Sunday, December 30, 2018

Game 36: Telengard

The official story is that Daniel Lawrence first developed Telengard in 1978, as an 8-bit, 8KB adaptation of DND, on his brand new Commodore PET 2001. He continued working on it, and by 1982, it had grown to use 32KB and caught the attention of Avalon Hill, who published it. Soon it would be ported to other platforms, including Apple, Commodore, and eventually DOS, and much later even as a native Windows game.

In the chronology, I’ll be treating Telengard as a 1978 game, even though the oldest playable version is years newer. It’s impossible to know what features had to be cut from DND to fit in the 8KB version, only to be fit back in in the extant 32KB version.

I found a TAP image file for Telengard floating around, and used the PET emulator in WinVICE to load it.

Auto-load the tape file, and garbage races across the screen. Don’t worry, it’s fine.

A title screen! Interestingly, the copyright here is 1981. It’s still loading. At this point, warp mode (Alt+W) comes in very handy, and I am thankful for emulation. The real thing would take several minutes, and the PET tape drives were notorious for having fatal read errors.

Done loading! Don’t forget to turn off warp mode. Starting a new character,

Here we see the first difference from DND and all the games before it, though not evident by the screenshot. The game is semi-realtime! You’ve got about one second to decide if you want these stats or not, and then it automatically re-rolls. I waited.

No class selection this time, no secret names, and no choice of which dungeon to select. All you can do now is name your character.

This looks simple, but nicer than DND. The walls are distinct, my character sheet is positioned nicely, the X clearly represents my character, and messages output below the map. It’s reminiscent of dnd, of course, but with the benefit that the character sheet is always visible. Visibility is improved too, as it shows a full 3x3 grid, while dnd only showed the four orthogonal tiles at most.

You’re on the clock, and will be for the entire game. Whenever you are prompted to make a decision, you have about four seconds before the game automatically picks the “stay” or “wait” option. Movement is also agonizingly slow. When you move a space, it takes about eight seconds in total for the game to recognize your input, redraw the screen, and prompt you for your next move. It’s pretty exasperating to repeatedly have to wait for eight seconds for the prompt, and then have to act on it within four or lose your turn.

Another difference is that both dnd and DND had you exit the dungeon by leaving through a gap in the outer wall. Here, you leave by taking stairs up to the surface, where you arrive at an inn. Your gold is converted to XP, you level up if you have enough XP, and you recharge your HP and spells.

You can save your character to tape, and interestingly, this means that this early version of Telengard does NOT feature permadeath! The PLATO games and DND delete your save if you die, and so do later disk-based versions of Telengard. I guess there’s no way for the PET to automatically rewind the tape and record over your save file when you die.

Saving is a bit cumbersome, and I’m not sure if you were originally meant to save on a blank cassette, or onto the Telengard tape itself, but I always save on a fresh tape image file, and I keep backups of those files. It seems to work most of the time, and even though it fails sometimes, I have backups.

Like other games in the dnd line, the early game is brutal. My very first step away from the staircase was an encounter with a level four wraith, which promptly drained me a level and instantly killed me.

Reloading, my next encounter was with a level 1 orc, who I killed by fighting, and dropped some armor+2, which I nabbed, and immediately retreated to the inn to save.

Next journey, I stepped to the west, encountered a level 2 kobold, who I also killed easily. It dropped some jewels, which were worth money, but damaged my health by five points. Once again, I retreated to the inn and saved.

Still never venturing far from the staircase, I found a “large gray misty cube” that offered to teleport me to any level, which I ignored. I found a healing potion lying around, and in the very next square a level 1 skeleton decided to swipe the potion and run. Killed a level 2 elf with a sleep spell, some more level 1 enemies with my sword, and eventually gained a level. At one point a level 4 hobbit swiped my armor, something that never happened in DND.

It didn’t take me long to realize that loot spawns randomly with every step you take, and doesn’t care whether you’ve searched that square on the map yet or not. You don’t even need to move; you can just wait in place, and loot will randomly spawn at your feet. So I waited outside the stairway to the inn for a while, gathering loot, killing easy enemies, running away from hard enemies, and ducking back to the inn every now and then to refresh myself and occasionally to save.

After about an hour of this, I was level 4, had found some more armor +2, a ring of protection +5, and a few scrolls of rescue. Nothing more powerful than level 4 was attacking me, and they weren’t threatening any more. At one point, I even encountered a friendly dragon, who gave me a free shield +1!

It was time to save, and go exploring.

While wandering, I encountered some new things at fixed locations, all reminiscent of encounters found in DND:

More upward stairways, all of them leading to different inns with randomly generated names like “goodly demon resthouse.”

Downward stairways, which lead down one level, but can be climbed back up.

Pits, which may be descended to reach lower, more dangerous levels. Randomly, you might just fall in.

Elevators, which automatically ascend you a level.

Fountains of water of a random color, which randomly heal you, damage you, or do nothing.

Teleporters, which involuntarily zap who to who knows where.

Thrones, which can have a variety of effects including raising stats, lowering stats, teleportation, giving money, and summoning a high level “king” monster.

Altars, which you may donate gold to, and will suffer holy wrath if your donation isn’t big enough.

I quickly gave up on the idea of mapping out the dungeon. It’s huge; level 1 goes on seemingly forever in all directions, and the gray misty cube can take you down as far as level 50. More importantly, the dungeon is not that interesting, and the realtime element makes it basically impossible to draw a map anyway.

I decided to camp at a nearby throne. I discovered that the first time you try to read the runes, there’s a very good chance of a stat boost, and I can always reload if it doesn’t work. After that, I’d just try prying the gems until king monsters attacked. My stats gradually got better, and the occasional “king” monsters didn’t pose any real problems. Undead king monsters fell easily to turn undead, living ones fell to sleep or web, and a few of them left some seriously excellent treasure chests. An elf king even liked me!

Err, thanks?

After reaching character level 7, I decided to try my luck with exploring level 2. Down there, I found a real moneymaker – a safe with four colored buttons. By pressing the right sequence, it opens and reveals some good money:

Pressing a wrong button zaps you for some damage, but the combination doesn’t change until you guess the right sequence, so you’re certain to get it open within 16 tries. This safe only did 3 damage per wrong guess, and since I have a ring of regeneration +2, there’s only a net loss of 1 HP per zap.

Once you get it open, the combination changes, and you can try again for another payload. I did this for some time, until my HP was halfway depleted. I wandered around, stumbled into a staircase going up to level 1 (and thankfully not a pit), then found a different inn on level 1, where I leveled up twice.

Feeling a bit confident, I located a misty gray cube and went down to level 4. It immediately teleported me into an elevator that elevated me to level 3. Oh well. There, I found a throne, and used it to gain a charisma point and fight a few more kings, generally of a higher level than of the throne on level 1. Again, no problem, except for a hobbit king who stole my ring of regeneration (curse it, curse it, curse it!).

Getting back posed a bit of a problem. I got hopelessly lost, and ran into some teleporters, but thankfully did not fall into any pits. Eventually I found my way back to level 1, and another staircase there took me to an inn in unfamiliar territory.

I got bored soon after. The dungeon is mind-bogglingly big. Possibly endless; I never found an end to it in any direction even after wandering for hours. With mapping out of the question, the only reasonable way to reach the lower depths is to stumble upon a misty grey cube, and I failed to locate one. Level 1 posed no threat to me at all, and whenever I did find a staircase or pit to lower levels, it wasn’t very long before I’d stumble into a random elevator and be taken right back up. I wanted to get to a lower floor so Telengard could be interesting again, but the glacial pace of moving around the impossibly huge dungeon has sapped away any desire to continue.

And so, that’s the end of my journey down the road to Telengard. I know there are later, and more popular versions of the game which introduce graphics, a reasonable speed, and permadeath, but my goal was to play it as close to the 1978 original as possible, and this is probably the closest that will ever be possible.

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