Monday, November 11, 2013

Game 123: Orthanc (1975)

The Orthanc main screen lacks the fun images of some of the other PLATO games.
United States
Developed by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp, and Eric Hagstrom for the PLATO system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
No copyright date listed, but developer confirms original version in 1975
Played today through the efforts of Cyber1.
Date Started: 9 November 2013
Date Ended: 10 November 2013
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 16
Ranking at Time of Posting: 17/142 (12%)
Ranking at Game #404: 77/404 (19%)

I want to do a quick recap of the PLATO series because I've been playing the games out of order and unless you've been following the entire series (and remember them), it's easy to get lost.

In short, the games developed by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the PLATO mainframe (a multi-million dollar educational system), are the earliest computer RPGs that we know about. They survive today thanks to the preservation efforts of the folks at Cyber1. The list of RPGs developed for this system (which may not be comprehensive) includes:

  • m199h (1974): The lost "first CRPG," created in the same year that Dungeons and Dragons was released. Its existence is attested by an article on the Cyber1 server by Dirk Pellett. No one seems to remember what it looked like. It was deleted shortly after creation by an administrator on the system. Man, screw that guy. [Ed. Years later, I got some information that mostly proves "m199h" was a 1976 remake of "pedit5," below. That makes this 1974 date unlikely, though you'll still find it as such on some other sites.]
  • The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1975): This game, by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford, is the first known RPG that still exists. Like "m199h," it was initially deleted, but Paul Resch (creator of Orthanc) managed to preserve a copy as "orthanc1." The game is a top-down dungeon crawl for a single player. I reviewed it in December 2011.
  • The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975): Created shortly after The Dungeon by Ray Wood and Gary Whisenhunt, with further version work by Dirk Pellett and Flint Pellett. It's also a top-down dungeon crawl that builds on The Dungeon with some additional features. I reviewed it in February 2012.
  • Dungeon (1975): Created in 1975 and updated in 2004, the authors are listed as John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel, and Mark Nakada. A file by this name exists in PLATO and loads a really nice opening screen, but I can't seem to get anything to happen after that. I haven't found a good description of the game online.
  • Orthanc (1975): The game I'm reviewing here. Another top-down dungeon crawler, a clear adaptation of "pedit5" by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp, Eric Hagstrom, and Mark Nakada.
  • Moria (1975): By Kevet Duncombe and Jim Battin. The first first-person CRPG, this game is way ahead of its time, offering cooperative multiplayer and lots of other innovations, including the first in-game stores. I just reviewed it.
  • Oubliette (1977): By Jim Schwaiger, John Gaby, Bancherd DeLong, and Jerry Bucksath. Essentially a more advanced version of Moria, with new features and more standard D&D conventions. I reviewed it in October 2013.
  • Avatar (1978):  Probably the most complex of the PLATO games, taking inspiration from multiple predecessors and offering a very complex multi-player experience.

The years given are approximate, based on things like file creation dates and recollections of the developers. Complicating matters are the continuous development of some of these games. Avatar spawned several versions, the last one created as late as 1995! Oubliette, Moria, and Orthanc all had updates within the past decade.

These games are important because of what they inspired. Wizardry (and thus Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, and other first-person multi-character games) took inspiration from Oubliette. The pedit5/dnd/Orthanc line produced the DND/Telengard series in the 1980s for several platforms, and some sources give these games as the ancestors of Rogue, though I've found no evidence that Rogue's creators had any experience with PLATO.

A typical Orthanc screen. My character, at Level 6 (and just on the cusp of Level 7), faces a bugbear on Level 2 of the dungeon. A secret door lies to the bugbear's south. I have a pair of levitation boots and a ring of protection active and have also cast "Continual Light." I'm carrying 32 points of coins equaling 160 gold pieces. The automap in the lower-right shows that I've mapped the dungeon's perimeter.

Orthanc, as I've said, is an update of the earliest extant RPG, The Dungeon. It offers a revised interface but almost identical gameplay. Demonstrating stark originality, the developers drew the name of the game from The Lord of the Rings--specifically, the black tower that sticks up out of the fortress of Isengard. In the game, however, "Orthanc" is a dungeon to which the player, a knight, has come to make a name for himself and "retire with honor near the seat of the king."

Rolling a new character.

There's no character selection; every player plays the same combination fighter/magic user with strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity, and hit points. You don't even get to specify the character's name unless he's successful enough to retire. After a brief character creation process, you're launched into the Orthanc dungeon. As with all of these PLATO games, death is permanent, so the tension builds from the very first square.

You see this message a lot.

Survival depends on caution and, at the earliest character levels, a lot of luck. As you wander through the corridors with the WAXD keys, you'll encounter monsters of various types and levels, plenty of whom are capable of killing you in a single hit, and an equal number of whom get the first movement in combat. Combat options are limited to fight, cast a spell, and run, and "run" fails to appear a staggering amount of the time--almost always when you really need it. (Technically, the documentation says it works in corridors but not in rooms, but I don't see it as an option in plenty of things that look like corridors.)

Fighting a kobold. For some reason, "run" isn't an option here.

As limited as the magic system is, spells are really the lifeblood of the game. There are four spell levels and 22 total spells. Some spells help in combat (charm, sleep, magic missile, blastbolt), some with defense (protection, invisibility, speed), and some with navigation (light, depth, levitation, passwall, pass ceiling). There are two levels of healing spells and a couple of high-level ones that teleport the enemy out of the room and away from you. Every character can cast any spell level from the outset, but you only start with 4 spell points, so if you blow them all on one "Teleport," you need to exit the dungeon to replenish. You gain 3 new spell points per character level.

Casting "pass ceiling" to get back to the first level and out of the dungeon.

Surviving the earliest character levels generally means hanging around the dungeon exit, carefully finding enemies, blasting them with "magic missile" as early as possible in the round and then, if victorious, leaving the dungeon and returning.

Preparing to cast "magic missile" on a Level 3 ghoul, who has already brought  me down to 15 hit points from a base of 33.

Exiting the dungeon accomplishes a few other things. It converts your accumulated treasure to experience points, and it's the only way to level up if you've achieved enough experience.

Once you hit Level 2 and especially Level 3, you can start to relax a bit. At this point, it makes sense to have "continual light" active all the time so you can see secret doors and nearby enemies. But you still can't get cocky. There's a 5% chance of a Level 4 enemy showing up on the first dungeon level, and something like a Level 4 minotaur is more than capable of smashing a Level 3 character to smithereens with one hit. I lost plenty of characters just at the point I thought I could "start to relax a bit." Since you cannot see your attacker's combat rolls, death is often completely inexplicable. I've had Level 1 spiders kill me in one blow when I had more than 20 hit points.

Chances of encountering each level of monster on each level of dungeon.

There are 10 dungeon levels, each 24 x 22 squares in size. The levels are fixed, but the game runs an automatic process to reconfigure them every 180 days, so truly dedicated players have to keep learning new layouts. Since there are no special encounters, NPCs, fixed treasures, or any other staples of later RPGs, there isn't much sense in exhaustively mapping each level. You basically just need to know how to get from one stairway to another. Secret doors, which are visible 1/6 of the time normally and all the time with a light spell active, are similarly useless, as there's nothing special behind them.

You'll notice an automap in the lower right-hand corner of my screenshots. It's a great idea. Little dots annotate stairs, so you don't have to keep your own paper maps. This would be a "first" in CRPGs except that I don't think it was in the original version. Some comments in the notes files suggest that it was added quite recently, in the 2000s. [In an e-mail, Mr. Resch confirms this was added after Cyber1 resurrected the PLATO files. "The language used by the system, TUTOR, is amazingly complex and yet simple. After not seeing the code for decades, I wrote the auto-mapper in just a few hours."]

The explicit goal of the game is to get enough experience--through both combat and gold--to retire, something that the game appears to allow once you've attained enough for a slot in the Hall of Fame, which means beating at least the lowest-ranking player already in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame resets every time the dungeon does (every six months), and with very few players today, it didn't look hard to make it on the list. The lowest-ranked player had only 4,436 experience--though the lunatic at the top had over 38 million. I can't imagine the type of dedication it must take to get that high, especially playing a game that's 36 years old.

There's no multiplayer option in the game, but users can encounter each other in the dungeon and either chat or (after Level 1) fight. I didn't encounter any while I was playing. [In his e-mail to me, M. Resch notes that he removed the ability for players to fight on Level 1 because "higher-level players took to hanging around the entrance and killing lower-level players for the experience." Oddly, he says, "lots of people just talked to each other, even though you could do that anywhere on PLATO."]

Monsters occasionally leave copper, silver, gold, electrum, or platinum pieces. They have the same values as in D&D, and when you leave the dungeon, their equivalent in gold is converted to experience. It really isn't worth picking up anything lower than gold pieces, as they just add to your weight. Monsters also rarely drop gems, which are worth a lot and can sometimes level you up by themselves, and magic items such as rings and boots. Magic items keep their spell equivalents continually active.

After fielding a few doomed characters, I got lucky with one of them and managed to completely finish exploring Level 1, got a Ring of Protection and Boots of Levitation, and ascended to Level 7. I had more than enough experience to get into the Hall of Fame at around the middle position, but I had grown addicted to the rapid character development and accumulation of treasures, and I kept thinking "another 10,000 experience and I can get into the Hall of Fame at an even higher level!" My greed was my undoing, and I was killed by a Level 5 dwarf while exploring dungeon level 2.

Determined to make it to retirement, I ran about six more characters, all of whom died prematurely, before I finally managed to top the lowest-ranked player. I retired and, as far as I'm concerned, "won" the game. Incidentally, two of the top spots are held by user "Resch," who I'm guessing is creator Paul Resch.

I'm not really sure what "% kills" means. I don't think this character fled from any enemies, so I'm not sure why mine is at 80.8%. [Late edit: Paul Resch explained it. The "% kills" is the percent of experience that comes from combat, as opposed to finding treasure. It was prestigious to have a higher percentage here.]

The Hall of Fame is a huge part of the game's addictive nature. The gamble over whether to retire now at position x or re-enter the dungeon and try for position y is perhaps the game's most difficult decision. I imagine it was a lot of fun back in the 1970s, with hundreds of students playing the game, for everyone to jostle their way into the various positions, the experience point totals climbing higher and higher, until 180 days passed, everything reset, and the board was a free-for-all again. Just getting onto the board at all kept me occupied for over my six-hour minimum, long past the point when I'd experienced what the game had to offer.

In a quick GIMLET, I give the game:
  • 1 point for the basic sketch of a game world.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Not much to it, but goes along at a nice clip.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The foes are categorized into groupings such as "undead," "animals," and "mythicals." The game's documentation gives an exhaustive run-down of each enemy's hit points, attack points, experience, and level, and while these affect combat rolls, you don't really see any of it in combat, and there isn't quite enough to develop special tactics for certain foes.
Part of the game's exhaustive documentation on monsters.

  • 3 points for magic and combat. The combat system hardly gets any of these points, but the more I played, the more I appreciated how well-balanced the magic system was. Every spell is useful. You don't get so few points that you have to rely entirely on melee weapons, but you don't get so many that you can cast spells willy-nilly. You get just enough to get yourself out of a few tight situations, and a big part of the game's strategy is determining how far to extend yourself into the dungeon before heading back to the entrance. This dynamic gives the game a feeling of tension that few other games rival.
Part of the game's excellent documentation. "Magic missile" does enough damage to kill almost all Level 1 monsters, which would make it a bit of a game-breaker if you started with the ability to cast more than 4 of them.

  • 2 points for equipment. There isn't much of it--sword and armor improvements, a few rings and boots and such--but these rare finds are very welcome.
Finding some special equipment.

  • 1 point for economy. As just an extension of the experience system (you can't actually buy anything), there isn't much to it. Determining whether to burden yourself with another haul of coins is one of the tactical choices in the game.
  • 1 point for quests. The "main quest," as such, isn't very well-defined, and there's no actual plot to it.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. Like all PLATO games, the monster icons are nice, but there's no sound. The keyboard commands are intuitive enough, though I really don't see the need of hitting SHIFT with the directional arrow to go through doors. It just slows down movement.
  • 2 points for gameplay. A deliberately-challenging game that somehow remains addictive despite limited game mechanics.
The final score of 16 makes the game not as good as Moria or Oubliette--it simply doesn't have enough content--but still fun in its own way.

I don't know about its later influence. Of the top-down PLATO games, The Game of Dungeons (dnd) seems better remembered, and the one that gave its name to the Daniel Lawrence derivatives, including Telengard.

I know I'm supposed to be playing Legend of Faerghail right now, but that game just hasn't gripped me, and this was a nice, simple alternative to playing nothing at all. I'll get back to Faerghail for the rest of this week.


Later edit: Only a couple of hours after this post was published, I heard from author Paul M. Resch. He said that the game was developed considerably earlier than the dates given by most sources--that people were playing it in 1975. In fact, it was the deletion of "pedit5" in 1974 that prompted the creation of Orthanc in the first place, and that creation was immediate, after Rusty Rutherford gave his blessing to Resch and his collaborators.

Mr. Resch also says that the team wrote to TSR to get their permission to use their monsters, attributes, and characteristics for the game. TSR "didn't seem to know what we were talking about, but agreed that  we could use it as long as we didn't sell anything."

Mr. Resch indicates that within a couple of years, Moria was making Orthanc feel a little stale, so he, Kemp, and Hagstrom began working on a successor but got distracted by other projects and never finished it.

 I've included some other comments from Mr. Resch in the post above.


Further reading: Catch up on the rest of the PLATO series with my posts on The Dungeon, The Game of Dungeons, Orthanc, Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar.

My winning character didn't stay on the list very long: he was bumped off by Nathan Mahney of "CRPG Adventures," who not only won the game but spent a crazy 7 months mapping every level. Check out his series of posts starting here.


  1. It would be interesting to learn what changed in the admin attitudes toward these games at UIUC. Early on they were summarily deleted. Later, they survived. Was there a formal meeting where the developers convinced the admins that these games had educational value? Was it an informal water cooler conversation that won them over? Or did the admins just sort of "give up" in the face of an onslaught of games being submitted to the system?

    1. I think it depended on who wrote the game, and whether it "played nicely" with system resources. There were a number of good non-RPG games on PLATO when I first used in in late 1974 or early 1975, and they did not get shut down. I suspect that the survivors were created by either sysops, professors, or grad students at Univ. of Illinois. Probably they also had other non-game lessons. I wrote my games in order to learn the system and programming language better for my non-game lessons, but my games (and account) were shut down. That might have been because I was not a student or staff at UI, so had lower priority to the sysops there.

    2. I suspect Corey's answer covers it, but since I've been e-mailing with Paul Resch, I asked him. I'll see what he says.

    3. Paul's complicated answer: Disk space on PLATO was controlled by "account owners," each of whom was working with limited space. The account owners would parse out their disk space to students. If the students designed games in those spaces, they'd be subject to deletion when the students moved on and the owners needed to reclaim the spaces for other students. "As a result, games would disappear sometimes without warning."

      Whether a game survived was mostly a matter of whether the creator could convince the account owner to preserve it, which depended a lot on the relationship between the creator and account owner--much as Corey says. Eventually, disk space grew enough that it was no longer a problem. "That is likely why some of the early games disappeared but later games hung around."

    4. Oh, and Paul says he's the one that preserved "pedit5" before it was deleted--I assume he means he printed it out--which allowed him to reconstruct it on Cyber1 years later. That's why we can play it today even though it was famously deleted in 1975.

    5. Re. admin attitudes: Some games were coded to only work in non-prime time (system reserved word "ptime") when system resources were available. Also, creation of =enforcer (a system-level, site-based "cop" program) allowed increased tolerance at various sites. Former CERL Director Don Bitzer addressed this question at the 2010 PLATO@50 Conference (on YouTube).

  2. Orthanc is terribly unbalanced. You can be charging through mobs with no issue, but all it takes is a couple unlucky rolls and it's over. I played this for quite some time and never advanced beyond the third or fourth floor, even with hours of grinding on prior floors to try and prepare myself. This is coming from someone who finished dnd and pedit5 (albeit with a lot of luck on the latter). That said, I agree that the auto-map is incredibly nice. Also, the treasures seem to be more of a game changer than anything, although some monsters will randomly steal them from you.

    1. Oddly, I liked this a little better than either "Pedit5" or "dnd," but I probably didn't approach those games in the right frame of mind. I wasn't used to PLATO or the terminal emulator yet, and I think I was just trying to get a post out.

  3. Would the label "Room" or "Corridor" be involved in determining whether a particular area is run worthy? I noticed in your example it clearly says "Room" right under the place you can't run from and a picture a bit above says "Corridor" under the place you are at. Wouldn't the label take priority over the way a room/corridor is shaped?

    1. Indeed. Somehow I missed that word glaring at me in a very obvious place.

  4. It's really fascinating to look at these super early crpgs because they show that the origin of the genre's adaptation to computers was borne on one hand, of a desire of simulation, not storytelling and on the other hand had a vital social aspect (trying to topple someone else's score, multiplayer).

    It flies in the face of the more often repeated narrative of how crpgs were (and still are) about worlds and stories with beginning middle and ending, to be experienced in relative solitude on your home micro computer.

    It's wierd to see that roguelikes are not a weird substrand of rpg evolution that occured later on, but at the very root of the genre.

    1. I've been resisting calling these games "roguelikes," but it really is inescapable, isn't it? You've got multi-leveled dungeons, permadeath, and a gameplay mechanic that encourages amassing points to impress other players. It's really only lacking some item at the bottom of the dungeon to serve as the object of the quest.

      It seems hard to believe that the creators of Rogue weren't influenced by the DND/Orthanc line, but it never comes up in any of the histories of Rogue or interviews with the developers.

    2. I think a lot of people don't realize how recent the whole "story is important" thing is, but even in the gaming press there seem to be a lot of people whose gaming awareness only includes the last five, maybe ten years.

    3. I my mind the one attribute of roguelikeness you did not list is random the dungeon generation. This keeps the player from memorizing what is where and finding the right key sequence to win, instead you have to find the right strategy.

      With orthanc resetting and generating its dungeon every 6 months i'd say it sounds roguelike enough.

      One question, do monsters generate and walk around (rogue) or do you have a random chance to appear in the square you step in (wizardry).

    4. Good question. The monsters occur at fixed locations, though randomly generated every time you re-enter the dungeon. If you have the "light" spell active, you can see them ahead of time. They'll engage in some limited movement, such as moving to intercept you if you're chugging through their rooms, but they don't chase you all around the dungeon or anything.

  5. I Love Weirdness and Variety--Sorry about that one post, very frustrated that dayNovember 11, 2013 at 6:42 PM

    I ended up playing Wizardry 6 this month, and although I really like the game despite its flaws, I am glad to be off that mountain. Those mines and mountaintop were really infuriating, and the annoying pit puzzle in the pyramids was also annoying. Five levels of dungeon, where the first level has paths you often cannot see, the other levels require you to backtrack repeatedly through ridiculously circuitous paths, and you often have to go through dark areas, and then you have go all the way back through it at the end. I now stand at the banks of the Styx, and hope never to return. Torture in Tartarus or burning in Hell seems fun by comparison. Fortunately, I think I did everything.

  6. I just really dig the amber color everything has, reminds me of an old 8088 computer I used to have with an amber monitor and Hercules graphics card. I remember playing the ASCII pseduo-RPG game 'Adventure' on it.

  7. Hey, everyone. If you've already read the post, scan it again and read the last couple of paragraphs. I heard from Paul Resch shortly after this post was published and made some changes. The big one is that it turns out to be a 1975 game.

    1. To me, the big one is that they got TSR's permission to use their monsters. I wonder if other early CRPG's did that, too (but they were sold for money). I've always been amazed by TSR's incredible restraint when I play non-licensed games like Wizardry and run into Mind Flayers and the like; if they'd bothered to defend their intellectual property, it seems as if a lot of people would have been in hot water.

    2. Considering how liberally TSR copied monsters and other elements from THEIR sources, I'm not sure they'd have a leg to stand on.

    3. The D&D monsters protected under licence aren't the public domain mythical creatures or tolkien rip-offs, they're the iconic original stuff like Umber Hulks, Beholders, Displacer Beasts, Gelatinous Cubes, Owlbears and the like. Are any of those in this game or did they get permission to stick orcs and goblins in there?

    4. I was pretty surprised too, considering how non-liberal TSR was when it came to rival (or even just third party D&D) products.

    5. I'm not sure what D&D's proprietary list are, but there are some monsters in here that I've seen in D&D and nowhere else: ogre mages, dark elves, ochre jellies, owl bears, chimeras, basilisks, rakashas, and umber hulks. The game also makes up a lot of monsters, though, so I'm surprised they didn't just make up all of them. Perhaps they wanted to give players the "flavor" of DND.

    6. Rakshasa, chimeras and basilisks are all mythological beasts (Indian, Greek and medieval European respectively), dark elves were actually already there in Scandinavian mythology and there was an ogre mage in Puss in Boots at the very least. Owlbears, jellies and hulks do sound like a DnD ripoff however.

    7. Oh, and Baba Yaga is often described in English-language texts as an "ogre sorceress" - which is veeeery inaccurate, but still... ;)

    8. Owlbear. An owl and a bear. Every time I give it more than a second's thought, I have to chuckle. Must have been a slow day in the office at TSR

    9. Ogre Mage (AKA Japanese Ogre in 1st Ed, no jokes) are the Oni from Japanese Mythology.

      There is no citation, but a story-games user claims that the following monsters are considered product identity by WIzards/Hasbro and their use is therefore restricted:

      carrion crawler
      displacer beast
      mind flayer
      umber hulk

      I've seen beholder clones (named gazers, eye stalkers, etc) in many games, so I guess they aren't super litigious about such matters.

    10. All I can say about the "original" D&D monsters are that their design is just.. terrible.

      Owlbears - What, do they peck or claw you to death and what makes them more dangerous than regular bears? It's not like they could fly, which is what I'd make them do if I was the one designing it, because it's just stupid to mix 2 creatures up and remove their stronger traits.

      Gelatinous Cubes - These poor bastards only resides in dungeons with squarish corridors and the only way anybody could fall prey to it is by being trapped in a dead end.

      Okay, shutting up now.

    11. Hey, how about those weird looking modrons and slutty slaadi?

      I think they're also D&D exclusive.

    12. A lot of the more infamous D&D monsters like the owlbear and rust monster were based off of odd plastic figures they used when playing the proto-D&D, so at least there's some explanation for them.

    13. That's a common misconception. The original creators of D&D didn't play it with minatures. Though that doesn't rule out the possibility that owlbears and such come from plastic figures, but it might be more complicated than that.

      The wargaming roots of D&D are well documented. But Gygax was joined by Arneson in making the game, and together they pushed it in a far more abstract direction, very early. Combat was resolved with one side declaring intentions and the DM considering what the enemies would do and it was a blob fray (similar to Wizardry), it wasn't "I move my led figuring behind this guy and get an attack of opportunity, while removing myself from the range of that archer all the way up there". Many people played this way and there were rules to support them, but later on, when the iconic ip of TSR was already well established.

      Minatures in D&D are an '80s thing, as TSR pushed Ral Partha figures on every player incesstantly. But the original '70s developers played, well, in their mind's eye.

      I know, I know, citation needed. But you can do your own corroborating research, I wouldn't want to rob you of an adventure :)

    14. I know, that's why I said proto-D&D. ;)

      I've always assumed they were referring to Chainmail when they talked about using those figures, but it's not impossible that they used them as markers/representatives later on. Lots of people did, even if they didn't use detailed movement and combat rules. I remember using lego figures, pennies, and whatever was handy just to have a general idea of where things were.

    15. This comment has been removed by the author.

    16. Miniatures in D&D go back to the 1970s. I first played in 1976 and miniatures were involved. I still have the original chainmail and DD books somewhere. I only played for about a year, so I'm pretty confident of the time period.

      (re-posted to fix typos)

    17. How were they involved, though? Was it to just show marching order and/or enjoy the increased immersion or did you move them about in a grid and had detailed per-second combat?

    18. We did position them on a grid during combat and otherwise to show marching order in case of ambush. Combat was in abstracted time units called rounds. The figures were used to determine the relative location of players and enemies, who could attach who, and whether missile users had line of sight, show whether and how we could retreat (My char got thrown to the dogs once as an expendable rear guard--I'm still annoyed almost 40 years later.).

      This use of miniatures was probably fairly common and not restricted to my immediate contacts, We had visitors to my university join our sessions from time to time and we didn't have to explain our usage anyway.

    19. I understand. Thanks for the info.

    20. TSR went through many phases: Very liberal and permissive in the early days, then after they got rich and corrupt they sued everyone in site to the point 3rd party supplements had to use HTK (Hits to Kill) instead of HP. A fast google can't find it, but there was something called 'The Ballad of T$R' going around on old FTP sites that gives a feel for their nature. These days WotC seems to turn a blind eye most of the time; they've sent a few takedown notices to sites posting character generators that go too far (ie replace the rulebook) and sued some pirates that managed to get a hold of the 4th edition books before they came out (Don't know how; but I've seen the PDFs and they had all the printer calibration stuff you'd place on them when sending them to a publisher).

    21. In my games, we used the miniatures as avatars to move on the tactical map. Also, using them like how 10 year-old boys play around with action figures.

      *Dornac The Black (played by DM)* - "You impertinent fools!"
      *Generic Paladin Leader (PL)* - "Stand back, demon! Lest I smite thee where thou stand!"
      *Generic Snarky Wizard (SW)* - "I cast 'Fireball'!"
      *DM* - "Okay, roll initiative."
      *SW* - "Woot! I go first! Psshhooo!!! Eat flames and die, Doorknob!"
      *DM* - "Dornac shrugs off the flame. Apparently, being borne from the abysmal flames of Purgatory has the side-benefit of Immunity to Fire."
      *Generic Sneaky Rogue (SR)* - "Kapisshh! (Uses his miniature to perform a flying kick and knocks Dornac's figurine over) Sneak Attack!"

    22. @Tristan Gall: Yes, the monsters you list are considered product identity by WotC/Hasbro; they're the monsters that appeared in the 3E Monster Manual but were not released as part of the "open game content". However, that doesn't mean those are the only monsters that weren't inspired by mythology; WotC only reserved as "product identity" a handful of monsters that it considered particularly strongly associated with the brand, or important for other reasons to reserve for their own use. (Also, the distinction between "product identity" and "open game content" only arose with the Open Game License in third edition, so didn't exist in the 70s in any case.)

      Even in the case of the monsters that were inspired in some way by mythology, however, the D&D versions may have unique characteristics not present in the original myths and folktales. The "dark elves" are a particular case in point -- sure, there were "dark elves" in Scandinavian folklore, but the D&D dark elves have little to do with them beyond the name. The white hair, the matriarchal culture, the association with spiders, and really pretty much everything else about the D&D dark elves was newly invented. (As for the basilisk, as far as I know it's D&D that first made the basilisk turn victims to stone, rather than just killing them outright like the original folkloric version... though that's been very widely copied since.)

      Yeah, though, WotC (and before that TSR) has been surprisingly lax in quashing use of D&D monsters in computer games, even the monsters that in 3E were considered product identity...

    23. Minor thing: I don't know about basilisks, but cockatrices turning people to stone turns up as early as 1941 in "The Mathematics of Magic" by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, part of their Compleat Enchanter series. I think it is in the Appendix N, the list of things which inspired Gygax et consortes. A lot of beings are inspired by very specific things; rakshasas and trolls come from old stories, but being killed by blessed crossbow bolts and regenerating respectively comes from Kolchak the Night Stalker (the TV series) and Poul Andersons Three Hearts and Three Lions. You take the good ideas you find and make them into good gaming.

    24. Actually, basilisk and cockatrice are also real mythical beasts of folklore with venerable histories reach back to days of ancient Rome.

      Rakshasha goes back to indian folklore, but blessed arrow is still there in form "most powerful arrow fortified with deadly divine missile".

      Although D&D Rakshasha's "Tiger in robes" -look originates from somewhere else

    25. Ah, I'd suspected there might be some earlier source for the basilisks and cockatrices turning people to stone, but I didn't know what it was. "The Mathematics of Magic" is almost certainly where Gygax got it; as you mention, he acknowledged de Camp and Fletcher as major influences on the game. Still, it's no doubt via D&D that the basilisk's and cockatrice's petrifaction ability has now become a fantasy commonplace.

      As for the rakshasa's "tiger in robes" look, that's actually a minor annoyance that I have with the designers of later editions. In the first-edition Monster Manual, the rakshasa was described as having the head of an animal, but it was explicitly said that it could be one of many different animals—the illustration showed a rakshasa with a tiger head, but that was just an example. But then when adapting it to later editions, they just went by the illustration and ignored the text, and so all rakshasas had tiger heads. Bleh.

      (Don't get me wrong; overall I like 3E a lot better than 1E and 2E. But there are a few minor changes made that I don't think were for the better, largely in the monsters and cosmology. For instance, on the topic of monsters that may be assumed to have originated from D&D but didn't, the "marut" from 2E D&D was in fact originally from Vedic mythology; its name came from Sanskrit... but apparently the designers of 3E didn't realize that, so they severed its specific connection with the appropriate pantheon and just made it one of a family of "inevitables" along with a bunch of others with meaningless names meant to sound vaguely similar like "zelekhut" and "kolyarut"... I don't have anything against inevitables as a concept; I just think they should have been developed in a way that respected the marut's Hindu origins. Oh well.)

  8. The list of PLATO games at the beginning of the post still says 1977 for Orthanc.

    1. Thanks. I fixed it everywhere else but forgot there.

  9. Perhaps you forthcoming CRPG history book should span multiple volumes. You seem to be amassing so much information about these ancient early CRPGs - including contact with original creators - that it might fill a book in and of itself.

    Also, ebook format might be the best option for your book(s). Traditional publishing is expensive, whether done by yourself or via a vanity publisher, and marketing/distribution require an insane amount of work. But almost anyone intrigued by your topic would have access to a computer with an ebook reader program, if not an actual Kindle/Nook/etc.

    1. Thats how I've been envisioning it: one volume for each of the major "ages" that Matt Barton outlined, but with the first book combining the first two ages.

      I'll publish on a platform that allows both print and ebooks. The only thing that concerns me about ebooks is that the book will be somewhat image-heavy and may have some elements, like tables, that don't often render well on ebook readers.

    2. Just a small plug from a loyal CRPG Addict lurker that might help you; I work at Inkling, an ebook platform that handles large images very well. We have a publishing tool to make ebooks as well called Inkling Habitat that I work on; you might find it useful:

      Brad Neuberg

  10. Heh, I recognize some of the names on that Hall of Fame list. I'm betting that the 180 day reset of the list hasn't happened for a while.

    I like how 'colorized' is listed on the new feature list.

    I spent a lot of time 'colorizing' old PLATO lessons back in the day. Which was the term we used for sprucing them up and making them look slightly less dated.

    1. Yes, Paul Resch indicated he turned off the reset feature, which was unnecessary now that there were so few players. When you say "back in the day," do you mean you were a student using PLATO back in the 1970s?

    2. No, this was the late 90s. I worked for a company that licensed PLATO from UIUC and sold it commercially as a service to schools across the country.

      By this point the lessons, while full of great education content, looked 'old' so we were trying make them look more appealing.

  11. My favorite thing about this blog is when Chester is contacted by the creators of early titles and we get to hear first-hand how they were developed.

    1. I am sadistically waiting for one of the creators of a game he really ripped into, like David Bradley, or Greg Paul Malone, to drop in. It will be fun if they either live up to the level of narcissism or if they turn out to be nice guys.

      Is it wrong that I want to see that kind of anger and embarrassment from a fellow human being just for my amusement?

    2. Yes. You're a terrible person. Mind if I join you and share the popcorn?

    3. I *almost* did a really nasty review of a book a while back. Small, out of print RPG setting that I got the entire line of when they dumped the remaining stock. However, I just didn't have the heart and instead focused on all the stuff I did like.

      A while later the creator of it left a comment on my blog saying he was glad to see people were still enjoying it. Glad I was nice, as it has given me a lot of great ideas, even if it is pretty terribly written.

    4. Yes Canageek that's all wholesome and nice but think of all the entertainment value we could have had at your expense. All this being a nice guy stuff is really selfish when you should be creating drama for Kenny and me.

    5. UbAh; This was well before Chet started his blog.

    6. From my extensive experience in Assholism, it is never too late to be one.

  12. Interesting that the game allows the user to "back up one roll" when creating a character... I guess this would mitigate the phenomenon you brought up in your CRPG Glossary post that Giauz called "Sleight of Dice". Have any newer games that had the player roll for statistics included this feature?

  13. Hello everybody!

    I am reaaaaally late, but I have just discovered you blog and I have fallen in love with it. Congratulation for the good work!

    I'd like to add that Baba Yaga is a witch from the russian folklore, something I learned while playing Quest for Glory.

    Maybe someday I'll ask you a few questions about some of these games, if you don't mind.

  14. this is listed as 75 on master list but 77 on game ranking sheet

  15. Played many hours of Orthanc as a kid back in the 70s and was happy to be able to play it again on Cyber1 as an adult. That’s my Finnegan entry at the top of the HoF page to show for it. There is actually a tactic in this game that, when combined with some key items, makes you effectively invincible. I won’t give it away but I suspect the other folks at the tip of the HoF page also know the tactic.


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