Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Game 2: The Game of Dungeons (aka dnd) (1975)

My trek through the early PLATO CRPGs continues, with The Game of Dungeons, more commonly known by its filename of dnd.  The game was originated by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, two students at Southern Illinois University, and later expanded by two other students named Dirk and Flint Pellett.  (Let's just stop and ponder the names of these two brothers.  Dirk and Flint.  Those are some manly names right there.)

The Game of Dungeons is available at cyber1.org, though they don't have the earliest versions.  Versions 5.4 and 8 are playable, both with a copyright date of 1977.  I plan to play version 5 now, and version 8 later on when I cover the games from 1977.  It's probably not an accurate timeline of when these versions of the game were released, but it's what I'm going with.

This game has only been completed by pretentious gits.

It seems as though documentation was a big deal to the folks who programmed on PLATO, because like the one for PEDIT5, the manual for dnd is extensive.  It covers everything you could possibly want: character creation, navigating the maze, monsters, traps, spells, treasure, the works.  It isn't as precise as PEDIT5 was, though.  The monsters and spells aren't as well documented; I get the feeling that the programmers wanted the players to work things out through trial and error.

The objective of the game, besides raiding Whisenwood Dungeon for treasure, is to find the Orb located on the dungeon's lowest levels (anywhere from 17-20).  The Orb is guarded by a dragon, and if that isn't bad enough, any character carrying the Orb will be assaulted by all sorts of powerful foes on the way out.  Any character who escapes the dungeon with the Orb is retired to the Elyssian Fields, and has beaten the game.  That's what I'm aiming for.

Characters have five stats, all ranging from 3-18 (there's that inescapable Dungeons & Dragons influence again): Strength, IQ, Wisdom, Dexterity and Hits.  They generally affect the areas of gameplay you would expect: Strength helps with combat and the ability to carry gold, IQ helps with magic spells, Wisdom helps with cleric spells, Dexterity determines who goes first in combat and whether you can evade enemies, and Hits determine how hard you are to kill.  You can reroll these scores as many times as you like before settling on your character, and it's not too difficult to start the game with a character who has high stats for everything.

At first glance dnd seems very similar to PEDIT5, at least graphically.  The gameplay is very different, though.  The first thing I noticed is that treasure is absolutely everywhere.  Wherever you go in the maze there are piles of gold just waiting to be scooped up.  And you really want to scoop it up; every 4,000 gold pieces you retrieve from the dungeon gives you a permanent extra hit point, and more gold also increases your spellcasting ability.  There's no cap on the amount of hit points you can earn this way, and as you go deeper into the dungeon the treasure hauls get larger and larger. Treasure chests are especially valuable; it's not uncommon to find one that has over 100,000gp in it, which is a major boost to your survivability if you can get it back to the surface.  That's the trick: the more gold you carry, the stronger the monsters are that attack you.

If I fight, I'll die.  If I fireball, he'll die.

And they attack you a lot.  There are no set encounters in the dungeon (as far as I can tell) but wandering monsters are everywhere.  Combat is similar to that in PEDIT5, with the same options: fight, evade, or cast a spell.  The difference is that there are more variables in play.  Your ability to evade is influenced by how much gold you're carrying.  There are more spells, and their effects aren't as clear.  I've found it pretty easy to gauge whether I'm strong enough to beat a certain foe, and once I worked out the right spells to use combat became pretty easy.  But there's always that chance of being caught with no spells to cast, and that can be deadly.  Combat isn't all that tactical, but keeping track of your resources and deciding when to make a retreat from the dungeon really is.

A pile of gold just lying around.

Monsters aren't the only thing that can kill your character in this game: traps are absolutely lethal.  Chests and magic items can be found in the dungeon without much trouble, but any one of them could blow your character to kingdom come if you're not careful.  You can try to examine them for traps, or using a spell, but if neither of these methods are successful it's a big risk to pick anything up.  With a new character I will pick up anything just on the off chance it will make me stronger, but eventually there comes a point where my character is strong enough that I don't want to lose him. After that, I don't touch anything unless I know for sure that it isn't trapped.  With permanent character death on the line, it's too big a risk.

It's an even bet that this potion will kill me.

Did I mention the perma-death?  Just as in PEDIT5, if your character dies it's gone for good.  It makes for some tense game-play, more so in this game because the dungeon is larger.  Yes, losing a good character can hurt, but there's nothing like the feeling of escaping the dungeon with no spells, 1 hit point and a few hundred thousand gold pieces.

I must admit that this game took me quite a while to come to grips with.  When I first started I spent a good amount of time stumbling around the dungeon, convinced that the map made no sense.  After biting the bullet and breaking out the mapping tools, I realised my error: there are portals that transport you up or down a level, and they're not obvious until you walk into one.  Adding to the confusion is that their destination is random: they always lead to the same level, but the location on that level changes.  This took me a while to figure out.

I'm having fun with it now, though.  It's pretty addictive.  A trip into the dungeon doesn't take very long, and the speed with which you can rack up treasure makes it really tempting to play "just one more game".  I've fed 145 characters into the dungeon so far.  The most successful of those was Mondain, who racked up nearly a million gold pieces before I got cocky, and allowed him to get caught with no spells.  It's a deadly game, but there are tactics for survival.  And best of all, it's fun.  I'm writing this at 3am, but I think I've got time for just one game before bed.

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