Tag Archives: eamon

My Eamon Problem

Fair warning — this post is going to be a bit meta. It has two purposes. The first is easily dispensed with: to tell you that I’ve revised my earlier posts on the history of Eamon to reflect what I believe to be a more supportable chronology which does not have the system appearing until late 1979. The rest of what follows describes briefly how I came to my conclusions. This is all rather inside baseball, but those of you thinking of growing up to become digital antiquarians yourselves might be interested in this slice of my poor detail-obsessed life.

Traditional histories have given Eamon a release date of 1980, presumably because the first published article about the system, a piece written by Don Brown himself for Recreational Computing, dates from the summer of that year. I initially saw no reason to doubt the traditional chronology. But then I made contact with John Nelson, founder of the National Eamon Users Club. He dropped a bomb on me by saying he had first played Eamon in 1978, and that at that time there were already four additional scenarios available. As the guy who probably did more for Eamon than anyone else, including its creator, Nelson was a hard fellow to doubt. So I wrote those posts based largely on his chronology, even though I never could manage to feel really confident in it. Ever since, those posts have remained the ones I’m least happy about. My dissatisfaction was such that I recently started rummaging through all of the early Eamon disks again, looking for something that would let me pin a definite date onto at least one of them, and thereby begin to build a chronology. As it happened, I found what I was looking for, and that in turn prompted me to revise the earlier articles and write this post. Before I tell you what I found, however, let me first state some of the misgivings that sent me looking in the first place.

The Apple II actually had two versions of the BASIC language. The original machine had in its ROM a very stripped-down version of the language, one that had been put together quickly by Steve Wozniak himself. This version was soon dubbed “Integer BASIC” because it had no support for floating-point (i.e., decimal) numbers, only integers. Because floating-point numbers are very important to certain types of applications, Apple quickly realized the need for a better, more complete implementation of BASIC. They bought one from Microsoft and spent considerable effort customizing it for the Apple II. They dubbed it Applesoft BASIC upon its release in January of 1978. Applesoft was initially not widely used, however, both because its earliest incarnation was quite buggy and because it was housed on tape or disk rather than in ROM, meaning the user had to load it into RAM to use it. With most machines still equipped with only 16 K of memory in these early days, Applesoft, which consumed 10 K by itself, was impractical for most users. It only really caught on from May of 1979, when Apple began shipping the II Plus with Applesoft in ROM; to run an Integer BASIC program on the II Plus, one had to load that language in from disk.

Yet Eamon is written in Applesoft BASIC. And there’s something else: the standard Eamon needs pretty much all of a 48 K Apple II’s memory. (The master disk did originally contain a special, stripped-down version of the program for 32 K machines.) It’s doubtful that it would even be possible to load Applesoft from disk and still have room for Eamon. Even if it was, a 48 K machine would have been a very unusually powerful one for 1978. After the 48 K Apple II Plus began shipping, however, the larger memory quite quickly became an expected standard.

And there’s the text-adventure chronology problem. Scott Adams first released Adventureland and Pirate Adventure during the second half of 1978 for the TRS-80. These games did not appear on the Apple II until early the following year, where they represent the first text adventures available for that platform. To have developed Eamon in 1978, Brown would have had to either: 1) be aware enough of the TRS-80 world that he played Adams’s games and decided to implement a similarly parser-based interface on the Apple II ; 2) have played Crowther and Woods’s Adventure or one of the other games it spawned on a big institutional computer; or 3) have come up with the concept of the text-adventure interface on his own, from scratch. None of these are impossible, but none seems hugely likely either. Depending on when in 1978 Eamon was released, an early Eamon even creates the somewhat earthshaking possibility that it may have been Brown, not Scott Adams, who first brought the text adventure to the microcomputer. Again, this just doesn’t feel right to me.

And then there’s that Recreational Computing article itself. In it Brown writes, “I know of five additional adventure diskettes.” Nelson, on the other hand, believes that “about 20” adventures were available by 1980. He suggested to me that Brown was perhaps referring to adventures that he himself had not written, but it’s very hard for me to read this sense into the paragraph in question. Nelson’s other suggestion, that the article had just lain on the shelf for many months before being printed, seems equally a stretch. If everything else pointed to an earlier chronology, I could accept such reasoning, but in combination with the other questions it becomes a good deal harder.

And then I found what I was looking for. Eamon #3, The Cave of the Mind, was the first not to be written by Brown himself, being from Jim Jacobson and Red Varnum. At the beginning of one of its programs is an REM statement with an actual date: January 30, 1980. This was enough to tip me back over to something much closer to the traditional chronology, with Brown developing the system in the latter half of 1979 in the wake of the Apple II Plus’s release. Sure, it’s possible that the date in the code of Cave represents a revision date rather than a date of completion or release, even though it doesn’t say this. But weighed together with all the other evidence, I feel pretty confident a later date for Eamon is more likely than an earlier.

None of this is meant to criticize John Nelson, who generously shared his memories with me. It’s just that 30 years is a long time. It’s also possible that Nelson might have played an earlier proto-Eamon, presumably written in Integer BASIC for an Apple II with much less memory, which Brown expanded at a later date into the Eamon we know today. Yet unless some real documentary evidence surfaces, or Brown suddenly starts talking, that remains only speculation.

So, the current Eamon articles still represent something of a best guess, and as such I’m still not entirely happy with them. But I think it’s a better guess than the one I made the first time around. Barring more new data, that will have to do.


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Eamon, Part 2

One of the ironies of Eamon is that it reached its greatest aesthetic heights and greatest popularity long after its creator, Donald Brown, had abandoned it. For much in this blog entry I’m therefore indebted to the man who followed Brown as the head of the Eamon community, another Des Moines resident by the name of John Nelson. The reconstruction that follows is the best I’ve been able to do from Nelson’s memories and the other available documentation, but there is much about Eamon‘s history that remains sketchy or even contradictory.

Nelson first discovered Eamon in very early 1980, when he visited the home of an early player to trade comic books. At that time, there were just four additional adventures available beyond the base disk. By the time he bought his first Apple II from the Computer Emporium (no small investment at some $2500; Nelson had to sell his car to manage it), the collection was already up to ten. He met Brown himself at the Computer Emporium while making the purchase, and got from him the full set. In these early days Eamon saw little if any distribution beyond the circle of employees, customers, and hangers-on around the Computer Emporium. Most adventures were written either by Brown himself or by his immediate circle of friends; Jim Jacobson, Computer Emporium employee and author of “The Zephyr Riverventure,” was particularly prolific. That’s little surprise considering that in these earliest days creating an Eamon adventure was a tricky, undocumented process bereft of the tools and documentation that would come along later. Presumably, one virtually had to be in direct communication with Brown to have a chance of pulling it off.

That began to change when Brown released the first edition of the Dungeon Designer Diskette, a collection of utilities and information designed to at least begin to explain and automate the process. Still, it was only a beginning; the tools were still in a very primitive state. As the included Manual for Eamon Dungeon Designers attests, the programmer even had to do her own word wrapping when writing room descriptions: “If your description is longer than 40 characters, you must pad it with spaces so that when the description wraps around the Apple’s 40-column screen, the breaks are between words.” Further, Nelson describes Brown’s tools as prone to crashes and data corruption of all stripes. Nelson soon set to work improving these tools, if initially only for his own use, and making adventures: numbers 15, 16, 19, and 20 are all his work.

Up to this point Brown had been taking an active role in curating Eamon‘s growing library of adventures, testing each and, once it was judged ready, assigning it an official number in the collection and creating a disk for distribution from the Computer Emporium. But in 1981 Brown’s friends at the Computer Emporium decided that they had the talent to do more than just sell software and hardware; they would become software developers in their own right. They therefore formed CE Software (get it?), with the initial intention of concentrating on games. Given the hit that Eamon had become in the store, they asked Brown to come work with them on this new venture.

The result was SwordThrust, a commercial version of the Eamon concept. Just like Eamon, SwordThrust consisted of a master disk and a series of scenario disks through which the player was expected to guide the same character. The difference, beyond considerable additional complexity and refinement, was of course that the player had to pay for the privilege each time. Brown and CE gave SwordThrust a good hard try, releasing six adventures in addition to the base system, but the public just wasn’t interested in paying for an RPG system that looked like a text adventure. In 1982 CE pulled the plug, not only on SwordThrust but on all of its game-development efforts. But never fear, the story has a happy ending of sorts: CE and Brown went into productivity applications instead, and had a long and successful run there, most notably as the developers of QuickMail and QuicKeys for the Macintosh. In fact, CE Software is still alive today, long after the Computer Emporium closed its doors, under the name Startly Technologies.

But where did SwordThrust leave Eamon? That, as it happens, is exactly the question Nelson found himself asking when he saw Brown turning away from his first creation. He asked Brown if he could assume the role of Eamon‘s curator, to continue to verify and catalog new adventures and keep the system alive. Brown said okay.

Still, with its creator having abandoned it, there followed a fallow period for Eamon; by late 1982 the adventure count had risen to just 25. But then Nelson found a way to get the system some national exposure. In his own words:

About this time, an article appeared in Creative Computing magazine written by Robert Plamondon. He was lamenting about the lack of any really good text adventure systems for the Apple II computer. I contacted Robert and asked if he had ever heard of Eamon. He had not, but was interested. I sent him several of the diskettes and he was very happy with them. He asked if he could include me in a follow-up article about Eamon. I said sure, no problem. So a follow-up article appeared in Creative Computing and I started getting mail from people all over the world.

In a very real way that article, which appeared in the January 1983 issue of Creative Computing, marked a rebirth for Eamon. Word began to spread through user groups and electronic bulletin-board systems around the world, with Nelson serving as the central hub for cataloging and distribution. Encouraged by the new interest, Nelson founded the National Eamon User’s Club with a friend of his, Bob Davis. They published the first NEUC newsletter in March of 1984, which among other things served as a godsend for the writers of articles like this one; from this point forward we at last have ongoing documentation of events in the world of Eamon. By that time Eamon had already grown to some 50 adventures.

Nelson is in many ways the unsung hero of Eamon. In addition to curating and popularizing, he also did critical technical work, building from Brown’s buggy utilities a workable and properly documented Dungeon Designer’s Disk and implementing plenty of improvements to the core Eamon system itself. When his interest in the Apple II began to wane in the late 1980s, he began work on a new Eamon for the IBM PC which ultimately never came to fruition, and passed the NEUC and its newsletter to a particularly active club member named Tom Zuchowski. Zuchowski changed the name of the club to the Eamon Adventurer’s Guild but otherwise pretty much continued business as usual. By this point, early 1988, there were 155 adventures available through the club.

The years of Nelson’s NEUC newsletter, 1984 to 1987, appear to represent the very peak of Eamon activity. In the years that followed, interest and production slowly tailed off, mirroring the declining fortunes of the Apple II platform itself. Zuchowski published the last regular issue of his newsletter in January of 2001, at which time Eamon was approaching 250 adventures. There has been sporadic activity since then — one Wade Clarke even entered a new Eamon adventure in last year’s IF Competition — but for all essential purposes this event marks the end of Eamon‘s long run as a living system.

Even at its peak Eamon was always something of a semi-obscure oddity, seldom mentioned even in adventure-gaming circles. When Nelson turned the NEUC over to Zuchowski, there were 138 active, dues-paying members. It’s of course true that this number represents only the very hardcore, and that many times that number likely played Eamon from time to time on a casual basis. Still, by any measure Eamon‘s presence was a pretty small one in comparison with the gaming scene of the Apple II as a whole. What they lacked in numbers, however, they made up for in enthusiasm and a sheer bloody-minded determination to keep the system alive even as the platform on which it ran fell into obsolescence.

The approach to the text adventure that Eamon pioneered, replacing RPG-style combat and simulation for set-piece puzzle design, has generally garnered little acceptance outside the Eamon community, excepting the oeuvre of the late Paul Allen Panks. Indeed, for many years “randomized combat” was practically a synonym for terrible game design in IF circles. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, though, some thoughtful folks have recently been challenging that convention wisdom. Certainly the newer IF-development systems have already begun to allow more simulation-oriented storyworlds that replace some aspects of set-piece design with believable emergent challenges. And certainly the hundreds or thousands of people who have been hooked by Eamon over the years saw something there that even the well-respected works of companies like Infocom just weren’t giving them. How all of these factors will play out in the long run is, as always, yet to be determined. For now, I’ll just say that, much as I love and respect Infocom, it never hurts to consider how some other folks approached the art of the text adventure as well if you’re looking for ideas to draw from.

Eamon is also of great interest for being at the center of the first community of interest to form not just around playing ludic narratives but around creating them. This fact, showing as it does how a small but committed community could create impressive technology and impressive interactive art, may be the most important aspect of Eamon of all. We’ll be meeting quite a few heirs to its tradition later on in this blog.

But next up, we start down a slippery slope indeed, as graphics come to the text adventure for the first time.


Posted by on September 25, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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A Journey into the Wonderful World of Eamon

Would you like to tag along with me on an actual Eamon adventure, to see how it really plays? Of course you would!

Eamon consists of a collection of BASIC programs spliced together with virtual duct tape and bailing wire. It’s an ingenious design given the limitations of a BASIC implementation running on an 8-bit computer, if also a bit horrifying to modern sensibilities of proper programming practice. Its structure is in fact strongly reminiscent of another early BASIC RPG we looked at not too long ago, Temple of Apshai.

All of the utilities on the Eamon master disk build a narrative frame around their rather prosaic functionality. When we boot up, the first scene that greets us is a hall of administration. (Yes, it seems that bureaucracy is alive and well even in the realms of fantasy.)

The Wonderful World of Eamon

If we fail to go to the desk as instructed, the results are unfortunate. Here we see the first example of the disconcerting glee Donald Brown takes in killing off his players in the most arbitrary fashion. Just imagine what sort of tabletop dungeon master this guy would have made…

All of our current living characters are stored in a data file on the master list. If we follow instructions this time, we can choose one of them from the guild hall by simply entering a name.

If the name we enter is not in our current stable of adventurers, we get the opportunity to create a new character. A second BASIC program (“New Adventurer”) gets loaded in, and we’re off.

While Eamon‘s Dungeons and Dragons heritage is never less than obvious, its rules are not a slavish recreation of that system, if only because the technical realities of a 48 K computer make some serious simplification de rigueur. Case in point: the complexities of D&D characters are reduced to three randomly generated attribute scores, hardiness, agility, and charisma.

Eamon character creation utility

The system does not allow the player to have any role in the creation of her character beyond choosing a name and a sex. Three unlucky “die rolls” can leave her with an untenable character, and even a lucky roll or two in the wrong place can leave her with a character she’s just not interested in playing. Similar problems quickly led to new house rules — and, eventually, official rules — for character creation in D&D, attempting to mitigate the effects of luck and give the player more opportunity to exercise choice at this critical juncture that could define the player’s experience for days, weeks, or months of play to come. Similarly if more simply, one of the first common Eamon add-on programs was the morbidly named but useful “suicide” utility that let the player blow up a weak or otherwise unacceptable character and try again.

Whether we create a new character or play with an existing one, our character gets removed from the main characters file and placed in one that holds just the currently active character (“The Adventurer”). After the obligatory nerdy Star Trek reference, a third BASIC program starts up, “Main Hall.” It reads in “The Adventurer” (having each stage leave a data file lying around is the only practical way to get all of these programs to talk to one another), and we find ourselves in Eamon‘s main utility program, once again disguised as a fiction of its own.

Unlike Temple of Apshai, Eamon does have a rudimentary magic system consisting of four spells: blast, heal, speed, and power. The first three work as you might expect; the last is a rather ingenious cop-out, doing whatever the designer of a particular adventure decides it should do.

The “Main Hall” does have one unfortunate character, Shylock the banker.

I’m willing to give Brown a pass here, just because I don’t think he had a clue what sort of historical and cultural baggage his Shylock was toting behind him. And if one must crib antisemitism from someone, I can think of several worse people to draw from than Shakespeare. Anyway, let’s choose option 1 and go adventuring, shall we?

We’ll start, like aspiring Eamon players for time immemorial, with the adventure included on the master disk, Brown’s own “Beginners Cave.”

As you might expect, this is the most complicated part of Eamon. Just before “Main Hall” requests a scenario disk it deletes the player’s character from the master disk entirely. When the player inserts the scenario disk, her current character is written out to the optimistically titled “Fresh Meat” data file. The program then looks to another data file that should be present on the scenario disk, “,” for the name of yet another BASIC program to run; this constitutes the actual adventure. Brown and later Eamon maintainers provided a starting framework for this program, representing the first consciously designed reusable adventuring engine to be made available for general use. In its stock form, it lets the player navigate around a network of rooms (whose connections and contents are stored in “Eamon.rooms,” whose names are stored in “ names,” and whose descriptions are stored in “Eamon.descriptions”); to fight monsters (whose attributes are defined in “Eamon.monsters”); and to pick up objects (described in “Eamon.artifacts”). The latter, in a zenlike simplification, can be worthwhile either as treasures (good for gold back at the main hall) or weapons (good for bashing monsters in scenarios as well as gold at the main hall). Brown provided utilities for populating these data files appropriately, but doing so could obviously yield only a very basic (no pun intended) adventure. To build more complicated interactions, to (to choose an example from Brown’s documentation) make a sword that teleports its owner to a random room at random times, the designer must modify the BASIC code of the starting framework itself. The result is infinite possibility of a sort, if a rather ugly way of achieving same; Brown imagined such scenarios as an Eamon adventure where “you are leading an army into battle, with morale affected by your charisma!”

But today we’re just going on a simple sort of Eamon adventure.

In my first post about Eamon, I called it a CRPG masquerading as a text adventure. That impression becomes all the more pronounced if we type something — and it’s not hard to do — that the simple two-word parser doesn’t understand. We get a list of all available commands in this adventure.

That’s something you’ll seldom see in a more traditional text adventure. It says something about Brown’s focus; he’s interested in the parser only as a means of getting commands into his program, judging it a better tool for that purpose than menus given the limited memory and screen real estate he has to work with. There’s a comparison to be made here to Robert Lafore’s “interactive fiction” games, which are really Choose-Your-Own Adventure-style choice-based narratives masquerading as text adventures. The focus of early Eamon is firmly on character building and monster bashing, not puzzle solving. Its resemblance to Adventure and the Scott Adams efforts is more an accident of history than a sign of similar intent. On the positive side, that means that guess-the-verb problems and other classic old-school parser frustrations are largely absent in Eamon. Perhaps, depending on your predilections, less positively, most attempts to depart from moving about and hitting things yield little result.

When “Beginners Cave” does try to get more ambitious, the results often leave you wishing it hadn’t. At one point you come upon a sinister, glowing book. If this happened in a tabletop D&D session, or even in a modern CRPG, you would have a variety of tools with which to investigate: perhaps a “detect magic” or “detect evil” spell, or a trip to the friendly local high-level mage. Here, though, we have only two options: just to recklessly read the thing or to leave it alone and wonder forever what it might be. If we read it, the worst quickly happens:

And so we have here yet another example of an early ludic narrative wanting to indulge in storytelling possibilities (similar mysterious artifacts being a staple of D&D adventures) that its underlying technology just cannot yet support, resulting in the worst kind of unfairness.

Similarly, “winning” in “Beginners Cave” requires us to discover a secret passage by typing EXAMINE in just the right location.

When we do so, we find a secret temple, and learn that our previously unstated goal was apparently to rescue “Duke Luxom’s not-too-bright daughter.” Ah, well, what would a quest be without a princess (or… what’s a duchess called before she becomes a duchess?) to rescue?

If we survive to return to the exit, our character is copied back over to the main disk, complete with whatever attribute improvements experience brought to him and whatever loot he picked up. If he doesn’t survive, he’s lost forever — remember, he got deleted from the master disk before we started the adventure.

I also recently played through a couple of other very early Eamon adventures: “The Zephyr Riverventure” (Adventure #4), by an employee at the Computer Emporium, Jim Jacobson; and “The Death Star” (Adventure #6), again by Brown himself. Both are much larger than “Beginners Cave,” but provide a similar mix of mapping, combat, and the occasional sudden death to keep everyone on their toes. “Riverventure” seems inspired by a movie of the time, Apocalypse Now.

“The Death Star” is based on the same middle act of Star Wars that inspired Dog Star Adventure, and is interesting as the first Eamon adventure to push the system into another milieu entirely.

I’m most interested, at least for now, in understanding Eamon‘s place in the early history of computerized ludic narrative; thus the attention I give here to these very early incarnations of the system. It’s only fair to note, however, that the sophistication of many later Eamon adventures was vastly greater than that of these early efforts. What I say here should by no means be taken as the last word on the system.

That said, there are certain problematic aspects that are endemic to the system, even if we leave aside its core focus on randomized combat that usually comes down to watching the roll of virtual dice and hoping for the best. In having players take their characters through a series of adventures, Brown clearly hoped to duplicate the feel of a classic D&D campaign, in which players play the same characters through a whole series of exploits, growing in power all the while, until retirement or death overtake them. In Eamon, though, death is too often capricious, coming at the whim of a designer. The dangers of combat are perhaps less problematic, but Eamon adventures were graded by difficulty in only the most cursory way, perhaps because, in the absence of defined character levels in Eamon, a consistent grading system was hard to devise. Small wonder that programs to “cheat,” to back up or resurrect characters, were soon included on the master disk itself. Such programs may ease considerable player pain, but they also of course to some extent pull against the core vision of Eamon itself.

I plan to finish this series off with the story of Eamon‘s post-Brown years very soon. If you would like to experience the system for yourself, the Eamon Adventurer’s Guild website is the best place to start. Here you’ll find disk images of all Eamon adventures that you can load using an Apple II emulator.


Posted by on September 24, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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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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