Pixel Journeys thumbnail['Pixel Journeys' is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive monthly column by @Play creator John Harris, discussing games with unusual design attributes that have lessons to teach modern game designers.]

Subject: dnd, a.k.a. "The Game of Dungeons," a remarkably devious game that also happens to be one of the first computer RPGs made.

Welcome class, if you'll be seated....

dnd2.pngBefore we discuss the game of dnd, allow me to describe the old networked computer system known as PLATO. It's strange, really, how little-known it is today*. While UNIX systems, buoyed by the strength of its foremost ambassadors Linux and FreeBSD, are, numerically-speaking, more popular than they've ever been, its early contemporary PLATO lies mostly forgotten except by those who used the system in the day.

PLATO systems did many things that most PC users didn't get until 1993 or later. Online bulletin boards? Had them, in the form of notesfiles. Email? Personal notes. Chat? Talk-o-Matic. Instant messages? Term-Talk. MMORPGs? Surprisingly many, most of them older than MUD.

Our focus this month is not a MMORPG, but it is an RPG, one of the first computer RPGs ever created. It is called dnd, and if its title seems a little generic, it should be remembered that, at the latest, its first version was created in 1974, the same year Dungeons & Dragons itself saw publication.


(NOTE: Some of this information comes from the dnd history file, which its author Dirk Pellett states may be incorrect in places. I have not found anything to contradict the information stated here.)

dnd1.pngdnd is not, to be clear, the first computer RPG. According to the creators of the game and the regulars on cyber1, an emulated PLATO system that accepts new users to this day, that game may well have been called "m199h." Its title was likely selected to be inconspicuous. Most PLATO systems were used for educational purposes in that day, so administrators frowned upon non-educational uses. A number of dungeon games were created, created by users with authoring access, and as soon as their existence became known to administrators they would be deleted. This is why we don't have a copy of m199h.

dnd's history file has it that soon after m199h's disappearance another game was written called pedit5. It, too, was deleted, but a copy was saved and eventually restored. It is often hazardous to make assertions, in gaming, about what came first; recently, it became known that Dungeons & Dragons itself may not have been the first "role-playing game," although that term probably didn't even find currency until a later printing of Basic D&D. But given the age of both computer gaming and D&D at the time, it seems safe to say that pedit5 is the oldest computer role-playing game which survives to this day.

dnd also hails from that age. It was probably written in the same year as pedit5. The version described here is dnd5, which is not the most recent version. (That's the considerably more advanced dnd8, which is interesting for its own sake, but not the focus of this article.) It is the closest we have to the game's creation, however.

Playing the game

For starters, you have to create a character. This is a matter of sitting and watching a column of five numbers, pressing a key repeatedly until they meet your approval. Rerolling has been part of D&D since the beginning, and admittedly it kind of sucks. dnd's dungeon is an incredibly, ridiculously hazardous environment, so even a character with all 18s (the highest stat) will die very soon unless played carefully, but if the player knows what to do it'll make the dungeon more survivable in the long run.

The stats in the game are Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity and Hits. Hits is the easiest stat to raise (slight understatement there, you'll see), but Strength can be increased by drinking the right sort of potions. The only method for raising the others can also lower them, so it's for the best if they're as high as possible beforehand.

When a character enters the dungeon for the first time, he is immediately in grave danger. At this point, fighting a single monster will almost certainly leave him with so few hits that another fight will kill him. He also begins with one magic spell, and one cleric spell. (The player knows all spells at the start of the game, but only has one use of each type.)

dnd10.pngFighting in the game is a matter of choosing to evade, fight, cast magic or cast clerical. If magic or clerical is used, the player also gets to decide which spell is cast. That is the extent of player interaction; if the spell doesn't kill the opponent, then its remaining hits are put up against the player's in a fight. This also happens if he fails in an evade attempt.

Then the player automatically takes damage relative to the monster's remaining strength, and if he isn't dead at this point, the monster is slain. It's a very quick system, which helps greatly in maintaining the game's incredibly rapid flow, which allows fights to end in seconds. No load times, no protracted engagements, no fuss. Not much strategy either, but the pacing, at least, is excellent.

Back to our starter character. With a few hits and his two spells, he has enough resources to handle three monsters, maybe four if he's lucky in his first fight. Healing in the dungeon is extremely rare and not to be relied upon, and the torrent of monsters is often unceasing. In the maze featured on cyber1 (different installations of the game had different maps, editable by the operator), there is an exit near the entrance although it must be searched for. Exiting the dungeon heals the player and restores his spells, a vital resource to the player in this phase of the game.

To say that characters tend to die a lot is an understatement. Probably more than 90% of dnd characters die in this phase. In order to become more survivable, the player has to do one of these things: find a magic item, collect 4,000 gold pieces, or get 10,000 experience points. The first is rare, and is likely to be trapped and do far more damage to him than he has to spare at this stage. The other two, at the rate a new character is earning them, a few steps at a time, will take a while.

(Keep in mind, all this assumes that the player knows of the exit. The dungeon doesn't change between plays, but neither is it mapped out for him beforehand. It's usually a good dozen or so deaths, including a few inadvertent, fatal forays into level 2, before a good route is found.)

dnd11.pngThere is a shortcut to character improvement. Once in a while on one of those jaunts the player will find a treasure chest. If it's trapped, opening it will probably kill the player, but if it's not then he'll be the recipient of a veritable windfall of loot, possibly over 20,000 gold pieces and a good amount of experience to boot. Two or three of these, and the player will nearly be able to tackle the whole first level without much danger.

Why are these things important? Gold isn't used to buy anything; it's basically just a score, a measure of achievement, but every 4,000 pieces harvested from the dungeon earns the player one additional maximum hit point. Also, every 10,000 pieces grants another max magic spell, and 16,000 is worth another cleric spell. So that 20,000 windfall is worth three more spells, and thus another three monsters that can be killed each trip.

It also adds another five hits to the player's total, maybe enough to get in a second fight. The experience is also useful; it reduces fight damage and makes spells more powerful per every 10,000 earned, shortening the time before the player can explore deeper levels.

But it would be dishonest to sugarcoat the fact: getting started in dnd is one of the hardest things I've ever seen in an RPG. Until that lucky chest is stumbled upon, only the slightest of trips through the dungeon can be risked. But the tremendous severity of the start makes the next phase incredibly gratifying. You see, that 4,000 gold price for a maximum hit point? That never increases. Throughout the entire game, every 4,000 gold taken through a dungeon exit is another maximum hit point, with no known limit.

dnd15.pngOn the first level of the dungeon, the player might find up to 60 gold in a single pile, and visiting every space may net around 900. On the second level, piles go up to around 260. On the third, they can be over a thousand. Gold values keep going up like that throughout the 20-level dungeon. On level six, piles of over 10,000 are common, enough for two maximum hits all by itself, and there are many piles to be found.

After sweating through the game to get that first hit point, being able to find 12,000 or more in a single trip, and getting 30 hits from it, is a wonderful feeling. People remark upon Disgaea's powergaming design, but it has nothing at all on dnd, written way back in 1974; winning characters often have tens of thousands of hit points. Spell costs similarly don't increase, but their capacities are limited at 25 each.

There is another interesting dynamic at work in this game, one that helps to rein in the ever-escalating rise in hit points: the monsters "know" how much gold the player is carrying on his trip through the dungeon. As the player begins to collect loot on a foray through the vaults, the monsters get harder. The more gold the player is carrying, the harder the monsters become.

Magic spells, if chosen well and the player's stats are good, can wipe out most monsters, but eventually opponent levels will rise so high that even spells won't destroy them outright. Exiting the dungeon resets both the gold carried total and the monster difficulty, but as the player delves deeper and finds even stronger monsters and bigger piles of gold, the onslaught becomes ever more perilous.

Part of this is the result of the player's own expectations. If you have 18 hits (the most you can roll up at the start) then even one additional is a good advantage, and the cost of a single additional hit point never rises. But when the player has 600 hits, gaining one more isn't so useful. The marginal utility of each additional hit point is less than the previous one.

In the same way, a player with 600 hits will find 30 more a good improvement, but a player with 6,000 not as much. The more impatient the player is with his growth, the sooner he'll wish to dive to the lower levels, but tougher monsters hang out there. Conversely, he can play it safe by lingering longer on the upper levels. The balance between the player's impatience with his character's advancement and the strength of the monsters he faces, the dive into danger and greater rewards vs. the frightened cower, this is at the core of dnd5.

Beneath the surface

dnd13.pngAlso serving to limit the truckloads of loot the player can bring in are the hard spell caps (25 each), the fact that carrying lots of gold decreases the player's evasion ability, and that he can't carry more than 100,000 times his strength at once. Although with a bag of holding that figure goes up a hundred-fold, allowing the exponential rise to continue a bit longer, it doesn't prolong it indefinitely.

In most cases, the most spells the player can ever have is 25 of each. They're good for more than safely killing monsters in one shot, too. One magic spell can be expended to cast a passwall spell. When one of those trecherous objects is found, the player can get a chance to identify if it's dangerous or not at the cost of one cleric spell. (They should not be touched unless the player knows they're safe, for the damage done by booby-trapped items skyrockets deeper into the dungeon.)

At the cost of two magic spells and one cleric, the player can attempt to teleport one level up or down. This is the kind of thing that should only be used when the player is relatively safe, or in the direst of emergencies, since one time in ten it'll send him a level in the wrong direction instead.

At some point, the player will have to content with the logistics of a dive to level 20. That's where the Orb is, guarded by the Dragon. The instructions state that the Dragon can do up to 100,000 hits to the player, but that he can choose to cast a "dragon" spell at it, killing it instantly but at the cost of most of his magic, leaving him to make a dangerous trek up the maze without most of his arsenal.

Plus, when the Orb is finally collected, the dungeon residents go into overdrive, meaning those spells will quickly become necessary. The player can choose to drop the Orb at any time, resetting the opposition to its base difficulty, but then the player will have to go back and fight the Dragon again to get another one.

dnd14.pngDoes this sound to you like a game people would obsess over? How much play do you think such a game got back in the heady days immediately after Dungeons & Dragons hit the national scene?

A groupnote from Dirk Pellett provides some perspective. The backup tape off of which dnd5 was scavenged also bore the game's record of how many times it had been played. Its counter listed over two million games since it was first made available on PLATO. Keep in mind, this only counts plays on that installation, and PLATO, although popular among those who knew about it, never had what one might call a wide release. And this backup was not the last; it's certain it rang up many additional games after the backup had been made.

Of course the great majority of those games ended before obtaining their first 4,000 gold pieces, but according to Pellett, over 150 characters were registered on the backup tape's victory board. The game on cyber1 now has been running since May 21, 2008, and at this moment has registered 40,200 games and seven victories. (I personally remember it being less than 40,000 last week; it's possible many of those games are mine.)

Nowadays, the bright lustre has worn off of the bare concept of a dungeon exploration game, for the general gaming public at least. Adventurers no longer stalk dark corridors with no aim other than personal enrichment; they must always have some quest now, usually involving saving a world, which means it's never "just" a dungeon anymore, it's always some dire demonic place. The stakes have increased, all in honor of the dark god immersion.

Yet, put bluntly, most RPGs' attempts at immersion suck. What they have for stories would only make it into print as the worst trash fantasy, and their basic design shows less thought than games like dnd5 showed mere months after the release of D&D's original boxed set. There is sometimes a sense that they are chasing a false idol, abandoning strong design for flashy effects, and probably overuse of the word "corruption." Playing dnd5 may first seem like reaching one's hand into a box of snakes, but it is certainly an educational experience.

What can we learn from dnd5?

dnd12.pngFirst, that an amazingly old game can still have the potential to be interesting. Computer games don't get much older than this, yet it's still possible to enjoy it. Back in its day, it was known to be extraordinarily addictive. Its graphics may have been lapped repeatedly in the race towards photo-realism, but gameplay does not go obsolete.

Second, it teaches us the joy of manual mapping. The ultimate fun of mapping, I believe, is that of personal creation. To use one's wits to produce a document with which to conquer a game, then getting use out of it. The rise of GameFAQs has done much to destroy this joy, but the mazes of the dnd games can be edited by the operator, which may help to keep the game interesting over longer periods.

Third, it has a deceptively elegant set of limits. When the player discovers that gold values increase exponentially and there is no limit to the maximum number of hit points he gets the sense that the game is broken and sets about taking advantage of it. (There are few joys in life greater than exploiting such an advantage.)

But it's not broken at all: the spell caps, the carrying limits, and especially the monster power increase in response to carried gold all serve to check the meteoric rise to godhood. The modern approach to this would be to just lower gold values, or increase the amount needed to gain hit points, showing that, while the time developers spend on graphics has skyrocketed, they spend far less time in cooking up the rules.

Fourth, and the secret source of the entertainment it provides, is that old human failing: it rides heavily on the urge to gamble. That's what dnd5, and original Dungeons & Dragons, basically are all about. Every trip is a risk, every additional pile of gold raises the stakes and the chances that the next monster will be too strong to beat. Will the magic book increase a stat, or lower it, or even inflect Massive Damage? There is no way to know! (Actually it may be too much of a gamble.

Later versions of dnd give the player more ways to detect if an object laying on the floor is useful or booby-trapped, and I can't say that's a bad thing.) One of the most iconic D&D items is that potent slayer of PCs, the Deck of Many Things, which is simply a deck of cards, each with its own effect. There is no strategy to that, its just a spin of the wheel, either amazing riches or sudden, permanent death. The rational approach to that situation is to not draw, for no possible reward can make up for dying. but really, who in such a situation will fail to pull a card? Casinos exist on that margin, the irrationality of man. dnd rests there too, but no money is lost in its playing, just the life of an imaginary person.

Supplemental information

If you'd like to try this game, or the rather more complex (and strategically interesting) later version, dnd8, up until May of this year you would have been out of luck. It was only on May 16th that both games were rescued from oblivion.

Even so, the only known playable copy of these games is on the cyber1 system, an emulated PLATO server which offers free accounts for the asking. There it is available for play, along with a number of other interesting games from the earliest days of computer gaming, including a few of those early MMORPGs. (The most popular of these is avatar, which still sees somewhat frequent play today.)

Registration for an account can be done here. Keep in mind, new registrations are processed on weekends, and since they're all handled manually it may be some days before yours is approved.

* In actuality, it's not really that strange how obscure PLATO is. Unix's current popularity can be tied, in large part, to the success of Linux and other free work-alikes. PLATO systems have no such work-alike. The only emulator of its hardware appears to be dtCyber, on which cyber1 runs. I have heard it is open source but the extravagant licensing fees on its website speaks against that possibility.