Sunday, October 27, 2019

Game 343: Camelot (1982)

Hardly anyone has won this game.
United States
Independently developed in 1982 at the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois
Date Started: 20 April 2019
As far as we know, and until someone comes along with evidence of earlier creations, the first computer RPGs were developed by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign using the PLATO educational system. The Dungeon (1975),  The Game of Dungeons (1975), and Orthanc (1975) were all developed swiftly after the publication of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1974), in that order.
Camelot has a single character exploring via a tiny first-person interface. It has more equipment slots and logistics than the typical RPG of the era.
The developers of these early RPGs did us a favor by creating what are, unarguably, RPGs. They didn't muddy the waters like their counterparts on the commercial side, where you have to wade through a bunch of early titles that might technically be RPGs, but you don't really feel like the developers were familiar with tabletop role-playing. The University of Illinois students played and loved Dungeons & Dragons and were explicitly trying to replicate the experience on the computer. Their first games offer a full set of RPG mechanics: character creation, leveling, equipment acquisition, and combat based on the attendant statistics. Even the graphics are reasonably good. They lack a certain narrative sophistication, but that's a matter of quality, not definition.

The earliest games--the 1975 trio--all feature a single protagonist with fighter, cleric, and mage abilities entering a large and deadly dungeon pictured from the top down. As he defeats enemies (more often with spells than swords) and carries treasures out of the dungeon, he grows in power and experience, hoping to eventually appear at the top of the leaderboard. These games led directly to the Daniel Lawrence DND line and may have had some impact on the development of roguelikes.

In late 1975, Moria started a second tradition of PLATO games, this one characterized by first-person dungeon exploration, a town level (or menu town) with various services, and multiple characters per party. Each player only controls his own character, but multiple players can meet up, join together under a leader, and use various talk features to chat, plan attacks, and summon help. These games--Moria, Oubliette (1978), and Avatar (1979)--are essentially the world's first MMORPGs. Avatar is still actively and enthusiastically played today.

Joshua Tabin's Camelot (1982) is the last of the PLATO CRPGs, developed after the advent of the microcomputer RPG but without any influence from it. Instead, it unites the two previous PLATO lines, offering the first-person exploration, dungeon design, and advanced inventories of the Moria line but the single-character focus of the earlier Dungeon line. Multiple characters do explore the same dungeon, and can engage in some limited cooperation, but each character's ultimate development and victory are independent of the others.
Camelot's backstory mangles the Arthurian legend.
Players can control only one character at a time, chosen from human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, ogre, and pixie classes. Each class comes with fixed attributes in strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity, charisma, and maximum age. The plot, which makes no sense in context, is that the character is a Knight of the Round Table in search of the Holy Grail. It exists somewhere in a 10-level dungeon beneath a menu town. According to the documentation, you first need to get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

Dungeon levels are 16 x 16, organized into rooms. Every space between two doors is considered a room, even if long, linear, and twisting. The moment you enter a room, there's a chance of an encounter with monsters, treasure, or both. Some rooms have messages ("you notice an empty wallet on the ground"; "there is guano spread on the walls and floor") that help keep you oriented. All active players are sharing the same dungeon, and once cleared, rooms remain so until the next level reset, which happens every hour or when the entire level is cleared.
Character creation. The different races have fixed attributes. I'm not sure how you live long enough to even get off Level 1 as a human, ogre, or pixie.
Movement is by the waxd cluster, with SHIFT-W used to open doors. Other dungeon features include secret doors, traps, spinners, and teleporters--all features drawn from Moria and Oubliette and used with abundance in Wizardry and other grid-based dungeon crawlers.

It takes a long time to get any traction. A new character starts with his bare hands and a loincloth, and not enough money for much else. You have to get lucky with a few treasure rooms or combats before you can buy anything. Naturally, these early combats are pretty dangerous. You spend an awful lot of time running away and retreating back up the stairs to the inn, where you sometimes rest as long as a year to get back to full health. In more unfortunate cases, you die. The game's permadeath is slightly blunted by relatively favorable odds for getting found and resurrected, although this comes with a loss of score, any money you were carrying, and sometimes an attribute.
I live, but I've lost a point of charisma.
If the game excels in any particular area, it's in its encounter design. When you enter a room, you're told how many enemies you face, of what type (unless they surprise you, in which case you just get a category), whether they're guarding treasure, and what their disposition is. A peace symbol suggests friendship while a sword shows they're hostile.

Like a lot of games, you have numerous options for dealing with enemy parties, including three fight options (berserk, regular attack, and critical hit), parrying, reasoning with the enemies (which usually leads to them asking for money to go away), or attempting to steal their treasure out from under them. The good thing is that no matter what option you try, you get experience even if it only partly works. There are plenty of times that paying a few hundred gold pieces to get the monsters to leave voluntarily is the best course of action, especially if the party is going to be difficult. Otherwise, they'll remain in the room, blocking your progress, until the next reset.
Missing is the default outcome at Level 1. The demons guard a small treasure (the box to their left) and are hostile (the sword to their right).
Combat is quasi-real-time rather than turn based. Dexterity determines how often you and your foes get to hit an attack key, but if you stand still and do nothing, enemies will keep attacking you rather than waiting for you to take your turn. The good news is that you can also simply run through the area--or turn around and flee--during this process, maybe taking a hit or two, but usually getting out of the area alive. With all these options, it's often stubbornness that kills you.

Camelot has the most extensive equipment system of the PLATO games, with separate slots for weapon, armor, shield, helmet, gloves, belt, cloak, boots, ring, bag, spell, and "other." The bag slot accommodates an increasing variety of bags that hold gold; otherwise, it's very easy to get over-encumbered by coinage, with a consequent penalty to speed and accuracy in combat. You fill in the items slowly as you purchase them or, more commonly, find them in special treasure rooms. Scrolls and rings and such are the game's only approach to magic. Particularly prized are manuals, which increase attributes permanently, and Potions of Youth, which reverse the affects of aging.
My April character had amassed a lot of stuff, but a very low negative score.
I played quite a bit of the game in April, and corresponded with developer Joshua Tabin, but I didn't compile an entry for a rather stupid reason: I didn't want to play it officially if I wasn't going to win. But the game needs to be discussed, and winning seems so far off that it will likely be impossible, so I'll just have to take the hit. Back then, I had a character up to Level 7, but he was getting old, and he had a negative score in the tens of thousands from multiple deaths and resurrections. I decided to start over with a new elf character, who has the greatest longevity.
Leveling makes a huge difference. For the first couple of levels, the only mystery in combat is whether you're going to "miss" or "miss wildly." You have to hope to find rooms with treasure that boost your experience a bit artificially. In the rare fight, you might kill 1 monster in a stack of 6. Even with frequent (P)raying to your god (which you can do about twice an hour, restoring about 30% of your health each time), you run out of health fast and have to retreat to the stairs. Returning to the town level makes you rest automatically until your health is back to 100%, which may take literally years game-time.
By Level 7--which might take 10 hours real-time, you're probably powerful enough to clear the entirety of the first level. However, the game starts to introduce quests, which require you to kill a specific type of monster to make the next level. Sometimes, these monsters are only found one or two levels down, so you can't dally on the easy levels forever.
I'll need to kill a "foot fungus" before I can level up again.
Until you find other items that allow you to heal, you can (P)ray several times per outing to restore anywhere from 10% to 50% of your health. I've never had it work more than 5 times. After that, you have to return to the town if you want to heal. 
Level 1 has mostly easy monsters but they often attack in groups of up to 6. Sometimes you have to just concentrate on killing one--perhaps exhausting all your prayers in the process--then return to the town, heal, get a new set of prayers, and return to kill another one. Enemies include various types of clerics, mages (who can put you to sleep), orcs, hobgoblins, "tweens," gas spores and other types of fungus who can poison you, skeletons, and faerie dragons. Some rooms are designated "special treasure" rooms with each reset and typically have enemies found on lower levels.

There are two teleporters that take you to fixed locations on the same level. There is one spinner in the middle of a 3 x 3 room with a message indicating it's full of fog. There is one room that tells you it's hot every round. There are two stairways down.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • When you enter the dungeon after each new hour (real-time) turns, there's a chance--a good chance--that the dungeon will designate it "the witching hour!" and enemies will almost always get a surprise attack. In real life, only midnight is "the witching hour," not every other damned hour. I think the witching hours may actually get more frequent as you get closer to Halloween.
  • I'm having a weird graphic glitch where sometimes a weird graphic obscures the already-small game window. I'm not sure if this is deliberate or not. It seems to happen more often during a "witching hour."
  • There are more limited multiplayer options than in other PLATO titles, but they exist. Two players in the same room at the same time will attack the same enemy party and will then scramble for the treasure. You can have chats with other people in the dungeon. There hasn't generally been anyone around during my explorations, but occasionally I've left the session running only to come back and find that someone tried a "Hello" while I was gone.
  • There's no automap in normal play, but you can "Follow" any active player and see his position on a map. If you have two Cyber1 accounts (I don't), you can play with one account and follow your character with the other account, thus creating a de facto automap.
  • There's a way to tame some animals and have them as companions for a time.
  • Unlike most other PLATO games, treasure doesn't help much with experience. You have to defeat enemies. Treasure is important for buying equipment and leveling up, however.
I've already mapped Level 1, so what I do is every time the hour rolls around, I start shading the rooms I've already cleared. When the hour is up, I clear my shading and start over. I figure it's time to move on to the next level when you can completely clear the previous one in an hour. I have a Level 4 character that is capable of clearing about 2/3 of Level 1 in an hour, but he's died a few times and thus has a very high negative score. He also has yet to find a single weapon, and during his last resurrection, his dexterity got knocked from 18 to 16. I'll still probably continue with him because it took me 4 hours just to get him to Level 4.
10% of the Camelot maze.
The game was designed to be hard to win, and I'm not sure I have the patience for the whole thing. If I lose my character again, I'll probably give up. Even if that happens, I have enough material from my conversations with Joshua Tabin to justify at least one more entry.

Time so far: 8 hours


  1. I swear I have a life outside of this blog, I just somehow happen to be here right around when a new post arrives lately.

    If there were more interesting multiplayer, it would be fun to have a game night/meetup on one of these old PLATO games.

  2. If this is the last of the PLATO CRPGs, then this post feels like a poignant closing the book on the first real chapter of the genre's history. Camelot looks really interesting, a dead-end in the evolution of CRPGs that anticipates solo dungeon crawlers without really being an influence on them, more of a product of all of the developments that came before it. Having punishing gameplay with the constant threat of permanent death or stat loss is rough, though. The Game of Dungeons and Moria alleviated this with predictable gameplay that never force you in over your head, but both were much longer than they stayed interesting, especially Moria. Camelot seems comparable, difficulty and content-wise, to Wizardry.

    Do you think any of the PLATO titles are worthy of inclusion on your GOTY or "must play" lists? FWIW, I enjoyed The Dungeon / pedit5 the most, as its difficulty curve is hilariously brutal, but is also short enough that it doesn't get boring. Oubliette is fascinating as a proto-Wizardry and also as a game packed with features and content ahead of its time, but without a player base it's impossible to truly appreciate.

    1. That's a good question. Probably. I think I resisted putting any of them on the list because of the difficulty playing them today. You don't want to create a "must play" list out of things that are unplayable. But Cyber1 has had some staying power, so I suppose there's no reason to regard it as ephemeral.

    2. These early games are fascinating... the early PLATO days were probably a quite fun time to attend the University of Illinois. There was a great book written on the PLATO system called "The Friendly Orange Glow" if you are interested in the full history. I may have mentioned it here before... my brain has an 8 bit processors and can't remember...

      Thanks for both of your interesting blogs!

    3. I haven't played Camelot yet, but from the description in this blogpost I think we're going to see a similar game some time in the future.

      Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol, and Demise: Rise of the Ku'tan are games we'll see in 1995 and 2000, respectively. They share surprisingly many design ideas with the PLATO games (at least that's my impression from what I've read on this blog - not having played any of the PLATO games myself, but having played Mordor and Demise).

      Both have a rather automatic approach to combat, are technically single character (you can make parties but they're made up of individual characters, and if multiple players share the same PC they can stumble upon each other's characters in the dungeon - kinda like Camelot's multiplayer), if you die in the dungeon you have a good chance of being found and carried back up, etc etc.

      I guess it's quite likely that Mordor and Demise (both made by the same dev) were inspired by the PLATO games.

    4. @JarlFrank: Mordor was a PC remake of Avatar, a PLATO game that was covered here some years ago.

  3. I get the feeling this game, and others like it, was meant to be played with a group. If it's closely modeled on D&D then the developers probably played it together. A bigger group makes it easier to survive a dungeon.
    Imagine playing through Pools of Radience with only one PC.

    1. No, the developer specifically intended this game for one player. He was trying to offer something to people who wanted to play games like Moria or Oubliette but didn't have any friends.

    2. I guess I misunderstood the gist of the game. I was under the impression that multiple people would be playing Camelot on a PLATO network, or whatever they had going on. That was before my time.

    3. No, you're right about that. Multiple people were sharing the dungeon and could talk to each other, but it was designed so that a solo adventurer wasn't punished for adventuring solo. He could interact a bit with other players but didn't have to beg to join their parties.

    4. Seems like a really intense version of Gauntlet then.

    5. Chet is spot-on: The whole point was that you could adventure with friends... but you weren't forced to do so... which was very different from the other two games of the time, Oubliette and Avatar, that were punishingly difficult if you couldn't run in a party. In fact, the only people I knew who could play those games without a group of friends, were sys-ops (system operators) who had 3 or 4 or more terminals at their disposal at CERL, or the Chemistry Building, or the Foreign Language Building at the U of I. Today on Cyber1 this doesn't seem like such a big deal (since you can have and login with multiple signons on the same PC), but back in the day, the only way to have multiple terminals available to you is if you were a sys-op responsible for a room full of PLATO terminals.

  4. The old ones remind me of old films, where special effects just weren´t possible, so they had to rely on script, or wit, instead of eye candy.

    1. Nah, special effects have always been part of cinema from the earliest of days. For instance Georges Méliès, one of the earliest pioneers of motion pictures, was also very prolific pioneer of special effects techniques. His most famous work Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Trip to the Moon) was a real cavalcade of special effects in 1902:

    2. That's an exceptional film. You can't say it was some kind of rule for those films to be full of special effects. I don't know what it is about people that makes them throw a single example out and try to claim it's a general principle, but this happens often.

    3. I grew up watching sci fi of the late 70s and onwards. We didn't realize how bad some of the effects were at that point. I do like practical effects, but there are limits that can only be circumvented with CGI.

      Nonetheless... all of the better sci fi had compelling stories and characters!

    4. Ok Harland, how about Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, almost all of Buster Keaton's work or the first commercially released movie The Great Train Robbery? They all used beautiful sets, well timed stunts, ground breaking special effects and editing, a technique that was nigh impossible in a stage production. Arthurdawg is right when he points out those effects heavy movies had good writing to support their effects. The single example phenomenon is the same kind of faulty logic that says "Back in the old days they only had sticks and imagination and the movies were great for it. WE LOVED IT!"

    5. All excellent examples, I would also add that the noir genre was originally named after the super harsh lighting techniques used in them, which are a form of special effects

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Were these PLATO games widely known at the time, or more of a niche-audience thing?

    In 1982, my Uncle was a faculty member at U. Illinois, and while he definitely used the Cyber1 system (I remember him trying to explain it to me), I do not recall him mentioning any games. (He did play a few games on his Apple II.)

    1. I don't think anyone knew about them before the 2000s and blogging. The barriers to entry to play these games were punishingly high. For the longest time I thought Wizardry was the first, and I know a lot of other people thought the same.

    2. I had heard about them from "Fire In The Valley" and other books and articles about computer history. But as far as I knew back then, the only way to play them was to find a museum that had one.

    3. I was actually wondering how widely known it was in the University community, not among the public (or gamers) at large. I realise that most people were unaware of Plato.

  7. I mentioned "The Friendly Orange Glow" above about the PLATO system. It had a pretty small user base overall, mainly centered around the University of Illinois. It was ahead of its time in many respects. There were some other sites that installed PLATO, but I don't think there was much communication in between those sites, so I don't think you could have someone login at Illinois and play with someone at a different site. Take that with a nice crystal of sodium chloride as not in anyway a technical expert on the system.

    1. I can second the recommendation of this book for those who are interested in the cultural history here.

  8. I was reading CRPG Adventures' entry on Temple of Apshai, and saw something that immediately reminded me of what I read here about Camelot. In that game, death is usually not permanent, but your rescuer may take your items and/or treasure as payment. Rarely, monsters will eat your corpse, ending everything. Is it possible that this informed Camelot? I can't think of too many other CRPGs with this particular flavor of costly resurrection.

    1. It's possible. You could be found and resurrected by other players in Oubliette, and having a chance that "the Gods" would just do it for you would have fit with tabin's desire to make Camelot fully single-player. But I'll ask him.

  9. Which one of the knights of the round table was a pixie, again? :)

  10. AlphabeticalAnonymousApril 21, 2022 at 12:51 PM

    Just to close the loop on this one -- is your character still in the system? Or did he meet his end at the hands of his "Questing Beast" of a Foot Fungus?

    1. Just to make sure you noticed: I did win the game in January 2020. Over two years later, my character is still on the leaderboard, at position #5. He was at position #3 when he won. Someone named "zositel" and someone named "shak" won with higher scores in the meantime. In fact, "zositel" has the highest score of all time.

    2. AlphabeticalAnonymousApril 22, 2022 at 9:44 AM

      Highly-belated congratulations, then.

    3. 2nd that congrats -- it's truly impressive that someone without a PLATO/CDC background can go back in time to a 40 year old computer system, figure out first how to use that system, and then enter, play, and win such an ancient CRPG such as Camelot. Kudos, Chet. It was fun watching it unfold.

    4. Couldn't have done it without you!


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