In reacquainting myself with my 1989 RPG Questor 2: Terror of Vonrak, I was surprised to discover, for the first time during the course of writing this memoir, that my remembered or imagined assessment of a game I wrote decades ago (25 years in this case) did not gel with my experience of playing it today. I expected to find the game too cheesy with fantasy cliches, too simple and too repetitive. Instead I found myself addicted to it and having a lot of fun for the several hours it took to complete from scratch. I still have some of my design notes for this game and you can view photos of them in the notes section at the bottom of this page.
This story begins with the unusual fact that there is no Questor 1. I think I called Questor 2 what I called it out of my desire to bottle some of the excitement I was taking from the steadily incrementing episode numbers on the commercial fantasy RPGs I was playing at the time. There were several Bard’s Tales at this point, several Ultimas and several Phantasies, and I always seemed to start out playing later episodes of these series. The first Ultima that I tried was number three, Exodus, though I fiddled around a lot with Ultima IV, too. Ultima IV fascinated me, as I had copied it, possessed no manual or clue book for it and really didn’t understand it at all. Ultima V was the one called Warriors of Destiny, but Ultima IV’s destiny, as far as I was concerned, was to remain eternally mysterious. The only game in the Phantasie series I have played to this day is Phantasie III, and it made an enormous impression on me with its ludicrously amputation-heavy combat. Combatants would constantly shoot (with bows or crossbows) or hack off each other's limbs, or just eliminate even more fundamental pieces of the body, like the torso. The following non-exagerated combat message is typical of Phantasie III: "Cloud Giant does 32 damage to Helen’s torso, removing it — she dies."
My game title "Questor 2" obviously looks a lot like the title "Questron 2", the latter being the name of an actual RPG which existed for various 8-bit computers at the time, including the Apple II, though it was not one I'd played. Thus I can't remember if the similar name was a deliberate steal by me or just a coincidence, but I do know exactly where I got the word Questor from. I took it from the following software catalogue:
Click the cover to download the 8 page PDF (6.9 MB)
This glossy eight-page foldout has no date on it but I'm sure it must hail from 1988 or 1989. Questor was the name of the local software distribution company.
My own Questor 2: Terror of Vonrak is a single-character fantasy RPG with a small world map and eight dungeons. Each dungeon has six unique monsters and an aesthetic that mostly comes from its monster roster, as the ASCII text graphics are unvarying. Undead creatures like ghouls and wights can be found in the deserted monastery while an earlier dungeon has a semi-submerged theme and is infested with piranhas, sea snakes and the like. A major inspiration for me to write this game was the fact that another book I had acquired from Usborne's fine line of programming tomes for kids, Write Your Own Fantasy Games for your Microcomputer, came with a thrilling-looking sample game and dungeon editor that ran on basically every 8-bit computer under the sun — except the Apple II. The omission was deliberate, as the Apple II was also about the only 8-bit computer under the sun whose built-in text characters could not easily be reprogrammed to look like something else, a key technique used by the game in the book to produce the dungeon graphics. So this particular Usborne game was denied to me, at least without me translating the listing given in the book into Applesoft BASIC on the fly, a task beyond my capabilities.
However, reverse engineering what I imagined the game was supposed to be like, or at least some aspects of it, was not entirely beyond my capabilities. The way I stored Questor 2's dungeons as text files generated by my own dungeon making program was the main thing I got from the Usborne book. But while each dungeon in the Usborne game fit entirely on one screen, I blew my presentation up so that each space in the dungeon became a whole screen. The adventurer appears as a letter O who walks to the centre of each ASCII room and then waits for the player's next North, South, East or West keypress. The enormous size of each empty-looking chamber gives proceedings a sense of scale, but is definitely too samey and boring a manner of presentation in light of the amount of time players have to spend looking at it. If the game is played at the speed of an original Apple II (1 Mhz), the animation of the adventurer walking in and out of each room is tedious today. Fortunately, bumping your emulator speed up to anywhere between 8Mhz and As Fast As Possible, or running the game on accelerated hardware, eliminates all the time you'd otherwise spend waiting on unnecessary walking animations, hard-programmed pauses and the quite considerable amounts of time Questor 2 spends reading and writing from the floppy disk.
Questor 2 follows a classic fantasy RPG trajectory. Your ultimate goal is to become powerful enough to confront and defeat bad guy Vonrak in combat. Starting as a weak level one character armed with the cheapest equipment you can buy from the armoury, you need to explore dungeons and kill monsters to acquire both XP for levelling up and booty you can use to buy better equipment and pay the healer. A sage and a council offer advice and send you on fetch quests, including reassembling the broken Fire Bowl which will let you burn down the oak blocking access to the second half of the world map. There are twelve kinds of treasure to find, ranging from a gold nugget to a chest of gems, and while it is fun to see them listed in your inventory after a dungeon crawl, you're more likely to get into the habit of immediately cashing your haul at the treasure exchange each time you return to base.
It looks like I got the ideas for my character creation module, which I called The Gates of Creation, from the character creation phase of the Temple of Apshai games. My character stats are exactly the same as Temple of Apshai’s (EGO and INTUITION give it away) and the option to immediately commit suicide if you're dissatisfied with your stat rolls is also from Apshai. In reexamining the combat programming of Questor 2 I discovered that the significance of your initial stats is extremely low. Each above-average (13+) stat you possess adds one to your roll in battle, while each below average (8-) stat subtracts one. So having an 18 for a stat is no better than having 13 for that stat and having a 3 for a stat is no worse than having an 8. Your character's level and armaments are the main things that influence your success in combat.
There are a handful of magic objects to find throughout the game; certainly not enough, given its length, but four out of five of these objects are helpful. The fifth one, the wand, was poorly judged by my teenage self. Using it inflicts 8 points of damage on a bad guy, a pathetic amount compared to the 15-25 a player will probably be inflicting per blow by the time they get the wand. I must have written down what powers the objects would have at the game design stage, programmed them in pretty early and then forgotten to revisit the wand in light of my experience of playing the game. In fact, writing about this has triggered a memory that my friend John, who played through Questor 2 from start to finish back in the day, complained about the wand.
Questor 2's world map is depicted using very simple Hi-Res graphics which remind me a bit of those in Akalabeth, Lord British’s forerunner to the first Ultima. That I ever broke out the Hi-Res screen during the game dictated the program design for the whole project. At this point in my programming career, I had become aware that Applesoft BASIC programs were limited to about 5-7 kB in size if Hi-Res graphics were used at the same time, lest the two entities collide in memory and begin to destroy each other (see my chapter on my game Illuminate for details). However, I had yet to learn of any sophisticated solutions to the problem. My way of dealing with it at this point was to break up my large programs into smaller pieces of no greater than 5 kB each, loading each of these from disk as needed and passing shared variables between the pieces by temporarily writing them to disk. The symptoms of these methods were inconvenience for myself and a generally slower procession through the game for players due to the frequent interruptions for disk access.
Thus Questor 2 has a program which displays the fanfarey titles and lets you restart or resume a game, a program to handle all the functions of the Adventurers Central base camp, two programs for the world map, a program for the dungeon sequences, a program for the Wise Council, a program for if you die and a program for if you win. Each dungeon has its data contained in a text file, a destructible copy of which is made when you start a new game. The positions and stats of every creature and item are set in stone for each dungeon, and as you defeat the bad guys and collect their treasures, they are permanently removed from the writable copy of the file for that dungeon in your game. Since the contents of Questor 2 are finite, it's impossible to grind or overly empower your character in any real sense.
In playing through the game anew, I was heartened to discover that it is balanced well enough in xp income rates, monetary income rates, dungeon toughnesses and expense curves to sustain play over the duration for people who like a lot of simple die-rolled combat. It is also an earnest game with no humour in sight, something I'd expected might bother me today, but which in retrospect is probably a rarity amongst the output of fourteen-year-old boys. The game is not heavy or portentous, just straightforward. Considering the number of big-vision games I started over the years but did not complete, I now view Questor 2 as a solid accomplishment. It’s the only large-scale fantasy RPG I pulled off, even if it's a bit simple for its genre given the year it was made.
I used E-Z Draw 3.3 to produce the game’s title screen and death screen, saving each of these images as an uncompressed 34-sector binary dump of the entire video memory. I produced monophonic music to play over both these screens using the tone generation routines from Beagle Bros Apple Mechanic. My rendition of Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King loops endlessly over the title screen while an original dirge plays once over the death screen. The in-game world map graphics are drawn on the fly using HPLOT statements from BASIC, and the male and female adventurer images displayed at The Gates of Creation are shapes I made using Apple Mechanic’s shape editor. The image below is a composite (i.e. not a single verbatim screenshot) showing both the male and female graphics:
Questor 2 is too big, too slow-loading and involves too much reading of text screens to make for a very good demo video. If you intend to play the game seriously with an eye to completing it, I would recommend that you download the disk image and play offline on a sped-up emulator, or play on accelerated hardware. These methods will prove more convenient and flexible.
Below are photographs and most of my original pen and paper design notes for this game.
questor_2_terror_of_vonrak.zip (Contains questor_2_terror_of_vonrak.dsk)