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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)

February 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

The Mainframe Era (The Dark Ages)

Hackers on university mainframes got an early start on developing CRPGs, trotting out games as early as 1974 (the same year Gygax and Arneson released the first Dungeons & Dragons). Unfortunately, the history here seems a bit murky (thus the title "Dark Ages"), and declaring which game was the "first" seems a bit foolhardy. What is clear is that there were several CRPGs on machines like DEC's PDP-10 and PLATO, a computerized learning system. The first of these appears to be Rusty Rutherford's pedit5 for PLATO. Pedit5 had most of the basic features of the genre, such as an explorable dungeon, monstrous foes, collectible treasures, and a magic system. Unfortunately, we will likely never learn much more about this game owing to the short-sightedness of PLATO administrators, who had a rather nasty habit of deleting this game wherever they found it (the many kids who managed to stay a step ahead of these party-poopers were denigrated as "zbrats"). There may very well have been text-based CRPGs before Pedit5 that may have simply been lost to history.

Later that year, two programmers at Southern Illinois University named Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood created dnd, also designed for PLATO. This graphical game contains many features that would become staples of the genre, such as the ability to create a character and assign stats for characteristics like strength, intelligence, and so on. There was also a "level up" system based on experience points. Monsters got tougher the deeper players went in the dungeon. This game also marks the first appearance of the "general store" where players can purchase equipment. Perhaps most important, dnd featured a story and a quest--kill the dragon and fetch the Orb. It is certainly no surprise that fetching an all-powerful "orb" will show up again and again as the defining quest of CRPGs! Whisenhunt and Wood's game would later be the inspiration for Daniel Lawrence's famous Telengard game for the TRS-80 and Commodore 64 platforms. We'll have more to say about Telengard momentarily.

Meanwhile, a student at Claremont Graduate University in California, had designed a game called Dungeon, which ran on the university's PDP-10 mainframes. Like dnd, Dungeon featured a level-up system. However, one key innovation was the ability to create and operate a whole party of adventurers rather than just a single character. To this day, there is debate about whether it's more fun to control a single character or a whole party of them. Dungeon also featured a graphical map system with "line of sight" vision, which meant that players could only see in the direction their characters were facing--and took lightness and darkness into account (elves and other creatures with infravision could see in the dark).

dnd (mainframe): Pic from Wikipedia (public domain)
dnd (mainframe): Pic from
Wikipedia (public domain)

Perhaps the most famous of all CRPGs, however, is the UNIX game Rogue. Created in 1980 by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold, Rogue was known for its randomized dungeons, ASCII-based graphics, and complicated gameplay. Rogue represented the player's character with an at sign (@), and monsters were designated by the first letter of their name (Z for zombie). The story was simple and would be copied (with slight modifications) in later games like The Sword of Fargoal: descend to a specific level of the dungeon (in this case 26), retrieve a magic item (in this case the Amulet of Yendor), and escape the dungeon. However, players might have just as much with the game even if they aren't aware of this quest; just wandering about killing monsters and gaining treasure and experience points are plenty of fun. Still, Rogue is a very challenging game with a steep learning curve. For one thing, there's an abundance of confusing keyboard commands to learn (R for remove a ring and r for reading a scroll), and players practically need a legend to make sense of the "graphical" display. Secondly, besides dealing successfully with the many monsters and traps in the game, the character must also be constantly fed. Nevertheless, Rogue was so successful that it spawned a near limitless number of ports and derivatives called "Roguelikes." Several of these games have also achieved lasting fame, such as Hack, Moria, Larn, and Omega. It's very easy to find a version of Rogue or at least a roguelike on just about any computing platform (indeed, I'm not even sure we could call something that didn't have some form of Rogue a "computer platform" at all!). I spent any number of hours sloughing my way through both Larn and Hack on my Commodore Amiga computer, even though I also had access to games with "better" graphics. A boy with an imagination is content with a warm bowl of ASCII every evening (though ANSI is quite nice once and awhile).

The question that seldom gets asked about these early "CRPGs" is to what extent they really recreate the tabletop D&D experience. Although they do manage to mimic some parts quite effectively--particularly the dice rolling and number crunching--they seem to fall rather flat in the play-acting department. Somehow I doubt that anyone sitting down for an evening of Rogue ever donned a pair of cheap elf ears and a faux leather jerkin, though such accouterments are common enough at real D&D games. Furthermore, although dnd players might belt out an obscenity every so often, I doubt any of them did so in a Dwarvish accent. What was clearly missing was the element of "role play" that was such a huge part of the tabletop game. At best, the computerized versions could simulate the mathematics of D&D combat and to some extent the strategy and exploration components, but the inherent abstractness and aloofness of the medium seemed to stop true role-playing at the gate. Although later on we'll discuss CRPGs that have tried to address these issues in interesting ways, it's important to see for now that D&D and its computerized "equivalents" actually have far less in common than most people think.

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