Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Game 497: Dragons (1978)

At least there are no dungeons this time.
United States
Software Industries (developer and publisher)
Released 1978 for TRS-80
Date Started: 12 November 2023
Date Ended: 13 November 2023
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5) if you're willing to do some of your own coding
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Any game we can recover from the earliest era of commercial CRPGs is interesting, even when it's featureless and flawed. The period from 1978 to 1982 is full of interesting oddities--games with no precedent, with a couple dozen authors struggling with the best ways to adapt tabletop RPGs to the computer. Ultima and Wizardry won that contest like the Wright Brothers won the skies, but it's fascinating to look at some of the other contestants. They are the zeppelins, ornithopters, and winged bicycles of the RPG genre.
Dragons was created by John McCalpin and sold through his company, Software Industries, of Richardson, Texas. (There's a fun coincidence here in that I was living in Richardson, Texas in 1978, about two miles from where McCalpin was doing his coding.) "Sold" may be a slight exaggeration: we only know about the game because El Explorador de RPG found it in an archive of thousands of TRS-80 games. It is uncertain how, where, or if it was ever marketed and played.
I love how specific the date is.
The framing story sets the game in the year 828 in Denmark. You play an adventurer "drawn by tales of a great treasure of over 5,000 gold pieces, said to be in a castle inhabited by monsters of every sort." In fact, there are 10 types of monsters: orcs, trolls, slithers, green slimes, giant ants, shadows, giants, purple worms, hydras, and dragons. The dungeon is three "levels," with the treasure found in a large room on Level 3. You have to get there and back with this haul. 
You set out with a dagger, a two-edged sword, a bow with 5 arrows, a 10-foot lance, and 5 points of "magic dust." The lance, arrows, and dust are consumed when you use them, but the dagger and sword remain with you until you replace them with magic versions of the weapons that you sometimes find.
I'm not going to be charming any dragons with that charisma.
As the game begins, it rolls values from 3 to 18 in strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charisma. Unusually for the era, all attributes play a role in the character's success, as discussed below.
So far, so good, but the game falls apart when you actually descend into the dungeon. You don't actually get to navigate its levels. Instead, the game tells you that you're walking along a corridor and there's a room to your right or left. Do you want to check it out? There's no actual map, just a series of subroutines that lead you left, right, and forward by the hand, and your only navigational choices are whether to enter rooms, which almost always contain enemies, or not. Everything else is handled automatically: hiding when you hear a noise, searching for traps, picking up gold pieces, turning right or left at the end of a corridor. Dragons' philosophy seems to be that when there's only one sensible thing to do, or when the choice is arbitrary, why not just automate it?
The game resolves most things on its own, only occasionally giving you a choice.
Rooms and corridors have slightly different encounters, but each can produce a combat with one of  the game's many monsters. In a room, you have initial options to retreat, attack, or check your statistics. This is the only time in the game that you get to check your statistics.
If you choose to attack in a room, or if you're attacked in a hallway ambush, your only option is what weapon you want to use to fight it. The game then runs through a series of "crunch" and "smash" text messages until it finally says either "You got him!" or "Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrgh," the latter indicating you've just died. You don't see any specific statistics during this exchange of blows, so there's no way to tell how much damage you're taking (nor any way to back out if you did).
Well, that's grim.
Combats deliver gold, which does nothing but add to your final attributes. In rooms, you occasionally find (post-combat) magic swords, magic arrows, or magic daggers, which despite their names might actually be worse than regular versions of the same weapons. A regular sword's attack value is 2 and a regular dagger's attack value is 1. The only way to see the attack values of the magic versions of these weapons is to spend 2 units of your magic dust while inspecting the character statistics. You only start with 5 units and you rarely find any more, so you won't be inspecting that often. Any new magic item you find replaces the old one if you decide to pick it up.
Finding a magic dagger.
Combat success depends on strength, dexterity, and experience. Your long-term success in the dungeon depends on the number of "wounds" you take, which is capped by your constitution. Wisdom governs the success of magic dust, if you decide to use it as a weapon.
The game's one major "innovation" is that if you encounter a dragon, you get a chance to tame it, dependent on your charisma. If you successfully tame the dragon, you can use it as a weapon in combat, "D" for "Dragon" replacing what was previously D)agger, and the attack value going from 1 to between 3 and 18. It's still your health that takes a beating in combat, however.
I will name him "Puff."
Shadows are another unique encounter. They cannot be fought. Whether you encounter them at all depends on your dexterity; dexterous characters can sneak past them. If you do meet them, intelligence and wisdom govern whether you can successfully expend your remaining magic to protect yourself. If not, you may die or flee the dungeon, dropping gold along the way.
Modern players emulating the game can't get anywhere with it because they actually lose experience with every battle. El Explorador explains the problem in his entry. Essentially, the programming uses evaluations of IF statements to determine how much experience you gain per monster slain. My reading of the code is that you're supposed to get 1 point of experience plus another 1 point if the monster's level is greater than 5, plus another 1 point if the monster's level is 10, plus two more points if your intelligence and wisdom are greater than 15, minus two points if your intelligence and wisdom are less than 6. The problem is that the program assumes that the results of "true" evaluations will be 1, which I guess maybe it was in the 1978 version of TRS-80 BASIC. But the disk on which the program is found requires a Model III version of BASIC, by which time "true" was represented as -1, so you're actually losing experience instead of gaining it. I think the only way you can gain experience from combat is to roll very low intelligence and wisdom statistics and then only fight orcs, trolls, slithers, and green slimes.
After a few combats, I have -4 experience.
This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, you have to achieve 10 experience before the game may present you with an opportunity to go down to Level 2. (I'm not sure what the value is for Level 3.) Second, combat depends heavily on experience, and when you get into the negative values, you're likely to die instantly even if you have plenty of wounds available. 

I tried to fix the code but I couldn't get anything to work right, so I finally saw the endgame by inserting a line that set my experience to 50 the moment I entered the dungeon. Even though I then lost some with every victory, it was enough to present me with opportunities to go down to Level 2 and then to Level 3, where the game instantly let me collect the 5,000 gold piece treasure hoard.
I just want to know how I carried it.
I then had to dither around for a few rooms and corridors on Level 3 before the game offered me an opportunity to climb back up to Level 2. I then had to repeat the process on Levels 2 and 1 before I finally got out of the game and to the winning message.
Well, one tale to tell.
This is 1978, so of course we can't judge the game too harshly, particularly since there's no sign it was actually marketed as a commercial title. What it served to drive home to me is that no matter how basic your game is, you have to give the player some agency, if only the mundane experience of walking down a corridor. There's no sense of place in Dragons, and too much of what happens seems arbitrary.
At the same time, among all the 1978 titles, Dragons is the one that most anticipates what a full RPG will look like. It has a full set of attributes, a variety of monsters, equipment, combat based on those attributes and equipment, and character growth through accumulation of experience. It even has a framing story. It is the barest sketch of an RPG, but it doesn't miss any major elements. You could easily imagine someone building on this core, adding subroutines with more complex encounters, NPCs, more combat variables, and an actual map. I don't want to oversell the achievement of Dragons because it would only be another year that Dunjonquest would offer all those things, plus graphics, but it's still fun to watch another rickety glider struggle to take off and soar into the future of our beloved genre.


  1. Have you heard of Progress Quest, a RPG'ish game that takes gameplay automation to its (il)logical conclusion?

  2. I wonder if this game was inspired by Zork in any way. The character system is obviously more advanced since Zork only has a grand total of three fights anyway, but there are some similarities like using experience (points in Zork) as a proxy for level. It’s the 1978 that sticks out as Zork got a general use Fortran port early that year but with the name Dungeon; TSR’s lawyers came knocking later on and they reverted the name. Dungeon and Dragons seems a bit too cute to be a total coincidence.

    1. I agree that it has that one similarity, but it otherwise doesn't feel like Zork at all. I think a game that owed anything to Zork would have to at least offer some basic room descriptions.

  3. I can't be 100% certain (not a historian), but I have a strong suspicion that there weren't any castles in Denmark in 828. The oldest Danish castles/ruins I know of are from the 12th century.

    1. Maybe the monsters didn't look after it well.

    2. I believe the first Ring Castles were in the 10th century.

      The oddly specific mention of 9th century Denmark may be a reference to Beowulf.

      In any case, great find from the Explorador.

    3. Depends on what qualifies as a "castle" to you, archaeological evidence exists for a couple of hillforts.

    4. They were building everything out of wood, and had big wooden walls, although they wouldn't really have resembled anything you'd call a castle.. One fact that surprised me from Children of Ash and Elm was that part of the impetus for exploring west towards Greenland and North America was that the Vikings were running out of wood for buildings and ships, having cut everything big down. Hard to imagine that much clear cutting in the preindustrial era.

      This was all centuries after 828, which also made me think of Beowulf even though I learned a date a century earlier. I wonder what date an available source in Texas in the 70s would have given for Beowulf.

    5. Thecla, I believe that this "lumber-shortage" theory concerns vikings from Iceland. That island has very little in the way of trees and I believe they imported most of what they needed for construction. So it might have been an attempt to become less dependent on trade with Scandinavia. That is just my theory though.

  4. The "left door? right door? further down the hallway?" gameplay seems oddly anticipating the line of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that launched in 1982. The "here's a scenario, which of the three options do you choose?" approach more generally of course also reminds me of Braminar, though as a 1987 release it's of course even later. (Don't mind me, I just like bringing up Braminar in conversations.)

    1. Wife: "Hey, which of these bras do you think I should wear today? I'm undecided."

      Rowan: "I can't help you there, but speaking of bras..."

  5. "Ultima and Wizardry won that contest like the Wright Brothers won the skies". Really well said, sir.

    1. Thanks. I had to bookened the overwrought metaphor in the final line.

    2. It felt very American to say that though. "What was the first flight" has a different answer depending on the country you are in (switching between languages in Wikipedia is telltale.
      - The French are going to say the first powered flight was Clément Ader (1897), but others will say it barely bumped off the ground thanks to a rock.
      - The Germans are going to say it was Karl Jatho (1903), but others will say it was more hopping than flying, and had no reliable witnesses.
      - The New Zealanders are going to claim Richard Pearse (also 1903), but others will say it was uncontrolled the first time, or lacking reliable witness the second time.
      - The Americans are going to say it was the Wright Brothers (1903) but others will say it used a rail in front of the wind so really it was assisted gliding. And then no witness for later flights.
      - The Romanians are going to claim it was Traian Vuia (1906), but others will say "who?"
      - The Brazilians are going to claim it was Santos-Dumont in 1906, but the others will say their guys did it before.

      I was pretty interested in the topic, and my educated opinion is that Clément Ader did not fly but just bumped and that whatever is used to disqualify Jatho also disqualifies the Wright brothers 1903 flight, therefore the first flight is either Richard Pearse or Santos Dumont (you can't exclude Pearse without also excluding Vuia). The Wright Brothers being in the list is, in my opinion, pure American exceptionalism.

    3. *the Wright brothers being first in the list.

    4. Being an exceptional American, you'd be surprised at how little I mind accusations of "American Exceptionalism."

    5. Damn, you're good! My experience is that one can say anything about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but woe to the one who says anything about the Wright Brothers.

    6. Well, if I *was* going to say anything about that, I would have pointed out that you interpreted my comment as meaning "first in flight" rather than "the flight that launched mass production of airplanes," which was more in line with the metaphor. I also would have pointed out that it was just a goddamned metaphor.

    7. ""the flight that launched mass production of airplanes" => But! But! That would be the flight of Santos-Dumont's "14bis", which opened the way for the first serial-produced plane: the Demoiselle!

      Joke aside, I apologize. My comment went significantely into "well akshually" territory. It is just that "first flight" claims are a bit of my pet peeves. Each of the pionniers I mentioned did indeed the "first powered flight" for a marginally different definition of "powered flight" (and of "having witnesses to prove it"). Except Clément Ader. Ader just bumped on a rock.

    8. First rock-powered flight, though.

    9. Then they realized flying really is not rock science.

    10. @CRPG Addict Reminds me of what my mom used to say about the "discovery" of the Americas: "Yeah, but when Columbus discovered it, it stayed discovered."

  6. AlphabeticalAnonymousNovember 14, 2023 at 4:23 PM

    > "Use the dragon in the same manner as a dagger."
    This cracked me up.

    > I just want to know how I carried it.
    Wikipedia tells me that the standard Roman gold coin, the 'solidus,' weighed only about 4.5 grams.. that seems surprisingly small to me! But it means that while 5000 of them would be a tad heavy, they wouldn't be unbearably so.

    1. 4.5gX 5000 = 22.5kg
      ~776 Ounces
      Gold price today $194/Ounce, gives us about 1.5Million USD.

      22kg is 48lbs (US) and is heavy yes, but with a sturdy backpack and some inventiveness not undo-able.

      Yes this makes a lot of assumptions (and probably a mathematical error or two) but all in all I don't see much of a problem with it.

      Especially considering that many RPG's will often have you lugging about at 100 000g without a worry in the world...

    2. To be honest, 22kg isn’t that heavy. It’s basically a plate used in the gym; so as long as you have a way to hold it that’s not pressing down on a small amount of flesh, it’s very doable.

    3. Carry it up three levels of dungeons and it will get a bit heavy after a while, but agreed it's very doable even for a person of moderate to poor strength. Give me 22kg of gold to carry and I will definitely pull through!

    4. Every time i think about gold pieces in an RPG, I always picture them the size of half dollars, maybe 1.25 inches in diameter. I should probably picture them more like dimes.

  7. The taming dragons bit might have come from D&D, which had special rules for subduing dragons, which could then be taken back to civilization to be kept as a steed or sold for a lot of GP.

    1. I assumed the same thing, only the D&D version still involves fighting the dragon and doing "subdual damage" until it surrenders. I guess the author of this game had to find some use for Charimsa though.

  8. "I love how specific the date is."

    The funny thing about this is that every time you read the game's introduction, it chooses a random year between 700 and 1,000. I guess changing the date in each game was more important to the author than allowing the player to move around a real map.

    1. And to think that this world/history randomization predicted Dwarf Fortress.

    2. After the first time you read that intro, you'd probably just skip it in the future. So a regular player would never even notice that the date was randomized.

  9. I skimmed the title screen and misread it as "Dragons? (1=YES 0=NO)". I imagine it would be a pretty empty easy game if you asked it for no dragons at all.

  10. For a game nobody really heard of before it got covered here and on Exploradorrpg, there's honestly a bit of it in some modern RPGs. That streamlined action system this goes for is something I see a lot of RPGs go for, albeit usually with at least one action not streamlined.

  11. "Well, that's grim."

    Not as grim as when you take candy from a stranger in Alter Ego.

    (and although it says your body will never be found, the winning screenshot implies it will be found)

  12. AlphabeticalAnonymousNovember 15, 2023 at 10:02 AM

    I just noticed the "AI Disclaimer" on this site, which must be fairly recent. Much appreciated.

    1. I added it about four months ago. I don't remember what prompted it. I was angry about something.

  13. You know, in an era where many game titles were barely relevant to the actual game, it's quite wild that dragons are indeed such an important part of the gameplay experience. Even though it's in essence using a charisma check to buy a weapon, the flavor text goes a long way in selling it. I'm having a hard time thinking of any computer RPG with tameable monsters that isn't a roguelike.

    1. This might be a question of terminology / definition, but wouldn't many Pokemon-style games i.e. those where you battle, capture & train monsters, fall into that category? What about e.g. SMT 3 Nocturne or Ni No Kuni? Some might have started on consoles, but nowadays I assume many come out on several platforms in parallel.

      [@Chet: Sorry I mentioned SMT... ;-).]

    2. Plenty have spells that do that, from Bard's Tale to Ultima 5 to Chet's current game Bloodstone.

  14. "This is 1978, so of course we can't judge the game too harshly, particularly since there's no sign it was actually marketed as a commercial title."

    I'm not 100% sure, but I think the game was marketed in a pack with other games. This newsletter have an excerpt of Robert Purser's cassette index, which lists Software Industries catalog, with a gane called Dragon and another called Dragon 2 (Dragons' file is DRAGONS2.BAS):


    1. Thanks. I tried to search the Internet Archive for it, but I couldn't think of any way to search for "Dragons" and "Software Industries" that didn't return a lot of false positives.

    2. @Chet: You mention in your text above that the game was "sold through [...] Software Industries, of Richardson, Texas" and that you were "living in Richardson, Texas in 1978, about two miles from where McCalpin was doing his coding". So I assume the exact address of Software Industries (902 Pinecrest, Richardson, TX) shows up in the credits. Using "Pinecrest" and/or "Richardson" as additional search terms helps to filter out most unrelated entries. That's how I found this and the things below on the company and looking at search terms in the link he posted, I understand that's also how Rubén / El Explorador did isolate it.

      Based on that ad and other sources, Software Industries was distributing a variety of games and other programs, mostly (except for custom-made ones) by third-party programmers, see e.g. these entries in directories for the latter in 1982 (for 1983) and in 1983, respectively.

      A Ted Carter is always given as contact, so together with the foregoing, I assumed Software Industries was probably his company and McCalpin an external developer. This seems to be one of the very first (published and preserved) CRPGs to have been programmed on a 'home computer' (and not the much more advanced mainframe networks like PLATO).

      Not sure if you (or Rubén) tried to get in touch with McCalpin or are still interested in doing so, but just in case: it seems he has a blog since 2010 as well, as 'Dr Bandwith' (though, not surprising, with a much lower posting frequency than yours) and wrote this game before or upon starting Physics at Texas A&M University. I assume this is his LinkedIn account.


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