L’histoire du RPG: Don Daglow – Dungeon (1975)


At this time (mid-seventies), do you remember how you called this kind of game: Role Playing Game or something else?

Don: I don’t remember the terminology we used then because we’ve become so accustomed to the term RPG today, but Dungeon was completely inspired by D&D so I imagine would have adopted the term at the point where TSR adopted it.

Do you remember how and when you heard about (or played to) Dungeons & Dragons the first time?

Don: I majored in Playwriting in college, and so I naturally had a lot of friends who were theatre majors and actors. One of them had a friend who got into D&D very early on, fell in love with the game and then infected the rest of us, after which we all became avid players and in turn recruited our other friends.

Was it obvious that D&D could be adapted as a game for PDP-10?

Don: Once I started playing D&D with friends the idea of making it my next mainframe computer project became fascinating and I started work shortly after the first time we played the paper game.

By 1975 game programming on the university PDP-10 mainframe was my primary hobby – I had graduated from college, was working on my Master’s Degree in Education at Claremont Graduate University and teaching school for a living. I was trying to get my start as a professional writer in the summers, but instead of putting all my spare time into my writing I kept being drawn back to the computer.

Don Daglow-1973

Do you remember how and why you went to create Dungeon? (the guys from dnd created it because pedit5 was unreliable for example) Were you aware of pedit5 or dnd being in « development » at the same time for PLATO?

Don: No, in the DEC PDP-10 world we had no access to nor awareness of PLATO games. Since no one could make money from writing games we just did it for fun, and since there were no games like it it was fun to do something new. I only learned of pedit5 and dnd many years later, but it’s logical that D&D fans on two different kinds of systems would each want to put D&D onto the computer.

When was it “released”? (sources vary from 1975 to 1976)

Don: As best as I remember the first playable version was sometime in 1975, since I was in my first full year of grad school when D&D came into my life, but that first version did not have that big a map and no more than 20 encounters as I remember. I kept expanding and modifying it for several years as the first Monster Manual, DM Guide etc. were published by TSR, but our system required games to play in less than 32K of memory and that meant I spent a lot of time compressing things and pushing all the data out onto lots of different data files. This preoccupation with saving every possible byte turned out to be good preparation for my first professional games programming job, where I had to fit my Intellivision game into a 4K cartridge!

D&D was so popular by this time that when the first big hardcover guides came out (expanding on the earlier, small-format booklets) we had to get onto a waiting list at the game store for each title so we could get one of the copies they were allocated!

Could you explain how it worked? Was it a team based RPG? Could you create your own characters? Then, according to you, was it the first team based RPG ever created?

Don: It was an absolutely faithful recreation of D&D, designed so a single player could control an entire party or people could take turns at the keyboard to input their orders. You rolled your characters, arranged the order in which the party moved, then used keys to travel North, East, South or West on the map. If you encountered a wandering monster or a scripted encounter you then went into melee time and followed all the D&D combat rules.

Under that description it sounds great, but there were three big drawbacks:

  1. Even though we had CRT screens as of 1975, the screen update was painfully slow. A single non-melee move on the map meant waiting 30 seconds or more to see the map update.
  2. I religiously followed all the D&D rules, which meant that once you went into melee time even a simple early-game interaction with wandering orcs (where you kill three of them quickly and the rest run away) could take half an hour to play out as each character took their turn and went through menus to cast the desired spell etc. However much you’d groan when a wandering monster slowed down a regular paper D&D game without adding a lot of interest, it was even more annoying in Dungeon. In later years I dealt with this by starting players at a little higher level so they still had room to grow but had passed the kobolds and stirges phase.
  3. You leveled up as you played, but when paper D&D was new you went through the early levels far more slowly, and getting to 4th level was a big deal. I mimicked this pace of leveling up in Dungeon by matching all the XP requirements exactly to the books. A lot has changed since then!

Many PLATO games had multiplayer functionalities, but it seems that Dungeon was a solo game…

Don: The PDP-10 system was a timesharing computer, but there was no direct sharing or contact between users. All games on the “10” were single-player asynchronous experiences, and you got multi-player by taking turns in the chair at the terminal.

It seems Dungeon was the first CRPG with a line of sight feature? Why did you implement this feature? Did you get some inspirations from other PLATO games or did it come from wargames and their fog of war?

Don: We had just gotten our first one-color CRT screens and no longer had to print everything on paper, which meant drawing primitive maps of what the party could see became practical for the first time. On a “fast” 30 characters per second print terminal a single 40×80 map and legend, drawn with asterisks, underlines etc., would have taken over 2 minutes just to print. On a slow 15-CPS terminal you could see your beard grow as you played a game like this!

The inspiration for the line of sight graphics came directly from the vision rules of D&D, where you had standard vision from a torch or could double that if you had a race that had infravision. Since you’d never go below ground without elves and halflings that meant you always had extended vision unless they were killed in which case you were probably going to lose everyone anyway.

The map showed what the party member with the best vision could see. The line of sight was calculated from the party’s location, first treating all doors as walls even if they were open. As I recall I then did a second pass to calculate what the party could see through any open doors. The granularity was 10 feet per square as I remember, so I didn’t have to do a lot of complex calculations.