies are a rogue's gallery of pop culture references: Asmodeus, Tiamat, Zeus, Poseidon, The Evil One, beholders, Thor, Jubilex, Lolth, Saruman, Sauron, the Master of Shadows, and--at the top of the "bad clerics" list--Jerry Falwell.
Finding a Level 12 artifact.
There's no guarantee that these enemies will always drop Level 12 artifacts. And if they do, there's no guarantee you won't accidentally destroy them by fumbling the trap. So you have to churn through dozens of encounters to assemble your list. If you don't want this to take dozens of hours, you have to load up on TARDISes (which reset the dungeon manually) and keep using them. This took me about 6 hours by itself and would have taken longer if Tabin hadn't sold one of his character's extra TARDISes to the store.

When you finally have a complete set of Level 12 gear, you go to a water room at the bottom of Level 10, and the Lady of the Lake hands over Excalibur.
Yes, everybody knows it's no basis for a system of government. Please let it go.
From there, it's just a few steps to the stairway to HELL, where you meet Lucifer. He cowers the moment he sees Excalibur, hands over the Holy Grail, and flees.
Satan flees and hands over the Holy Grail.
Once you have the Holy Grail, you need only return to the town, where the game gives you the option to retire permanently. If you want, you can keep playing and finding more treasure to increase your score, which affects your position on the leaderboard. I retired with a score of 673,809. That was enough to put me at the third spot on the board, behind two characters fielded by the mysterious "greg" or "gregl." I could have beaten his high score, but it would have taken another 6 hours of gameplay, roughly.
Am I ever.
When you retire the character permanently, you get the following endgame text, suggesting a never-ending cycle of grail-finding. Then again, there has to be a rationale for more than one winner.
In a GIMLET, Camelot earns:

  • 0 points for the game world. I thought about giving it 1, but I couldn't even justify that. Despite its name and the presence of the Lady of the Lake (nonsensically on the bottom of a dungeon), the game doesn't make any use of Arthurian themes, nor does it replace or supplement them with any story or sense of place. This was the norm with the PLATO series.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There are a few choices in character creation--particularly the race--which make a big difference during gameplay. I chose to take the elf, a weak character who has a low risk of dying of old age (he ended the game about 30 years younger than he started, thanks to Potions of Youth). During the game, leveling is continually rewarding even though it doesn't give you any choices. The little sub-quests to kill specific monsters to reach some levels was a fun addition. 
I just turned Level 60. I assess the level of my equipment as the game gives me my next mission.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Okay, there are no NPCs. But for past PLATO games, I gave a couple points here for the PC interaction that accompanies those titles, and I like how it works here. You don't need other players to enjoy the game, but they can enhance your experience. I also gave a point here to the ability to charm monsters to joining your little "party."
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The game's long list of monsters may be derivative, but Tabin did an excellent job programming their various strengths and weaknesses. A player has to balance his desire for treasure with the knowledge that thieves can steal treasure and slimes can destroy it. A careful player has to note what enemies cause sleep, paralysis, petrification, and destruction. The best part is that all of these strengths and weaknesses are determinable with a Scroll of Identification.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The game has a nice set of options for dealing with creatures, including spells, physical assaults of different types (trading accuracy for power), popping in and out of rooms until you "surprise" the enemies, hitting and running, stealing their treasure out from under them, and bribing them to go away. Only the spell system is underdeveloped, with the character only having access to one "spell" (more of an inventory item) at a time.
  • 6 points for equipment, one of the best parts of the game. The player has 15 equipment slots with 12 levels of items for each slot. Even better is the wide variety of equipment that works in the "Other" slot--scrolls, wands, potions, and the like. There are manuals that permanently improve attributes, cordials that temporarily improve them, scrolls and wands that make navigation easier, items that charm different types of enemies (figuring out what works on which type is a mini-game in itself). Particularly well done is the Scroll of Identification. You can use it at any time, including in-combat and when in the middle of pulling items from a chest. Use it on a monster, and it tells you his hit percentages, damages, and special abilities. Use it on an item, and it tells you what it is and whether it's cursed. Use it on an unopened chest, and it tells you what trap you're facing.
The store always held a chaotic selection of items.
  • 6 points for the economy. For most of the game, you're trying to make enough money just to level up, so deciding whether to sell a potentially useful item for some extra cash, or whether to splurge on that item in the store, or whether to bribe a particular enemy (who may have more gold than the bribe in his chest) presents a continual set of decisions. Even late in the game, when you have plenty (especially after you hit the level cap), finding money contributes to your score.
  • 3 points for quests. There's only one main quest with no decisions or role-playing options, but there are also sub-quests throughout to kill specific monsters.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are what they are, although I think the monster portraits are well done. There's no sound. The keyboard interface for me was easy to master (and the game usually shows you all available commands at the current moment), and I like how everything is always laid out on the main screen, even if it makes the exploration window a bit small.
  • 3 points for gameplay. This is from a 2020 perspective, of course, where I could have fit three other games in the time it took me to win Camelot. There were a lot of moments of frustration, and the linear nature of the dungeon reduces replayability even as the character options (and ever-present leaderboard) increases it. What feels to me today too long, with too many moments of frustration, would have felt the opposite on a college campus in 1982, with plenty of friends around to compare experiences and jockey for high scores.
The final score is 36, which crosses my "recommended" threshold, but not by so much that it would be absurd. It is notably the highest score I've given to a PLATO title.
What's particularly amazing is that Josh Tabin wasn't even a college student when he wrote Camelot--he was 12! As a member of the Explorer Scouts, he had access to a special program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where PLATO was born) that taught middle- and high-school aged kids how to write code. Tabin explicitly joined the program because he wanted to play Oubliette (1978) and Avatar (1979) on the PLATO system. Somehow, he found time to complete Camelot in 18 months. Years later, he attended the university as a student and kept adding to the program.

It's an extremely mature game, and the age of the programmer doesn't come through at all except in a few bits of juvenile humor (in addition to "poison dart," there is a type of trap that rhymes with it; one of the magic bags is called a "large hairy sack") and the varied but predictable pop culture references. The game mixes the monster list from Dungeons and Dragons with the TARDIS from Doctor Who and the occasional quote from Blade Runner or monster or item from Lord of the Rings.

(Tabin waited a long time for this review. He first contacted me in 2013, and I assured him I'd play the game eventually. Somehow it disappeared from my master list, so he contacted me again in late 2017 to ask what had happened. I apologized and promised again that I'd get to it "soon." In anticipation, he sent me a long, enormously valuable set of instructions. Then, it wasn't until July 2018 that I took an initial look at the game and sent back some questions, then April of 2019 before I fully engaged it.)

I'm one of only four wins in 15 years (since the PLATO system was ported to Cyber1), but there were 43 winners between 1985 (when Tabin started keeping track) and 2003, including an early 2000s war between two users who went by the names "kappes m" and "pilcher," each of them winning about a dozen times, trying to push each other off the leaderboard, and changing their character names to poke fun at each other. "kappes m" was responsible for a 20-hour speedrun in which he managed to get the Grail at character level 30 using a challenging pixie character, basically exploiting the pixie's high dexterity to run dungeon levels that should have been out of his league and to steal high-level items from creatures that would normally have been able to stomp him.

But I'm the only one to have documented the ending, which is good enough for me. And with this, we have finally played the last of the PLATO games. I won't be returning to the setting unless I go insane and decide to try to win Oubliette or Avatar or record some video of the games I've already won. It's been a fun ride seeing the complexity that these amateur games achieved in the pre-commercial era, and Camelot was a fitting capstone to the series. But now I've got to stop procrastinating and work on that report.


  1. You're on a nice completion streak, congrats!

  2. Thanks for finishing this, and I'm glad that Josh and his son were there to see you a long. Cool story for what sounds like it was a labor of love for a young man.

  3. "But now I've got to stop procrastinating and work on that report."

    My advice is to not play Stardew Valley.

  4. Fine work, this sounded like a tough one. Never hurts to have the game's creator helping out in cases like these.

    I'd say it's "out with the old, in with the new" for this first week of the new year but you have games coming up that are older than I am, so...

  5. I hate to be melodramatic, but these PLATO games have an energy around them that can only be described as "ghostly." I imagine for the creator it's like going back to an abandoned school, or their old favorite playground. I get that feeling myself revisiting certain games that I used to play online all the time but have largely been forgotten for remasters, sequels, or just better games--looking at you, Halo 1.

    Even games that have "survived" to the present day are usually altered beyond recognition; I tried finding an online game of "vanilla" DOOM and found it impossible, with the lists dominated by mods and game types added years or decades after the fact.

    1. No kidding... the first one came out when I was four, and I grew up during the great 8 bit era surrounded by Apples, C64s, and early DOS computers. To think these were even earlier (and my first game was Tunnels of Doom on the TI99/4a) is just amazing.

    2. There is something vaguely haunting about them. Like they're old abandoned buildings that lost their tenants long ago, but you can still wander them.

    3. Would be funny if you were to try old abandoned MMORPGs where the only way to play them is to emulate a server and play it single player because all the official servers are long gone. Or maybe there are some fan-hosted servers still left, but their population is only around a dozen when originally the game had thousands of players playing simultaneously.

      I guess the Gold Box Neverwinter Nights is kind of like that.

    4. One of my many dreams that I love to fantasize about, but will probably never realize, is to create bootleg servers for AOL Neverwinter Nights.

      There's an open-source C# port of Curse of the Azure Bonds which might be used as a starting point, but I couldn't get it to work in Visual Studio. While I know enough to code crappy little Unity games and Python convenience scripts, I don't have the tools or know-how necessary to reverse engineer a game from scratch.

    5. I remember playing games on my Apple IIe in the late 80s, which had a monochrome green-and-black screen. (Yes, I know the IIe could do colour, but I didn't have the right screen hardware.)

      And I used to get downright scared at times playing games that weren't even horror.

      There's something about all that blackness in the screen, about system-font text coming to you from an unknown creator with unknown motivations, about that space between a bug and an unexpected behaviour that you fall into when the game doesn't behave *quite* as it should...

      It's spooky, in a way that I've very rarely felt on modern systems.

  6. This has to be the longest semi-continuous development of a game by one person. Almost 40 years between initial release and the most recent changes.

    1. "Works of art are never completed, only abandoned" - Da Vinci.

  7. Finally done with these boring PLATO RPGs.

    "He used the occasion to make some tweaks while my own experience was in progress."

    Oh, you mean he finally had a live beta tester. Goody. I'm sorry but I despise this sort of thing. Test your game before release, not on live paying customers. (Yes I know the game is free, but the same principle applies.) It's always that the first run-through of the game you find not one, but a whole bunch of obvious problems that should have been detected. Did anyone play the game before release? The two answers are "no they didn't" and "yes they did but were ignored."

    "I ran into a "friendly" Asmodeus"

    Yaknow, that says more about your alignment as a PC than Asmodeus. :D

    "there were 43 winners between 1985 and 2003"

    I feel this is an important point that never gets said. The vast majority of the players of this game and many games like it *never won*. Ever. They never even got close. They got to level 7, maybe, if they neglected their classes.

    "As a member of the Explorer Scouts, he had access to a special program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where PLATO was born) that taught middle- and high-school aged kids how to write code."

    I always get irrationally angry when I hear stories like this. Every time there's some wonderful computer pioneer, it always turns out that his Dad gave him (illegal) access to amazing computers at work, or had access to university computing facilities, or bought him $5000 systems complete with dual disk drives, a 1200 baud modem with dedicated extra phone line and Roland 32 sound. I was in the middle of the desert of suburbs and it was a struggle to get Dad to waste $300 on a VIC-20, which had 3583 bytes of memory and was, as I found out years later, completely useless for programming. Unless you had the memory expander card, which was, what, $80? Yes, I'm just bitter. Ignore me.

    1. yikes - consider moving the last sentence to the top of that rant!

    2. Harland, Jesus. The game wasn't BUGGY before he added some features recently. It was just new stuff that he thought of and was excited to add. You have to stop seeing the worst in everything.

      What i failed to say in my write-up is that there were perhaps hundreds of winners between 1982 and 1985, when the game was new. Tabin just didn't start keeping count until 1985. By then, enthusiasm would already have been on the wane.

      I hardly think signing up for a gifted & talented educational program is the kind of nepotism you're complaining about.

    3. Things like finding out Bill Gates was wealthy before he ever founded Microsoft. His mom was on the board of directors of the United Way, for Pete's sake. Lord British's dad was an astronaut, which explains why he was so weirdly obsessed with visiting the ISS (Dad wanted him to be an astronaut too and was disappointed with him only becoming one of the most influential video game pioneers ever). Every time it's always that these people had amazing advantages, and generous access to very expensive or unavailable equipment.

      You said earlier the creator fixed a dead-end bug while you were playing, that he had never known about. Good thing he was on the system at the time, eh?

      Think about the average player in the 80s who put in 5-10 hours on the game. They floundered about getting killed on the lower levels in situations they didn't understand. Then they just moved on with life. That's what these games were like to most people back when there were 20 players swarming the dungeon.

    4. I see where you're coming from Harland, but what other option is there? Everybody gets advantages? Nobody? You pick who? At least these people created things that shaped our world, so we should be thankful (or not?). They could have just squandered their advantage to play beer pong every night in college (or start wars). Having said that, lifting up the poorest / most disadvantaged in our societies by having safety nets in, at least, education and health care might help bring out even more amazing creators/inventors/whatever than what we have now.

      To keep it on topic, I would have loved the chance to play this when it was first created as it seems right up my alley. Now, I can barely spare the time to read this blog let alone play video games :) I'm curious how different the 1982 and 2019 versions are, though. Thanks Addict!

    5. I mean, Harland's point boils down to "upper middle class and upper class kids have more advantages in life than others", which is absolutely true, not limited to videogames, and probably deserves a larger and more productive forum than the comment thread on a PLATO RPG.

      Harland, in case you're not *trying* to start fights, the bit of what you're saying that gets people's dander up is not the bit where you talk about your personal experience, preferences, priorities, and tastes in gaming. That bit is great - sharing our personal perspective and memories is part of the joy of the comment thread.

      It's the bit after that where you go on imply it's the one true way to experience games, that everyone who prefers less challenge is morally deficient, and every game that doesn't cater to your preferences is a signifier of a decadent and failing industry. The audience is diverse and a game isn't a bad game just because it's not to your taste.


      Separately, I reckon there's an interesting discussion to be had in Harland's point that the vast majority of players of most games *don't* complete them. Which we know from trophy/achievement numbers, if nothing else. If the typical experience is that a player drops out between the 30% and 60% mark rather than seeing the end credits, is that a failing of the game, that needs to be corrected? Or is it a universal truth of gaming, that design should acknowledge and build around? Is it possible that someone who bails at the 60% mark has actually had a more representative experience of the game than the person who finishes it?

    6. The world is full of "luminaries" sponsored by parents (or spouses, or lovers) who have unlimited money with which to support their career. Some of them are legitimately brilliant, but the majority are competent at best. Yet they enjoy outsized amounts of fame because they can afford to go to lots of events (festivals, conferences, whatever) and be ubiquitous, or because they can advertise their wares (something more relevant to gaming) and throw money at publishing, or whatever. And, especially in the arts, they provide a cash injection to "the scene" that makes their fellow artists reluctant to be candid when appraising their work.

      So yes, money (and privilege) buy fame for sure, and it's neither fair nor is it by any means justified by the quality of the work. I suppose the task of differentiating between fame and importance falls to historians, though most of them refuse to make those kinds of value judgments.

      That said, I suppose the counterexample to Harland's complaint is Steve Jobs, son of a Syrian immigrant who enjoyed no particular advantages in life except for the biggest one of all -- insightful, supportive, and compassionate parents. (Working-class, adoptive parents.) Admire him or hate him, he was clearly brilliant in certain ways. Other, similar stories abound -- Bobby Fischer, for one.

      As Anonymous notes, the true rising tide that lifts all boats is a strong social safety net -- and a lack of war, famine, and disease. Who knows how many Jobs, or Fischers, or Ramanujans, we've lost in the Syrian Civil War, or Sudan, or the predations of the drug cartels, or...

    7. (BTW to be clear, I'm responding to the part of Harland's post that has nothing to do with Camelot in particular. Writing such a sophisticated game at such a young age is, in itself, proof that opportunity clearly went to a deserving person; live-updating the game to help the Addict, and maintaining the code after all these years, is pretty much the definition of mensch.)

    8. Take a deep breath, Harland. It'll all be ok.

      Great write up as always Chet, and fascinating stuff on the origin of the game. I flirted with coding when I was 15, but I didn't have the ambition or the drive to do anything like Camelot.

    9. Eh, I'm over it. I went on to a life that had nothing to do with computers, and I'm better for it. Got out of the industry after the dotcom crash and never looked back. Following this blog is one of the only remaining vestiges of my old computer techie life. It's a great way to see someone play games that I'd never have the patience for today, and it was just a big surprise to find out - again and again - that all these people back then always had an ace in the hole. Always a parent who had some amazing access to incredibly expensive computers while all I had was 3583 bytes free and no modem.

      Is it possible that someone who bails at the 60% mark has actually had a more representative experience of the game than the person who finishes it?

      That's the point I was trying to make, yes. Today it seems most people finish games because there are always FAQs, walkthroughs, let's plays, etc. Back then? Either you figured it out on your own or nothing. That's one way victories meant so much more.

      I remember Scott Adams Pirate Adventure, a game I could never finish. I had a claw hammer and there was this rug that was nailed to the floor; clearly something was supposed to happen there and I racked my brains over years, loading the game up once in a while, getting to that point, and then putting away the VIC-20 again. Later, when USENET and FAQs came about I found out the correct command was GET NAILS. How was I ever friggen supposed to know that.

      I think that most people played games like that back then. A win was something special. You'd play one game for a while, not win, put it away, and then 6-12 months later take it back out and see if you could make any more progress. It took me a long time to win my first game of Civilization (1).

      That on-again, off-again method is how I used to play nethack, learning more and more with every pass, until I finally ascended (v3.1.3) after about ten years of play. I would never have won without massive help. I studied every FAQ and guide I could find, and even still I felt a legitimate achievement when I finally wrested the Amulet of Yendor from the Wizard's corpse for the first time.

    10. Ehm... I'm totally on board with Harland?

  8. Since I read about this game it reminded me all I loved in an Indie RPG I played a while back:

    Joshua might be thrilled (or angry) that all his great ideas (player saving each other, room text based on the mob in it, treasure type and, even dungeon layout) where reused in Mordor: dungeon of Dejenol. It's basically a redo of Camelot

    1. "Good artists copy, great artists steal" - Picasso

    2. Mordor was based on Avatar, an earlier PLATO game. Chet gave it a brief overview here:

  9. Congratulations!

    For the record, in this context I am neither "greg" nor "gregl". :-)

  10. A deeply hidden juvenile side of me found the number of hours spent on this game very amusing.

  11. About your incoming Planet's Edge, I'm still pushing for it being released in 1992 instead. See some previous conversation here:

    1. I hear you, but I don't think you suspicions based on the timing of reviews is enough to override the game's own documentation. If something more concrete comes up, I'll be glad to change it.

  12. Congratulations and thanks for documenting this game!

    This is the first time I see screenshots of a PLATO game with more colors than orange and black. Is this a PLATO feature that was added years after most of the games you've covered here were developed?

    In some screenshots, the "res" in "Cha: 21 res" is green, in others it's all orange. How come?

    1. It's something that got added recently. Until the final session, I was using a version of Pterm (the terminal emulator) that didn't even support the colors, but Tabin insisted that the ending would be ruined without them.

    2. Seeing "Excalibur" in rainbow letters in your inventory list is pretty neat, I have to admit. On a system that has basically no capacity for visual flair, little touches like that can mean a lot.

  13. I enjoy reading this review, as I enjoy reading most of CRPG Addict's reviews. But I always found the review scores of his to be rather low and arbitrary--the fact that he was captivated by the gameplay to finish the game all the way through would surely deserve a score that is higher than 36.

    As a CRPG creator myself (where one of my games is on his list to be reviewed--I am quite certain he will savage it to shreds when he gets around to it;) ), I think what should be considered is that creating such games is incredibly hard work. Consider the differences between Wizardry and Ultima. The former places an emphasis on rules and game mechanics while the latter just uses a simple hit points counter while giving you a world to explore with NPCs to interact with. I am admittedly an autistic rules munchkin, so I am more of a Wizardry fan.

    But anyway, those are my two cents. The CRPG genre does need its fans and critics who are not familiar with the technical aspects (this is not a backhanded comment--without an audience that provide some feedback, whether financial or critical, then there is no motivation to actually create). I think that the creation of Camelot is quite the achievement and I should finally get myself a pterm account so that I can play those legendary PLATO games after reading about them after all these years.


    1. I like the scoring sytem here, it is clear what parts are apriciated and it is by the autors highly personal taste in rpgs but it still gives an indication on what to expect if you would play the game yourself and what parts and games that are recomend. and i like that its not an inflated number sytem that is so common on other reviewpages

    2. OK, I looked at CRPG Addict's spreadsheet and found that the original Wizardry I was scored a 37. So perhaps I spoke rather rashly (or arbitrarily to use my own words).

    3. I think reviews in general are really interesting as a concept. A critic has to walk some kind of line where they have to please their peers, their audience, and the industry, or they can get themselves essentially blackballed. There's too much money in games for honest reviewing.

      So, now, decades after these games originally came out, and with the companies that made them largely gone or absorbed into nothingness, and with many of the people who made them out of the industry, or even dead, they can really be honestly reviewed.

      But who is going to do it? And who is consistent and methodical enough for the reviews to actually be meaningful? Pretty much just Chet, for his own addiction-riddled purposes.

      And, as with every review system, you have to modulate based on what you like. The GIMLET actually breaks this out in pretty fine detail. You could take the category scores and apply a factor to each one based on your importance.

      I've been trying to figure out wine scores lately. It's pretty tough. Some raters just have a skewed scale, usually higher. The whole scale is basically compressed up to the 88-100 range, anyway. And then once you are up in the high 90's... it's going to be a good (and expensive) wine. Below that there's too much noise to really tell. And, of course, too much money in it for ratings to be truly honest.

    4. What most people don't understand about the review system is that it's meant to rank every RPG that has ever existed, so naturally it needs a lot of room to grow. If a 1982 game were able to achieve an 80 or 90 IN 2020, that would hardly leave enough room for the much more detailed stories, the greater depth of NPCs, the myriad options in character advancement and combat, the vastly improved inventories and bestiaries, the dozens of side quests, and of course the graphics and sound of modern games.

      A 36-point game can be addicting and fun, but come on, it was 1982. The genre had a long way to go. And I don't think it's unreasonable to say that in 1982, it wasn't more than a third of the way there.

    5. Addict, I think all that is valid, but -- as you know -- there's also a perspective that would hold RPGs (and other games) haven't "improved", they've just become more complex and aesthetically different.

      Put differently, I have more fun playing Dungeons of Daggorath than (insert modern RPG here). And I feel it has superior graphics and sound to many recent releases because those graphics and sounds do a better job of furthering the game's experiential and aesthetic goals in a way that rewards me. (I might even say that and only that is what graphics and sound are for.)

      So were I doing a project like this, my rankings would always be rigged so that my subjective enjoyment of the game -- or more accurately, the gratification and satisfaction I get from playing it -- is paramount, and my rankings of things like graphics and sound would explicitly rate them relative to the effectiveness with which they further the goals of that particular experience.

      That said, of course the GIMLET is, and should be, what you want it to be. But I think this discussion is always going to come up because, to a lot of people, the idea of "room to grow" doesn't at all seem like an intrinsic part of the RPG narrative (from an evaluative point of view), any more than it's part of the narrative of music or cinema.

      Once an art form develops to the point of offering what might describe as an essentially complete, self-contained experience, later aesthetic and technical developments aren't necessarily experienced as "progress" by all consumers. Otherwise the best jazz recordings of all time would be coming out right now, from musicians who can play every lick of their forebears forwards and backwards, and yet they're not; otherwise we would have contrapuntists who exceed Bach, and yet we don't (certainly not within that idiom).

    6. I'm not sure there's a theoretical limit to how good an RPG can get. What is a "10?" It is kind of like a level cap. It feels artificial.

      It totally makes sense to have benchmarks. Maybe it would help to have a detailed GIMLET for, say, Baldur's Gate or Skyrim to understand the scale.

      But, you can always make something better. Oftentimes technological improvements come in jumps. Even though you've left a lot of room, someday you will wish you had even more room.

      So why make it a 100 point scale? How about it just goes as high as it needs to to represent the spectrum? And that spectrum is likely to change as more RPGs are made. So really it's just how a game compares to your benchmarks.

    7. Well clearly I'm in between the two of you.

      I would simply ask people to remember that I'm not rating experiences here--I'm not rating "fun"--I'm rating RPGs. I don't think you can make a serious argument that Dungeons of Daggorath is a great RPG, as memorable as it might be as an experience. A tabletop player of the day would hardly recognize it as an RPG.

      PK Thunder's comparison to films is a valid one, but it took films a few decades to reach the point at which a 2020 viewer would find them compelling entertainment. CRPGs just were not there in the early 1980s.

      However, I'd also ask you to keep in mind that modern technology is hardly a REQUIREMENT for a high rating on the GIMLET. A game that reaches into the 80s or 90s COULD be developed with mid-1980s technology. Heck, probably one could even be developed on PLATO. They just weren't. But Ultima V (1988) is already a 69-point game on the GIMLET. Pool of Radiance from the same year is 65 points. The two games have different strengths and weaknesses. Mash them together and you have an 85-point game, easy.

    8. I get literally zero out of the GIMLET. Chet provides extensive, nuanced prose commentary about the game through the substantive articles, and there's nothing that an arbitrary score can do to improve on my understanding of the game. Nor do I really think anyone's coming here to look at the GIMLET scores to work out what games are good without reading the articles (although I may be wrong).

      But Chet's the kind of person who likes numbers and systems and rankings, and I get that, and no one has ever come with a flawless way of turning subjective opinions into numbers, and this one seems as good as any.

    9. By "technology" I had meant game design technology, not computer technology... I also like to think of how "acting technology" has improved in the past century. I was definitely not being clear.

    10. >> "But Ultima V (1988) is already a 69-point game on the GIMLET. Pool of Radiance from the same year is 65 points. The two games have different strengths and weaknesses. Mash them together and you have an 85-point game, easy."

      I clearly have too much time on my hands, because this comment prompted me to compare the scores for each category between the two games. The only category in which one clearly dominates the other is Economy (5 point lead to U5). The others are all within two points of each other at most, with 3 categories tied. If you sum up the highest score from each category the total would only be 74. While that would still beat the current high score by a good margin, it's nowhere near 85.

      All of this is completely pointless and a waste of both your time and mine, of course. :P But it does make me wonder what the ideal mashup of Ultima and Gold Box looks like in your head.

      Before anyone asks, here were the scores:


      Game World: 8/8
      Character C&D: 4/6
      NPC Interaction: 8/6
      Encounters & Foes: 7/8
      Magic & Combat: 6/8
      Equipment: 7/5
      Economy: 8/3
      Quests: 7/7
      G, S & I: 6/6
      Gameplay: 8/8

    11. Your fallacy is in thinking that each is similar in the reasons behind its categorical scores. The "highest score from each category" only makes sense if the game that scores the highest fully overlaps the one that scored the lowest.

      In other words, say I gave each game a 4/10 in the economy because each game had 40% of what I look for in that category. If they each had a DIFFERENT 40%, putting them together would give you an 8/10 game, not a 4/10 game. In that sense, 74% is the LOWEST score possible if you simply mashed them together. The highest score possible is the two individual ones added together, maxing of course at 10.


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