What I’m Working On: Dungeon DX

A few weeks back I mentioned Dungeon, a Commodore 64 CRPG system created by David Caruso II and published in 1990 on the disk magazine Loadstar. We’ve made it available through emulation on itch.io for $5. It’s here, and it’s awesome. It’s not just a way to play CRPG adventures but to make them yourself, and it even contains a random dungeon creation feature.

Dungeon’s map editor

I make it available with some trepidation. Dungeon has a few significant bugs. For example, it supports two disk drives throughout, but if you use its Dungeon Maker then you need to set it for single drive mode, or else you’ll encounter a Disk Error just at the worst possible time: when saving your project. Its randomized “Lost Worlds” often create dungeons that strand your character in impossible situations, and while there is a way out of them, it involves loading the Guild menu 15 times.

But I’ve played a lot of these random dungeons, and I think overall David Caruso II made a clever little game system, and I think his ideas are worth building upon. That’s why I’m working on a remake/update of Dungeon, that I’m calling Dungeon DX.

I’m making it in Python using the Pygame library. I’ve tried making a game with Pygame before and had some problems with it (I may bring myself to talk about that experience someday), but using it now I’m pleased to see Pygame 2 has become a lot more performant, and that’s even before trying to compile it into a faster form. I’ve built for Dungeon DX a kind of bespoke terminal emulator, but one with support for loads of cool graphics effects. I’ve made dungeon art and monster images for it using the website Fontstruct, which gives the images a low-tech, but distinctive look.

A collection of monsters, in font form, still being worked on. They’re reminiscent of the monster silhouettes from early editions of Call of Cthulhu!

I’ve been working very hard on it, to the extent that I can feel myself getting my hopes up that a substantial number of people may actually play and enjoy it. Most of the times in the past that I’ve done that I’ve had those hopes get crushed, but hey, maybe the nth+1 time’s the charm?

Besides not having all of its bugs, why do I think this project is worth working on? These are the things I find appealing about the original Dungeon, the reasons that I played so much of it myself, things that I don’t generally see in CRPGs these days:

  • It’s not a game but a game system. It isn’t a single huge campaign that you play and finish, and it isn’t a single story. Your characters can keep going so long as there are adventures to be had.
  • In structure it isn’t like a novel, but it’s more like a series of short stories. Each dungeon is a single screen, that fills out as your character explores it. That may sound a bit like a classic roguelike, and there are some elements of that, but the feel is subtly different. Each single-screen dungeon usually has more adventure packed into it than in a single roguelike dungeon level.
  • It’s like a collection of short stories, but that stars your character as they progress through it. The focus is more on the development of that character as they continue their adventuring career. Like how the Conan the Barbarian novellas are each an episode in the life of a single adventurer.
  • It features what’s known in some circles as slow character growth. D&D has rapid growth, and it’s gotten even faster as the system has changed through the years. 5th Edition characters advance to second level absurdly quickly, after earning only 300 XP, and that advancement practically doubles their power! 0th-level Dungeon characters (it starts counting at 0) have a lot more durability, but it takes them more time to advance to Level 1, and when they gain it their power only increases a little. In this, a lot more of a Dungeon character’s life is decided at character creation. But it also means, as they increase in power, you know it’s due to your own efforts.
  • It’s more simulationist that CRPGs have become as of late. A lot of CRPGs have crept towards gamishness, which generally is okay, I mean they are games after all. But I think RPGs work the best when you can imagine them as being the adventures of real people, so as their power has crept up, and their abilities have gotten more abstract and arbitrary, they have come to feel more and more like playing pieces than living people.
  • While there’s a random dungeon maker, you can also make your own adventures for it, and give them to other people! That’s potentially a very great thing. It reminds me of EAMON, an 80s CRPG game system that people could create their own adventures for. (There are still websites devoted to EAMON! It’s a rabbit hole worth exploring, but that’s something more suited for its own post.)
  • And finally, it’s hard. Characters die frequently. You can revive them up to three times, and if you don’t mind reloading the guild menu 15 times you can turn the game off to preserve their life, but defeat is frequent without very careful play. You often have to play like a scavenger: take what easy-to-find rewards and successes you can, build your power over time, seek out easy adventures, and don’t take unnecessary risks. Dungeon characters are not heroes, not at first anyway, and if they’re ever to become heroes you’ll have to watch their steps.
The current appearance of the new Dungeon Maker module

Because these are the aspects of Dungeon that I like, they’re the elements that I’m focusing on in making Dungeon DX. My plans aren’t to make it quite as hard, but to still emphasize that these people are not demigods, not yet. A character’s career may be the story of the creation of a demigod, like how Conan, through countless trials, eventually became king of a great nation. It’s kind of a lie that people who rise to greatness frequently do so because of their own efforts, but it’s a pleasing lie, and it makes for a fun saga if you don’t take it too seriously.

My other plans for Dungeon DX, which may change, for while progress has been rapid (because Python is awesome), I’m still iterating over lots of things:

  • A retro look, kind of akin to how Dungeon looks on a C64, but still with enhancements. It doesn’t use pixel art, instead using vector graphics created in Fontstruct.
  • Dungeon was all one-on-one fights. Dungeon DX should have parties of three characters, fighting enemy groups that can be larger than that.
  • Dungeon doesn’t let characters keep items between adventures. For the most part, characters only advance through gaining experience. DX should let characters have a persistent inventory.
  • Dungeon doesn’t have any money system at all! DX should both have money and a shop where basic necessities and equipment can be obtained.
  • Dungeon doesn’t simulate much of the basis of exploration. My ideas for DX let characters rest in the dungeon, for example, but they must consume food to do so.
  • Dungeon has very little graphical splendor. Dungeons themselves are just blocks of green, with black tunnels dug through it, and once in a while a graphic character. That has to change.
  • Dungeon’s encounter model isn’t scriptable at all, which limits what can be done. It’s a lot more flexible than you might think it would be, given the C64’s memory limitations, but the edges of what’s possible are still easily reached. I want to change that.
  • Dungeon’s magic system is very interesting for its own sake, a collection of 16 spells that are more useful outside of battle than in it. Only one of those spells that does direct damage to enemies! Magic is much more of general utility. While my design has more damage-doing magic than that, I want to keep that feeling that magic is not primarily for harming monsters.
  • Dungeon doesn’t let characters learn spells themselves: all magic comes from items that contain it, and depletes with use. There’s interesting things about that system, but it kind of means that high-Intelligence characters aren’t very viable if the dungeon constructor doesn’t give them any magic to use early on.

C64 Dungeon Play and Lost World Demonstration

Another personal project post! I have done more work in making David Caruso II’s obscure Commodore 64 CRPG Dungeon, published in the issues of the disk magazine LOADSTAR more than once, presentable to current-day audiences. Although it certainly has its limits, there are some aspect to it that are unique, even forward-thinking. We posted about Dungeon here before. To remind everyone, we sell Dungeon on my (rodneylives’) itch.io page for $5, with the blessing of rights-holder and LOADSTAR owner Fender Tucker.

There are a few bugs in Dungeon, now basically impossible to fix, that I’m trying to track down and document, and I’m also working on improving the documentation, as well as provide some useful goodies with the system, like a disk of monsters, equipment and magic items. That’s useful because Dungeon has a special feature where it’ll take the monsters and items on a “Data Disk,” and scatter them around a dungeon map of its own creation. It calls these randomized adventures “Lost Worlds.”

Lost Worlds operate as a kind of quasi-roguelike. The Dungeon software creates a random map and places random items around it, but once created it becomes a Dungeon adventure that any created character can explore as many times as they like. While it doesn’t have roguelike tactical combat gameplay or random item identification, it does have a form of permadeath. Characters only get three lives to advance their level as far as they can go.

Lost Worlds are interesting places to explore, but there are some bugs in them. It is possible, in fact pretty easy, to get stuck in a part of the dungeon from which one can’t escape. Sometimes a one-way door leads into an area that can’t be escaped, and sometimes a passage-blocking trap will strand the player’s character in a dead-end. And once in a while a Lost World is downright unfinishable, its goal item disconnected from the parts of the dungeon the player can even reach.

While there are spells (Passwall and Teleport) that can release a trapped character, if they aren’t available the character is not completely lost. If you turn off the C64 (or close the emulator), then return to the Guild screen, the character will be marked as GONE. Over time, measured in loads of the Guild menu, the character will eventually find their way back on their own. It takes quite a while for this to happen though: I counted 15 loads, saving the game each time, before a GONE character returned.

This video (23 minutes) is is something I recorded myself as a demonstration of both Dungeon’s gameplay, and its Lost World adventure generation. It uses a set of 30 low-level monsters and items based on the stats of the old Basic edition of D&D, and a set of magic items I created for usefulness and to show off Dungeon’s spell set.

So, why would someone want to play this game, when there’s so many other newer CRPGs out there to play?

  • The idea of rolling up a character and taking them through scenarios made by other people, to try to get their level up as high as they can get before they die three times, is great. My hope, perhaps misplaced, is this release will inspire other people to make dungeons for others to play, and I look forward to seeing them myself.
  • The magic system of Dungeon, while it doesn’t allow for characters to learn spells themselves, is unique in that most of the spells are utility spells! There are spells for passing through walls, for teleporting anywhere on the map, for revealing terrain, for seeing in darkness, for giving oneself a damage shield, for locating the goal item, for disarming traps, and more. There is only one direct damage attack spell! Spells are more like tools than something you use to pound through the enemies.
  • The dungeon model allows for dark areas, traps that block exits, two-way and one-way teleporters, secret doors, one-way doors, and decorating dungeon maps with PETSCII graphics. The simplicity of the dungeons, all of them fitting on one screen, works in Dungeon’s favor. No dungeon can be too large since they must all fit within the bounds of the map grid.

There are unique design considerations for making Lost Worlds too. Even though the computer creates the maps unaided, since it populates them from the monsters, items and traps that are on the Data Disk, the difficulty of the resulting dungeon is affected. The various doodads are distributed without apparent heed for what they are; I wonder if the generator actually cares for their identities or if it just checks how many of each type are on the disk, so as not to exceed that number.

If there are more easy monsters, more powerful items, and more weak traps on the disk then the dungeon will be easier due to their corresponding numbers being greater, and vice versa. It occurs to me that one of the flaws in the dungeon generation I mentioned could be alleviated, by not giving it one of the wall creating traps that could trap a player in a dead-end, but that also makes the dungeon a bit less interesting, so I’ve left it in the mix I use.

I recognize that, if I let myself, this might become a Dungeon blog. Rest assured, I’m not going to take it that far. But I really hope that some people give Dungeon a chance. While sure it has its inspirations (one person on Mastodon said it reminds them of Phantasie, a somewhat less obscure early CRPG), I think it’s pretty unique, and deserves for more people to have a look at it. I’m particularly pleased how well the sample monsters and items I made work in the Lost World framework, and I’m trying to think of ways that it might be improved. More on this later… but, not immediately, I think.

A 30+ Year Old RPG System for the Commodore 64

It’s been months now since I announced my plans to release some project involving LOADSTAR, a 17-year computer magazine on disk, either here or on itch.io, or both. I’m still working on them.

In the meantime, I present this, a packaged-up release of Dungeon on itch.io, a complete old-school RPG gaming system for the Commdore 64, as it was released on the disk magazine LOADSTAR back in 1990.

Written by David Caruso II, Dungeon is a way of creating adventures for others to play, and a system of creating, maintaining and playing characters in those adventures. It was kind of a throwback even in 1990 (the SNES was released that year), but it definitely has charm, and an old-school kind of appeal.

You start out on the Guild screen, where you create a character from one of five fantasy races, then venture out on adventures stored on floppy disks, which in this release are provided as C64 1541 disk images. Fight monsters to earn experience points, find the object of the quest and then return to the Guild by the exit to have the chance to advance in experience level. If your character dies they’ll be revived, but only up to two times! If something happens and you don’t make it back, but don’t die either, your character will be marked as “GONE,” meaning they’re stuck in limbo until they make it back to the Guild on their own!

Your character advances in level between adventures, but they don’t get to keep any items they found on their journey. If they advance in level however, they get to permanently improve two of their stats. Getting to the maximum score of 25 grants them a special ability, but it’s really hard to get there!

This presentation of Dungeon is being made with the permission of Fender Tucker, owner and former Managing Editor of LOADSTAR. It isn’t free, but for $5 you get the Dungeon system and five pre-made adventures for it, culled from the 240+ issues of LOADSTAR. I include a stock copy of the open-source Commodore 64 emulator VICE, configured for playing Dungeon. (If $5 is too much for you, rumor has it Loadstar issues can be found online elsewhere. Dungeon was first published on issue #74.)

If you want to know more about it, I have constructed this 40-page PDF of documentation on Dungeon, from the disks of LOADSTAR in 1990, along with the instructions for the adventures and further notes on playing it from me. Here:

(file size: 2.6 MB)

The document refers to an itch.io release, that’s what I’m currently working on. Late in the document there are some spoilers for a particularly difficult adventure using the system.

Dungeon was created by someone named David Caruso II. Neither I nor long-time LOADSTAR managing editor Fender Tucker knows what became of him. I have what is almost certainly an old address for him. It’s been 33 years, and I suspect that Dungeon itself is a couple of years older than that, so it’s possible that Caruso has passed away by now. If he hasn’t, though, I’d like to talk with him. I think (hope?) he’d appreciate that people are still thinking about his creation even now.

Another Retro Blog: Retro365

If blogging is ever going to come back from its loss to social media, it’s going to have to be from going more social itself. By that I mean links between blogs, making it easier to surface sites to others. Not only directly, but by helping to raise each other’s Google rank, although I think time has shown that Google is a fickle friend to people producing material for the Web, any site prominence you gain can easily be wiped away the next time they change their algorithm. Bigsites naturally get traffic just from being established, and other sites try to become big by gaming their placement with hyper artificial SEO techniques. Meanwhile us littlesites have to succeed largely by being interesting and direct views, as well as what traffic we can gather through followers through RSS, social media, Patreon and other sources. And there’s no reason not to help each other out. We’re not in competition between us. Any cross link, wherever, strengthens us all.

Here’s one from me. Retro365 has a vast collection of gaming media from the earlier days of home computing, and has been going for about three years now. They’ve got lots of demonstrated software on their Youtube channel. If you have an interest in learning about, or just seeing this stuff, they’ve got plenty for you.

Here’s a few choice items from their channel. There’s the classic CGA DOS game Paratrooper (the player doesn’t last long, only a minute):

Dungeon! for Apple II, published by TSR themselves in 1982 (32 minutes):

Oil’s Well for the Atari 400 and 800, a variant of the arcade game Anteater (8 minutes):

And a complete playthrough of comedy adventure game classic Sam & Max Hit the Road for PC (an hour and 47 minutes):

Retro365 blog, and on Youtube.