Short Story Title: An Accidental Death by a Karate Kick

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Five of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 3, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 3, 2019


As the Spring 1982 semester progressed beyond the halfway point and with midterms at last over, Robert's Dungeon Assistant computer program that ran on a Vic-20 got better and better. I learned Simon had gotten a somewhat similar program working on his TRS-80. While I had by this point played in a few of Robert's D&D games, the stress and time-demands of midterms had prevented me from joining any of Simon's games. Yet, Tom Anderson, Bruce Brown, Josh Cistern, Albert Rose, Darnell William, Gerald Jacobson, Simon's girlfriend Lori, and Robert Knot himself had played in several of Simon's D&D games almost as if midterms were not a concern at all to any of them!

One day, I was working on an Industrial Drawing assignment in my dorm room on what was called engineering paper when Robert Knot stopped by and asked, "Can I have some engineering paper?"

He had come alone, which I found unusual. He'd only ever been at my room before when accompanied by Josh Cistern. I was surprised Robert knew about engineering paper. None of my math and science classes required the special paper, but certain engineering classes did. I did not like having to use it because it was expensive at about five cents a sheet, whereas normal notebook paper was under a penny a sheet. Some of the engineering professors insisted, though. The paper was tannish-yellow in color. The key feature was a quarter-inch grid pattern printed on the back. On the front, it had a few premade lines and sections for name and the like. Although the grid was on the back, it was faintly visible on the front. This made sketching much easier because the grid remained faintly visible so that made it easy to sketch horizontal lines as truly horizontal and vertical as truly vertical. Since computer aided design (CAD) did not exist yet, I had to learn many techniques for manual drawing that I mostly have not used in the past few decades. I had out a T-square, a big board, triangles, triangular-shaped rulers, compass, French curve, and the rest of my drafting set. My sheet of engineering paper was taped with masking tape to my board.

I gave Robert about ten sheets as I asked, "What's it for?"

Robert wasn't in Engineering, but Business.

He replied, "I'm out of hex paper. I have a dungeon map to write up for my game on Friday, so I'll have to make due with grids."

I knew what he meant. A few dungeon masters (DM's) that I had met over the years liked running modules with pre-made maps, but most drew their own. Hex paper meant paper laid out with pre-printed hexagons. Some D&D players preferred it since if one's character could move four spaces, then moving diagonally made more sense. With grids, most DM's didn't count diagonals. It was a little more awkward with squares. However, I did not know anywhere in Cornfield City to buy hex paper. Robert got it at some specialty shop up in Irate City. He had a car so could go up there when he liked, but that kind of drive even for him wasn't worth doing for just some hex paper!

My roommate wasn't around, so he took a seat at my roommate's desk, got out a pencil, and started sketching. I left him to it as I did my own homework.

When I got my homework done, he was still sketching on what seemed the tenth sheet.

I asked, "Want some more sheets?"

He answered, "Sure, please."

I handed another ten sheets over.

As he took them, he said, "Josh has some ideas on how to make a D&D-inspired videogame. We were talking about it when improving our Dungeon Assistant computer program. I was thinking of a text adventure style. You played any of those?"

I replied, "Josh had me try one on his Vic-20. I grew frustrated as it had something like a yellow I.D. card. I was trying to get it. The verb 'GET' was correct, but I had to try a bunch of variants like GET CARD, GET ID, GET GREEN CARD, GET GREEN ID, and so on. I finally picked it up, but don't even recall what I finally typed that work. Like I said, I grew frustrated and gave up."

Robert said, "A limited and specific parser is a problem with text adventure games."

When Robert talked like this with knowing and properly using a word like "parser," he sounded like as strong a computer science student as Darnell William or Albert Rose. Yet, I think the highest grade he got last semester was a C, and that was only in one course. All his other grades were worse last semester. I reflected that Josh was right that if Robert put in even a third the effort into academics as he did to his gaming and programming for gaming, then he'd be a great student.

Robert continued, "Josh said that he was thinking of something more graphics based, using the special symbols that Commodore calls PETSCII. Hey, what were you drawing when I was making my D&D maps?"

I replied, "In Industrial Drawing, I have to make perspective drawing of a block with a hole drilled in it. This is isometric, not really perspective at all. This other one is single-point vanishing perspective, this is double-point, and the last is triple-point."

Robert said with approval, "That triple-point looks almost like a photograph! The double-point is pretty good, but the other two don't look very realistic."

I said, "Initially, I found it really hard to think in three-dimensions when we are given a front, side, and top drawing only."

Robert suggested, "It might be fun to draw an entire D&D dungeon this way."

I responded, "It might, but it took me quite some time just to draw a block with a hole in it with the four methods. I certainly don't have time to that!"

Robert admitted, "Only two sheets that I drew on are what could properly be called a dungeon. The rest are outdoor maps. See, this one is for a swamp with paths through it. We leave the swamp and get to a forest on this other map. I'm finding doing just dungeons in D&D games constraining. It makes the stories seem fake."

I asked, "Stories?"

Robert said, "Josh said that some of these games are so good that they should be typed up as stories."

I pointed at my Royal manual typewriter and said, "I have a five page paper to type for Freshman Composition Two this weekend. Just doing that is a challenge, and unlike most of my fellow students who only hunt-and-peck, I can type about fifty words per minute."

Robert responded, "Josh has a much better way of writing. He does it on his Vic-20 with a program called a word processor."

I asked, "What's a word processor do on a Vic-20?"

Robert explained, "You know how you can cursor around anywhere on the Vic-20 screen, then insert, delete, and edit lines of BASIC?"

I replied, "Sure. That full-screen editing makes coding on Josh's Vic-20 far easier than on Albert's Sinclair ZX-80, which only does line editing."

Robert said, "The word processor is like a full-screen program editor, but for a three-page document just of text. Josh can explain it much better than me, but it's really cool!"

I looked at my Royal typewriter, and remarked, "I want to see that!"

I was too busy that day to go see it, though. Robert left, and I went on with other homework.

The next day, I saw Josh in the engineering building and asked him about the word processor program.

He said, "I wrote a science fiction short story on it. Here, I printed it out. Check this out."

I responded in surprise since I knew he did not own a printer, "You printed it?"

From his backpack, he pulled out green-barred, tractor feed, fourteen-inch wide paper that was commonly used on the PDP mainframe.

He proudly stated, "I got the modem upload function in my terminal program working. I wrote this on my word processor, then saved it as a text file. Then, I uploaded it to the PDP. Finally, I then printed it from the PDP."

The story was about three pages long. There were two male characters who appeared to fighter pilots, but for some sort of space fighter such as from Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica rather than jet fighters. The ending showed they were playing a linked videogame, not really in actual space fighters.

As I finished, he asked, "What do you think?"

I said half-heartedly, "It's okay...I mean...good."

Josh looked crestfallen as this was not high praise, then said, "I'm thinking of sending it in to a science fiction magazine. I hope they accept it."

I asked, "Do you want me to point out spelling errors first?"

Josh said with clear disappointment, "There are spelling errors?"

I pointed, "Right here, you have rec_ie_ve, but it should be receive. i before e except after c."

I found one or two more spelling errors.

After that was done, he asked, "What did you think of the ending?"

What I really thought was it was predictable, but said, "It'd be nice to have connected videogames so two could play at one time just like in this story."

Josh then told me about an idea he had for doing just that, and elaborated, "It could be done through a phone line with modems, but a 300 baud modem like I have is too slow for the kind of fast game I want. Do you know what a null modem cable is?"

I confessed, "No."

Josh said, "If I had two Vic-20's, I could hook a serial cable between them, with that called a null-modem cable. There really isn't any modem at all, it's just called that. It's just a cable, so the communication is faster."

I replied, "That could be fun. How much faster than 300 baud could it go?"

Josh admitted, "I'm still looking into that."

I remarked, "What really interests me is how you typed this up in a word processor. I have a five-page paper to do this weekend. Dr. Buck requires it be typed up, not hand-written."

Josh said, "With my current setup, it would have to be done as two files, but it could be done."

I put in with some regret, "Another student wanted to type his paper up on the PDP and print it on this kind of paper. Dr. Buck said that he wouldn't accept dot-matrix output as being properly typed. If if weren't for that, I'd love to try it. Robert said that you were going to type up D&D games as stories in your word processor."

Josh remarked, "I'd like more memory so I could work on more pages together before tackling that."

That Friday evening, the regular group met in the lounge near Albert and Josh's dorm room to play D&D. Josh's Vic-20 was all set-up. Richard had his maps on the quarter-inch grids on the engineering paper that he had made in my room.

When we were in the outdoor travel parts of the adventure, Robert and Josh had coded random monster encounters to go along with the maps. They had a different set of monsters for when we were in the swamps and for when we were in the forest. For example, alligators as a possibility in the swamp, but wolves as a possibility in the forest. I was so interested that I interrupted the game to see what Robert was doing on the computer. I found my interruption annoyed the others, so I went back to where I had been seated. During my interruption, Josh picked up one of the maps that Robert had put on quarter-inch grid graph paper, and looked very thoughtful.

Later, around two am, as the game was ending, Simon said, "I'm not running my D&D game tomorrow. I'm going to play in Josh's Champions game."

I asked, "What's Champions?"

All the others acted like they knew already, and this was a really stupid question.

Josh said, "It's a science fiction game with cars, guns, airplanes, speedboats, grenades, and stuff like that."

Albert put in, "It's actually designed to be like a comic-book superhero game as you can tell by the name of the game, but Josh runs it more like near-future science fiction."

Simon said, "You should try it, Joel."

I replied, "Not tomorrow. I took tonight off, but I still got to get my five-page typed up paper written by Monday, and I have a lot of other homework besides. This was all I could spare this weekend."

I got my paper typed up that weekend as well as getting the rest of my homework done, but it took pretty much all the time I wasn't eating or sleeping during the rest of the weekend.

In class the next week, Josh mentioned to me, "Instead of Robert's D&D game on Friday, I'm running another Champions game. You should try it."

I replied, "I never played that system before. I don't have a character."

Josh said, "Come by later this week, and I'll help you create one."

When I did come by later, Josh was intently typing away on his Vic-20. Robert was over in the room.

Josh asked Robert, "Can you help set Joel up with a Champions character? I've got some software I want to use for the game, and I found a bug."

Robert took the rulebooks from Josh, then started explaining the game system to me. I found it confusing, very different from D&D. There was a points-rating system where one could gain points for advantages by taking points away as disadvantages. For example, a need to keep a secret identity was considered a disadvantage, so that gave more points to use for advantages. I noted that one disadvantage was to have only non-lethal weapons. One could have a tranquilizer gun, but not a regular gun, for example. I decided to go for that. My weapons were a tranquilizer gun and two tear gas grenades.

On Friday night, Josh's Vic-20 system was set up as usual in the lobby. It was placed just where Robert normally had it. However, also in the room was Albert's large and heavy twenty-diagonal-inch measure color TV. That had to be a pain to move that down here, but there were too many players for the fitting in one dorm room.

I asked, "Why is Albert's TV here?"

Josh mysteriously said, "You'll see when I explain it to the others."

Once everybody was there, Josh explained every player-character needed a letter. I think I ended up with a "K" for my own last name, as both "J" and the first letter of my character's name were already taken by the time it was my turn.

Josh flipped a switch of the sort used to change a TV between a videogame console and an antenna. In this case, Albert's big TV had what looked like a red-and-black checkerboard on it. Certain squares were occupied by letters, like "A" for Albert, "B" for Bruce, and "K" for Kant, as well as one character for each of the other players.

Josh did something on the Vic-20 keyboard, and a bunch of lines representing walls and doors appeared on the checkboard. I guessed correctly what was going on, and now knew why he had looked so curiously at the quarter-inch-grid graph paper Robert had used in his D&D games a week ago.

One problem was this grid was about twenty-one rows by twenty-one columns. The Vic-20 had 22 rows and 23 columns. One row and one column were taken up by letters of the alphabet. This was so one could say something like row d, column k. We would all know just what that meant. The twenty-third row showed numbers. Like the habit that Robert had gotten into when he DM'ed using the other computer program, Josh liked to use a random-number-generator and formula for his "rolling" while having the players still roll physical dice.

The graph paper that Robert Knot had used on engineering paper had been around 40 rows and 32 columns, so 21 by 21 felt more constraining. Still, the computer map did work out well in the game.

Another issue was that Josh still could not afford a disk drive. Thus, he had a whole slew of cassette tapes ready. It wasn't too long to wait to load a different map considered the amount of time the game stayed on each map, but a disk drive with its faster loading and random access to files on the disk would have been wonderful. I knew Josh was saving up for a disk drive just like Albert was saving up to replace his Sinclair ZX-80. For what Josh Cistern owned for computer equipment at this time, I thought the result was incredible, nearly miraculous!

For the scale of the game on the 21 by 21 grid, Josh decided a regular gun could shoot twelve squares. He deemed my tranquilizer gun could shoot five squares, and I could toss my tear gas grenades four.

I discovered most of the player-characters had guns, and all the villains did. The villains almost always stayed further than five squares away from my character. What my character did instead was roam to whatever of the other player's got wounded, and bandage them up.

Seeing what my character was doing, Robert deemed my character as being Doc. I do not even remember what name I had chosen for my character, because from that moment on, all called my character Doc.

Like Doc, Albert's character also had only non-lethal weapons. However, unlike Doc, Albert's character could hide in shadows like the pulp character of the Shadow. That let him sneak up close enough to characters to even do karate kicks on them despite them having guns.

Josh would sometimes flip the switch to Albert's big TV. His own TV as monitor still was active, so he could reposition the villains without the players seeing what he was doing. When ready, Josh flipped the switch so all would be revealed on the big TV.

Albert's character ended up in range to do a successful karate kick on a villain. Albert rolled. Then, Josh had him roll again and again. I was still so unfamiliar with the Champions rule to be confused what was going on, but the others acted like something highly unusual had just happened.

Josh finally explained so that I could understand. To get more advantage points when creating his character, Albert had chosen the maximum compunction against his character ever killing. Josh said that Albert's kick had successfully struck the villain's head, but so hard that the character had a very severe concussion. Not just unconscious, but severely wounded. In the next round, the villain's stats had dropped enough that he had died from just that one kick!

Since other player-characters had guns and were clearly shooting with the intent to kill the villains, it did not seem to me that big a deal that Albert's character had what was intended as a non-lethal kick accidentally be lethal. Robert explained to me that I did not understand how the rules worked for as strong a compunction against killing as Albert had chosen for his character.

Josh ruled that for a set period of time, Albert's character would be ineffectively catatonic for a certain number of rounds due to shock of doing an accidental killing.

I had never seen a rules system or fantasy-role-playing game where a player character accidentally killed a villain. In D&D, the goal almost always seemed to be for player-characters to kill villains and monsters.

Robert commented that when Josh converted this game to a prose story, the twist of Albert's character accidentally killing would work great!

After the game was concluded for the night, others and I had praise for how well Josh's computer-generated maps worked in the game.

In contrast, Simon said, "My TRS-80 had 80 columns and 24 rows. A much denser map could be made on that."

Josh good-naturedly said, "That would be better, as would your floppy disk drives rather than swapping between all these cassette tapes. For now, this is what I can afford."

Simon bragged, "Soon, I'll be able to afford much better than the TRS-80 microcompuer that I currently have."

Robert asked, "Coming into a big inheritance?"

Simon replied, "No, but I mailed off my Dungeon Assistant Program off to TSR, the makers of Dungeons and Dragons! I think they'll love it and pay a lot of money!"

Robert looked dejected as he responded, "That's what I was planning to do with my program!"

Josh gave him a look, so Robert amended it, "I mean doing it with the Dungeon Assistant program by both Josh and me!"

Josh said, "That's not what I'd do with our program, Robert. Even if we were to try it, I wouldn't worry about it too much as our program is very different from Simon's, and built for different hardware."

Perhaps frustrated by how his Champion's character had been so ineffective, Albert dourly noted, "I doubt they'll buy it."

Robert noted, "Albert, you can be a real downer sometimes."

I encouragingly remarked, "If your program works as well as the one by Robert and Josh, it really does speed up gameplay. Maybe they will buy it."

A few days later, Robert Knot and I stopped by Josh and Albert's dorm room. Bruce Brown and Tom Anderson were already there, with all three of them at Josh's Vic-20. Albert was ignoring the three as he studied.

Robert asked Josh, "Have you word processed the story of that Champions game where Albert's character became catatonic?"

Albert stopped pretending to ignore us as he frowned.

Josh said, "Not yet."

Bruce remarked, "Josh has been too busy for that. Check out his maze game."

Tom added, "It's in 3D."

Bruce and Tom backed off so Robert and I could get closer.

The game started with a display of a two-dimension maze. While that map showed, Josh explained the goal was starting from the upper-left corner to get to the bottom-right corner. The display then changed. It looked like we were looking a big square. Josh said that we changed directions with N, S, W, and E keys for the obvious of North, South, West, and East. The space bar would make us move forward.

Robert took the keyboard. He pushed S.

Now I got the idea for the game. The screen looked like a rectangle with a gigantic letter X in it. On what would be the western wall, it no openings appeared. On what would be the eastern wall, there were two openings.

Robert hit the space bar twice. The view changed as if we had walked forward. Robert pushed W. It was as if our unseen character had turned ninety degrees to the left. We could see that this went a short distance to a dead end.

I asked Josh, "What memory expansion do you have in?"

Josh declared, "None."

My jaw dropped as I said in amazement, "You got all this in three and a half kilobytes?"

Josh confirmed that he did. He told me some of the tricks like many statements on a single numbered line, ways to use BASIC tokens to allow typing more than 80 characters on a line, and so forth. The others including Robert but with the exception of Albert who seemed as interested as I was looked utterly bored with the technical details of Josh's accomplishment.

Josh explained, "Most people with Vic-20's don't have any memory expansion."

Robert protested, "I have the three-kilobyte expansion that also includes the Super Expander functions."

Tom countered, "I don't have any memory expansion cartridges yet."

Privately, I thought if Tom had spent his money on a memory expansion cartridge rather than all those cartridge games he owned, he could have maxed out the RAM on the Vic-20 and still had money left over. I held my tongue.

Josh diplomatically said, "Tom is like most Vic-20 owners. So, I wrote this to achieve the largest market. I'd like to sell it."

Albert put in, "I don't know if any of the software companies will actually look at it."

Robert noted, "Albert, you can be a real downer sometimes."

Robert peered closer at the screen, then said, "Hey, Joel. You showed me a bunch of ways you can draw in 3D for your Industrial Drawing class. What's this method?"

I replied, "Single vanishing point with the point in the center of the screen."

Josh seemed slightly miffed that Robert had addressed this question to me, not him as writer of the program.

As if unaware of Josh's disappointed expression, Robert remarked, "Joel, could you make this look less...I don't know...simplistic?"

I remarked, "Normal walls are about eight feet tall. Albert's a little over six feet tall. You, Josh, and I are a couple inches under six feet. So, say eyes at around five and a half feet. So, if the single vanishing point was instead of in the center located about 5.5 divided by 8 up on the screen, then it might look better."

Josh complained, "I can only fit this program in such a small amount of memory by using pre-defined characters. I can't draw high-res lines! I am just using diagonal characters that already exist. I can't do what Joel Kant suggests with this hardware!"

Albert chuckled and said, "Josh, you said, 'I can't to what Joel Kant...Can't and Kant together.'"

Josh just gave his roommate an annoyed look.

I replied, "I'm amazed you got an unexpanded Vic-20 to do this at all!"

That seemed to pacify Josh.

Josh then said while focusing most on Robert's reaction, "What would you think if added a 3D view similar to this to that mapping program that I used in the Champions game this weekend?"

Robert replied, "You told me just doing the 2D mapping filled the largest memory expansion you own."

Josh said, "I learned to write more compact code from doing this 3D maze game. I still might have to buy a larger memory expansion, but I think it could be done."

Robert pondered and then said, "I'd need to see it working in a live-action game to get a proper sense of how it would work in that environment."

As we talked, Bruce was navigating the 3D maze as Tom looked over his shoulder. Yet, Tom had been paying attention because he said, "That's not what you should do for your next program, Josh. You know that game 'Shamus' that I have on cartridge?"

"Sure," Josh said.

Tom said, "You could adapt this 3D maze game so it would look like going through the connected rooms of 'Shamus.'"

"That would be pretty easy," Josh conceded.

Tom declared, "'Shamus' has robots that shoot at you. This 3D game needs robots that shoot at you! Then, it would be like the viewpoint of the detective character in 'Shamus' as he wanders the rooms!"

Josh grinned and said, "That'd be lots of fun!"

Albert said, "It would be too slow to be playable in interpreted BASIC. You'd have to put it in Assembler, or at the very least, find a compiled language that runs on a Vic-20 computer for any hope of playable speed."

Using the exact same sentence as before, Robert noted, "Albert, you can be a real downer sometimes."

Albert shot back, "That doesn't mean I'm wrong!"

A couple weeks later, although I had not yet played a game where I had seen Simon's computer program in action, that was going to change on this Friday night. His TRS-80 system was too big to lug to campus. All the others had been to his place and played in his D&D games, but I had not. I was the worst of the bunch at consistently getting to games, as I kept pleading off as I had various academic obligations. I had several times seen how well Dungeon Assistant Program that Robert and Josh had written and ran on a Vic-20 computer had worked, and was eager to compare that experience to what Simon had for his own Dungeon Assistant Program that ran on his TRS-80. The others had given Simon's program a glowing report.

I was with a big crowd as we had all walked over from campus together. It was was not a long walk, maybe a mile. Josh knocked on the apartment door.

Simon opened the door with his girlfriend Lori standing behind him. Simon looked like his pet dog had just died! Lori's body language made it seem she had just been interrupted trying to cheer him up without success.

Being the closest at the door, Josh asked, "What's wrong?"

Simon said, "Not only isn't TSR buying my Dungeon Assistant Program, they sent me this!"

Simon had a crumpled letter in his hand that he thrust at Josh. Josh took it and started reading.

Robert asked, "What is it?"

Josh answered, "It's a cease-and-desist letter from a law firm employed by TSR."

Tom asked, "What's TSR?"

Albert replied, "They're the company that makes Dungeons and Dragons."

Simon elaborated, "The letter says that they aren't buying my software. Not only that, if I sell it to any other software company or sell it to a type-in magazine, they'll sue me for infringement of intellectual property rights."

As the implications of that sank in to Robert Knot, not only did Simon William look both angry and sad, so did Robert.

Josh tried to lighten the mood by saying, "The D&D system has what I consider plenty of flaws. With the power of a microcomputer, we can create a new and more sophisticated role playing system."

Simon William did not look at but Robert suggested, "I don't like in D&D that there are no permanent injuries. Josh, do you think we could come up with a system where a character might lose an eye in battle or something like that?"

Josh agreed this could be done.

Even normally dour Albert said encouragingly, "A microcomputer can make lots of details for running a game like permanent injuries much easier to keep track of then writing those down on paper and pencil."

Simon had us come in and get seated. He got on with running his D&D game. He used his computer program, and it was pretty good. However, nobody's heart seemed in the game after his disappointing news. All of us seemed to merely be going through the motions. In slow parts of the game, much to the annoyance of Simon, Robert kept enthusiastically giving more and more suggestions to Josh on how they could make a live-action role-playing-game system with what he considered further improvements on D&D. Robert claimed it would easily be different enough to avoid legal trouble.


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