Saturday, October 26, 2013

Eamon - First Impressions

Eamon: First Impression: A very early CRPG/text adventure hybrid system that's highly customizable if you're okay with doing some programming

Except for this title screen, it's an all-text game.  This is as exciting as the screenshots are going to get in this post.
So to begin our foray through game creation programs of the past, we'll take a look at Eamon. Inspired, like so many other computer games, largely by Dungeons & Dragons, Eamon is a text-based computer role-playing game in which the player can take characters through various scenarios. The character can accumulate gold and weapons and armor and keep them between scenarios; adjustments to attributes also can carry between scenarios, though they're much rarer. The interface in Eamon resembles a (somewhat primitive) text adventure; the player can type in commands like "NORTH" and "GET DIAMONDS" and "ATTACK GORILLA". What makes Eamon a suitable subject for this blog, of course, is the fact that utilities were provided for users to create their own scenarios they could then share and distribute, and that other players could send their characters through. This makes Eamon the earliest game creation system I could find... apparently.
"ATTACK GORILLA" wasn't just a random example phrase.

Actually, I'm not entirely sure just how early Eamon is. Wikipedia pegs its release date as 1980, but other sources place it earlier. A timeline on the Eamon wiki places its release in late 1979. According to an article by the Digital Antiquarian, John Nelson, a person instrumental in Eamon's development, even stated once that it was already out there and playable in 1978, though based on other evidence the Antiquarian ultimately concludes that Nelson had misremembered. As far as the chronology of the game creation systems I've found, which of these dates is correct doesn't really matter, though the Digital Antiquarian's arguments are persuasive enough that I'm leaning strongly toward the late 1979 date seeming most credible. Even 1980, the latest of these years, would place it previous to any other system on my list; the next earliest system I was able to find, the similarly themed Dungeon Definition Language, didn't apparently come out till 1981 (so I guess that's the one we'll be looking at next, if I can find some extant implementation of it, which seems dubious... its successor the Adventure Definition Language is readily available, but wasn't released till 1987*). And of course any of those years would place it surprisingly early in the history of computer role-playing or adventure games. Hackers had been creating role-playing games on mainframes since the mid-seventies, but Akalabeth: World of Doom and Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai, the first two role-playing games for the desktop computer, were both released in 1979 (maybe; as Matt Barton mentions in his History of Computer Role-Playing Games, the labels of the first known copies seem to indicate that, Lord British's reminiscences notwithstanding, Akalabeth may not have actually seen release until 1980). It isn't Akalabeth or Apshai that Eamon most resembles among contemporary games, however; it's Zork.
Okay, here I got really lucky.

In case there's anyone unfamiliar with this classic game, Zork was the first commercial product released by Infocom, a company that established itself as the final word in text adventure games, before falling first to bad business decisions that bankrupted the company and at last to mishandling by Activision, the larger company that had bought it out. Actually, Zork was a trilogy of games, based on a mainframe game sometimes also called Zork but more commonly called Dungeon, but the game that most concerns us here is the first of the trilogy, Zork I, and references to "Zork" in this paragraph should be taken to refer to that game. (Apparently I'm just feeling too lazy to continue typing a single-digit Roman numeral, or something.) Zork is, of course, generally, and rightly, considered a text adventure rather than a CRPG. However, unlike its predecessor Adventure, a.k.a. Colossal Cave, and unlike any later Infocom game until some of the anomalous fruits of the company's Activision-directed twilight years, Zork did have some light role-playing elements. There were two enemies the player had to fight, and, moreover, the character's statistics did influence those fights, in a very rudimentary way. The higher the player's score, the better he was at combat, such that fighting the "lean and hungry gentleman" early in the game was nigh suicidal, but if fought near the end of the game when the player had a higher score he was a pushover. (The other fight, the troll, occurred early enough in the game that the player's score couldn't have been very high yet and didn't make much difference.) Eamon's parser was, of course, nowhere near as good as Zork's, or even as Adventure's, but the combination of combat and text entry is similar enough that I'd be surprised if it didn't take some inspiration from it—or if not from Zork itself, then from Dungeon, the mainframe game of which Zork was an adaptation of the first third. If the 1979 release date for Eamon is correct, that would put it before Zork, but not before Dungeon.
And here I got really unlucky.

In contrast to many systems that came long after it, Eamon is still (more or less) under development today, and still has a thriving fan community. Eamon-related resources on the web include a blog, a Google group, a wiki (still relatively new and under construction), and a website called the Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online with lots of related information and downloads. The fact that Eamon has been under such continuous development touches on a question that came up in my initial post about chronology: which version do I use? The earliest version? The latest? Or do I split the difference and play some version in between? Well, I've given some thought to the matter, and here's what I've decided on: For most systems, I'm just going to go ahead and use the latest version. For systems that have been under development for a very long time and/or are particularly seminal or important to the history of the genre, though, I'll look at every version separately, or at least every version I can find with significant differences from the previous. Eamon, from what I've read about it, certainly seems to qualify on both fronts. So for now, I'll be trying out the oldest version I can get my hands on... but we'll be seeing Eamon again in this blog as we get to the later versions.

The oldest version I could find of the Eamon Dungeon Design Diskette is Version 5... which I suppose implies there are at least four older versions. From what little I can dig up, though, it seems like the essential differences aren't great between these early versions, and in any case the earlier ones may have been lost. (According to the currently rather stubby article about the Dungeon Design Diskette on the Eamon wiki, "early versions of the DDD were unstandardized", and "[t]he first fully standardized version was version 4"... though I'm not totally sure what's meant here by "standardized". Were there several mutually incompatible versions of the DDD floating around in versions 1 to 3?) The first big leap forward, as far as I can infer, occurred with Version 7, which doubled the number of possible monsters, rooms, and "artifacts" (items), tripled the number of types of artifact, and implemented doors and darkness as standard features. (Somewhere around version 6 the diagonal compass directions were added, but that's probably not a significant enough change to be worth a separate look.) So we'll be be taking a look at Version 7 separately... when we get to 1993. For now, Version 5 it is, and that'll have to stand in for Versions 1-6.
I said it was all text; I didn't say they couldn't change the font.

Looking into Eamon was a nostalgic experience for me. Not because of Eamon itself—I first heard of Eamon only a few weeks ago. But Eamon was originally written on the Apple II, in Applesoft Basic. (There were PC ports starting in 1985, culminating (so far) in Eamon Deluxe in 1997... but again, we'll get to those later.) And Applesoft Basic was the first programming language I learned. When I was growing up my family had an Apple II+ computer, and I spent many hours writing my own games on it. They weren't very good games, and truth be told most of them weren't very original games; their core code was copied from listings in computer magazines and books, with some changes and additions. But those were the first computer games I ever made. I don't know exactly where those games are now; the disks the games are on are probably somewhere in my parents' attic, though even if I could find them I have no way of getting the programs off those disks and into a disk image I can read now, and anyway by now the disks may well have become demagnetized. That still doesn't mean those early games are completely lost, though; I'm pretty sure I have hardcopy printouts of the program listings somewhere in my files...

As I said, I first heard of Eamon a few weeks ago, and on looking into it and discovering just how long it had been around and how continuous a community it's had I was kind of surprised I hadn't heard of it sooner... if not in my early childhood when I was still programming on an Apple II+ then later when I tried to take an in-depth look at the history of text adventures (I refuse to call them "interactive fiction"). But in retrospect, maybe it's not so surprising. I may have had access to an Apple II+ at the time Eamon first came out, but what I didn't have was any online presence... not that the internet was then what it is now, of course, then in the age of the 1200-baud modem, but there were bulletin board systems, and that's presumably where Eamon was discussed and promulgated, and that's not something I'd gotten into. And as for finding out about it later in my investigation into text adventures, well, although Eamon games are arguably as much text adventures as they are CRPGs, they've apparently been more or less ignored by the text adventure community... there was an article on just that subject on the Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online site. In any case, if I had known about (and had access to) Eamon back in the day when I was programming my own games on the Apple II+, I definitely would have created a few adventures for it. They might not have been very good adventures, but that's another matter.

Anyway, enough preamble. On to the analysis of the system itself. If you want to play along at home, here's one way you can get a hold of the necessary files yourself: From the aforementioned Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online site, follow the "Play Eamon" link, and then find the link to the download page. (Or just... follow the link at the end of the previous sentence, I guess.) Download the "Entire Eamon CD"; this is a huge collection of Eamon-related materials compiled by Thomas Zuchowski, another notable member of the Eamon community. Unzip the file into whatever directory you want. In the unzipped directory, go to the directory "AppleWin"; this contains an Apple II emulator that can run the Apple II disk images. There are a lot of other goodies included in that zip file, too, but the easiest disk images to use are elsewhere: there is a disk image in the "CD" of the Main Hall disk, but it isn't bootable. You can use it if you want to mess with a boot disk, but if you'd rather use a self-booting disk image, download the "" file from the same download page, and unzip it wherever you choose. The disk image you can start your Eamon adventures with is "D3_001.DSK"; this contains the Main Hall where you can create a new character, as well as the "Beginners Cave" introductory adventure. Using AppleWin, click on the Drive 1 image, navigate to the appropriate directory, and select the appropriate disk image, and then click on the apple icon (second button down in the toolbar) to get started. You should be able to figure things out from there, especially with the help of the player's manual available either in-game or online.

My character, just starting out.  There is a story behind the name "Ratava"... which I won't be telling.  (Actually, it's not really much of a story.)

The CRPG Addict has already posted his take on Eamon, but I wanted to check it out for myself from a player's perspective before creating my own adventure. So I went ahead and created and outfitted a character. In addition to various weapon, armor, and spell abilities (which can increase with use), an Eamon character has three statistics: Hardiness, Agility, and Charisma. I ended up with a character with high Agility and Charisma, but low Hardiness... which might be dangerous, since Hardiness determines how much damage a character can take (as well as how much he can carry), but I went with it anyway. The high charisma, at least, helped in outfitting the character; the higher a character's charisma, the better deals he gets at the shops. I was a little put off at first by how much the spells cost; the documentation seemed to imply that a PC was expected to have access to all four spells, but, with the possible exception of the unpredictable spell POWER, they seemed to cost far more than I'd be likely to afford any time soon. My apprehension proved unfounded; after I'd put him through the Beginners Cave my character had enough money to buy all but one of the spells, and was close to being able to afford the fourth. (Incidentally, in addition to being affected by Charisma, the cost of spells seems to vary slightly on an apparently random basis. If you cancel buying a spell and then try again, you may get different prices. The same is true of weapons and armor, though in those cases there seems to be no way to cancel out of a purchase aside from rebooting... or, I suppose, not having enough money for it.
His fees may, however, be entirely different tomorrow.

(Speaking of weapons, by the way, I found it a bit odd that "complexity" was a measure of a weapon's quality... the higher a weapon's "complexity", the higher the chance to hit with it. The manual even mentions "the quality of the weapon (also called the complexity)"... so why not just call it "quality" in the first place? Wouldn't that have made more sense?)

After having completed the Beginners Cave, not only had he amassed thousands of gold pieces, but my character's skill with a spear had increased by 8% (which made it somewhat unfortunate that the superior new weapon he had picked up in the adventure was a sword), and his armor expertise was up by the same amount (though he still had the same lousy Hardiness... as mentioned before, I gather opportunities to improve the three core statistics are few and far between). He still probably wasn't in any shape to tackle a really hard adventure, but I decided to run him through a few more relatively easy ones (as judged by their rating on the master list and their reviews).
As later events were to prove, not actually that mighty.
I died on the second adventure I tried, though partly due to bad luck; having two fumbles in the same fight (in one of which my weapon broke and hurt me) certainly didn't help, and neither did having my brain overload and forgetting the HEAL spell. When I retried the adventure my weapon broke and hurt me again, and I died even faster. Despite befriending the first NPC I came across, I died fairly quickly on the third adventure I tried, too. Granted, my character's low Hardiness no doubt wasn't helping matters, but still there seems to be rather a dearth of adventures suitable for starting characters straight out of the Beginners Cave... or at least, if they're out there, I hadn't found them yet. I'd kind of inferred this might be the case from some of the documentation; most of the reviews seem to assume an "average adventurer" with significantly better skills and weapons than a starting character would possess, and the master disk (at least the version now available) includes cheat utilities for editing characters and resurrecting dead ones. Still, I thought if I chose judiciously, I could maybe find one survivable by a beginning character, but so far no luck. Anyway, I'd intended to spend more time trying out adventures, but I still haven't had a lot of free time lately, and I want to get this post up before a full week has elapsed since the last one... I do still plan to play a bit more over the next week (and hopefully manage to find an adventure aside from the Beginners Cave that I can survive), but I think I've seen enough to have a good idea of Eamon's capabilities.
Hey, Marcos, my spear keeps breaking.  Can I get a refund?

Incidentally, the player's manual mentions the compass directions, UP and DOWN, and the INVENTORY, READ, ATTACK, and READY commands (the last designates the weapon the character will next attack with), but says that "other commands are either self-explanatory or they are designed to make you experiment". Typing in an unrecognized command, however, brings up a full list of commands the game does recognize, and for the benefit of future players, here are some other standard commands that seem to be more or less universal in early Eamon games:
  • DROP, of course, drops an item you're carrying
  • ENTER has the character try to go into some object or aperture
  • EXAMINE takes a close look at an item or monster
  • FLEE, ESCAPE, or RETREAT makes your character try to run away from a battle
  • LOOK not only redescribes a location, but may find hidden exits
  • OPEN... opens things. (Okay, so maybe some of these commands are self-explanatory.)
  • SAY has your character speak a word (perhaps a password, in some adventures)
  • SMILE or WAVE can show whether a monster encountered is friendly (though in a rather direct way: if they attack, they're not friendly)
  • BLAST, HEAL, POWER, or SPEED casts the corresponding spell (if your character knows it)
Alphonso, if I ever try this adventure again after I'm a little more powerful, I hope we can still be friends...

Also, hitting Return (i.e. Enter) on a blank line repeats the previous command. Individual games may implement other commands as well (or remove some standard commands, especially the spells). Later versions may introduce more commands, but, again, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Combat in Eamon is, to be honest, not particularly interesting. In almost all cases, there's little strategy involved, and little you can do except ATTACK until you or your adversary is dead (or FLEE if the former possibility seems predominant). The behavior of monsters and NPCs in the game is a bit unusual; on meeting the PC, a monster may be either friendly or hostile, the chances of hostility depending on the PC's Charisma and on the monster's "friendliness" (some monsters, like the rats in the Beginners Cave, are always hostile regardless of the PC's Charisma). A hostile monster will, naturally, attack the PC, but a friendly monster will follow the PC around and fight on his side. There is no in-between; a monster is either for you or against you. Either they want you dead, or they'll risk their own lives to protect you. (This is all the more puzzling considering that according to the designers' manual, a value of "2" for the monster's reaction indicates its attitude is "Neutral"... but as far as I can see there's no way for a monster's attitude to ever be set to that value.)

But that's enough about playing the games. Let's get to what this blog is really about: how is it to create new scenarios? Well, as I've already mentioned, there's a program called the Dungeon Designer Diskette that's intended to do just that. As it turns out, though, all the Dungeon Designer Diskette really does, aside from making a copy of the game's main code, is allow you to edit the rooms' connections and the names and descriptions of things and their basic statistics. All behavior and commands are hard-coded in. This may seem to contradict my reference above to new commands in some adventures, but there's a perfectly simple explanation for that: these new commands were implemented by the adventure creator's editing the program code. This doesn't seem to have been considered a hack, either; judging by the designers' manual and the existing games, it seems to have been expected that Eamon adventure creators would edit the source code. That's just the way it was done. There's even a data type editable with the Dungeon Designer Diskette, "Effects", that's nothing but text strings that are never used in any way by the program as it initially stands and can only be displayed by adding code to the main program that accesses them.

This reliance on editing the source code may call into question the classification of Eamon as a game creation system. Sure, it has some utilities for making text resource files, but significant changes in the program's behavior require changes to the source code, and I'm not sure there's a single released game that was created without some changes or additions to the default source code. Still, even if it does require the game creator to edit the source code, it's still a system that was created with the intent of allowing users to create their own adventures, and it's arguable that requiring users to edit the source code isn't all that different from requiring them to use external graphics editing programs to create images. I'll say it qualifies.

On the plus side, of course, this means that potentially everything is customizable. Don't like the default rules for monster behavior, and want to add in some neutral monsters that won't fight for or against the player? Easily done. In fact, I think I'm going to do just that in the adventure I make. Want to give the creatures special attacks and/or vulnerabilities, so a fight consists of more than just the player character and the monster monotonously hacking at each other until one goes down? That's a little trickier, but still doable... in fact, I'm going to do that in my adventure too. Want to make an adventure that you can send more than one adventurer into at once, and that in fact requires the coöperation of two adventurers to succeed? Well... that one would require a lot heavier modification of the source code, I think, but it could still be done. That one I'm not going to do for my adventure, though... though I admit I very briefly considered it. (Maybe when I get to a future version of Eamon...) Some of the existing Eamon adventures have even included graphics.
Okay, you do get one more screenshot with graphics after all.
So, yeah, it looks like creating an Eamon adventure is going to involve some actual programming. But heck, if I was programming in Applesoft Basic as a preteen, I should be able to do it again...


  1. Jalen, this was a very interesting post. Please keep commenting on my blog from a programmer's perspective; you consider lots of things that never occur to me.

    The biggest takeaway I got from this post is that the character's score affected the ease of combat in Zork. I had absolutely no idea. I still wouldn't consider it much of an RPG, but it's nice to know that victory involves more than just luck.

    1. (Belated) thanks for the comment!

      Now I feel a little bad, though, that I haven't commented on your blog in a while... I've had a lot to deal with lately, but I'll catch up...

  2. Glad you discovered Eamon! I've enjoyed being the webmaster of the website for many years, so I appreciate that you find it useful.

    I'd highly recommend ignoring the earlier versions of the dungeon design system and going straight to version 7. They run essentially the same, but version 7 has incorporated things such as readable objects, drinkable objects, doors, containers, etc. They exist in earlier versions, but they generally have to be programmed in by the designer. By using the latest version, you can save yourself a lot of time by not having to reinvent the specific code.

    1. (Belated) thanks for the comment!

      I was sort of tempted to ignore the earlier versions as you suggest, but if I'm going to do a chronological trawl through game creation systems, I figured I ought to start with the earliest version I could get. I will be dealing with the later versions down the line, though... which means I guess I'll eventually be writing multiple Eamon adventures...