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.

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.

On The Red Obelisk

In 1987, programmers Robert Germino and David Todeshini wrote a weird and obscure Commodore 64 game called The Red Obelisk. It barely made a dent in the market, which is kind of a shame. It’s nearly entirely unique, which is a difficult thing to say of any game 36 years after its publication.

Part of why it’s not remembered much today might be how unique it is. It’s mostly a game about alchemy, but not as much in an Opus Magnum kind of way. You’re given an object, kind of like a gemstone, found in an asteroid belt. You shock it with electricity, zap it with lasers, and shoot sound waves at it. All of this is depicted in an illustrated laboratory, with surprisingly atmospheric graphics and sounds. Doing these things may increase its value. You can sell it at any point to earn energy proportionate to its value, which you need to run your ship and guard against hazards, and points. Your real goal though is to create a Red Obelisk

An earlier work of theirs was Sentinel, of which there’s even less information online.

I played a bit of The Red Obelisk and uploaded a recording to Youtube. I don’t do too well. Here is that video (7 minutes):

Both The Sentinel and The Red Obelisk, and another game I think they made called Phaserdome, were included on a disk called Master Blaster put out by Keypunch Software. Keypunch wasn’t a great organization; there are tales of them taking freeware games, scrubbing them of information by which their creators might be identified, and then selling that on a disk. It was before the widespread adoption of the Internet, the World Wide Web was still three years away, so it was easier to get away with that sort thing than it is now.

Later on The Red Obelisk got picked up for an issue of Loadstar, and the veracity of its editors I vouch for completely. I haven’t yet checked their products for the other games. Sentinel is also on Loadstar. The documentation I retyped below suggests they have another game on Loadstar as well. Both The Red Obelisk and Sentinel are on the Internet Archive, but you can get legal and paid-for copies for $15 of the first 199 issues (Loadstar was amazingly long-lived) via LOADSTAR COMPLEAT, still sold by its long-time Managing Editor, my friend Fender Tucker. The Red Obelisk is on LS64 issue 58.

The game is fully described in its instructions, below, so I’ll just give you some of my own impressions. It’s interesting! It has to have something to it for it to have persisted in my memory for so long. I think the game is implemented in BASIC with some machine code routines to handle the real-time portions. This is a perfectly valid way to implement a game; I did it often myself back then. It’s pretty much the only way to get the smoothly-moving asteroids and slick sound effects the game has.

What I remember the most is the Object Mode, where you zap various objects on your workbench in the hopes of creating a hugely valuable Red Obelisk. Everything you do costs energy, and running out destroys your ship, so efficiency is a must. In order to succeed you must take notes as to how each object behaves. Basic directions are given in the instructions: get the Tolerance below 100 with electricity, and the Temperature above 500 with lasers. Is that all there is to these tools? It has been too long for me to remember, but I do remember finding a string of Red Obelisks at one point, so there must be some process to it. Experiment to see what you can find.

The other thing I remember is the noise that your ship makes when you collect an object. All of the sounds in The Red Obelisk are effective, but that noise found a home in my brain when I played it decades ago, and it has never left. I think it probably never will.

What follows are the instructions to the game as included on Loadstar 58, as written by Fender himself, with section headings and minor formatting added by me.


by Robert Germino and David Todeschini

One of the safest bests of the 21st Century is that treasures will be found in space in the form of small meteors. They may be grey and drab-looking on the outside but inside will be jewels and precious gems, just waiting for the mining engineers to extract them. But it won’t be easy.

If you are a veteran of the universe of STURGRAT (on LOADSTAR #54) you will have an idea of the complexity of 21st Century space mining.


In THE RED OBELISK you are in control of a mining company. You must gather some object from space and by using the powers of your factory, you can ‘sell’ them for the maximum profit. Your goal, as is any capitalist’s, is to garner as many shekels as you can.

Let me describe your ship first. It is a Sturgrat space mining/laboratory and short-range fighting vessel. It operates in three modes, the Object Mode, the Mining Mode and the Attack Mode. You begin in the Object Mode (which is the inside of your laboratory) where you get a readout of all the capabilities of the Sturgrat.

Object Mode

The most important thing to keep your eyes on is the POWR rating in the lower right of the screen. If this gets too low, you will lose your ship, and, as is shown right above the POWR display, you only have two, not counting the one you begin with.

But your power is running down so you can’t tarry too long making decisions. And believe me, there are a lot of them to make.

You begin with an object on the conversion table. Its type is shown on the left. The idea is to process this object and then convert it into SCORE and POWR. You have to get the tolerance down and the temperature up.

These two values are shown on the left, TOLR and TEMP. You hold down the E key (for the electrodes) for a short period of time and notice that when you let up the TOLR has gone down. Get it down below 100. Press L (for the lasers) the same way to get the TEMP above 500. Since your POWR is going down all of the time, it pays to do these two things quickly and efficiently. They MUST be done for each object.

In the bottom left hand corner is the value of the object (VALU). As a true capitalist, you will want this figure as high as possible before you convert it into cash (SCORE).

You can increase the value of the object by bombarding it with Ultrasonics. Press U and then push the joystick forward and listen to the pitch of the sound. Press the firebutton and the VALU will increase by a certain amount. If you want to increase the VALU faster, push forward on the stick, the pitch will increase and so will the amount the VALU increases when you press the firebutton.

You can get too greedy with VALU. If you’ve increased it too high, the object will be destroyed and will disappear from the screen.

A good Sturgrat miner will write down the TYPE of object and try to discern the maximum VALU an object of that type can attain WITHOUT destroying itself at conversion. Write this figure down, too.

If you convert at too low a VALU, you will only get the VALU, but if you convert it at just below the ‘peak’ VALU of an object, it’ll be transformed into the incredibly valuable RED OBELISK, which, in more ways than one, is the name of the game. It’s up to you to determine each object’s ‘peak’ value.

You cannot do much more in the Ultrasonics mode. Press U to toggle out of it (if you are in it) and then you are ready for conversion. You do this by pressing RETURN. You’ll either (a) convert it for the present VALU, (b) create a RED OBELISK (which pays off handsomely) or (c) find yourself looking at a dreaded FALSE OBELISK. If you see one of these, you have to act quickly and destroy it by firing Caps at it (the F key) or by bombarding it with Ultrasonics. If a FALSE OBELISK is left to itself it will destroy your current ship and its cargo.

Mining Mode

Which brings up the question: Where do objects come from?

You have to space-mine them. Press the SPACE bar to go from the Object Mode to the Mining Mode. You’ll see your Sturgrat drifting through a meteor field. Use the joystick to maneuver around the meteors trying to capture the small, shining object that is floating slowly across the screen. The object must be captured DIRECTLY in the Sturgrat’s scoop. Even a small bit off-line will cause your ship damage.

You have a tractor beam which you can enable with the firebutton. It will draw the gleaming object up the screen where the action is less hectic.

As a matter of fact, the top of the screen is a safe place where you can scoop up hydrogen molecules with your tractor beam and slowly boost your POWR if you are running low.

You can gather up to nine objects at a time or you can gather just one and head back to convert it. To go back to the Object Mode, press RETURN.

Attack Mode

You begin your stint as space-miner with 3 ships and 3 Caps, but as your POWR gets higher (above 1500 megajoules) your Sturgrat becomes more attractive to marauding space-hijackers. When you least expect it you will be attacked.

The message says that you have lost the object on the conversion table and that the marauder wants to know if you surrender or not. If you surrender, you won’t lose your ship but you’ll have to continue with what you have. If you answer N to the surrender prompt you go to the Attack Mode.

This is the arcade portion of your mission. Move the joystick so that the cross-hairs are on the middle of the attacking ship and press the firebutton to fire. Keep an eye on your POWR level. If you are in danger of losing your ship you can weaken or destroy the marauder with a Giga-Gem by pressing the G key.

Giga-Gems can destroy any cargo that the attacker may have, so you should use them only as a last resort. When you have bludgeoned the attacker into submission he’ll ask if he can trade his cargo for his life. If you feel in a benevolent mood (or in a greedy one) you’ll probably do better accepting his offer and letting him limp off into space.

If you choose to destroy the enemy, you may be able to salvage some of his Caps. If you let him live you may get CRGO (objects), Krystals or Giga-Gems. Base your decision on what you need most.

The Krystals (KRYS) cam be converted in the Object Mode by pressing K. A Krystal is mainly a bonus score you get for defeating a marauder and being kind enough to let him slither off alive.

That’s about it. It will take a little practice with the controls of your Sturgrat but soon you will be grabbing objects and converting them like crazy hoping to find a level for each TYPE of object that will give you a RED OBELISK. As your POWR rating goes up you will have to fight off space-raiders more. Try to get the highest score so that you can head back to Earth a rich man.

As for the trip back to Earth, that’s another game, but one I’m sure Bobby and David will be creating soon. Sturgrat rules! Long may it run.


**** End of Text ****


Now is the beginning of a fantastic journey!

Aah that’s a screen I haven’t seen in a long long time.

1982 saw the founding of the Apple II computer magazine-on-disk Softdisk. Soon after Softdisk Publishing produced disks for other home computers too. One of them, Big Blue Disk, has gone down in history as previous employer of some of the original principals of id Software, especially John Carmack and John Romero. But another of Softdisk’s legacies was their Commodore 64 product, Loadstar, probably the longest-lived Commodore 64 software publisher. They published C64 software from 1984 to 2007. And most, if not all, of it is available online!

Loadstar is yet another of those computer gaming stories that must be told, and I’m in a pretty good place to tell some of it, because I beta tested for them for many of those years, and sold programs to them as well. Yes, several of their releases bear the programmer name John “The Mad Gamer” Harris. You have to understand, this was long before the word gamer reached common usage. In fact, as someone who may have primacy over the use of the term, I hereby forbid its use by anyone with misogynistic, anti-trans or racist intent. It is so decreed, hey-nonny-nonny!

Loadstar was lots of fun. Every month they’d send you two disks in the mail with several new pieces of Commodore 64 software on it. Under the watchful eyes of Fender Tucker and Jeff Jones, and later on Dave Moorman, it’s not that they grew an empire of Commodore programs, but they did manage to sustain that platform for a small but avid userbase for far longer than you’d have thought possible.

I plan to start doing Loadstar reviews eventually, but in the meantime, you can try out some of the later issues of this important piece of computing history at the site linked below. Note that you’ll have to have a means of running C64 software to use them, of course. The emulator VICE is known to work well. And if you want to hear the words of Fender, Jeff or Dave yourself, all three are on Facebook.

The LOADSTAR Library