At this point in my life, I started looking at the computer from its tool perspective rather than its game-creation angle. For one thing, I was doing a lot of DMing for my StarWars universe (hosting at least two games a week at VPI).
Here, the computer came in very handy. First off, back then there was very little home word processing – for college papers, I’d hand-write them and then take them to a secretary pool to get them typed up. For games, all the tables that people needed turned into over-Xeroxed messes covered with hit-point notes and pizza stains. Suddenly, with the word processing cartridge in my Atari, I could actually type in these charts and print out a bunch for my players! Revolutionary!
Also, more importantly, I wrote a program to handle a lot of the heavy table-trashing that combat took up. Now, when resolving roleplaying combat, I could run down a form (while off-handedly describing the action) and tell people what they needed to roll to hit (call it legacy, but the players still wanted to roll their own dice to hit – having the computer do it nearly raised a revolt!). And, in tuning the gameplay, I actually remembering writing a program to shoot 10,000 stormtroopers 10,000 times to get the percentages of deaths, knockouts and still-standings. It took the Atari about a minute to clump through the run.
There were other play aids developed. Besides the Role Playing game Top Secret, I also coding it the laborious combat tables for Maatac, the futuristic tank-to-tank miniature game. Now, instead of looking up every weapon system, one at a time, for each tank’s barrage, the player would just call out “Two heavies, range twenty one, armor C” to the person manning the keyboard. Somehow, using a computer to resolve a simulated computer’s combat efforts seemed more nature than our early attempts to fully automate StarWars. Nobody protested.
It was truly a labor-saving device.
Now this one I do remember. Following the dismal ???? of Seth (discussed in last week’s blog) I approached my next game more methodically. I wanted to do a full rewrite of the Pits engine. No more of the round-robin combat – now you’d actually have locations to worry about. I think we also put minor magic into the game, so there were wizards and archery, too. Now everything was done on a grid, with ranges and blocking squares and all that.
The Estates were outside of town, a ruin of a mansion with walls around it, fallen- down, roofless rooms inside and a level of vaults below. You could actually walk wherever you wanted, even leaving the party (those slugs!) and go wherever you pleased. And wandering monsters actually wandered, occasionally leaving their lairs to bump around the halls for a bit before returning. Oh, there was even an “outside” town-to-estates-and-back game, automatically linking the first Pits game to the second. And, oh, the things we could do with fonts. I even had the writing in an olde-englishe font.
It was an okay game – we played it on and off for a bit. I think most of us were transitioning in our lives – I was leaving home to go to Tech and my brother and his friends were budding out of the larval stage and becoming something resembling pre-formed humans. It was a good game, probably better designed and written than the other two, but for some reason just not as much fun as the original. And that’s the thing about game design. You might think that you’ve made great strides over your former games but when it’s all said and done, it’s just, well, meh.
Over fifty-five years of living, there are (frankly) people I have forgotten. I am certain there are friends (girlfriends and otherwise) who I no longer recall. I’ve lived in a lot of places and knew a lot of people, so there it is.
But it’s incredible for me to think that I made a game that I don’t remember. Vaguely, I remember coding something in after Pits, to take advantage of the new speeds (and space limitations) of DOS (Disk Operating System on the Atari). And the use of the font-modification software we’d gotten from a magazine. And there were other things I wanted to add, better ways of playing. But I don’t remember what they were.
I think, in a misty way, that this game was actually the “journey from the town to the Pit” game, where you had to cast around a random land looking for the dungeon entrance. I think I wrote that to fill out more of the Seth universe. Players would leave the city, travel across the land, and then when they got to the site they could enter (and get a full listing of the party so they could retype them in when they started Pits. Sounds like a kludgy way of doing it, but we were men back then). I’ve actually rewritten this paragraph as more random memories come to me from so far away.
So I spent three months or so writing a game that we hardly ever used. I think the whole “play one game just to play another” turned out to be a drag, especially when you got there and got slagged in the first room, and had to exit the game and then retype everything in for the journey home.
So there you go. Like cities in fallen empires, this game has been forgotten by everyone, including the designer.
Dungeon Crawls are a really stable design. The “story” idea is that some vast castle was somehow swept away, leaving its dungeons behind. All manner of monsters and creatures live in the down-below, hording gold and gems and trying to eat anyone who ventures down. So it’s a perfect setup – a very restrained environment (doors and walls and passageways) and the opportunity for characters to make the game more difficult (and rewarding) by leveling up (i.e. stair-ing down).
Most of the dungeon games available back then (the few there were) were preprogrammed once-throughs. I hated that. Why would I want to master a game I could only go through once? With that, I came up with a fairly clever idea of random dungeon generation (well, they looked like they had been hewn by drunken dwarven miners but it WAS random) – squares would either be intersections, east-west corridors, north-south corridors or rooms. The area the player was in would be drawn based on their square and the squares around them (i.e. if you were in a passageway and there was a room nearby, a door would be drawn). It was topdown and pretty simple, but fun all the same.
For combat, I coded in Melee (by Steve Jackson games). It was a pretty basic game that gave you abilities and weapons and armor, and was a lot of fun to play.
Six players were permitted to participate (they had to stay in a group). There was no auto-mapping – someone had to draw things out on graph paper as we went along (and there was no more chilling statement from your mapper than “…wait. That can’t be right.”). Overall, it was a really fun game, one that we played from time to time at the Edain, and later it became a staple of Virginia Tech Friday nights.
Outside of Eagles, this game probably got played the most. We hacked and slashed for years with it.