DROD is, at every turn, a hard sell. Mind, this is not for lack of ingenious, deceptively simple design, of boundless character and charm, nor of literal hundreds of hours of play across its main story. No, it has all of those in spades; rather, it is as World’s Greatest Salesman Danforth Strout freely admits:
Gushing about DROD to any coherent effect is worse than trying to get someone into your favourite obscure band, or, in other terms, it’s as tortuously difficult as the game itself. How, then, shall we do this legacy, spanning across 28 years at time of writing, justice? Where, oh where, dear reader, shall we start? Per the wisdom of Maria von Trapp, why, where else than the very beginning?
DROD is the creation of Erik Hermansen, who, in 1991, lacking any computer, began to formulate its rules with a chess set and paper cutouts. In 1992, following advice from his first “beta tester” (the term presumably used tongue-in-cheek) that it should be made into a computer game, he worked up the money to actually purchase a computer, beginning work on the first digital iteration of his concept. After an encouraging comment that it was “almost as fun as WordPerfect”, the game, then known as Swordplay and employing ASCII art tiles, found its way onto BBSes in 1993.
Beginning as a total rewrite in 1995, the next incarnation secured a 1997 commercial release at the hands of Webfoot Technologies, who would later be known for such titles as Hello Kitty: Happy Party Pals for the Game Boy Advance. Known now simply as DROD, lacking any suffix or subtitle, it burst onto the scene to the thunderous applause of one hand clapping, selling like gently-used hotcakes. Nowadays referred to as “Webfoot DROD”, it eventually disappeared altogether from Webfoot’s site “sometime between ’98 and ’00”. No hard feelings; Webfoot simply had to focus on what made money. Nonetheless, the core mechanics and story were established by this point.
Interlude: The Absolute Basics
Beethro Budkin, smitemaster extraordinaire, exterminates dungeons for a living, with only his trusty companion, his cherished tool of the trade, his Really Big Sword. Rooms are 38 by 32 square tiles, of which Beethro occupies one, and his sword a second in front of him. On any given turn, he can move one tile over in any of eight directions, rotate his sword 45 degrees, or simply stand where he is and wait. The moment his sword enters a tile a monster occupies, said monster explodes in a shower of bloody confetti, as though its dying wish were to celebrate another successful kill for Beethro. Following his move, the environment responds in a purely deterministic fashion according to each game element’s unique rules; monsters creep to him, run away, and so on.
It’s entirely turn-based, paced at the player’s discretion. Note, however, that a turn goes by seamlessly with the press of one key; none of the clunky mousing or waiting that the term “turn-based” evokes in the mind’s eye. Beethro moves, and the environment and monsters all seem to respond at once. While each turn counts, anything mindless, like moving through an empty room, or slaughtering some basic configuration of roaches, is entirely fluid, as you can just hold down movement keys to repeat, or spam back and forth, which even gets its own hotkey.
A Yet Humbler Rebirth
Flash to the year 2000; in a move that forever cemented them as Pretty Cool, Webfoot Technologies granted Erik the rights to an open-source release. By 2002, he managed to put out what would come to be retroactively known as “Caravel DROD”, named for Erik’s own studio, Caravel Software. It was essentially unchanged, save for music by Erik himself rather than the MIDI synthpop tunes with which Lars Kristian Aasbrenn graced the Webfoot release. From the nucleus of a cult following during the Webfoot days, Caravel DROD nurtured a proper community into flourishing around the game.
Unsurprisingly, a newfound community focus led to 2003’s Architect’s Edition, and with the eponymous level editor in place for players to design their own campaigns, known as holds, the rest is, so to speak, history. AE is considered the gold standard of classic DROD, as it’s the edition one can still download for free and get a full official campaign of levels, not to mention a source archive with all assets and levels intact. The community finally got its home on the Web in 2004 with the launch of caravelgames.com,
Rise of the Phoenix
Growing a community gave Caravel a captive audience. From the safety borne of this, the second commercial release, Journey To Rooted Hold, emerged in 2005, featuring real character dialogue and voicing, completely overhauled graphics, more music from Erik, and an all-new instalment of Beethro’s story to tell with these new tools. Accompanying JtRH was King Dugan’s Dungeon, a remake of Beethro’s original story.
2007 brought The City Beneath, with new room styles, brooding atmospheric synth music from Jon Sonnenberg of Travelogue, and, most importantly, a swath of new game elements to wrack the brains of players everywhere, paired with another chapter of Beethro’s story to uncover.
In 2012 came Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, again with more music, level themes, and game elements; this time, however, the campaign is significantly easier. GatEB is a prequel, taking place before the events of any game thus far, and Caravel tout it as a good introductory piece to warm you up before you tackle Beethro’s story. I don’t disagree.
Rounding out 2014 The Second Sky was unleashed. Returning us to the saga of Beethro for an “epic conclusion”, this is where things truly went off the rails. Sure, in The City Beneath, you might play a level entirely as an unarmed citizen psychically controlling a Fegundo, a phoenix-like bird that explodes on impact and repeatedly rises from its ashes to do your fiery bidding, but in The Second Sky, Beethro himself is expected to put down his Really Big Sword and take up daggers, clubs, pickaxes, and staves. Time-travel puzzles involve temporal clones of Beethro tackling a room in a routine of Synchronised Smiting.
The Truly Special Bits, Part 1
DROD is hard, full stop. “Nintendo Hard” has nothing on DROD. Take monsters and architectural constructs that are thoroughly simple in isolation, then put enough of them together to fill 38 by 32 tiles, and you get the distilled essence of a puzzle. It’s nothing but you and your wits against the architect’s twisted machinations. The first few levels of Journey to Rooted Hold or King Dugan’s Dungeon may deceive you into thinking it’s a breeze, but make no mistake: you will get stuck. You will grab fistfuls of your hair in frustration. The City Beneath onward are thoroughly unapologetic in their difficulty; a level will acquaint you with some new element, then throw brain-bender after brain-bender at you. I credit playing TCB at the young age of 10 with developing my problem-solving skills in real life. Thankfully, the Hints and Solutions board on the official forum has a thread on just about every room in the official holds, for when you find yourself ready to tap out.
This series of articles was slated for an earlier date, but here we are this week, which means that, by complete coincidence, we get to call back to yesterday’s article. Quoting Bennett Foddy, “Feel free to go away and come back. I’ll be here.” Difficulty notwithstanding, you can leave at any time, and come right back. Your game is saved at literally every step you make, not to mention that the sound automatically shuts off when you tab away, leaving your boss none the wiser. The spirit of the DROD experience is perhaps exemplified in the following passage from Ideas For Architects:
DROD is here to strain your mind right up to breaking point, but never to reach it. You are always entitled to all the rest you need. Stuck halfway through a room? Feel free to quit out and do something else. Perhaps you’ll conquer it with a clearer mind after you do the dishes, or type up that quarterly report, or distract yourself with one of countless user-made holds. Maybe the solution will come to you in a dream that night – I’m not ashamed to admit that DROD has had such long stints of rent-free occupancy in my mind that this has happened to me. Or, perhaps, you’ll be so thoroughly done with the game that you set it down for months or even years before coming back. DROD will wait patiently for you, then welcome you back with open arms to take on its challenge.
We’ve gone over the history of the series and the spirit of the gameplay proper. If you haven’t closed your browser tab yet, feel free to let me know that I’ve done the impossible and managed to talk about DROD without being asked politely but firmly to leave the premises.
Finally, join me for Part 2 on Thursday, wherein, having given the requisite background, I discuss the meaning DROD imparts upon the gameplay, by way of the wit of its story and characters.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.