Monday, February 18, 2013

Game 88: Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai, Datestones of Ryn, and Morloc's Tower (1979)

Exactly three years ago, a naive young CRPG player decided to start a blog. He had been encouraged by the subscribers of /r/gaming on Reddit, after he submitted a winning screenshot of Rogue, the second game he played in his epic quest to play every computer role-playing game ever released. Because he was already familiar with both DOS and the DOSBox emulator, he decided to restrict his adventures to that platform. Armed with Wikipedia's list, he boldly strode into the first dungeon that he was playing specifically for his blog, and he wrote a posting on a 1985 DOS compilation called The Temple of Apshai Trilogy, incorrectly tagging it as 1981.

He played the game for a single day, made a single posting, and moved on, an eager fire in his eyes. He figured by 2013 he'd be playing Baldur's Gate II, maybe Morrowind.

Oh, how I wish I could go back in time three years, bounce that tender youth on my knee, and explain a few things to him. I'd tell him:

  • Wikipedia's list has like a tenth of all computer role-playing games released over the last 35 years. You really need to go to MobyGames, but even their list isn't really complete. Settle in for a long trip on this one, buckaroo.
  • You're eventually going to come to regret your "DOS/PC-only" rule. You'll end up missing a ton of cool games, and you'll miss the best versions of the games that you do play. Your readers will tell you this from practically day one, but you won't listen because you never listen to anything. Also, you have this prejudice against the Apple II ever since you couldn't beat Agent USA in middle school. You need to get over that.
  • But you'll mostly regret it because you'll come to see yourself as a CRPG historian as much as a CRPG Addict, and you'll realize there are a bunch of holes in your experience.
  • The other emulators really aren't that hard. Look, I'll show you. This is called the Commodore PET. You can...hey, come back here!

After a few investment tips and a warning to go to New Orleans for only five days, not seven, in January 2013, I'd head back to the future, and this blog would be a very different place right now.

The Dujonquest franchise was one that I screwed in my haste and ignorance. I just re-read the posting from February 15, 2010 (incidentally, I had five postings on my opening day; what the hell?), and it's embarrassingly awful. I barely covered the game at all. I had about six paragraphs and three screen shots, and I couldn't have invested more than two hours in it. But more important, in my ignorance I thought that The Temple of Apshai Trilogy was a compilation of all the Dunjonquest games to that date, which was wrong.

A screenshot from the DOS version I played in 2010.
Dunjonquest began with a bang in 1979, in a way that we hadn't seen yet with CRPGs. Remember that we're just at the beginning of commercial CRPGs. College kids had been playing them on PLATO and DEC mainframes for a few years, sure, and the Apple II and Commodore PET had supported a few primitive efforts. But now Automated Simulations (later Epyx) comes along and:

  • Releases three games in one year using the same engine: Temple of Apshai, Morloc's Tower, and The Datestones of Ryn.
  • Ports the games to multiple platforms. 1979 saw Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80 releases. In the coming years, Atari 8-bit, Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, and DOS releases would follow for certain titles.
  • Introduces conventions not seen in CRPGs to date, including detailed room descriptions (kept in a separate manual), shops to buy equipment, an inn, and a detailed, well-written, framing story.

A bit of the introductory story from Apshai.

From what I can tell, it appears that Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai was the first 1979 release, followed by Datestones of Ryn and then Morloc's Tower. The next four years would bring seven other games in the Dunjonquest series, including two more Apshai games to round out the "trilogy" (The Upper Reaches of Apshai and Curse of Ra); the Hellfire Warrior sub-series (Hellfire Warrior, Danger in Drindisti, and The Keys of Acheron), Sorcerer of Siva, and Gateway to Apshai. Moreover, the StarQuest duo (Star Warrior and Rescue at Rigel) use essentially the same engine, something I didn't realize when I panned Rescue at Rigel in 2010.

This was, in short, a series that deserved more than a few paragraphs written after playing the worst version, so I'm giving proper attention to the Apple II original.

Nonetheless, I'm not going to cover Temple of Apshai again here in detail. This is mostly because I haven't been able to get hold of a working version  (I can roll a character and enter the dungeon, but not save my progress or return to the inn). Suffice to say that you begin the game by creating your character--either randomly rolled or typed in by you (which of course invites some start-scumming). You go through a brief equipment purchase before being thrust into the first room of a three-level labyrinth with between 56 and 60 rooms each.

Character creation and equipment purchases in Temple of Apshai.

The gameplay isn't stellar. You move through an awkward system of rotating your character with the "L" and "R" keys and then typing a number representing the number of steps you want to travel. Occasionally, a monster appears and you can (A)ttack, (P)arry, or (T)hrust. Movement and attacking depletes your "fatigue," but waiting around restores it. Instead of hit points, you have a "wounds" score from 0% to 100%. Magic items are limited to healing salves and elixirs. There are secret doors to find along the walls and various (fixed) treasures to pick up in the dungeon's rooms.

My character in a Level 1 Apshai room. I have just discovered a secret door to my west. There is a treasure to my south. And I'm being attacked by a giant mosquito.

What makes the game unique and fun are the detailed room and item descriptions that appear in the accompanying manual. Long before the Gold Box series offered verbose journal entries for special encounters, Dunjonquest was doing it for every room. If you look at the screen shot above, you'll see that I'm in "Room No. 21" (even hallways are numbered as rooms). The book describes the area as:

The west wall of the cavern shows the marks of carving tools, but the rest is natural rock. The floor of the room is overgrown with mushrooms of two varieties. One has broad, flat caps and is white with brown splotches, while the second variety has black, tightly rounded caps.

The mushroom patch is the treasure that you see on the screen, and it has its own number and description in the manual. But most important, note that the room description above gives the key clue as to the existence of the secret door that I just found. This, in short, is a game meant to be played with the book in hand, and it is intended to mimic--as closely as possible given the technology of the time--the experience of exploring a tabletop RPG module. The authors say as much in a long introduction in the Temple of Apshai manual, noting that--and this remains true 34 years later--"while there are greater practical limitations to your actions than is usually the case in a non-computer RPG, there are still a large number of options to choose from."

In Temple of Apshai, you return frequently to the inn to rest, buy new items, and plan your next expedition. There is no "main quest" to the game, and I suppose the player simply chooses to end it when he's explored every corner of the dungeon or feels that his character has developed enough.

Morloc's Tower and The Datestones of Ryn are somewhat different. Epyx refers to them as "MicroQuests." They have the same engine, but no accompanying room descriptions (though it does have treasure descriptions).  You also can't set your own character: you play as Brian Hammerhand, a fighter with fixed attributes and equipment. You can't save the game or leave the dungeon as in Apshai; instead, the idea is to complete the entire dungeon in one expedition, which typically takes less than an hour--and, unlike Apshai, has an actual quest to complete: killing Rex the Reaver the Robber Baron and retrieving the "datestones" he stole from the Duchy of Ryn, and destroying the evil sorcerer Morloc. The game manual encourages you to replay the game multiple times, trying for a higher score or faster time.

Your uneditable PC for two Dungeonquest games. I love that a guy named "Hammerhand" carries a sword.

In both games, there is some randomness to the placement of treasures and monsters every time you start. Morloc has the player set a difficulty level from 1 to 3, making it one of the earliest CRPGs to offer this feature.

Both "MicroQuests" feature an involved story in the game manual that sets up the quest and gives some clues about what you might find, and how you might solve it. For instance, the manual for Morloc's Tower describes how Morloc "consults with...unnatural beasts and creatures," including a salamander that shoots fireballs. This is an enemy you encounter on the third level of the tower.

The salamander blows fireballs at me while I shoot arrows at him.

In a similar vein, the manual has one of the terrified villagers telling Brian Hammerhand that they once possessed a magic sword that told them when Morloc was near, "but it was taken from us to the may find it there." And indeed, on the fourth level of the tower is a magic sword that replaces your initial weapon and glows when you're close to Morloc and "flares" when you're in the same room as him.

But the lack of the detailed room descriptions and the inability to create your own character removes much of what was fun and RPG-like about Temple of Apshai, leaving only the interface, which is unforgivably annoying. The movement system might be the worst one I've ever experienced in a CRPG, forcing you to mince along in baby steps if you don't want to deplete your fatigue. Monsters appear randomly, sometimes in packs, even in rooms you've already cleared. Fighting them involves essentially no tactics, and you don't get any experience or rewards for doing it, so it soon becomes annoying.

Standing and exchanging blows with an ogre.

The "levels" of the "dunjons" fit entirely on a screen, so unlike as in Apshai, it's extremely easy to tell where there's a secret door. Despite this, the game makes you hit "(E)xamine" multiple times to find it. There's no visual indication of the stairs; you have to read the manual to know that they're always in the bottom-left corner. There's no way to pause the game at all, and since enemies can generate randomly right next to you and attack in real-time, you can't even take a bathroom break (let alone a blogging break) while playing.

Countering this is a fairly brisk pace; I was able to win Morloc's Tower in about 45 minutes (Datestones of Ryn had some emulator problems I couldn't solve). The major steps are:

1. Explore the dungeon and find the right treasures. There are several items in the tower that help defeat Morloc, including the magic sword, a glowing blue pyramid that stops him from teleporting out of the room, and a magic egg that incinerates everyone in the room for terrific damage. However, if you find an object called a "crystal tiara," it negates the power of the pyramid, meaning you have to chase Morloc around from room to room before you can kill him. The game doesn't tell you this anywhere; you have to learn it from experimentation or by reading the spoilers at the end of the manual. There are other rings and such that provide protection against fire and magic.

2. "(U)se" one of the treasures to tell you were Morloc currently is, and hie your way to that level and room.

A magic device tells me that Morloc is in Room 22.

3. Search the room until Morloc appears and then beat at him until he's dead. At this point, the game gives you a brief "win" screen, your score, and dumps you to a prompt. The score is based on the number of creatures you killed, how quickly you defeated Morloc, and the difficulty level you chose at the beginning.

Datestones of Ryn has even quicker gameplay--you're limited to 20 minutes on the timer--and the final score is based on how many stones you retrieved and how many enemies you killed.

A Datestones of Ryn screenshot for the Commodore 64.

As torturous as these games are to play today, they deserve credit for being the first commercial CRPGs to offer the kind of RPG experience that we've come to expect, and for trying hard, with the limited technologies of the time, to replicate the tabletop RPG dynamic. I don't know if Richard Garriott was ever exposed to these games, but you can see some Ultima-esque attention to back story and monster descriptions in the manuals, and of course the AD&D Gold Box series, starting with Pool of Radiance, would famously adopt the game/manual hybrid approach, though not with every room.
The game is credited to Jonathan Freeman and Jeffrey A. Johnson. Freeman was a co-founder of Automated Simulations, which became Epyx, but he left the company in 1981 and formed another company called "Free Fall Associates" with his wife, Anne Westfall. His departure essentially marked the end of Epyx's involvment in CRPGs; they would become more famous for sports games (Summer Games, Winter Games, California Games). Free Fall developed the Archon action game series and is technically still around, although with a web site so confusing that I couldn't find a valid e-mail address to try to contact Mr. Freeman.

Jeff Johnson, meanwhile, moved over to SSI sometime between 1982 and 1985 and worked on a host of CRPGs, including Wizard's Crown, Realms of Darkness, Rings of Zilfin, The Eternal Dagger, and Phantasie III. He moved to other companies and other genres, but today seems to be back in the RPG world at Atari, with credits on Dungeons and Dragons Online.

I may check out a couple of the other Dunjonquest games from 1980-1982 on different platforms, just to see how the series evolved.


  1. I found a contact email address in their cardgame site:

  2. There's another one on right next to the underlined text which say "contact us".

    1. I should have mentioned that I tried multiple addresses scattered about the site and didn't get anywhere. "Contact" (David's) bounces back; and I just didn't get a reply from "Info" (Psych0naut's) or another one in the "horde help" section.

    2. I played temple of apshai, gateway to apshai, and Archon I and II from ages 8-12. Of hundreds of games these stand out 30 years later.

  3. "The game manual encourages you to replay the game multiple times, trying for a higher score or"

    It seems the sentence got cut off.

    As for Free Fall Games, it is always depressing to see a website with an "Upcoming Projects" page...only to realize the site hadn't been updated in years. Their 'Horde Help' web application 404s.

    1. or faster time. I know I typed that. I don't know how that happens.

  4. I wonder - if it doesn't have any magic, what do the first three stats do?

    1. To be honest, I'm not sure any of the stats do anything at all. Since there's no randomness at the outset, and you can't alter them in-game, what would be the purpose of even using them as variables in gameplay?

  5. Dear CRPG addict,

    Again with the Archaelogy. I love it. keep doing that please. I used to play Temply of Aphishai on an Atari 800XL years ago. The version I played had an ominous music play when an enemy appeared. Did your version have music? The graphics were quite good for the day as everything was clear and the room descriptions gave the game a great feel. It allowed your imagination to work itself into the game easily.


    1. It had occasional music at weird points but otherwise no sound.

      In these postings, I don't know what version I should try. But I've mostly been going with the expedient that if it's available on an emulator I already know, I'll play that version.

    2. I still remember that music to this day along with the slashing sounds(c64 version). Epxy got pretty big back in the day. I remember Cali games being a big deal. I was pretty poor and only had a hand me down vic 20 and the only DND type games were the Scott Adams Text Adventures. Recently I found out there was a vic-20 version of Apshai. If only I would have known then. Either way here is a good article regarding the series:

    3. ditto on remembering the music. cant believe there are other people who do as well. i played apshai a decent amount of time but cheesed it by just assigning myself all 18's and a greatsword +9 or something dumb...

  6. Hellfire Warrior! First CRPG I ever played on a TRS-80 model 1.

    Thanks for the flashback.

  7. Good old Temple of Apshai... where I learned that giant insects smell faintly of vanilla...

    1. Quite odd how that detail sticks in my mind too...

  8. Jimmy Maher covered Temple of Apshai, including some download material to be able to play it, you could possibly try that out:

    1. Wow. That article is better than mine. It gives a lot of history, too.

    2. Ha! I knew I recognized that name. Maher linked to my interactive fiction database review of Adventureland.

      Grunion Guy is my more common handle on the intrawebs.

  9. I see you and Jimmy Maher as kindred spirits, exploring the history of gaming and the development of the medium. There's been some overlap in some of the games you cover, but you've usually provided much more detail on how these things play, while Maher has covered more of the personalities and companies involved, along with the technology involved. His focus is also on storytelling more than CRPGs, coming as he does from an interactive fiction background more than anything else. I have to imagine that most people reading this blog would also enjoy his. In fact, I first ended up here due to his links back to your work on Akalabeth.

  10. I own an Atari 800XL and just fired up the Temple of Apshai Trilogy game for it. The graphics are pretty comparable to the DOS version, but my god, the controls. They are abysmal. I found the reference sheet for the Atari version, so I'll try again tomorrow, but I didn't expect the game to have so much physical overhead in trying to make your guy do what you want him to.

  11. The Atari version of Trilogy is probably the best one to play.. the graphics are decent, it plays quickly and has nice music. The C64 version probably has the best graphics.

    Addict, you should definitely give Upper Reaches of Apshai a go on an Atari or C64 emulator (use the updated Trilogy version). Make sure you have the manual descriptions handy so you can read about all the interesting "monsters" you run into.. :) Fun little adventure, unlike anything else out there, and it won't take but a couple hours to explore all the levels.

  12. The Datestones C64 screen looks it comes from an unofficial PET conversion. Unlikely that Epyx would release it with graphics like that, and I don't remember a C64 port being listed in their catalogues. I guess this needs to be corrected at Moby and possibly other web sources.

    1. It is definitely a conversion from the PET. It's a good thing somebody took the time and energy to make it run on the C64 since the PET version can't be found.

      So perhaps somebody will go through the C64's BASIC program listing and convert it back to the PET.

    2. If you realy want it, you could ask Howard Feldman to dump it, he actualy owns a original Datestones of Ryn PET version.

      I dont know if his tape is still functional but looks in good condition.

  13. Very nice article on a very interesting early specimen. I love to learn about these ancient games.

    Not nitpicking, just an honest question of a non-native speaker: Is "The movement system might be __the worse one__ I've ever experienced in a CRPG" possible in English?

    1. Yow! Tough crowd! ;)

      Nah, that's a typo. I'm guessing it should read "the worst one."

    2. Fixed. It was a polite way to call it out, anyway.

    3. Oh, it absolutely was. Wasn't trying to rag on Andreas at all.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I don't think it was a big mistake to start with the DOS only & Wikipedia list rules:

    1. It is nice to read the occasional backtracking posts now, in the middle of newer games. Gives a nice variety.

    2. It could have been a chore to play all "primitive" games in a row, before eventually getting to the "good enough" games.. and it just might be possible as well (although I doubt it :)), that reading only about them for the first years could have ultimately been a bit repetitive, before getting to the first classics..

    3. As you have also noted yourself, you have now a much deeper insight about CRPGs and developed your writing style, GIMLET scale etc. This probably also improves the postings about the early games and gives different viewpoints to them. For example, you can now observe which early games have had some influence to later games, which wouldn't be possible if you hadn't already played the newer ones.

    4. Now that you have established a name (in retro-CRPG context at least) and a large amount of followers, you are also more likely to get the interest of the developers of these early games, and to get their comments.

    So don't be too harsh to yourself. I understand how you feel about the blog not being complete, but from the readers perspective it is not necessarily a bad thing.

    1. Fair enough. Thanks for the alternate perspective.

    2. You know, now that I read this, I've got to agree with Fenrus. It is too bad that you are trapped on a blog, with its (Somewhat arbitrary) ordering of posts by posting time. It would really improve your reader retention if you could insert some of these classic posts in before your early ones.

    3. I've been working on pages that index all the postings by year and title, but it's a bit of a pain in the neck. But when I finish, I'll add notes to the early postings (or on the main blog page) pointing new readers to these indexes rather than necessarily the posting order.

    4. I am glad that CRPG Addict is breaking from his original rule. And I admittedly prefer the early CRPG era.

      I think that if he hasn't done so already, the blog owner should just try the Commodore 64 version of Ultima IV. If he is averse to disk-swapping, he can try the single disk version (3.5" floppy in the form of .D81 image) here:

      The pre-VGA IBM PC was inferior to the 8-bits of the 1980s when it came to graphics and sound.

  16. a little kown info about Temple of Apshai:
    There is a early Apple ][ version of it called "Le Temple d'Apshai".
    I am not sure if it was been released in france after all. My research showed it was been released in Canada and USA. Marketed as a educational game in USA to teach french. ^^
    I did upload a cover scan some time ago on

    By the way: TheLegacy is similar to Mobygames and might be also a interessting source for you.

  17. So glad you went back to play this. My parents brought home an Apple ][+ when I was a wee lad of 9, and Apshai was the first game I ever played on it, as well as my first CRPG. The controls are dreadful, and the gameplay requires a great deal of imagination and forgiveness, but my mind was well and truly blown by the simple fact that I was able to play some approximation of D&D without having to round up 4-5 other misfits.

    Somehow I never made the connection that this was the same Jon Freeman who did Archon and Murder on the Zinderneuf. Great designer.

    A little bonus Apshai trivia: The Apple II release had the TRS-80 version on the back, a practice that was common for early Epyx, but fell out of favor pretty quickly, presumably because somebody finally realized they were losing potential sales. Also, Upper Reaches of Apshai and Curse of Ra were add-on dungeons that required the base Temple of Apshai game to play, making them almost certainly the first ever expansion packs.

    1. Actualy there are a huge number of different releases of Temple of Apshai. The Apple II and TRS-80 bundle is a mid release from 1981. The first Apple II release came shortly after the TRS-80 Release in 1979 on tape without the TRS-80 version on it.
      There is also a 1981 Apple II only release. There are at least 15 different temple of apshai releases, if not more.

  18. Revisiting these old games, do you plan to play Fortress of the Witchking? It was a multiplayer turn based RPG of sorts that I remember playing on my Grandpa's old C64.

    I believe it had you collect various troops which you could purchase. Different troop types had different advantages, which led to some amount of tactics.

    1. I appreciate the enthusiasm with which people ask questions like this, but I can't emphasize enough that I don't have any specific plans when it comes to non-DOS games from 1980-1989. I've been picking up a few here and there that I thought were important, but I clearly can't play all of them.

      In the case of this game, MobyGames doesn't even have it listed, so I'd never heard of it until I saw this comment. I'll add it to my list of possibilities, but I'm not promising anything.

  19. Temple pf Apshai was awesome only because it was one of the first CRPGs, and more importantly it was the first I experienced. 12 year-old me was just blown away. "Hold on!? I can play D&D on my computer?!?"

    Unfortunately, the controls sucked, the story was non-existent, the dungeon boring, and the items blah.

    But then Epyx released Hellfire Warrior. While the controls were still annoying, there were items (7 League Boots!) that solved some of that problem. More importantly, the story, items (esp. the cool potions!), and dungeon were actually interesting.

    None of the ensuing DunjonQuest games came close to repeating the fun of the last level of Hellfire Warrior. I must of re-played that one level 20 times. It would be a few years before any CRPG excited me like that (probably Ultima 3).

    I found this page ( that gives a good review of Hellfire Warrior and the rest of the Epyx catalog.

    If you can get over the controls (a big IF), Hellfire Warrior *might* be worth a play.

    1. I've had a lot of trouble finding the game, but based on your enthusiasm, I'll give it another try.

  20. I noticed you mentioned in the article about a lack of description of the rooms. The problem is probably that you don't have a manual. I had the game when it first came out originally on the TRS-80 Model 1 and it came with a manual that you looked up the room number and it had a full description of each room. This was pretty much true for all the "Automated Simulation"/Dunjon Quest games. I collected all the "Automated Simulation" games when they came out back in the day and loved them. "Crush, Crumble, Chomp" was a riot I thought at the time.

    Anyway, just thought I would mention that about the manual descriptions. Also I don't remember there being a way to save the game given it came on cassette at the time.

    1. I appreciate you trying to help, but either you didn't read the post carefully or you misunderstood something. I talked extensively about the room descriptions in Temple of Apshai. Where I said they didn't exist was in the "microquests," including Morloc's Tower. I'm not missing any documentation; the developers just didn't include room descriptions for those brief side-games.

  21. I have played a lot of crpgs (but obviously nowhere near the blog's author expertise) and at 44, Temple of Apshai remains my favorite of all-time.

    I have a c64 with a tape player upstairs just to play it. I've played other versions (and the trilogy) but none compare with the tape version with the terrifying monster sounds (and the incredible victory trill when a monster is defeated) and the c64 sprites, which along with the manual demand you project your imagination onto them.

    I have nothing important to add, only that I love reading about the game, and that few games ever created more verisimilitude with so little tech to work with. I loved the movement system because it constantly demanded being aware of your fatigue in case an enemy appeared; I love the ridiculous inn-keeper at the beginning of the game; I still am enchanted by the manual's overly ambitious promises of recreating a tabletop RPG.

    I love that the save system is simply retyping your characters stats in.

    As I mentioned, I know it's not the first, but the original c64 version is the absolute best. Atmospheric. Chilling. Mesmerizing.


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