Update: Find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book and the revised final version of this article!
a.k.a. The Game of Dungeons
by Gary Whisenhunt, Ray Wood, Dirk Pellett and Flint Pellett
First Appeared: likely Fall 1975
Platform: PLATO IV
What is thy name?
In the early 1970s, in the midst of a cold winter in Urbana, Illinois, a high schooler opened the door to a university lab late one night. He’d been tipped off at a party that something interesting was happening on campus:
“The room lights were off. Cigarette smoke thick in the air, the ceiling disappeared in the gloom. Odd metal boxlike structures lined the room.... Dozens of people in the room, sitting in groups of twos and threes, hunched over each of the boxes, their faces weirdly lit with a strange orange glow coming from some sort of non-TV screen on the front of each box. Surreal as hell, never seen the like. Doing things with some sort of typewriter keyboard, pointing at the screens, laughing and yelling instructions at each other. Suddenly somebody nearby yelled, ‘Got ‘im!’ and simultaneously across the room somebody else yelled, ‘Damn it!’ Games! They’re playing games!” *
*Note: most of the unattributed quotations in this article are player recollections taken from The Friendly Orange Glow, Brian Dear’s excellent book on PLATO.
The room was filled with PLATO IV terminals, and few people then had seen anything like them. Far ahead of its time, the PLATO IV featured a 512x512 resolution plasma display touchscreen that could draw text in custom fonts and images with sharp-edged orange vector graphics, years before CRTs were commonplace when most computer interfaces were still teletypes. Thousands of PLATO terminals in classrooms across the country had been networked together into a single shared environment with message boards and chat. And PLATO programs were written in a unique language called TUTOR that made it far easier to write software—especially software with graphics—than any other common language of the time.
Funded by a huge government grant, dating back to the post-Sputnik fears that America was losing its science and education supremacy, PLATO had been developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, across a decade of radical experimentation and ever-widening deployment: first largely at Midwestern universities, and then at schools around the country. The 1972 launch of PLATO IV had marked the arrival of a sophisticated multi-user computer platform aimed at students and teachers, rather than specialists and hackers. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the students started figuring out how to write games for the thing.
The earliest programs were single-player, education-focused “lessons,” as the PLATO platform was designed to enable. But within months illicit games began appearing, and they soon grew surprisingly complex. “Lessons” like Moonwar (1972) and Empire (1973) linked players together in increasingly massive multiplayer battles, controlling top-down starships in gameplay not unlike a more frenetic version of Super Star Trek. Running on 1260 baud connections, the PLATO terminals took long seconds to update their screens, but were built to be immediately responsive to keystrokes, meaning expert players played by memory, spamming in key sequences a dozen commands ahead of what the slowly updating display could show. The authors, often college freshmen or high school kids, found clever hacks to speed up gameplay or improve it. Someone figured out that the PLATO’s built-in affordance for displaying microfiche slides could be triggered even if none were loaded,
“…causing the mechanism to shake and make sounds, even illuminate the slide projector’s lamp... Run the code in a loop, and you could get the machine to shake and rumble like a deranged washing machine on spin cycle, along with bright flashes of light as a spaceship exploded.”
Because PLATO was designed for lay learners, access at most computer labs was open to all, with few locked doors or password-protected accounts. Often anyone could walk in off the street and sit down at a terminal. But adults underestimated the popularity of PLATO as a platform for a new kind of entertainment, and soon access started getting locked down. This deterred the gamers not at all. Kids started sneaking into computer labs after hours for all-night Empire tournaments, having pizzas delivered through the windows, sometimes going to extreme lengths to secure a weekend of gaming:
“My friends and I roamed all about the university campus in search of unrestricted PLATO terminals... [One] lab closed around 8 p.m. Friday, but what they didn’t know was the back wall of the cubicles along the back wall of the lab had been unscrewed and set in place. You could pull back this wall and crawl behind it, wait for the lab to clear out, and be locked up for the weekend.
“...Every now and then, twenty or so minutes prior to the lab closing you’d pull the cubicle wall back and find someone else already hiding inside. Both of you there for the same purpose, neither wanting to lose the option or be called out, you just made room and hung out silently together.”
Many of the earliest popular PLATO games were inspired by Star Trek: the show had been off the air for five years by 1974 but was still a dominant force in geek culture. But a new challenger appeared that year in the form of a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Like PLATO, D&D was also at first a Midwestern phenomenon, originating on the wargaming tables of Gary Gygax in Wisconsin and Dave Arneson in Minnesota, and making one of its first big appearances at Gygax’s Gen Con in Lake Geneva, an afternoon’s drive from PLATO’s home in Urbana. Within months of the 1974 convention, D&D’s first print run of a thousand copies had sold out, and PLATO was flooded with a glut of games set in dungeons, most direct adaptations of the analog hit.
While tabletop roleplaying would become better known for its focus on, well, roleplaying, early rulebooks can surprise modern readers with how mechanical their gameplay seems. The first edition’s only example of play, for instance, begins as follows (note REF means referee, or dungeon master, and CAL means caller, a holdover concept from wargaming where a single player interfaces between the referee and the rest of the group):
REF: [There are] steps down to the east.
CAL: We’re going down.
REF: 10’, 20’, 30’—a 10’ square landing—steps down to the north and curving down southeast.
CAL: Take those to the southeast.
REF: 10’, and the steps curve more to the south; 20’. Steps end, and you are on a 10’ wide passage which runs east, southeast, and west. There is a door to your left across the passage on a northwest wall.
CAL: Listen at the door—three of us.
REF: (After rolling three dice) You hear nothing. (At this time a check for wandering monsters is also made.)
CAL: Ignore the door and proceed along the corridor southeastwards.
REF: 10’, 20’, 30’, 40’, 50’. “Four way”: Northwest, northeast, south and southwest—the south passage is 20’ wide.
CAL: Go south.
It’s not surprising that so many people familiar with both the first D&D and the first computers started thinking about how easily one could simulate a player’s movement through a dungeon in code. The rulebook even describes a process for generating dungeons that might just as well be performed by a computer as a human:
“First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld,’ people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys... The determination of just where monsters should be placed, and whether or not they will be guarding treasure, and how much of the latter if they are guarding something, can become burdensome when faced with several levels to do at one time. It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monstrous guardians, and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level.”
Within months of D&D arriving at Midwestern colleges, plans for elaborate digital versions were in the works. Many of these collapsed under their own ambitions. The earliest surviving example of a dungeon game was created by someone who’d grown sick of waiting for more complex versions to be finished. A UI employee named Rusty Rutherford wrote it in about six weeks and titled it simply The Dungeon. It didn’t try to do multiplayer, or generate a dozen unique dungeon levels, or implement all the spells in the rulebook. It focused instead on one tight slice of the D&D experience: a hero, trapped in a maze of walls and rooms, fighting an endless barrage of monsters.
While contemporaneous games on other systems were slowly spitting out upper-case characters on noisy printers, the PLATO IV’s revolutionary display could show not only all kinds of lettering but also custom sprites, which could themselves be drawn in a dedicated editor. Rutherford’s dungeon game had twelve sprites, including a treasure chest and a selection of monsters from giant rats to skeletons to, of course, a dragon. The player moved their randomly generated character with the WAXD keys (the established convention for cursor movement on PLATO), their hero staying stationary in the middle of the screen as simple rooms and corridors would redraw around them, after a delay of a second or two. The single dungeon level had a fixed map, but the monsters and treasure were randomly placed each game. The randomness could be brutal: your first step into the dungeon could collide you with a powerful monster who’d instantly kill you. But The Dungeon was D&D on a computer, simplified but playable without a group or a gamemaster, and within weeks it became incredibly popular.
By 1975 PLATO’s gaming subculture had become an increasingly irritating thorn in the side of those who thought these expensive computers should be used for education. An archive of the network’s electronic message board (one of the world’s first) contains dozens of annoyed rants about gamers, including this gem from that August:
“What has happened during the preceding weeks is that chilren [sic] of unspecified ages spend their days at cerl playing games. This is not to say that I necessarily disapprove of playing games, but in the case of these children, concomitant with playing is the issuing of loud, disgusting noises of the following nature: ‘brrrrr...bang bang...kapow’ or ‘aieee I have a level six dragon...help...help...HELP...’ What do I care? I am busy trying to do some work which requires particular attention to detail and these constant expectorations make any attempt to do so almost impossible. ...SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE.”
Some complainants took matters into their own hands (ellipses in original):
sabotaged as many games as i could find after the morons using them refused to stop after repeated requests via message .... the games have not been destroyed but a ‘stop*’ command has been inserted in the first block of each ....
Administrators tried various techniques to appease the anti-gamers, from enforcing noise ordinances to banning games during school hours or outright deleting any they found on the system. Rutherford’s The Dungeon was more commonly known by its covert filename pedit5—the last allocated lesson name (and thus least likely to be needed) in a block given to the Population Energy group. An anti-game sysadmin was less likely to delete a program with such an innocuous-looking name. But the camouflage was short-lived: pedit5 soon became a known time waster and misuse of system resources, and was frequently deleted, forcing Rutherford to recreate the program from scratch at least once, and retype it from a saved printout on other occasions.
It was these deletions that motivated two students at nearby Southern Illinois University, Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, to finish up their own long-in-development dungeon crawler. The two had a serious advantage: unlike at Rutherford’s school, SIU had just a single PLATO terminal, and Whisenhunt had quickly become its administrator by showing far more interest than the faculty member assigned to oversee it. The two called their program The Game of Dungeons, and with no risk of deletion they brazenly stored it under the lesson name dnd—though in 1975, to those not in the know, this was as esoteric a set of letters as pedit5.
Like Rutherford’s game, dnd was directly inspired by D&D, stealing attributes, mechanics, spells, and monsters. It took The Dungeon’s basic framework and added significant depth to its gameplay. Set in Whisenwood Dungeon (a portmanteau of the two creators’ names), the game begins with a randomly generated character using four of the six canonical D&D stats, plus “Hits” for hit points. Unlike in the earlier game, you can re-roll to get a character you like, crucial for surviving beyond the first few fights.
Strength 17 Intelligence 8 Wisdom 12 Dexterity 9 Hits 6 Shift-BACK for records LAB to reroll BACK for previous values NEXT to take these values What is thy name? >
After also entering a secret name which would allow you to return to the same character later, you’re dumped at the entrance to the dungeon on level 1: the game would eventually expand to 20 dungeon levels. As in pedit5, the WAXD keys move you through a maze of corridors and rooms filled with treasure and monsters. While Rutherford’s game labeled areas CORRIDOR or ROOM, dnd only shows text for noteworthy events:
You found $220 in gold!
No door there
Unlike later dungeon games with increasingly cluttered interfaces, character stats and other information appear only with special keystrokes, leaving the view immersively unadulterated during play. Things get slightly more complicated during combat:
Level 1 Spectre fight, evade, magic or cleric (f,e,m,c) > m 1. Fireball 2. Lightning Bolt 3. Flaming Arrow 4. Eye of Newt 5. Kitchen Sink 6. Sleep 7. Charm Which spell > 7 The Spectre is not amused. Press NEXT to fight [NEXT] You were number 1326 for Spectres
This last message indicates the player has died. As in The Dungeon, death meant permadeath, with no choice but to roll up a new character and enter the dungeon again. While combat calculations happened with much of the same complexity as in tabletop D&D—taking into account level, stats, spells in effect and other factors—in dnd, this math all happens behind the scenes. (Showing too many numbers might have made the game feel too much like the lessons its creators were trying to avoid.) The game can be disorienting in other ways, too: stepping on certain tiles teleports you to a different level of the dungeon, and not the same level each time, with no on-screen message or other indication that this has happened.
While some PLATO D&D games followed the tabletop rules obsessively, dnd keeps its tongue more in cheek, with joke spells like Kitchen Sink: you can also cast Dispell and Datspell. There are inside jokes, like a monster named after an annoying SIU freshman. Whimsical little epilogues appear when you defeat a monster: “Swiss Cheese!” “Fried it!” “Eat ’em Alive!” The lighthearted humor combined with the rapid demise of characters formed an addictive loop that would become a key draw for dungeon games of future decades. “I’ve fed 145 characters into the dungeon so far,” one modern player wrote. “I’m writing this at 3am, but I think I’ve got time for just one game before bed.”
By early 1976 Rutherford had moved on and pedit5 had been deleted once again, but Whisenhunt and Wood continued to maintain dnd, which soon eclipsed its predecessor’s popularity. That year an Iowa State student named Dirk Pellett became obsessed with the game, sending in so many suggestions and bug reports (“a few hundred,” in his recollection) that the authors gave him edit access and told him to knock himself out. Soon Pellett’s brother Flint joined the team, and the two expanded the game significantly over the next few years, adding a variety of magic items and potions, books, pits and transporters, more dungeon levels, and even unique items:
“Among the new items was the Genie Lamp... in a desperate situation the player could wish themselves out of the dungeon. ...Another use for the Genie was making a wish to the game operators, by term-comment to write a note. The Genie Lamp could be exchanged for nearly anything that could be granted: more hits, a different item, a few levels, and so on.
“...Gerhard Lueschen, a friend of the game authors, once made a wish: ‘I wish I was an author.’ He meant, of course, being added as a game author. Instead, the Genie granted his wish: for a week, one book in five found in the dungeon by anyone was ‘The Life and Times of Gerhard Lueschen, by himself.’”
dnd was more fair than pedit5, with monster strength scaled by dungeon level and more predictable strategy, but still brutally hard and seemingly endless. The game eventually gained an explicit goal: reaching the lowest levels to retrieve “the almighty ORB, which makes the holder (you) so invincible that when you get it out, you must be retired to the Elyssian Fields.” But the orb is guarded by “the deadliest monster in the dungeon: The Dragon!”—one of the first end bosses in videogame history, if you don’t count the Wumpus—who “has been known to cause as many as 100,000 hits of damage.”
This was orders of magnitude more Hits than players began with, but they could gain more. In tabletop D&D’s original edition, plundered gold coins would translate to experience points when taken out of the dungeon, which players could use to level up. dnd simplified this by converting gold brought back to the dungeon entrance directly into more hit points and spell slots. But monsters are more likely to attack the more gold you carry, so deciding when to turn back becomes a delicate balance between tedium and risk. Winning requires a long and careful grind, playing boldly enough that the gold-to-hits conversion isn’t interminably slow, but also carefully enough to avoid death from an unlucky random encounter. The game offers many other temptations balancing risk and reward, from teleporters jumping to more dangerous levels to immensely powerful but potentially trapped magic items. In the excerpt below, the player tries first to examine, then pick up the ring:
Magic ring! Now: pick it up, leave it, clerically examine, visually examine > v Too dark to tell!> p You were number 2318 for The Dungeon
The game could take hundreds of hours to beat. By the end of 1976, the dungeon had claimed the virtual lives of over 100,000 characters, according to Pellett. If this number is accurate, it’s a telling testament to dnd’s addictiveness, since only a few thousand PLATO IV terminals existed in the world—some of which were presumably still used for teaching, on occasion.
The Pelletts continued improving dnd, but spin-offs and competitors multiplied. A saved copy of the deleted pedit5 was resurrected under the name Orthanc by UIUC student Paul Resch, who adapted and improved it with a handful of collaborators. Orthanc featured a dungeon that would reconfigure itself every 180 days, an updated interface that kept more statistics visible on-screen, and limited multiplayer support: you could meet other people exploring the dungeon and chat with them, or kill them. Foreshadowing a common pattern in later games, “higher-level players took to hanging around the entrance and killing lower-level players for the experience” (source), leading Resch to remove player combat on dungeon level 1. He also found it odd that lots of folks who met in the dungeon “just talked to each other, even though you could do that anywhere on PLATO.” The magic of inhabiting a shared virtual space with another human being would soon become a massively popular obsession.
A game called Moria by Iowa State student Kevet Duncombe also appeared in late ‘75 or early ’76. Duncombe’s game flipped the top-down perspective to show the orange lines of the dungeon walls from a first-person view, one of the earliest games to do so. It also featured more sophisticated multiplayer that let you form a party with up to ten other players, and was “one of the first multiplayer games with a persistent game world,” according to scholar Andrew Williams, “where events and actions continued to take place even when the player was not playing.” The game featured four different “terrains” of Cave, Mountain, Forest, and Desert with sixty levels each and area-appropriate monsters. It also let the players explore “Wilderness City,” a massive maze of corridors and randomly scattered item shops: one modern player wrote grimly “I lost two characters to starvation just mapping the damn thing.” In the city you could buy or sell items from shopkeepers: you could even ask limited questions about their wares, or haggle.
Which item, Sire? >sword Buying, eh, Sire? Well, how’s about $134? >how about $40 $40? Can’t accept that! How’s about $128? >$90 Deal at $90, then? >no $70 Offer is too low, Sire! Deal at $90, then? >yeah, whatever What a bargain, Sire!
The surprisingly tolerant parser came from a feature of the TUTOR language designed to accept answers in quiz programs. With a single line of code, an author could invoke the “answer” command that could recognize variations on answers, ignored case sensitivity, and would even recognize misspellings and typos, features that adventure game parsers decades later would still lack.
at 805 write Who was the third president of the United States? arrow 1003 answer <T,Thomas> Jefferson write That's right! wrong <J,John> Adams write He was the second president. endarrow
“To borrow a term from linguistics, I'd probably have to call [TUTOR] a ‘language isolate,’” PLATO systems programmer Paul Koning has said. “It’s the programming analog of Basque. In other words, there really isn’t anything like it that I can think of.” Designed to allow non-technical teachers to make interactive lessons, TUTOR made it easy to position text and graphics on the screen (including at different sizes and rotations), parse answers, record progress, and interact with other students—all features that budding game designers put to good use.
The games kept evolving. Moria inspired 1977’s Oubliette, another first-person game that featured taverns where you could meet other players to group up, a requirement for defeating the game’s much tougher monsters. Oubliette would later inspire Wizardry on the Apple II, kicking off a successful and long-running franchise of influential computer roleplaying games. A port of dnd to the PDP-10 by Daniel Lawrence evolved into 1982's Telengard, another influential early CRPG. Oubliette and other PLATO games inspired the extraordinarily ambitious Avatar (1979), three years in the making before its first release and developed continuously for over a decade. It would come to feature elaborate player interaction, guilds, randomly generated quests, a huge array of items and spells, and a dynamic economy.
The PLATO dungeon games were the earliest examples of genres that later games would name, like Rogue (1980) and MUD (1978-1987). They were online multiplayer role-playing games before most people had heard the word “online,” or even realized you could play games on a computer. But the PLATO-verse was also an isolated archipelago in the seas of early computing: the PLATO network and the ARPAnet could not connect to each other, for instance, and the system’s isolate design of 6-bit bytes, a proprietary keyboard, and a single host mainframe kept its software from easily making the leap to newer platforms. Many of its innovations would have to be rediscovered and reinvented by others, years later.
But those who experienced the Friendly Orange Glow, as Brian Dear titled his book on the influence of PLATO, never forgot it. A graying band of enthusiasts keep a handful of PLATO servers running, and maintain emulators that allow modern computers to connect to them: some can even simulate the speed of a 1260 baud connection. One server, cyber1, “will feel like coming home again,” its creators promise, even if no modern computer can quite recapture the sensation of a hundred-pound plasma screen flashing bulbs in your eyes and rumbling like a damaged appliance, while some jerk three rows over starts cackling like a maniac.
Next week: after a caver halfway across the country discovers D&D, he makes his own digital adaptation—inventing an almost entirely different kind of gaming experience.
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All game transcripts are from the 1977 version 5.4 of dnd, the earliest playable version known to have survived as of this writing. You can try it yourself by signing up for an account on cyber1. Major sources include Brian Dear’s excellent book, extensive analyses of the PLATO games from CRPG Addict and CRPG Adventures, various recollections from the game’s original authors, and the archive of PLATO Notes Files from the University of Illinois.