Thursday, January 31, 2019

Dumps 'n Documentation

Download a BASIC source code repository here:

I was curious about how several gameplay mechanics in DND actually work, most of all the spells. The source code available may or may not correspond exactly to the version that I played, but it seems to match as far as I can tell. But I went through it and now understand more or less precisely what each spell does, with the single exception of Fear.

A lot of these effects involve a “3d6” roll. This means rolling three six-sided dice and adding them, for a possible range of 3 to 18. Note that the 3-18 probability is not evenly distributed. Assuming that the BASIC RNG itself is fair, 90% of the 3d6 rolls will be between 6 and 15, and the odds of rolling 3 or 18 are less than half a percent each.

First, the mage spells. Misspellings are probably Lawrence’s.

Level Spell Duration Effect
1 Magic missle Combat 1d6 damage
1 Charm Combat Incapacitates if [(INT + CHA)/2 + level - monster level] >= 3d6.
Never works on undead or dopplegangers.
Monster breaks charm if [CHA + level – monster level] < 3d6.
1 Shield 1d10 steps -20% chance to get hit
1 Sleep Combat Incapacitates if [INT + level – monster level] >= 3d6.
Never works on undead or dopplegangers.
Monster wakes up if [INT + level – monster level] <= 3d6.
1 Protection from evil 1d10 steps -10% chance to get hit.
-5% chance to be drained by energy attacks.
1 Light 1d10 steps Reveals things and secret doors on the map.
2 Phantasmal forces Combat Kills if [INT + 1 + level – monster level] > 3d6.
2 Web Combat Incapacitates if [(INT + DEX)/2] >= 3d6.
2 Lightning bolt Combat 1d6 damage per level.
Monster can save for half damage if [6 + monster level – level] > 1d10.
2 Strength 1d10 steps +3 strength for damage calculations.
2 Levitate 2d10 steps Prevents falling in pits.
2 Invisibility 2d10 steps 70% chance that monsters don’t see you.
3 Fireball Combat 1d10 damage per level.
Monster can save for half damage if [monster level – level] > 4.
3 Confuse Combat Monster attacks itself.
Never works on dopplegangers. Fails if INT < 3d6.
3 Pass-wall 1 step Move through a wall
3 Hold monster Combat Incapacitates if [CHA + level – monster level] >= 3d6.
Never works on dopplegangers.
3 Fear 3d20 steps 80% chance of something happening during each encounter,
but I have no idea what.
3 Continual light 3d20 steps Same effect as light but longer.
4 Teleport 1 step Randomly teleport somewhere. Kills you if [INT+1] < 3d6.
4 Power word kill Combat Kills if INT > 3d6.
Kills you if 3d6 rolls three sixes.
Dopplegangers have 50% chance to resist.
4 Prismatic wall Combat 70% chance monster goes away.
4 Time stop 1d10 steps No monster encounters.
Disables Excelsior transporter.
4 Wall of fire Combat 30% chance of killing.
30% monster goes away.
40% chance of nothing.
4 Summon demon Combat Performs two rolls of [INT-1] >= 3d6.
Nothing happens if the first one fails.
Kills if both succeed.
You fight a demon in the monster’s place if the first succeeds but the second fails.

And the cleric spells. Some spells are the same as mage spells. For instance, Holy word and Blade barrior are just Power word kill and Prismatic wall renamed.

Level Spell Duration Effect
1 Protection from evil 1d10 steps -10% chance to get hit.
-5% chance to be drained by energy attacks.
1 Light 1d10 steps Reveals things and secret doors on the map.
1 Cure light wounds 1 step Restore 1d6 + 1 HP.
1 Turn undead Combat Undead leave if [WIS + level – monster level -3] >= 3d6.
2 Detect traps 2d10 steps 90% of recognizing trapped treasure.
2 Silence 2d10 steps Get first strike if [15 + level – monster level] > 1d20.
2 Pray 2d10 steps +5% chance to hit.
-10% chance to get hit.
-5% chance to be drained by energy attacks.
2 Hold monster Combat Incapacitates if [CHA + level – monster level] >= 3d6.
Never works on dopplegangers.
3 Cure serious wounds Instant Restore 2d6 + 2 HP.
3 Dispell undead Combat Kills undead if [WIS – 2] >= 3d6.
3 Continual light 3d20 steps Same effect as light but longer.
3 Plague Combat Kills if [WIS-2] >= 3d6.
If successful, 10% chance it kills you too.
4 Holy word Combat Kills if INT > 3d6.
Kills you if 3d6 rolls three sixes.
Dopplegangers have 50% chance to resist.
4 Finger of death Combat Kills if WIS > 1d20.
4 Blade barrior Combat 70% chance monster goes away.
4 Raise dead Instant Does nothing. Really.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Delivered 'n Deified

Download my map of the Telengard dungeon here:

I caved and cheated a bit beyond just backing up my saves. Mapping out the dungeon was just too time consuming and boring. It wouldn’t have been so bad without the teleporters, but once too often I stepped into a new square, saw the ZZAP, had no idea where it had taken me, and snapped with frustration at the prospect of having to yet again wander aimlessly until I found my bearings on an unknown floor.

So I extracted the files, reverse engineered the map format (not that hard), and wrote a tool to output human readable maps.

After that, the actual escape was much easier than expected.

The combat encounter rate was through the roof, but at this point I had Elven Boots +20 and an Elven Cloak +21, both found in dungeon level 20. With these, I could sneak my way past more than half of the encounters, and when that failed, evading worked on the first try more than half of the time. I used my spells to kill enemies on levels 19 and 18, but as my spell points started running low, I resorted to evading as much as possible, only resorting to spells when fighting on the square of a staircase or adjacent to one of those damned teleporters. The ring of regeneration kept my HP full even as I took the occasional hit from failed escapes.

As I got closer to the surface, the enemies were weak enough that I could just fight them, even as a squishy mage.

In spite of a late-game grind, where mapping is essential to surviving the return trip and made very tedious by the invisible quasi-random teleporters, and that the maps are too big relative to the amount of interesting things in them, I enjoyed this game overall. The turn-based gameplay, objective, and finite map made it more satisfying than Telengard, not to mention the lack of speed issues, and the gameplay is the deepest and most complex we’ve seen in an RPG up to this point, despite being written in BASIC for a mainstream minicomputer rather than the PLATO network. Perhaps my main gripe could have been alleviated if light spells and torches revealed adjacent teleporters, and not just as generic points of interest?

What’s more is that this game has a sense of attitude. Granted, it’s a juvenile attitude, with crass insults thrown at you for pressing invalid keys and other dumb attempts at humor, but it’s made more memorable for it than its thematically bland predecessors.

And now, a collection of sophomoric insults:

Do you have a hearing problem?

Try again bird brain

Sluggard! Follow directions

Ignorant pagan!

You do vile and unspeakable things to the altar.
Nothing happens here.
{Hope that made you feel better.}

How dare you insult us, you Dirty Pagen Trash!

Trying to be cute?

You're in solid rock!!!!!!!!
You die of course...

Don't you listen?

Are you dense?

You don't have an orb to drop, stupid!

Good bye cruel world!!


Goodbye life.....ARRRGGG.....,,





Ever try a hearing aid?


Fighters don't have spells stupid!!

A number from 1 to 4 you jester

Not in the middle of a battle dolt!

It backfired,    you die!!!!    (Heh heh heh said the Wumpus)

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Depths 'n Drachmas

I’ve found it profitable to make my dungeon runs go directly to level 20 by means of Excelsior Transporter, if only for a short while. The rewards are the highest there, and the risk fairly low as long as I stuck close to the transporter and retreated when needed.

The gold cost wasn’t really an issue either. I could usually find the 5,250 gold on level 1 on my way to the transporter, and when I couldn't, I'd take it as deep down as I could, explore a bit, and the first pile of silver usually had enough to take me the rest of the way.
The level four spell “Power word kill” can kill nearly anything. It doesn’t seem to care how high the monster’s level is, and it works on undead. Dopplegangers resist it about half the time, but I could usually evade them, and the spell worked every single time that I used it on anyone else. Sleep works quite well as long as an enemy isn’t higher leveled than me, and Phantasmal Forces works just as well on the undead. So my runs involved getting to level 20, wandering around close to the transporter in search of treasure, using Sleep, Phantasmal Forces, or Power word kill on my enemies, and retreating to the transporter when my level four spells ran out. I gained levels and gear pretty fast this way, each level up gradually increasing the amount of time I can stay on level 20.

Eventually I started exploring and mapping out level 20 in search of the orb. Because of the risk of teleporters getting me lost, my strategy was to map toward the lower-left corner, so I could use it as an anchor point. On the inevitable teleport, I’d wander toward the lower-left corner and hopefully find my bearings before I got killed or teleported again.

By chance, I stumbled onto the orb this way. I did get teleported, found myself on an unfamiliar level, and wandered toward the lower-left corner, where there were three dragon’s lairs in a row (with dragons who all fell easily to my magic), and the dragon in the final lair was holding the orb.

My life didn’t last long after that. I was low on spells, had no idea what floor I was on, and the Orb seemed to attract tough monsters with nearly every step.

The Sleep spell was enough to deal with fairly strong monsters at this point. Nevertheless, there were also some real toughies that made me pull out Power word kill. I soon ran out of level four spell points and then encountered a balrog, who tore me to pieces as I fruitlessly tried to fireball him to death.

Still, I had a backup save, and I knew the Orb was in the lower-left corner of a deep level that wasn’t on level 20. So I restored, Excelsior’d to level 19, and explored in the lower-left direction. Along the way I found another throne, and decided to try repeatedly prying the jewels off.

Not bad! But you can’t get gear this way, which seemed more valuable than gold at this point. After character level 10, you need millions to level up. But a better dagger, armor, or elven cloak always provides a tangible benefit to survival.

Also, the throne occasionally spawns a tough dwarven king, who tends to be stingy with loot.

Further south via passwall was the dragons’ lairs and orb, which I snatched again, and returned to the Excelsior Transport for a nasty surprise.

So it looks like I’m not ready to beat the game after all. I’m going to have to map out enough of levels 1-19 to have a path back home using stairs, and be strong enough to survive all the monster attacks along the way. I probably won’t have much more to say until this is done.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Game 35: DND revisited

This entry replaces an earlier one. Short version – my first attempt failed because the map display was mangled and useless. Then I figured out how to fix it. The original post is here.

As mentioned, before, DND-likes are an early sub-genre of CRPGs, which started with dnd (or perhaps pedit5) on the PLATO network, and culminated with Daniel Lawrence’s Telengard’s commercial release in 1982.

Lawrence’s mainframe branch of DND appears to be an important missing link, a predecessor to Telengard, and also to multiple other DND-likes by other authors. Lawrence denied having ever played dnd on PLATO, while dnd’s maintainer Dirk Pellett claims he outright plagiarized it.

The earliest version I can find is a VAX/VMS port of DND, which I downloaded here. Getting it to work was no simple task; I had to emulate a VAX machine with the emulator SIMH, figure out how to install OpenVMS, and then mount the disk images using little but a sparse and partly incorrect readme file and some rusty knowledge of Unix.

And even then, it didn’t work right with Windows’ console window. The ingame display was horribly mangled.

How it looked.

How it SHOULD have looked

Turns out VAX and Windows have different ideas about how line feeds should work. Windows throws in a carriage return for free, but DND is counting on VAX to not do that. Luckily, I discovered a replacement console called Cmder, which works fine.

Loading up, a title screen and main menu.

Character creation and dungeon selection

There are already three things on that screen that differentiate DND from pedit5 and dnd.

First, all six D&D attributes are present, including Charisma.

Second, you can select classes. Dnd and pedit5 both lacked classes, instead granting your character access to both mage and cleric spells, with separate spell points for each school. Here, the cleric casts the cleric spells, and the mage casts the mage spells. The fighter can’t cast spells, but unlike pedit5 and dnd can actually fight decently.

Third, you can select one of three dungeons to explore.

Entering TELENGARD. The map output looks OK!

Checking out the ingame helpfile.

Let’s see what “Utter a pray for escape” does.

Yeah, it’s that kind of game.

Traveling north, I encounter my first monster. Combat options are awfully familiar looking.

Pressing an invalid key produces a likewise awfully familiar message.

Casting a spell

And here’s our first major difference from pedit5 and dnd. Combat is no longer resolved instantly once you take an action, but plays out round by round and lets you take a new action on every turn.

Sleep works much like in pedit5, but sometimes the monster wakes up before you can kill it.

Checking my vital stats

HP half gone, spells depleted, time to head back to the surface. Good thing I’m not far from the exit!

A kobold ambushed me, but I survived even though I’m out of spells. Time to leave.

Like pedit5, gold is converted to XP on a successful run, and accounts for most of it.

Gear is just lying around, but it’s discarded if you are carrying something better.

I quickly found that magicians tend not to fare well in straight melee combat.

My next character found a chest soon, which are much more generous than random piles of silver.

That’s already enough for a level up!

There seems to be a gold->experience rate penalty when your character level is overleveled. At first, each gold was worth an XP. At level 2, I get half my XP in gold. Gold gathered in deeper levels is not penalized in this manner.

That “spells” list shows the four tiers of mage spells, from which I can cast four level 1 spells and one level 2 spell. The level 1 spell sleep is still the most useful spell at this point, but it doesn’t work on undead.

One level up later, I gained access to level 3 spells including “continual light.” I tried it out:

This showed me there was a thing to the north (it turned out to be a kobold, but it could have been treasure too), and a secret door to the east.

Entering the door turned out to be a mistake.

Restarting yet again, I wandered around familiar territory, dealt with enemies with magic, retreated whenever empty, and leveled up mostly through treasure chests, which were still worth it even with the XP penalty. Sleep remained very reliable, and Phantasmal forces worked surprisingly well against the undead.

At this point, I had access to level 3 spells, and I experimented with all 18 spells available. These were my findings.

Level 1
  • Magic missle – Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. 1-6 damage in combat.
  • Charm – Usually incapacitates non-undead monsters. You can try to kill them, but they break the charm about half the time if you try.
  • Shield – Get hit less often. Cast it any time, but it doesn’t last long.
  • Sleep – Seems to be the same as charm, except monsters don’t usually break it.
  • Protection from evil – Seems to be the same as Shield.
  • Light – Reveals things and secret doors on the map, but doesn’t last long.
Level 2
  • Phantasmal forces – Usually kills.
  • Web – Usually incapacitates. I have never seen a monster break the web.
  • Lightning bolt – Better damage than magic missle.
  • Strength – Do more damage when fighting. Doesn’t last long.
  • Levitate – Prevent falling in pits. Lasts a while.
  • Invisibility – Better odds of sneaking past monsters. Lasts a while.
Level 3
  • Fireball – Better damage than lightning bolt.
  • Confuse – Monster damages itself for one round.
  • Pass-wall – Move through a wall. Fails if it would take you out of bounds.
  • Hold monster – Incapacitates about half the time. I have never seen a monster break hold.
  • Fear – No idea, but it’s a lasting effect, and lasts a pretty long time.
  • Continual light – Light, but for a much longer duration.

I did some exploring, and found multiple types of special dungeon features.

Fountains have random effects if you drink from them:
  • Nothing
  • Restore HP
  • Damage HP
  • Gain XP
  • Lose XP
  • Stat increase
  • Stat decrease
The color of the fountain is random, but doesn’t seem to make any difference.

Holy Altars can grant boons if you worship and donate generously, but may invoke divine wrath if you ignore them or donate too little.

Sometimes there’s an option to “Desicrate,” but I don’t know what makes that option available or what it does, exactly.

A jewel-and-rune-covered throne, with a sundry of options, but none of them did anything for me.

Sometimes the game just outputs random messages.

Teleporters will zap you somewhere else in the dungeon, possibly even to another floor, which got me killed me more than once, and compelled me to start making maps. The destination of each teleporter seems to be fixed, but there also doesn’t seem to be any clear pattern to where the teleporters take you.

Pits, which you will sometimes just fall into, and sometimes will have the option to climb down in or walk around. They always lead one dungeon level down, to the same X,Y coordinates as the pit.

Elevators take you up a level, whether you want to or not.

The Excelsior Transporter! Pretty much the smoking gun in debunking Lawrence’s dubious claims that he never played dnd.

One difference from dnd is that every dungeon level’s got an Excelsior Transporter, and it conveniently takes you to ET’s on other floors. In dnd, only the first floor had one, it dropped you off on a random square of your selected floor, and you had to climb your way back up. It’s a good thing you don’t have to do that here, because DND’s dungeon levels are much larger.

A small door with colored lights lets you enter any combination of two buttons, for a possible 16 combinations. I tried all 16 combinations, and all that happened is that I got zapped for a bit of damage each time.

A square in the lower-left corner of the map proved to be “solid rock,” but in practice was a teleporter.

With level 1 mostly mapped out, and more than half an hour of earnest gametime logged for this character, I exited the dungeon, and backed up my save file. This game features permadeath, and although I’m sticking with my rules against savescum abuse, I’m not going to risk losing more than a half hour of progress with this game.

Level 4 spells were available at this point, which I tested.
  • Teleport – Teleport somewhere, seemingly at random. This got me stranded in unfamiliar territory and killed, so it left a sour taste in my mouth even though I had just backed up my save.
  • Power word kill – Kills the enemy. I haven’t seen it fail.
  • Prismatic wall – Sometimes makes the monster get bored and leave, sometimes does nothing.
  • Time stop – No monster encounters for a few steps
  • Wall of fire – Sometimes kills the monster, sometimes makes it get bored and leave, sometimes does nothing. Odds of each event seem equal.
  • Summon demon –Usually the demon kills the monster and then you unsummon it. Sometimes the unsummoning fails, and then you have to fight the demon. Sometimes the demon is taking a bath and nothing happens.

My impressions so far are pretty favorable!  It’s clear that Lawrence had played dnd, but I wouldn’t go as far to call it wholesale plagiarism. Even from just exploring the first floor, combat appears to be a lot more interesting, there are a ton of random events and special encounters that dnd lacks, and the magic system is much better developed with spells that do more things than “do damage” and “kill.” Some specific elements are stolen, for sure. I’m certain it’s no accident that both games have an Excelsior Transporter, or that your quest is to retrieve an orb. But the general dungeon crawling template isn’t something dnd’s authors can claim exclusive ownership of, and DND has quite a few novel ideas in it that hadn’t been seen before in any prior CRPG.

My game plan is to try delving a bit deeper, in search of loot and XP. I’m at character level 5, so perhaps I can survive a trip down to dungeon level 5, which will be easy to reach thanks to the Excelsior Transporter, and easy to return from provided I can avoid the random teleporters. I don’t see much point in trying to map the entire 20x20 dungeon floors, but I will map as I go, mainly so that I have a chance of finding my way back in case of random teleportation.

My mostly complete map of level 1:

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Basic mechanics of Akalabeth

My experience playing Akalabeth left me unsatisfied, so I decided to delve into the source code to try to understand how it works. If anything, this was more fun and more satisfying than playing it.

As an Apple BASIC game, the source code is right on the disk image, and can be extracted with CiderPress.

Monster tables

This was the first thing I looked for. Turns out the “table” looks like this:

1 Skeleton
2 Thief
3 Giant rat
4 Orc
5 Viper
6 Carrion crawler
7 Gremlin
8 Mimic
9 Daemon
10 Balrog

Yeah, that’s it. No stats for HP, AC, damage, or any of the usual stuff I’d expect a monster table to have. This is not a very data-driven game. We’ll get into how those are generated later, but the rule is that the higher the row index, the tougher the monster.

This table is also used by Lord British to hand out quests. Your first quest is selected from this table, and after completing it, your next quest will always be the next monster on the list. In my playthrough, the first quest was a Carrion Crawler, followed by a Gremlin, Mimic, Daemon, and Balrog.

When entering a dungeon level, the game loops through the list of monsters. If (monster index – 2) is smaller than or equal to the dungeon level, then the monster has a 60% chance of spawning somewhere. So, on level 1, you might face skeletons, thieves, and giant rats. On level 8, you could hypothetically face all ten monsters, though in practice this will never happen thanks to the way the RNG works. The game will never spawn two monsters of the same type on the same level.

Player stats & combat

Your difficulty affects the amount of HP the monsters get. That’s it.

A monster’s HP is (2 * monster index) + (2 * dungeon level * difficulty level).

Damage on a successful hit is determined by this formula, rounded up:
RND(Base) + 0.2 * Strength

"RND(Base)" is a function that returns a random decimal value smaller than the weapon's listed damage. For instance, if you attack with your axe that says it does 1-5 damage, the function will be RND(3), and return a value with a minimum of 0 and maximum of 4.9999~. And then the strength bonus is added, which can't be less than 0.6.

This strength bonus applies to thrown axes and bows too, and even amulets' Kill spell.

Shield bashes have base damage of 1. Fists have base damage of 0, meaning that only the strength bonus counts.

Dexterity decides your chance to hit an enemy. The formula is:
4% * (dexterity - monster index - dungeon level)

So let’s say you have 20 dexterity points, and are fighting a thief (index 2) on level 5. That’s a 52% chance of hitting.

Ranged weapons follow this code path too, including the amulet’s kill spell. Ranged weapons follow some additional logic that I don’t fully understand, but it does seem like they hit less often.

This also suggests that if your stamina isn’t high enough, beating the game may be impossible. You have to kill a balrog to win, they have a monster index of 10, and they don’t start appearing until dungeon level 9. What if your dexterity is 19 or less? You have no chance at all of hitting them.

Stamina decides your chance to avoid getting hit by an enemy. The formula is:
4% * (stamina - monster index - dungeon level)

This does not affect the chances of being pickpocketed by thieves and gremlins.

Wisdom is interesting. It determines your starting quest from Lord British. When you first visit, take your wisdom, divide by 3, and round down. That’s the monster index of your first quest. After that point, wisdom does nothing. When I had wisdom of 20, this evaluated to a monster index of 6, so I got sent to kill a carrion crawler.

This actually makes it beneficial to have LOW wisdom. With high wisdom, you’ll just be skipping the early easy quests, and won’t get the stat boost reward for completing them.

Also, if your wisdom is 33 or higher, then you’ll crash the game when getting your first quest, because the monster index of 11 (or higher) doesn’t exist. So, don’t transform into a lizard man until AFTER getting your first quest!

Amulet stuff

When using an amulet as a mage, there’s a 25% chance the amulet gets destroyed.

As a fighter, one of the four spells is chosen randomly, with an equal chance for each spell. But the amulet will never be destroyed.

The Kill spell’s base damage is (10 + dungeon level). It then behaves like a ranged weapon, using the dexterity formula to determine if it hits or not, and the RND(Base) function plus strength bonus for damage if it hits.

The Bad? spell invokes one of three effects chosen randomly. Toad sets all of your stats to 3. Backfire halves your hitpoints. Lizard Man multiplies all of your stats by 2.5, rounded down.

More monster stuff

The gold reward for killing a monster is equal to its monster index plus the dungeon level.

The HP reward is stored in a variable called “LK.” Whenever you kill a monster, LK increases by this:
(monster index * dungeon level)/2

On exiting the dungeon, your HP increases by LK.

Monsters normally pursue you, but will flee instead if their HP drops below (dungeon level * difficulty level). A monster in flight status will attack if they cannot retreat.

Fleeing monsters’ HP will regenerate by (dungeon level + difficulty) on turns when they do not attack. When it rises above (dungeon level * difficulty) they will pursue again.

Mimics do not pursue when they are within 3 spaces of you.


When gremlins and thieves attack, there is a 50% chance that they will steal instead. Stealing is always successful.

Thieves will randomly select one of six item types to steal (food, rapier, axe, shield, bow, amulet). If you have at least one, then you lose one. If you don’t, then the thief will try again until he picks something you do have. If you have no items and less than one food (a very probable occurrence early on), this can actually make the game lock up, as the thief endlessly rummages in your pockets looking for loot that you don’t have!

Gremlin theft cuts your food supply in half, which really sucks, and is the main reason why I believe this game to be impossible to beat on high difficulties without cheesing.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Game 39: Akalabeth: World of Doom

Long story short concerning the chronology – Garriott’s Akalabeth seems to have been made in the summer of 1979, and had its wide release through California Pacific Computing in 1980. Garriott’s claims are consistent with this narrative. The former date is more relevant to my interests, so I’m treating it as a 1979 game.

Like most players, I suspect, my first exposure to Akalabeth was with the DOS port released by Electronic Arts in 1997. I had made it my mission to experience the Ultima saga from start to finish (a mission I have yet to complete as of today, as Ultima IX still remains unplayed). Even then, I cared about chronology, but hadn’t yet adopted my appreciation of playing games in their original forms. I figured DOS games ran fine on my Windows 98 box, and any changes they made had to be enhancements, so why go to the trouble of emulating an old Apple game when the DOS version worked fine and was probably better? The DOS port offered color, music, and saves, all things the original Apple II version lacked.

I remember laughing at my first ignominious death of the game. At the starting shop I loaded up on weapons, a shield, and arrows, and then immediately starved to death as I took a single step outdoors. Seemed you needed to buy some food too, and unlike Ultima I, you didn’t start the game with any rations!

I remember finding that the mage class could utterly dominate and break Akalabeth. One spell has a chance of transforming you into a lizard man, which grants a massive, permanent, and cumulative stats boost, but also can transform you into a useless toad, at which point you may as well restart. The trick was to save before casting, and if it didn’t work, to reload until it did. A few successful lizard man transforms meant you could punch out balrogs.

I remember beating it on its hardest difficulty the same afternoon that I started it, and writing it off as little more than a relic, only of interest because of its place in Ultima history. I felt it offered nothing but very basic dungeon crawling, which Ultima I offered in a nearly identical format as a small part of a bigger and better game.

Since then, I’ve started caring more about the original platform a game appeared on. Sometimes the look and feel isn’t quite the same on a DOS port, sometimes gameplay balance is upset in subtle and not so subtle ways. Case in point, the lizard man spell which trivializes Akalabeth, only does so because of the DOS-exclusive ability to save the game. I’ve never actually played the original 1980 version, so I figured it was time, with my usual rules on save states (saving only permitted after 30 minutes of earnest playtime without loading or restarting).

We begin with an illustrated intro in color. It’s crudely drawn, but also the first time on this blog we’ve seen anything like it.

Interesting that Akalabeth first introduces not only Lord British, but Mondain too. It also raises some questions on the chronology and geography – by the time of Ultima, British rules Sosaria, not Akalabeth, and Mondain has very much not been driven out of it. Are Akalabeth and Sosaria separate places, or is one part of the other? When British drove out Mondain, was that before the Avatar killed him, or are these the same event? If the former, that makes Lord British either over 1,000 years old, or a time traveler like the Avatar. I’m sure I’m just overthinking this, and Garriott was just making everything up from game to game.

Next, some instructions:

Not quite as detailed as the PLATO helpfiles, but that’s a heck of a lot more detail than many contemporary CRPGs with lengthy manuals and nothing ingame whatsoever. In fact, the original release’s manual is just these four screens printed out, plus a map legend:

Starting a new game, we get some options:

The lucky number is actually an RNG seed. The land, dungeon layouts, and starting stats are generated according to the number you enter here. Level of play must be ‘10’ in order to truly finish the game, otherwise Lord British will end the game before you finish all of his quests and challenge you to increase this next time.

These seem like pretty good stats.

And so, I set out to explore the world of Akalabeth. I mapped out the overworld, which will look like this if and only if your lucky number is 1.

Some light farming in a dungeon to the south accumulated about 45 pieces of gold, which the game also sometimes calls “pieces of eight,” and really shouldn’t since the piece of eight was historically a large silver coin worth eight smaller denominations. I spent it all on lots of food and a few sets of weapons, and headed for the castle.

Huzzah, I have been granted a name, and a quest, just not a favorite color!

Sometime in, it became apparent that the fighter is not a viable class at this level of play. For all intents and purposes, fighters can’t use amulets, except perhaps to invoke them over and over again in the hopes that you eventually get a ladder spell in the direction that you want and to pray you don’t get turned into a toad. Fighters can do decent damage at first with rapiers, but it doesn’t take long before monsters with over 100 HP start appearing, and they only go higher the deeper you delve.

You can always farm for HP, and there’s essentially no maximum (there’s no such thing as “healing,” you are simply rewarded with HP when leaving a dungeon based on how much you killed), so outlasting the monsters isn’t necessarily a problem. That said, thieves are extremely annoying because they will randomly steal your gear, possibly leaving you with no weapons except your fists.

But the real problem is these little bastards who live deeper:

These gremlins have a chance, every round, to steal half of your food. And by the time I found my first, he had over 100 HP and I was doing maybe 10 hits per round on a successful strike. If we assume I can hit it three times out of four and do 10 points on average, then it will take 12-15 rounds for me to kill it. That’s a minimum of 12 chances for it to steal half my grub. If we assume 6 successful food steals, and assume I need 20 food units to safely retreat to town, that means I need at least 1280 food units just to beat this guy and not starve. And this is with making some very optimistic assumptions.

Why not just grind for levels? Here’s the thing – Akalabeth hasn’t got any. You can farm for gold, HP, and gear, but those things aren’t permanent character upgrades, and won’t enhance your ability to hit enemies or inflict damage. There are only two ways to increase your stats; by completing quests for Lord British, and through the lizard man spell. The first is problematic because opportunities to do quests are finite, the initial quest to kill a carrion crawler is already taking me through gremlin territory, and subsequent quests can only send me down deeper. The second is problematic for reasons already discussed.

The mage might fare better. He can’t use rapiers or bows, but amulets’ Kill spell can out-damage both, is ranged, and by using ladder spells might just be able to evade gremlins by skipping floors where they appear.

Alas, this approach didn’t last long. Amulets are expensive, and thieves infest nearly every level. On any level deep enough to have worthwhile treasure, thieves would have lots of HP, and trying to avoid them while farming for chests wasn't practical. So I'd engage them in combat, get stolen from again and again, and suffer a net loss; what a single thief would steal from me would cost more to replace than what I'd gain from collecting all the treasure chests in the area.

So, Lizard Man it is. A player in 1980 might not be able to save scum, but one could try right at the start of the game, and restart if they don’t like the outcome. So that’s what I did. For reasons I’ll get into in my next post, you have to do this after accepting Lord British’s first quest. The outcome of the RNG is predetermined when you step into a dungeon, so if the outcome is bad (as it was when I entered the dungeon near Lord British’s castle), go to a different dungeon next time. One dungeon granted a successful roll.

I'm ready to punch a thief in his stupid face.

And the best part? If you leave the dungeon, come back to the same place any time later, and use the amulet again, you turn into a lizard man again, which I found it necessary to do when even my 62 strength wasn’t enough to contend with a gremlin on level 5 before he could spoil all my food.

With 160+ strength and 130+ dexterity it was pretty smooth sailing. No monster could harm me. I did have to kill a gremlin as a quest for Lord British, and I prepared for it by farming gold and buying 2000 food, but it only stole from me twice leaving me with 500 food.

Eventually, Lord British asked me to kill a balrog, which I found roaming on level 10.

Like all other monsters, I killed it without taking a scratch, and then I returned to the surface with my amulet spells, and visited Lord British for the last time.

The game continues, but unless you want to see how deep you can spelunk, there’s nothing else to do at this point.

Playing the original version of this game has not endeared it to me. Instead of beating it easily by abusing spells with savescumming, I tried to beat it honestly, failed, and then beat it easily by abusing spells with RNG manipulation. And I can’t see how you’re supposed to beat the game at level 10 otherwise; even with one successful Lizard Man transformation, which alone took my stats far beyond what they can reach by any other means, I still wasn’t killing gremlins fast enough to save my food.

Maybe it’s my fault for playing at level 10, and maybe it’s more fun at a lower level, but I think the fact that it’s presented as a viable gameplay option means it should have been programmed as one. If there had been some ingame guidance advising me to play it at, say, level 5, I’d have done so. The additional fact that at any lower level, Lord British will challenge you to win again at the next one, indicates that Garriott intended winning at level 10 to be an achievable feat, and unless he also intended it to be beaten through multiple Lizard Man transformations, then he failed.

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