Daily Archives: September 18, 2011

Eamon, Part 1

Videogames today can almost all be slotted into one of a collection of relatively stable genres: first-person shooter, real-time-strategy game, point-and-click adventure, action RPG, text adventure, etc. Occasionally a completely original game comes along to effectively carve out a whole new genre, as happened with Diner Dash and the time-management genre respectively in the mid-2000s, but then the variations, refinements, and outright clones follow, and things stabilize once again. One of the things that makes studying the very early days of gaming so interesting, though, is that genres existed in only the haziest sense; everyone was pretty much making it up as they went along, resulting in gameplay juxtapositions that seem odd at first to modern sensibilities. Still, sometimes these experiments can surprise us with how effectively they can work, even make us wonder whether today’s genre-bound game designers haven’t lost a precious sort of freedom. A case in point: Eamon, which used the interface mechanics of the text adventure but largely replaced puzzle-solving with combat, and also inserted an idea taken from Dungeons and Dragons, that of the extended campaign in which the player guides a single evolving character through a whole series of individual adventures.

As an actively going concern for more than twenty years and a system that still sees an occasional trickle of new activity, Eamon is one of the oddest and, in its way, most inspiring stories in gaming history. For such a long-lived system, its early history is surprisingly obscure today, largely because the man who created Eamon, Donald Brown, has for reasons of his own refused to talk about it for nearly thirty years. I respected his oft-repeated wish to just be left alone as I was preparing this post, but I did make contact with another who was there almost from the beginning and who played a substantial role in Eamon‘s evolution: John Nelson, who took over development work on the system after Brown and founded the National Eamon User’s Club. Through Nelson as well as through my usual digging up of every scrap of documented history I could find, I was able to lift the fog of obscurity at least a little.

But before we get to that I should tell you what Eamon was and how it worked. Though there have been a handful of attempts to port it to other machines, Eamon had its most popular incarnation by far on the computer on which Brown first created it, the Apple II. The heart of the system was the “Master Diskette,” containing a character-creation utility; a shop for weapons, armor, and spells; a bank for storing gold between adventures; and the first simple adventure, the “Beginner’s Cave.” This master disk was also the springboard for many more adventures, which number more than 250 at this writing. While each of these has many of the characteristics of a free-standing text adventure, there are two huge differences that separate them from the likes of the Scott Adams games: the player imports her own character to play with, with her own attribute scores and equipment; and they mostly replace set-piece puzzles with the tactical dilemmas of simulated combat. On my little continuum of simulation versus set-piece design, in other words, Eamon adventures fall much further to the left than even old-school text adventures, near the spot occupied by old-school RPGs.

To modern sensibilities, then, Eamon adventures are CRPGs disguised as text adventures.

Indeed, the design of Eamon bears the influence of D&D everywhere. The idea of a long-term “campaign” involving the same ever-evolving character comes from there, as does the focus on combat at the expense of more cerebral challenges. In these ways and others it is actually quite similar to Automated Simulations’s Dunjonquest series, of which Temple of Apshai was the first entry. (The Dunjonquest system was also advertised as an umbrella system of rules for which the player bought scenarios to play, just as she bought adventure modules for her tabletop D&D campaign.) Brown is clearly more interested in recreating the experience of an ongoing D&D campaign on the computer than he is in the self-contained storytelling of what has evolved into modern interactive fiction. As such, it represents a fascinating example of a road not taken. (Until recently, perhaps; S. John Ross and Victor Gijsbers have recently been experimenting with the possibilities for tactical combat in IF once again, with results that might surprise you. Notably, both men came to IF from the world of the tabletop RPG.)

Yet Eamon also represents the origin of a road most decidedly taken, one that stretches right up to the present day. It is the first system created specifically for the creation of text adventures. All those who, to paraphrase Robert Wyatt, couldn’t understand why others just play them instead of writing them themselves now had a creative tool for doing just that. It may seem odd to picture Eamon as the forefather of Inform 7 and TADS 3, but that’s exactly what it is. In fact, it is the first game-creation utility of any type to be distributed to the computing public at large.

Brown was a student at Drake University in Des Moines at the time that he created Eamon. While a couple of yearbook photos show him peeking out from the back row of his dorm house’s group pictures, he looks like a fish out of water amongst the other party-hardy types. He receives nary an additional mention in either yearbook, and didn’t even bother to pose for an individual picture. It’s doubtful that he ever graduated. Clearly, Brown’s interests were elsewhere — in two other places, actually.

His father purchased an Apple II very early. Brown was instantly hooked, devoting many hours to exploring the possibilities offered by the little machine. Soon after, a fellow named Richard Skeie started a new store in Des Moines called the Computer Emporium. The CE went beyond merely selling hardware and software, hosting a computer club that met very frequently at the shop itself, and thus becoming a social nexus for early Des Moines microcomputer (particularly Apple II) enthusiasts. Brown was soon spending lots of time there, discussing projects and possibilities, trading software, and socializing amongst peers who shared his geeky obsession with technology.

The other influence that would result in Eamon stemmed from the tabletop wargame and RPG culture that was so peculiarly strong in the American Midwest. Through an older friend named Bill Fesselmeyer, Brown plunged deeply into Dungeons and Dragons. But Fesselmeyer — and, soon enough, Brown — took his medieval fantasies beyond the tabletop, via the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Born out of a spontaneous “protest against the twentieth century” at Berkeley University in 1966, the SCA is a highly structured club — or, some would say, lifestyle — dedicated to reliving the Middle Ages. Still very much alive today, it has included in its ranks such figures as the fantasy authors Diana Paxson (the closest thing it has to a founder) and Marion Zimmer Bradley. From the club’s website:

The Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA, is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts, skills, and traditions of pre-17th-century Europe.

Members of the SCA study and take part in a variety of activities, including combat, archery, equestrian activities, costuming, cooking, metalwork, woodworking, music, dance, calligraphy, fiber arts, and much more. If it was done in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, odds are you’ll find someone in the SCA interested in recreating it.

What makes the SCA different from a Humanities 101 class is the active participation in the learning process. To learn about the clothing of the period, you research it, then sew and wear it yourself. To learn about combat, you put on armor (which you may have built yourself) and learn how to defeat your opponent. To learn brewing, you make (and sample!) your own wines, meads and beers.

That introduction emphasizes the “historical recreation” aspect of the SCA, but one senses that its role-playing element is an equal part of its appeal, and the aspect that most attracted D&D fans like Fesselmeyer and Brown. The SCA’s idea of club organization is to divide North America into “kingdoms,” each ruled by a king and queen. From these heights descend a web of barons and dukes, shires and strongholds. Each member chooses a medieval name and many craft an elaborate fictional persona, coat of arms included. The king and queen of each kingdom are chosen by clash of arms in a grand Crown Tournament. Indeed, chivalrous clashes are much of what the SCA is about; John Nelson told me of stopping by Brown’s house one day to find him and Fesselmeyer “sword fighting in the living room.” There is much about the SCA that resembles an extremely long-term example of the modern genre of live-action role-playing games (LARPs), a genre which itself grew largely out of the tabletop RPG tradition. It’s thus little surprise that Fesselmeyer, Brown, and many other D&D fans found the SCA equally compelling; certainly a large percentage of the latter were also involved in the former, especially in the gaming hotbed that was the Midwest of the 1970s.

If Brown is the father of Eamon, Fesselmeyer (who died in a car crash on his way to an SCA coronation in 1984) is its godfather, for it was he who pushed Brown to combine his interests into a system for role-playing on the computer. Brown likely began distributing Eamon out of the Computer Emporium at some point during the latter half of 1979. From the beginning, he placed Eamon into the public domain; the CE “sold” Eamon and its scenario disks for the cost of the media they were stored on.

In practice, the Eamon concept proved to be both exciting and problematic. I’ll get to that next time, when I look more closely at how Eamon is put together and how a few early adventures actually play.


Posted by on September 18, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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