Not too long ago, Age of Conan made headlines with a rumor that turned heads across the internet – not only would it contain nudity, it would actually allow players to have sex. Players would be able to screw each other’s brains out in-game and get a temporary stat-boost for their … er … pleasure. When the game actually shipped, however, the sex turned out to be nothing more than a casual reference. Female player characters could still go topless, but actual coitus wasn’t in the code.
Age of Conan stopped at bared breasts. But imagine, if you will, an MMORPG with the audacity to go “all the way.”
Garwulf the Skald has had a busy day. He woke up after a night of wild lovemaking with a beautiful woman. Then he slaughtered a bunch of evil and strange forest creatures. Later, just for good measure, he bribed the innkeeper and snuck into the room of another warrior, slaughtering him for the experience points. Then he seduced one of the female player characters and got her pregnant. Finally, after a long day of slaughtering and fornicating, he paid the innkeeper for a room of his own, confident in the knowledge that even though he could fall victim to a player killer, he might be able to take revenge on his attacker in the morning.
The scenario is from a real game, called Legend of the Red Dragon. It’s been around since 1989, and between its streamlined gameplay and adult sensibilities, it should have been one of the most important games ever produced. But, in the history of computer games, it’s little more than a footnote.
Around 1990, if you wanted to go online and interact with other people, you went to a bulletin board system (BBS). One of the things you could do on these BBSs was play multiplayer “door games.”
Legend of the Red Dragon (LoRD) was king of the door games. It was a text-only multiplayer adventure that provided everything from action to romance to child rearing. Many BBSes had an active community of LoRD players. By 1993, LoRD was positioned to be a progenitor of the next generation of online multiplayer games.
Players in LoRD could take a certain number of actions every day. They could fight monsters in the forest, kill their fellow players and try to slay the Red Dragon itself. If violence wasn’t appealing, an entire sexual life awaited them.
Every day, a player could send a “flirt” to another player character, which included everything from a shy wink to sex to a marriage proposal. The sex had consequences – characters could contract sexually transmitted diseases, and female characters could get pregnant and have children. A player could also try to seduce the bard or barmaid, with success based on charm points.
By 1993, access to the internet was available to the general public, who discovered multi-user dungeons (MUDs). It was the beginning of the end – the next generation of massively multiplayer games were based on MUDs, rather than BBS door games like LoRD. By 1998, the BBS had become a fringe element of the online world, and Legend of the Red Dragon, along with other BBS door games like Trade Wars and Excitilus, was left behind.
But somehow LoRD didn’t die.
Seth Robinson was running a BBS in 1989 when he decided to write Legend of the Red Dragon. Robinson didn’t have access to any of the more popular games like Trade Wars, and he needed something to keep the players coming back.
“[It] was written in horrible ‘learn as you go through force of will’ C,” Robinson said. “I was just looking to make something that would get people to call back once in a while. The very first version was just the chat wall and the flirt once-per-day thing.”
Robinson began to look at what worked in other games, and incorporated those features into his own creation. These elements came together in LoRD to create a unique blend of action and romance.
“There was this really cool futuristic casino door [game] where you had a certain number of turns,” recalled Robinson. “But what really impressed me were the random events that could occur and give the player a choice, like find[ing] a black box that let you cheat, and if you picked it up you would invariably get thrown out the airlock by space police. It also had a random event where you would ‘spend the night’ with a woman you happened to meet. Those little things made all the difference.”
Shortly thereafter, Robinson added random events to LoRD – everything from rescuing a maiden from a castle (who would reward you with sexual favors if your player character was male) to playing blackjack with a woodland denizen. These events added some much-needed variety that prevented the game from becoming a simple level grind.
Where LoRD truly shone, however, was in how it dealt with sex. The game’s treatment of sexuality matured as Robinson did. When he wrote the first version, Robinson was a teenager, and the possible interactions reflected an adolescent view of flirting and sexuality. In what may have been a case of wish fulfillment, Robinson wrote himself in as the bard Seth Able, whom the female characters could gain experience from by seducing.
“In retrospect,” Robinson said, “it’s really pretty preposterous to have a kid who’s never kissed a girl put himself in a game digitally scoring with thousands of women. Hmm – what would Freud say?”
For male characters, the sexual elements originated with the option to flirt with Violet, the barmaid. Every time Robinson came out with a new version of LoRD, he tried to push the flirting farther. It wasn’t long before Robinson incorporated a more nuanced view of sexuality into the game.
His inspiration was often autobiographical. Robinson wrote in the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted diseases after he had an experience with Chlamydia. When one of his friends had a stillbirth, Robinson added the possibility of miscarriage to the game, too.
“I wouldn’t have bothered if it was simply a thing with an NPC, probably,” said Robinson, “but actually getting married to a real player and then sharing the event had a lot more meaning, [and] was more engrossing.”
By the time Robinson stopped writing code for LoRD, players could flirt, seduce each other, get married and raise families. There were divorces, pregnancies and even children accidentally getting in the way of a monster and being killed. It was a level of sexual maturity that has rarely, if ever, been expressed in a game since.
Despite the numerous elements that made Legend of the Red Dragon special, the game would never have made the impact it did on the BBS scene if it hadn’t gotten out into the world. At the time that Robinson sold his first copy of LoRD, he was advertising it as a game exclusive to his BBS.
“Eventually, someone asked me if they could run it on their system and offered to pay for it,” said Robinson. “I was kind of like, ‘Hmm, why not?’ So I LHA‘d it up and charged $10 for it.”
Robinson’s first sale was the beginning of a landslide. Legend of the Red Dragon became the center of a rising swell of word-of-mouth advertising. Before he knew it, customers began demanding a DOS port.
“I sold a few hundred copies, carefully writing down each person’s name and code in a ledger, and was able to buy my own PC,” recalled Robinson. “From there, things took off pretty quickly, and at the height of sales I was finding fifty checks in the mailbox daily.”
The game soon spawned numerous spin-offs. The first was a tournament version Robinson wrote for MBBS/Worldgroup named Tournament LoRD, which sold for $300 per copy. The second was written by Joe Marcelletti in 1996 for Wildcat BBS systems. Marcelletti’s implementation was so good that Robinson ended up using some features from it in his next version.
While Legend of the Red Dragon had become a fantastic success on the BBS market, Robinson himself was ready to move on. As the new MMOGs were building their own player communities over the Internet and BBSes were shutting down across the globe, Robinson sold the rights to LoRD to Metropolis Gameport, which has maintained the game for its small but devoted community ever since. It’s a footnote, but at least it’s a living one.
How was it that in the early 1990s, Legend of the Red Dragon had a more mature view of sexuality than Age of Conan in 2008? The answer probably lies with Robinson himself. LoRD was a personal project for him, and as an independent developer at a time when multiplayer games had yet to come under the scrutiny they suffer from today, he had a lot of freedom to let the sexuality of the game evolve over months and years. In his hands, LoRD became a game by an adult for adults, with many of the risks and rewards offered by real life relationships, unconstrained by the ESRB or the need to appeal to a wider audience If we want to find another game that integrates sexuality without pandering to overzealous censors or teenage boys , we may have to wait for another Seth Robinson to come out of the ether with his own pet project, creating as he goes.
Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, publisher, and M.A. student at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, as well as an avid LoRD player at Nuklear LoRD.