In 1978 a fellow named John Connelley purchased a Commodore PET to aid in the bookkeeping of the Dungeons and Dragons campaign he was running. When he got the thing home and perhaps realized that the 8 K wonder’s utility for such a purpose was limited at best, he was afflicted with a bit of buyer’s remorse at the money he’d spent on it. Since he loved games, he hit upon the idea of writing one for the machine. Even if he didn’t sell enough copies to make any real money, he could at least use the project to justify writing the PET off on his taxes as a “business expense.” Unfortunately, Connelley was a better programmer than a game designer, and so his initial attempts went nowhere. In the end he turned to one of his D&D players, Jon Freeman, for help. Freeman was in just the opposite boat: he had been working for several years as a freelance games journalist and had a strong aptitude for game design, but knew nothing about programming. And so a marriage of convenience was born.
The first fruit of this union appeared before the end of the year in the form of a space strategy game called Starfleet Orion. To release it, Connelley and Freeman formed Automated Simulations, the first software publisher dedicated solely to games. Starfleet Orion looks rather bizarre when viewed through modern eyes, seeming more a sort of ludic construction set than a completed videogame. Its manual lays out an elaborate back story to justify a dozen space-battles scenarios between two alien races. The setup and order of battle for each of these is given, tabletop wargame style, in the manual; as the first step before actually playing one must key all of this data into the program and save it to a blank cassette using a separate program called BUILDER. In a touch that seems particularly bizarre to modern sensibilities, the BASIC source code for the game itself is also given in full in the manual, in case the player wants to tinker or the cassette on which the game is housed gets corrupted. Not only is Starfleet Orion two-player only, but it requires quite a time commitment; the manual estimates the climactic scenario to require about six hours to play, with no provision for saving state. Freeman and Connelley addressed these issues at least somewhat with Invasion Orion, a more accessible sequel with provision for solo play that they released early in 1979.
The really big release of 1979, though, took them out of space and into the dungeon. For Temple of Apshai, they brought in a third partner from their D&D group, Jeff Johnson, to help with an even more ambitious game design. Apshai was to be a full-fledged CRPG, drawing from the PLATO tradition of games like dnd, but also, in keeping with its designers’ background, paying very explicit homage to the deeper tabletop D&D experience that had brought them together in the first place. Its manual opens with a description of experiential gaming that is drawn straight from the tabletop RPG experience:
Role-playing games are not so much “played” as they are experienced. Instead of manipulating an army of chessmen about an abstract but visible board, or following a single piece around and around a well-defined track, collecting $200 every time you pass Go, in RPGs you venture into an essentially unknown world with a single piece — your alter ego for the game, a character at home in a world of demons and darkness, dragons and dwarves. You see with the eyes of your character a scene described by the “author” of the adventure — and no more. There is no board in view, no chance squares to inspect; the imaginary landscape exists only in the notebooks of the world’s creator (commonly called a referee or dunjonmaster) and, gradually, in the imaginations of your fellow players. As you set off in quest of fame and fortune in company with those other player/characters, you are both a character in and a reader of an epic you are helping to create. Your character does whatever you wish him to do, subject to his human (or near-human) capabilities and the vagaries of chance. Fight, flee, or parley; take the high road or low: the choice is yours. You may climb a mountain or go around it, but since at the top may be a rock, a roc’s egg, or a roc, you can find challenge and conflict without fighting with your fellow players, who are usually (in several senses) in the same boat.
Like the Orion games, Apshai foregrounds its experiential aspect. Games such as dnd quickly devolved into abstract exercises in tactics and strategy, with little thought paid to their fictional premise of dungeon exploration. Apshai, however, goes to great pains to try to get its player not to adapt that mindset. It plainly wants us to put ourselves right there in its dank dungeons, through the aforementioned proselytizing introduction; through an extended backstory justifying the existence of the dungeon you explore and describing a character you are free to imagine as your alter ego (“Brian Hammerhand”); and, most notably of all, through a set of D&D adventure module-style room descriptions the player is expected to read from the manual as she explores:
Room One — The smooth stonework of the passageway floor shows that advanced methods were used in its creation. A skeleton sprawls on the floor just inside the door, a bony hand, still clutching a rusty dagger, outstretched toward the door to safety. A faint roaring sound can be heard from the far end of the passage.
Unlike other early dungeon crawl games, whose dungeons were randomly generated or put together so haphazardly that they might as well have been, Apshai‘s dungeons are crafted to feel like a real place, even though that means that its monsters must be limited largely to sewer inhabitants (giant rats, various giant insects) and, on the lower levels that house the temple proper, various undead.
To be honest, all of this experiential gilding can feel a bit ridiculous to modern sensibilities because… well, to start, here’s what the actual game looks like in its original TRS-80 incarnation:
The fact that this display is a bit underwhelming is not the fault of Apshai‘s designers. The TRS-80 was limited to black and white (not gray-scale, mind — exactly two colors, black and white). Further, it wasn’t really capable of graphics at all in the way we think of them today, only character graphics. (In addition to a set of 64 commonly used English glyphs, it includes 64 more graphical tiles, each containing a simple abstract shape in lieu of a character glyph. By combining these together, it was possible to build larger pictures out of what remained essentially a text-only display.)
Viewed in the light of such a display system and the 16 K cassette-based computer on which it ran, Apshai is actually quite a technical achievement. Its rules also bear the stamp of an experienced game designer. They actually do not draw as heavily from D&D as one might expect given the game’s origins and the extended praise of the tabletop experience that fills its manual. While the expected six character attributes are present, and while they even number from 3 to 18 just like in classic D&D, combat and movement is very much its own thing here, a pseudo-real-time system that shows a willingness to harness the unique capabilities of the computer rather than just translate a pen-and-paper rules set into code. In fact, Apshai plays better in some ways than it has a right to; there’s a real tension to navigating through this labyrinth, deciding whether to press your luck and venture onward or turn for the exit, dreading the appearance of the next wandering monster as you do trudge back heavily wounded, having perhaps pressed your luck too far. There’s a visceral feel to the experience that many later dungeon crawls would fail to capture. This quality owes its existence partly to the real-time nature of play, but also to other choices that have no counterpart in tabletop D&D. As your character loses health, for instance, he moves more slowly, gets fatigued faster, and becomes less effective, bringing home his state in a palpable way. Freeman’s design is a very smart one, in many ways very original even in comparison to games that would follow.
But there are inevitable limits to what even a smart designer can do on a 16 K TRS-80. One can easily forgive the fact that magic is not present at all in the game; the player is restricted to playing what amounts to the D&D fighter class. Of more concern is the fact that the two components of the game, the “Innkeeper” which is used for character management, and the “DunjonMaster” where the dungeon delving actually happens, don’t really talk to one another. The player is expected to keep a list of her attributes and the items she finds in the dungeon on each expedition, then enter those manually when she returns to the Innkeeper! Rather than being linked together, the four levels of the dungeon can each only be entered separately; there is absolutely nothing preventing the player from entering a super-character into the Innkeeper and starting out on level 4. There’s not much point to methodical exploration anyway, as there is absolutely no way to really win the game. For all its emphasis on the experiential, one cannot bring Apshai to any conclusion. One merely explores, levels up, and collects until one gets tired of the whole thing.
Still, even dictated as it is by technical limitations, there’s an odd sort of charm to Apshai. Rather than delivering a story, it really does expect its player to work with it, to build a story that exists as much in the imagination as it does in the computer. “Sure, you are free to ‘cheat’ and create a character with stats of all 18,” it says, “but what fun would that be?” Similarly, if the game doesn’t deliver an ending like we’ve come to expect, that doesn’t prevent the player from making up one of her own. There is an encounter on level 4 that feels kind of like a climax — or maybe the player just sets her own goal of visiting every single room and collecting every single treasure. Apshai expects you to work with it to make your own fun. Anyway, as Freeman wrote of a tabletop RPG campaign, “It never stops, except temporarily: there is no final victory, no point to playing except playing, and no ultimate aim except the continuing development of your character.” Why should the computer equivalent be any different? Indeed, if played as its designers imagined Apshai doesn’t really feel like a pure computer game, but some hybrid — a computer-assisted solo RPG rather than a CRPG, if you like.
In an article in Byte magazine, Freeman described the differences between the RPG’s simulational approach to narrative and the text adventure’s preference for set-piece design, while leaving little doubt which he preferred:
There is no real role-playing, for instance, in the Adventure/Zork family: the protagonist is just you in a strange setting. Games of that sort concentrate on the perceived open-endedness of action: not only is there a multitude of command options available (typically far more than Dunjonquest‘s eighteen or so), but also they are not made known to you except by trial and error. It can be quite challenging to find the right key, the right moment, and the right command necessary to insert it in the right lock; but once you do, the door will always open — always. Thus, a game like Adventure is really a puzzle that, once solved, is without further interest.
The Dunjonquest series employs a different approach. For one thing, situations are primarily defined graphically, not textually: you see the situation rather than just being told about it. More to our present purpose, while some Dunjonquest games, like Morloc’s Tower, have a specific object (finding and slaying the mad and elusive wizard Morloc), there is an open-endedness of result in all of them on the micro level (if you’ll excuse a small pun). Generally speaking, there are no “right” answers; the outcome of events is probabilistic, not predetermined.
Brian Hammerhand, the assigned alter ego/protagonist of Morloc’s Tower and The Datestones of Ryn, can, for example, slay a dire wolf nine times out of ten, but on any particular occasion he may survive the encounter unscratched, or limp away badly mauled and out of breath — and there is also that tenth time. Moreover, the exact outcome of any encounter depends both on the tactics you choose and on the specific traits of your surrogate character. The experience is different every time you play and quite different with each new character you take on your adventure. You are role-playing: getting outside yourself and into the skin of another (albeit imaginary) being.
The contention that the simulational approach leads to role-playing while the set-piece approach does not is highly suspect — although we should remember that at the time Freeman wrote this passage IF protagonists were universally of the “nameless, faceless adventurer” type. Still, the tension between the two approaches that Freeman describes here remain with ludic narrative right up to the present, often within the same design. We’ll doubtlessly be revisiting the topic many more times as we continue on this little historical journey.
If you’d like to experience Temple of Apshai for yourself, here are some instructions to get you started. Note, however, that you’ll need the patience of a saint; by modern sensibilities the original TSR-80 version is all but unplayable, what with the sloooooow speed of its screen updates and the aforementioned divide between the two halves of the program.
1. Download my neat little Temple of Apshai starter pack.
2. Start the sdltrs emulator.
3. Press F7, then load “newdos.dsk” in floppy drive 0 and “apshai.dsk” into floppy drive 1.
4. Reboot the emulator by pressing F10.
5. At the DOS prompt, type BASIC.
6. Type LOAD “INN:1”.
7. Type RUN.
The manual and quick reference card in the zipped download above should see you through the rest.
We’ll continue to check in on the developing CRPG in the future, but next time we’ll get back to text adventures, and see what our old friend Scott Adams got up to as the 1980s began.