Thursday, August 5, 2021

Game 427: Karkoth's Keep (1983)

The game should have asked "Create a character?" to go with the alliteration.
Karkoth's Keep
United States
Indecs Services (developer and publisher)
Released 1983 for DOS
Date Started: 21 July 2021
Date Finished: 24 July 2021
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5), especially if you don't grind
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at time of posting: 111/444 (25%)
Just when I think I've covered all the variants of the old "DND" line, another one pops up. Its author, David Dougher, was around 30 when he published the game. I haven't been able to reach Dougher, but he published the game through the company at which he was, at the time, the Vice President of Marketing: Indecs Services of Taunton, Massachusetts. The company name almost certainly refers to its expertise with DEC systems, and one of its other products was a "source book" for software for VAX. This would explain how one of its employees would have frequent contact with Daniel Lawrence's Dungeons & Dragons, which DEC was including on its VAX installations during this era. Karkoth feels reconstituted from the ground up--with some additions--rather than an actual copy of Lawrence's code, but it's still recognizably of that lineage.
Starting a new game in the town of Nosar.
The game has more of a plot than its colleagues in the "DND" family. Long ago, King Quilan II of Isgalduin was defeated by the witch king Karkoth. Quilan's last stand was at his ancient family castle, which sat atop an underground labyrinth. Quilan spent the last desperate weeks of the siege hiding his family's magic heirlooms but also trying to find a magic sword called Ramdahl that could defeat Karkoth. He was unsuccessful. The player is a descendant of Quilan who must recover the sword from what is now Karkoth's Keep.
Character creation begins with rolls from 3-18 for strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charisma (note the standard D&D order, which was a staple of the Lawrence games). You can re-roll up to 9 times. Race and class choices can modify these attributes up to 24. Races are human, dwarf, greyelf, halfelf, or highelf, which have various bonuses and class restrictions. Classes are ranger, fighter, cleric, magic-user, monk, and "gedi," a kind of fighter/magic-user. I hope that misspelling is deliberate. Every class other than fighters can cast some combination of the game's 11 spells.
Part of character creation.
What makes the game unusual among its brethren is that Dougher took time to program a town on top of the dungeon. It uses a completely different interface than the rest of the game, which makes it a bit odd. You navigate around via a text interface to buy food, weapons, armor, magic items, and healing. There's a gambling hall that has a reasonably accurate simulation of craps. The shops sell a basic selection of weapons, armor, and shields, up to +2. Food is a necessity, as you have to eat one meal a day or die, and days pass quickly in the dungeon. You can only carry a maximum of five meals per character level, so the game keeps you returning to town frequently in the early stages.
My map of the town level.
To get to the dungeon, you have to enter the Laughing Elf Inn and talk to the proprietor, Azab. The game offers a text interface for talking to all of the NPCs in town, but you can only really use it to ask for what they sell (e.g., FOOD) or a hint about the KEEP, which will point you to Azab.
Moving around town uses a completely different interface than the rest of the game.
Once in the dungeon, the game plays like any other "DND" clone like Telengard. Hardly anything is in a fixed location, so you can just stand next to the stairs and pass the turns, and everything will come to you--enemies, treasures, chests, items. This is in fact a good idea in the early stages, since you'll probably have to retreat to town after every successful battle. Once you find a Ring of Regeneration and gain a couple of levels, you can start to spend longer in the dungeon. But the game features permadeath--your character file is deleted upon dying--so you have to play cautiously. I backed up my character file periodically and thus did not adhere to permadeath.
Before I started backing up my save file, I lost my Level 5 "gedi."
In truth, Karkoth is a bit more boring than derivatives like Telengard or Caverns of Zoarre. There are no fountains, thrones, crowns, excelsior transports, or boxes with multi-colored lights. There are no secret doors, traps, or other navigation obstacles except occasional random teleports. There are just monsters and treasures.
There are some interface oddities. The only dungeon commands are movement (NESW), Quit, Magic, Wait, or use a Scroll. Despite the small number, you have to press two keys to activate a lot of them, like WA)it or SC)roll. You can add a number from 1 to 3 to your movement commands (e.g., E3, W2) to move more than one step, but only east and west. Numbers don't work for north and south movement. It's also hard to determine a good cycle speed for the game. The dungeon takes forever to redraw between steps, so you're tempted to crank it up. But at high speeds, you often miss messages, or the game over-reads your keyboard inputs.  
The small number of commands in the dungeon. Walls and doors are ASCII characters, the character is a smiley face, and you don't see enemies at all.
The 48 enemies are drawn mostly from Dungeons & Dragons (e.g., skeleton, orc, goblin, golem, naga, lich), although with some minor changes (e.g., sticky pudding, shambling hulk, lumbering mound, demon hound). The more important thing about enemies is that like most "DND" variants, they come in different numbers and levels. You might encounter "3 Level 5 vampires" or "7 Level 2 wererats." Enemies' levels are dependent on the dungeon level and the character's level.
In combat, you have options to run, fight, cast a spell, or use a scroll. Enemies hit pretty hard, and you can overextend yourself in exploration quite easily even on high levels. As your levels go up, your melee attacks don't get a lot stronger, but your magical attacks do. However, spell points are more precious than hit points because Rings of Regeneration restore the latter but not the former.
Combat options.
I found that in the early game, you want to stay near the stairs or have a scroll of "Transport" handy, which takes you back to the stairs automatically. When you reach the dungeon entrance, your spell points restore, and you have the option to turn in your accumulated treasure for experience points. Throughout the game, you gain far more experience points from treasure than combat, another staple of the sub-genre.
Beyond that, there's not much to do but explore, grind, and slowly accumulate better weapons, armor, shields, scrolls, and Rings of Regeneration. Since experience point requirements double with every level, it takes a lot to get to the level you need (roughly 15) to survive on dungeon Level 10. One easy way to grind is to situate yourself on a safe level, type WAIT to pass a turn, and then hold down ENTER. ENTER always defaults to your last command. If you find treasures while waiting, you'll automatically pick them up. If monsters attack, the default command will be to "fight," and after combat, the default will be to open chests. As long as you regenerate faster than you lose hit points, you can do this indefinitely and then just periodically return to the surface to dump gold for experience points. 
My winning character was a cleric. It took a lot of grinding (but, as above, not a lot of attention during that grinding) to get him above Level 10, at which point I started exploring the lower levels of the dungeon. I found the sword somewhere on Level 10, but owing to the problem with messages going by too fast when the emulator is cranked up, I didn't even notice when it happened. I just happened to notice it in my inventory. 
Suddenly, I looked over and there it was.
Once you have the sword, "Transport" only takes you one level at a time, and never above Level 8, so you have to find the stairs and work your way up while a lot more monsters, attracted by the sword, attack. When you get back to the surface, the game automatically takes you into battle with Karkoth. 
You don't even get a chance to turn in your final gold for experience or heal first.
The final battle is weird. For some reason, as the character and Karkoth trade rounds, you specify an action for both opponents. You can easily win just by having Karkoth cast useless spells. Once you win, your character becomes the new lord of the keep, and future adventurers face him in battle instead of Karkoth. This would have made some sense on a multi-player environment but not so much individual installations. It makes me wonder if Dougher didn't program a mainframe version first.
The final battle. For some reason, I get to specify moves for my enemy.
This is an average entry in a lesser sub-genre, so it doesn't do great on the GIMLET:
  • 1 point for a basic framing story that makes up the game world.
  • 3 points for character creation and development, perhaps the best part of the game. Classes and attributes really do make a difference. 
  • 1 point for a couple of NPCs who don't have much to say.
The game mostly wastes the possibilities of the text parser.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. They're derivative, but the author did program some special attacks.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. You don't have that many options.
  • 2 points for a small selection of equipment that you can find and upgrade. Scrolls are something that most games of this lineage do not offer.
Purchasing a sword early in the game.
  • 3 points for the economy, which is strong for the first hour as you struggle to outfit the character, and remains relevant with the "money sink" into experience points.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. There's nothing special or even clever about the largely-ASCII graphics, the only sound is an annoying beep, and the double-letter keyboard inputs are annoying.
  • 1 point for gameplay. Grindy, boring, linear, and not replayable.
The final score is 18, within the same "high teens" range that I gave Dungeons and Dragons (1981), Caverns of Zoarre (1984), and DND (1984). Telengard remains the best of the lot, which isn't saying much. The entire sub-genre was eclipsed by the greater complexity of roguelikes.
Dougher is an interesting character. He worked at several technical positions before landing a job at a British company called HonourBound, where he served as the lead programmer and then technical director of a MMORPG called Adellion, which was canceled in 2010 after a decade of development (more on the game here). He then started his own company, Pariah Games, which as far as I can tell never released a title but did get a contract to teach programming to high school students in Rhode Island.
Dougher has self-published a large number of fantasy, science fiction, and other genre books under the pen name "David C. R. Nash." He has a web site, but he hasn't been active on it, or his social media accounts, for a few years. I tried to reach him at several addresses, but some bounced back, and I never got an answer from the others.
I would thank LanHawk for helping me get this one running. I originally had a buggy edition that wouldn't let me finish character creation. Let's hope that this is the last game in this sub-genre, but we probably shouldn't count on it.


  1. Three posts in three days, you are spoiling us.

    1. Tends to happen with one being a 'Brief', but I have to admit I appreciate the spoiling, regardless!

    2. I didn't really regard the "Arcan" one as a "real" entry. It was just kind of cleaning up.

  2. Chet is laying waste to the game list. Maybe I am wrong, but I don't think the upcoming "Stronghold (1993)" will meet the RPG requirements. I haven't played it myself.

    1. Yeah, that seems like it'll get a 'brief' most likely. QfG5 should give us something more meaty than the recent batch of hors d'oeuvres to enjoy for a while, though!

    2. Veil of Darkness will at least qualify for a BRIEF, too.

    3. Same as Veil of Darkness it's not a true crpg but I hope it will get at least a brief.

    4. Chet mentioned earlier that he would give it a BRIEF partly just to keep people from asking about it in the future

    5. I can't help but feel like every week since Stronghold got put on the upcoming list someone's said it isn't a RPG. Not to say it is or isn't, but I think Chet's well justified in playing it, given the hubdrub. Veil too, but that's more because every site refers to it as a RPG.

    6. Where is today's post?

    7. Stronghold is like being the guildmaster of a whole stable of adventurers.

    8. That's the disadvantage of the comment system on blogger, unless you read every comment you really don't know what has been said about a game before.

      But just to get the ball rolling, Syndidate doesn not qualify as an either RPG for the same reasons as "Liberation: Captive II" ;)

    9. My comment wasn't intended have Chet skip it, which he will not anyway since it is on his list, he will check it out for himself. My angle was more along the lines of anticipating that he would continue getting through some of these rather quickly.

    10. I know that Blogger's comment system leaves a lot to be desired, but I honestly can't think of any comment system that would solve the particular problem Buck mentioned.

    11. You'd have to go with a message board, something that's decouples discussions from blog posts, then pin a thread like "Upcoming games discussion". Not a suggestion - for most comments, this would be a horrible solution. It's fine as it is, I don't think the occasional duplicate comment on an upcoming game is a problem. Though it would be nice to have a comment search.

    12. I'm looking forward to seeing Chet play Stronghold too if only because it was so inscrutable to me when I played it back in the day.

      Chet, I know that you don't usually play games with the sound on but I'd like to make a request. If/when you do get around to playing Stronghold, if it'd be simple to do could you please turn the sound on for a few moments when you get to a major battle and let us know what you think about the sound effects? There aren't many things I remember about the game but the sound in the major battles is certainly one of them.

    13. I always play games with the sound on. I don't play with the MUSIC on.

  3. On the speed - both that and the ? by itself in places as a prompt make me wonder if it is written in an interpreted BASIC ...

  4. The final battle. For some reason, I get to specify moves for my enemy.

    Feels like a bug to me if the intention wasn't to run this on a mainframe with someone else on the other side. But then what is that person doing? Just waiting for you to get to the end? Very strange.

    1. Well, when you win you take over the keep. So, when someone comes to knock you off the hill, you have to take over the keyboard and defend yourself.

      I guess. I don't know how that would work in a single player game. Or a multi-user system. The game pages you to start it and fight?

    2. I think maybe the developer wanted you to fight an honest fight against the previous warlord. I mean, this final combat is really just sort of a coda. Making it out with the sword is really winning the game.

  5. You have to eat one meal per day or die? RPGs with survival mechanics always have a weird idea about human metabolism.

    1. These early ones, anyway. I like some of the modern ones where scrounging or hunting for food becomes a side-challenge. But it's silly to make the character eat a meal per day and then only offer one place where you can buy food. If you want your game to have the "realism" of a food system then it ought to have the "realism" of multiple ways to find food.

  6. I've tried to think about different ways to improve D&D-derived games, but all roads lead to Wizardry, Ultima or roguelikes.

  7. Is it just me, or is there something really funny about the hospital being right up the street from a place called "Bloody Hand Weapons"?

  8. If Dougher had designed a version of the game for mainframe computers first, then allowing to enter moves for the final boss kind of makes sense if said boss was another player who had been the game before: I guess the idea was that you notified the player that you reached the final boss fight, so he could enter his characters moves himself - so basically, this would then turn into a very early instance of PVP, duelling another player directly for the top spot.

    This gets lost somewhat ob home computers of course, but then again many early games had the notion that this would get used by more people than just the usual one or two regular users.

    1. A lot of the early developers seemed to have trouble making the mental jump from mainframes to microcomputers. That's why disks that would only be used by individual players still had leaderboards for years.

    2. Console games also had that issue for a while, although I'd imagine there the transition was more from arcades and it can get a bit sillier. Stuff like Tetris for the Game Boy having a leaderboard, despite handheld games generally being a bit more single user than consoles and the game not actually having a battery so the scores are wiped out the second you cut the power

    3. Back in the day, it was pretty common to pass the Game Boy around at family gatherings and camping trips and such. The Tetris leaderboard was fairly handy for 8 hours or so.

  9. The castle splash page made me think of Adventure for the Atari 2600... but probably just represents a universal constant that limits the drawing of castles in 8 bits!

  10. Three subtypes of elf, but only one dwarf?

  11. Maybe the final battle was meant to add to the game's replayability? As in, once you've beaten the game, try to beat it again and then play the final battle "honestly" to see which of your characters truly deserves to be crowned king of the keep.

    I could also see the final battle being fun to play on a family computer. Imagine defending your high score of sorts against your dreaded younger sibling -- then the duel would have a lot more on the line! Though, to be fair, I imagine most younger siblings would just play out the battle themselves in the same manner you did. That could be another way of the final battle adding to the game's lore. Maybe the witch king Karkoth received that title by devilishly making the previous king defenseless like you did? In that case, you may have a new royal title yourself! :)

    In all seriousness, thanks for the write-up on the game. As tedious as it was for you to play I hope that the weirdness of the final battle will make it somewhat memorable for you. "Oh yeah, Karkoth's Keep? That's the game where you get the option to make the final boss bump his head into the wall while blasting fireballs at his face over and over again..."


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