Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Earliest CRPGs

The welcome screen of Dungeon, a 1975 PLATO CRPG.

Note: This entry was originally published on 24 December 2011, but was updated on 8 April 2024.

Jazz vies with CRPGs as the great passion of my life. My favorite jazz recording is the 1927 of Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, and Jimmy Dorsey playing "Singin' the Blues" (there's a slightly-bad YouTube version here). The piece is notable as a transition point in jazz, between the joyous, polyphonic cacophony of New Orleans-style jazz and the era of great soloists, and between the carefully-orchestrated pseudo-improvisation (on recordings, at least) of Dixieland and the actual improvisation of the forthcoming bebop era.

What's particularly notable about the performance is that the band never states the melody. From the moment that Trumbauer swoops in with his C-melody saxophone, it's all improvisation. If you had the lyrics in front of you, you'd still have trouble singing along, just like you would with Coleman Hawkins's 1939 recording of "Body and Soul." But you don't have the lyrics in front of you, no matter what a host of web sites tell you; you can't, because we don't really know what they were. I've never even been able to find a "straight" version of the melody. All we can do is try to reconstruct it from the Beiderbecke/Trumbauer performance.

There's a lot about the history of jazz that's like this. We're not really sure where the term came from. We don't know what early jazz bands sounded like because they weren't recorded until 1917, and even then they were crammed into three minutes.. Of perhaps the first great jazz soloist, New Orleans's Buddy Bolden, we have no recordings and only one scratchy photograph. We're not sure who played the trombone on "Singin' the Blues" or some of the instruments on many of Louis Armstrong's early recordings. Much of the history of jazz is simply lost.

Thankfully, the same doesn't have to be true of CRPGs. Unlike jazz, whose antecedents trace to the antebellum south, we can fix the earliest possible origin of CRPGs. Computing power didn't exist to create them until the 1970s and, a few quasi-CRPG precursors aside, they couldn't have been created earlier than the first commercial non-computer RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, came out in 1974. Thus, to search for the earliest CRPGs, we need go no further than the early 1970s which, while almost 40 years ago, was only 40 years ago. Plenty of the first CRPG developers and players are still around. Much of the source code still exists.

In Dungeons and Desktops (2008), Matt Barton calls the 1970s the "Dark Age" of CRPGs, but he does his best to sort through some of the gloom. His account generally matches, but in a few notable cases conflicts, with the recollections of Dirk Pellett, an early CRPG contributor who wrote a history of early CRPGs in an introduction to dnd on Cyber1's PLATO mainframe. Pellett's history, unfortunately not accessible from the Internet, appeared in 2010.

Both trace the first CRPGs to 1974, almost immediately after the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Pellett gives the "first" CRPG as a file called "m199h," which was deleted soon after its creation by someone on the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the mainframe was intended for "serious academic study and coursework," administrators were quick to delete game programs, and one suspects that there were any number of CRPGs created and deleted while in various stages of development during this era. [Ed. Many years after I originally published this, new information came to light suggesting that "m199h" is not in fact the first of the PLATO RPGs.]

The earliest surviving CRPG seems to be a 1975 game called The Dungeon by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford, who was studying in Urbana. He titled the file "pedit5" (which some sources give as the name of the game) to keep it from being deleted as an obvious game. This didn't save it, but somehow the source code got preserved, and it's available on Cyber1 now.

Likely the earliest computer role-playing game.

The game uses an iconographic perspective with surprisingly good icons.

The original dnd (properly titled The Game of Dungeons) by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood came out the same year, and some sources put it earlier than The Dungeon. The game underwent several versions, and this is the one that Dirk Pellett and his brother Flint Pellett are credited with contributing to. It also uses an iconographic perspective, and its random encounters with creatures and treasure show it as the obvious precursor to the DND/Telengard line of games by Daniel Lawrence.

The odd thing is that most histories insist that Daniel Lawrence's DND is "not to be confused" with the original dnd, but to me it's obvious that the former is a descendant of the latter, and indeed, Dirk Pellett claims quite bluntly that Lawrence plagiarized his DND (which he commercialized as Telengard) from the original Whisenhunt/Wood dnd. Lawrence, says Pellett, had been attending Purdue University, and:

At some point, he made a blatant copy of dnd on a DEC computer at Purdue, without the knowledge or permission of any of dnd's original authors. It become popular...and spread to other places with DEC computers, always with the 'author' credited as Daniel Lawrence. He later created and successfully marketed Telengard based on the ideas in dnd, without the knowledge or permission of dnd's authors, and without sharing with them any of the money he got from it.

[Later note: In an e-mail to me after this posting was originally published, Dirk Pellet indicated that after he had written this article on the PLATO system, he had a chance to view the source code of Lawrence's DND, and he admits to being less certain that Lawrence directly plagiarized dnd in developing his own game. I'll post more about this when I cover dnd in an upcoming posting.]

Pellett's claims of plagiarism don't stop there. He also says that dnd was plagiarized by a PLATO user nicknamed "Balsabrain," who turned it into an identical game called Sorcery. When the administrators discovered it:

The copy was promptly deleted, and Balsabrain learned that if he wanted to plagiarize PLATO games, he would have to do it OFF of PLATO. He put that lesson to use by plagiarizing Oubliette when he 'created' 'his' game of Wizardry and began to market it.

"Balsabrain," you see, is none other than Robert Woodhead. I played a version of Oubliette in 2010, and I noted the game's obvious influence on Wizardry, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to accuse Woodhead and Greenberg of plagiarizing it. I took a look at the original (1977) Oubliette, and while it does use the same set of attributes, the same first-person perspective, and the same wire-frame dungeon as Wizardry, the original version seems to have only supported a single character. I don't know whether that's enough. There's a fine line between plagiarism and homage.

Other PLATO CRPGs of the 1970s and early 1980s include:

[Ed. Links are provided on the list below to the games that I originally covered; for others, see this article.]
  • Dungeon (1975), by John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel, and Mark Nakada, which I haven't been able to get to run yet.
  • Moria (1975), by Kevet Duncombe and Jim Battin, the first known first-person RPG, an inspiration for the later Oubliette and, from there, the commercial Wizardry.
  • Orthanc (1975), by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp, Eric Hagstrom, and Mark Nakada, which appears to be an advanced version of The Dungeon/pedit5. This makes sense, as a number of sources say that when "pedit5" was saved, it was renamed "orthanc1."

Orthanc seems to be The Dungeon but with more options and instructions.

  • The Think series of games (1975-1977) by Jim Mayeda, an adaptation of Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) to a fantasy setting. Though lost, it was the inspiration for The King's Mission Game (1977) and Swords and Sorcery (1978); see below. 
  • DND World (1976), a lost party-based outdoor game by Fred Banks.
  • Dungeon (1976), a lost adaptation of The Dungeon ("pedit5") that most histories give by its file name ("m199h").
  • Pits of Baradur (1976 or 1977), a lost top-down game in the vein of The Dungeon.
  • Futurewar (1977), a first-person shooter with RPG elements.
  • The King's Mission Game (1977), an adaptation of the Think series by Kent Wendler, in which you kill goblins for a king on a customizable map.

Killing goblins in The King's Mission Game.

  • Oubliette (1977), a first-person, multi-character game that was inspired by Moria and itself heavily inspired Wizardry (1981) as well as Alternate Reality: The City (1985), which in turn inspired Legends of Valour (1992) and the later Elder Scrolls series.
  • Bugs 'N Drugs (1978), an adaptation of The Game of Dungeons for medical students, in which you "slay" viruses through your knowledge of pharmacology.  
  • Swords and Sorcery (1978), a version of the Think games by Don Gillies, very similar to The King's Mission Game.
  • Avatar (1979), by Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira, David Sides, Tom Kirchman, Greg Janusz, and Mark Eastom, which offers a tiny first-person wireframe dungeon but also additional icons.

An Avatar screen shot.
  • Emprise (1980), a lost first-person dungeon crawler inspired by Avatar
  • Tunnels and Trolls (1980), a lost game inspired by Oubliette
  • Labyrinth (1980), another first-person game, but this time for a single character.
  • Camelot (1982), a first-person dungeon crawler with one character and very different rules than the games that came before.
  • Crypt (1985), an attempt to bring Rogue (1980) to PLATO.
My quick review of these games seems to support a couple of conclusions. First of all, the earliest CRPGs were quickly divided into the top-down/iconographic branch and the first-person branch. The former started with The Dungeon and/or dnd and gave rise to the family of difficult dungeon-crawls filled with random encounters that we saw in Telengard, Caverns of Zoarre, CaveQuestand DND. Roguelikes also seem to have developed from this branch.

The second branch, starting with Moria, spawned (through adaptation or plagiarism) Wizardry and, from there, The Bard's TaleMight & Magic, and a host of other imitators. Richard Garriott, in the meantime, synthesized the two branches in the Ultima series (starting with Akalabeth) by mixing iconographic outdoor exploration with first-person dungeon exploration.
To those of us who grew up with single-player commercial RPGs and saw the advent of MMORPGs as an unwelcome offshoot, it may be surprising to learn that the first RPGs were, fundamentally, multi-player. In the context of the time, it makes sense: Tabletop RPGs were a group experience, and the PLATO system was meant to facilitate communication and collaboration. Even the top-down, single-character games had a chat function and allowed various PCs to interact with each other, and the first-person games (Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar) were explicitly meant to be played with a party--to the extent that I found them mostly unsurvivable as a single character. It's amazing to me how fast this functionality appeared.

Now that the good folks at Cyber1 have lent me an account, I feel compelled to play and report on some of the earliest CRPGs, so I'll start with The Dungeon and let you know how it goes. In the meantime, in the event that I've gotten something wrong or I missed a major point here, I encourage anyone with more detailed knowledge of CRPG history to comment.


  1. This promises to be interesting. The early video games are much like silent films, we'll never know how many were lost forever.

  2. The major feature of some of these games (Oubliette?, Avatar) that you left out is that they have muliplayer. You could play them online with your friends. Pretty awesome for the 70s, eh?

  3. Also, if I remember right some of the spell names from Wizardry were lifted from Oubliette.

  4. Err, sorry, that was me. I hate accidentally posting as postcards of places.

  5. Interesting. I didn't get into crpgs until the early I missed out on these. I am looking forward to your take on them.

  6. Interesting post. Where would you put the earliest Adventure game - Colossal Cave by Crowther and Woods - in the picture?
    Were CRPGs/Roguelikes and Adventure games totally independent of each other?

  7. In some ways their interfaces actually look cleaner than many of the later games you have reviewed. Whether that is from lack of complexity, I don't think matters. Throw in some more spells (though describe them more like KOTOR than BG as it is difficult to keep track of what a weapon does when it is mixed in with text, or maybe I just understand pure numbers better than dice formulae) and detailed sword combat options, but keep the interface as easy to look at as most of those screenshots (even though I don't really like the NES Dragon Quests I am absolutely obsessed with the simplicity, colors, and style of the sprites and building materials which awesomely serve as a good in-game analog for me compared to more realistic graphics; these graphics are charming and effective, too, but the mono-color would get old fast).

  8. Petrus and CA: Go to your library or online and see if you can read "Supercade," which had a good amount of information on 'Advent' as most knew it. If memory serves, he had been enjoying a DnD module or some other PnP RPG (Stormreach?). What I do remember is he was crazy about Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and had just previously programmed an extensive map of it. He wanted to combine these two loves and use an interface he thought would seem very natural to anyone. Assuming I remember correctly, is 'Advent' still a CRPG if the stats and level-ups were not so important to him in creating a computer analogue to PnP CRPGs?

  9. Killias, I actually meant to say iconographic. In a previous discussion, we decided that "isometric" only applies to games in which the angle is slightly oblique--not actually top-down (Wikipedia supports me on this). But "top-down" is a misnomer, too, because if the game were truly top-down, you'd just see the top of your adventurer's head (and simliarly, in games like Ultima, the TOPS of clocks, plants, chairs, etc. Someone suggested "iconographic" as an alternative, and I decided to adopt it.

    Giauz, my understanding is that ADVENT and Colossal Cave Adventure are the same game. I think Barton says it best in Dungeons & Desktops: "Colossal Cave Adventure is not a CRPG, though it introduced several key innovations that paved the way to that genre." It was really the fist adventure game. The world need the statistics-based combat of D&D to generate the first real CRPG.

    I'm sticking with The Dungeon (aka "pedit5") as the first CRPG unless something else surfaces.

  10. Great article! I didn't see a description of the referenced "Cyber1", though, and am curious about what that might be.

  11. As a 'small world' data point, I have to mention that I once worked with Don Woods (of Crowther and Woods). He's a nice guy -- currently works at Google.

  12. A couple of years ago I played a significant way through Dungeon, as in, level 7 or 8 of 10. I wrote about my experience for @Play, but I can't seem to find a link that specific article right now.

  13. Also, I think Oublette was multiplayer, in the sense that it was one of those games that allowed for multiple people to adventure in the same dungeon, and even band together to fight monsters.

  14. Thanks for the reply CRPG addict. I still think they're technically isometric as they are actually at an angle. However, I understand that you have discussed this previously, and it certainly wasn't a mistake.

  15. CA: I did say, "as most knew it," because that was the amount of characters allowed in the file header or something. Just find the book if you get the chance. It's a very cool read.

    Also, you might want to edit the title of the blog post (The Earliest [Computer Playing Role Games]?).

  16. I've played a lot of classic games over the course of nearly 30 years. Don't recall playing this one. I did play an interactive fiction adventure called Dungeon which if memory serves was the original unsplit Zork trilogy. But not this one. I'll have to do some digging but judging from the screenshots in the article this game looks a lot like a vector graphics version of Temple of Apshai.

  17. I've got to agree those graphics look surprisingly good. That's such a nice brown, especially compared to the CGA palettes. I would've expected text-only.


  18. Addict, I have to say that I am impressed by your commitment to this blog and CRPGs as a whole. You certainly were not kidding by stating that CRPGs are one of the big passions of your life. And regarding this post: I really enjoy reading your analytical entries.
    Oh, and I hope that you're not getting too stressed out by Wiz V.


    haha just kidding! Wow! I must have some weird ass fond memories of the game.. I played it on the C64 also.. I think it was the second game I ever played. I do not remember it looking that bad. Wow though that was my favorite game in my childhood memories alongside Bards Tale and some TI994A game I forget the name of (

    Also another one I barely remember from youth.. you had a party and they started out in some graveyard with skeletons all around... heh, maybe I will see another post which triggers my memory of the game..

  20. HunterZ, Cyber1 is a site where you can get an account to access PLATO via terminal emulation. You can get there at I don't know if they're keen to have a host of new members seeking to play dnd, so please don't give them my name.

    Killias, it was frankly probably stupid of me to designate my own terminology, But I see a fundamental difference between the isometric rendering of Faery Tale Adventure or Ultima VII or the Infinity Engine games versus the what-I'm-calling-iconographic displayes of Ultima IV and V. If the industry already uses better terminology to distinguish these, I should adhere to it, but I have to research it first.

    GMan, granted I didn't give Telengard a rave review, but I didn't hate it at all. I just didn't see a lot of point to it with no way to win and thousands of games on my list. I thought I gave it a pretty fair shake!

    Thanks to reader Eugene Hung, I heard from Dirk Pellett within hours of posting this entry, and he had some enlightening stuff to contribute. I'll follow up with a second posting when I get settled back in from my holiday break.

  21. Dear CRPG addict:

    This is a wonderful post. It feels like an archeological treatise. It is interesting that both top down and forward view games were started this early.

    Could we say that Isometric and First person view is the great divide in CRPGs?

    Thank you

  22. Isometric is in fact the wrong term: Isometric strictly refers to the 3/4s view you get from behind and above the characters, as if you were looking down an isosceles triangle at them. I think iconographic works as well as any term, since it is a top-down view that uses icons.

  23. Just to let you know, Don Daglow*, a well known industry figure, apparently created an RPG in 1975/1976 for the PDP-10 called Dungeon. Even though it appears as if no one on Earth has played it, it seems to have been party-based before any others, especially if the early versions of Oubliette are, as you point out, single character affairs. This would probably make it the first party-based CRPG.

    I've looked around on the net for it numerous times and I can't find anything. It would be very interesting to play, I'm sure.

    * If you recognise the name it's probably because he founded Stormfront Studios in 1988 and developed three Gold Box games for SSI, which I'm sure you'll get to in a few years.

  24. Argh...Edit the post name. It's driving me nuts.

    Also, can't wait to hear what Dirk Pellet had to ssay. I had a similar experience on RPG Codex.

    In a discussion on what killed Sir-Tech information came about from Cleve Blakemore that he and a Mode-X programmer (grafics engineer? I don't remember) named Michael Shamgar and a team in Australia were commissioned to create Wizardry 8: Stones of Arnhem back in 1991-1992.

    According to Cleve it was going to be very homosexual themed (an asshole monster and a penisaurus would be hilarious low-brow commedy anywhere). Also, the Sirotec brothers (assuming this is all real) went through a great deal to cover this up to the point that the only mention you can find of the game are a Google search (with probably only heresay), an archive of the Codex thread (too bad the actual site has just died) foun here:

    *Note: On this page is the email I got back from Shamgar when I went to investigate this (yes, the second name of my avatar is a stupid pun).

    ,and the site where I found virtually the only other place on the web mentioning Stones of Arnhem (look at the 02 August 2009 post by Shams):

    Thought this might interest you to help me dig some more CA (AGAIN [sic]-check your post-name, MAN!).

  25. Oh, hell. I didn't realize what you were talking about the first time. Hey, to my my mind, "Computer Playing-Role Games" is a better name anyway.

  26. This is a very interesting article. Thanks.

    I'm looking forward to the second part.

  27. Perfectly hilarious reply, CA, and thanks. When you gonna give the goods on that Dirk Pellet interview?

    Also, is my little investigation just a dead end or will you look into it when you get around 1992?

  28. Stormfront Studios? They only made my favorite game of all time, Stronghold. I never knew the company was formed by someone with such history though. Too bad Stronghold really isn't a RPG at all.

    Nowadays Stormfront is likely to get you a white supremacist site and Stronghold will get you that other game. Sad.

  29. I added a brief note above, but I'm going to save Dirk Pellett's comments for when I post on dnd soon.

  30. I honestly really enjoy your blog and was just giving you crap. What a 7th grader thinks is awesome at the beginning of the home computer age and what is actually awesome are probably two different things.

  31. I'm not sure about that SirFWALGMan: Read and tell me that isn't awesome, despite the Atari 2600 being terrible (No cRPGs level terrible!)

    1. The Atari 2600 had Dragonstomper. Probably the first console RPG.

  32. That sounds like what I was talking about with my remembrance of Space Invaders last year. I remember doing this all the time when I was a kid. But imagination isn't the same thing as taste. When I get bored and play solitaire, I sometimes imagine I'm on a TV show called the World Solitaire Championships and an announcer is narrating my plays ("Wow, Bob, I thought he was NEVER going to notice the three of hearts. Great last minute save!"), but that doesn't mean the game itself is high art.


  33. Any idea of when then Plato dnd article will be out? I'm interested in seeing Mr Pellett's comments on the Dan Lawrence DND version.

    1. John, I wrote about the Plato dnd a few months later:

      I didn't get so much into the Pellet/Lawrence thing. Right now, Dirk Pellett's history is only available on Cyber1, and although I took screen shots, I don't feel write publishing it to the Internet since a) it's not my work; and b) Dirk indicated he'd changed his mind about certain aspects of it.

  34. Though the argument is still uncertain as to how far back role-playing might go, the idea of a central figure organizing free play for a group each representing an individual character starts before Dungeons & Dragons, with David Wesely's Braunstein and Dave Arneson as a player in his game representing the most immediate precursor, and Mike Korns' 1966 "Modern War in Miniature" being the first identifiable source where a "judge" mediates something approximating adventures with individual characters (both mentioned here:

    I do not want you to think I find it particularly likely that either of these proto-D&D experiences inspired a primitive mainframe game of their own, mind you, but as an amateur gaming historian these are the sorts of things I think about all the time, haha.

    Great article!

    1. That's the key, isn't it? For all we know, role-playing goes back to ancient times. But while D&D was not the first role-playing game, it is almost incontrovertibly the first role-playing game on which a COMPUTER version was based.

  35. As a jazz fan, what do you think of ?

    1. I don't find the specific melody memorable, but I love the style. It has a strong post-Dixieland New Orleans vibe, in which several instruments take turns at solos. If I heard it in a club, I wouldn't leave.

      I Googled the origins, of course. It's great that some games have this level of composition. Do you know what I'd do if I encountered this music during a game itself? Probably turn it off.

  36. PLATO program names are unique. Once you create a lesson space (which can hold a program), the name is very long-lived. Most of the early dungeon games were written in bootleg lesson spaces, because you could not personally create a lesson space and creating lesson spaces for games was frowned upon. Therefore, pedit5 I am sure was the 5th in a series of lesson spaces pedit1, pedit2, pedit3, pedit4, pedit5. I personally wrote my game in a bootleg lesson space called 'cryo2' which a friend acquired but then he 'willed' to me when he decided he would not write anything. Later after it succeeded some good natured course administrator created an 'nsorcery' lesson space because the 'sorcery' name was taken (probably by robert woodhead).

  37. I found to be a pretty interesting timeline that touches on some early CRPG influences.

    1. The rest of it may be okay, but his coverage of RPGs on PLATO is hopelessly muddled. He conflates DND and Avatar, which are two separate games four years apart, and has them a year too early.


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