Sunday, May 1, 2011

My development as a cRPG player and modder: 1979-1995

When I was young I was introduced to the Basic D&D Set. I was fascinated with the ideas, the potential, the rules, the dice. I was already an avid reader of fantasy fiction including the works of Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Michael Moorcock, and Roger Zelazny. It didn't take long before I was drawing my own primitive dungeons on graph paper filled with secret doors, beasties of all types, puzzles, and traps. Then I bought the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide from the Griffon Bookstore and my imagination exploded with infinite possibilities. Armed with this amazing book, I created a world. Of course it took me a bit longer than 6 days.

Akalabeth: World of Doom, precursor to Ultima
My tabletop experience remained fairly limited. I had a small group of friends and we played regularly in the summers, but coordination was always a challenge. When my father, a professor at Saint Mary's College, brought home a paper-driven terminal that could be connected to the Saint Mary's Prime computer via a Novation CAT acoustic coupler modem I began to play Adventure written by Will Crowther and enhanced with fantasy elements by Don Woods (the very first computer adventure game) and Hunt the Wumpus by Gregory Yob. A little Star Trek by Don Daglow also. This occupied little of my attention though until we replaced it with an Apple ][+ personal computer and Hayes Micromodem II and personal computer games began to appear. The first one I played was the granddaddy of the cRPG genre Akalabeth: World of Doom by Richard Garriott (Lord British) and published for the Apple ][ in 1979. It was the first cRPG but was quickly followed by several others. I was absorbed by Temple of Apshai (1980), Hellfire Warrior (1980), Ultima (1980), Wizardry (1981) and its sequel The Knight of Diamonds (1982), and the latecomer but nevertheless excellent The Bard's Tale (1985). (I never purchased The Wizard and the Princess (1980), although I recall being stunned by its full screen graphics).

Wizardry on an Apple ][+

A mummy attacks in Dungeon Master
While the graphics of all of these were primitive by today's standards, they were ground breaking in their own ways. None of them could be modified though, and none of them used D&D rules, although there were often similarities. The final cRPG that captured hours of my teen years was FTL's Dungeon Master for the Apple IIGS. Originally released for the Atari ST, it was the first 3d real-time cRPG. It used less of the D&D style rules than Wizardry or Bard's Tale, but it had more of the sense of danger lurking around the corner that reminded me of the joys of tabletop D&D. The game created a fan-base that exists to this day and thanks to their efforts a Java version of this wonderful game is available here with additional dungeons available here and you can even play the original IIGS version in a web browser using ActiveGS by the Free Tools Association. So cool. (Pardon me while I geek-out for a moment.)

My HyperCard IIGS Home stack
Dungeon Master revitalized my interest in building my own games, but at the time of its release there was no way to modify it or build your own dungeons. So I turned to HyperCard GS and spent hours trying to create my own dungeon engine I called "HyperAdventure" and sample game I called "Fangborne". My goal was to combine the 3d dungeon exploration and point and click interface of Dungeon Master with the fairly simple real-time combat system of my own devising. My HyperAdventure system relied on predefined cards (think templates or in NWN2 parlance tiles) that defined every possible appearance of a hallway. This would have allowed for a nearly unlimited size dungeon within the constraints of the software and memory (a high-end IIGS typically had no more than 4 MB RAM, and it could be as little as 1.25 MB).  Also, since a dungeon was essentially defined by a set of text records it would have been easy to create a dungeon generator and save files would be very small text files. Characters were also saved in text files so that they could be migrated between games. It all worked but it consumed an enormous amount of my free time designing it and with the abandonment by Apple of the IIGS platform and HyperCard IIGS it became difficult to remain motivated to complete it. I stopped working on it in 1995. The final prototype version was only 750K in size.

Fangborne Prototype screen
Fangborne Graphic In-game Help System
Facing a Giant Slime in combat
The Fangborne death - reload screen
And so began the Dark Ages of my cRPG experience. And so it remained until a game called Baldur's Gate entered my life.

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