21 February 2012

Finally a useful adventure program

Both of these ads appear in Dragon magazine #91, published November 1984. By this time, Dragon was a very polished affair and most of the truly goof ads were banished to the back of the magazine and shrunk to an 1/8 of the page.

Ads like the ones here.

In the fall of 1984, I had a T. I. 99/4a. The keyboard had great action. Too bad I didn't have a tape or disk drive for it. I might have started programming 10 years earlier. Without the Internet (or a modem), without a disk drive, the T.I. in my home was limited to a few expensive game cartridges which I played the heck out of.

Firstly, I am impressed that this ad appears to have been "typeset" on the T.I. That sure looks like a dot-matrix printout with a hand-drawn circle-Register symbol. Next, the feature list of this "software" is pretty laughable even now. Desktop publishing was just starting, particularly with the new Macintosh computers from Apple. Even though this ad looks cheesy and terrible now, at the time it looked modern and sci-fi -- like digital watches, Devo and Ronald Reagan's hair.

So what does this software do? Create "randome" (you know, like randomy, randomish, etc) names? Do you kids even know what computers were like before spell check? All of these features are essentially the same program: create a table of data and pick a random element from it. This is the sort of exercise I give to students when I teach programming. In modern computer languages, this is fairly trivial to execute.

The prelude to picking a random element out of a table is generating a random element. Dice rollers are trivial, just look at the one I wrote in javascript. However, creating a truly random number generator is difficult because computers are pretty deterministic things.

Enough with the comp sci.

Character generation is slightly more complicated (I've written at least two versions of this program in the last 3 years). There are specific "business rules" that apply to each kind of character in each kind of RPG system. It gets more complicated if you are going to select spells and equipment for them. More complexity is added when you allow random levels. You don't want to allow 9th level halflings, right?

So, to recap: this "Medival [sic] Creator" isn't Zork. It's not even a game. And it costs $15? In 1984? You could get dinner at McDonald's and see a movie for $15 in those days.

The next ad is for the Dragonbone, which surely must also be the name of an adult film by now. This device generates random numbers for you, which is just one of the features of the "Medival [sic] Creator." But it is "hardware" and so costs $15. The hardcover AD&D books were selling for $12 at the time (modules for $6). However, I seem to recall "nice" dice being sort of expensive in the day, so maybe this wasn't out of line.

Grognardia covered his thoughts on this dopey device, but unlike him, I always thought it was useless. Rolling dice is fun! It is the primary physical activity of RPGs. Why do you want to get rid of that?

What would have been nice is a program to track time and events during an adventure. Eventually, I would discover that this program is called a "spreadsheet" and, although available in 1984 in the form of Visicalc, was far beyond my price range at the time. And now, thanks to Google, spreadsheets are free.

I can't find it now, but I am sure I have seen an even earlier version of the Dragonbone ad than either this one or the one on Grognardia. When I dig it up, I'll post it.

I just realized another advantage of blogging about ads: no C&D orders.