Kaves of Karkhan (1981)   10 comments

Via the Kaves of Karkhan manual. (Museum of Adventure Game History.)

Five years ago when I was writing about Treasure Hunt (1978) I remarked on a lack of deviation from adventure-genre norms; the Crowther/Woods version of adventure was essentially so good (and already in computer form) that most that immediately followed just copied the model, rather than approach their own way.

CRPGs, by contrast, were trying to adapt a tabletop game, and it wasn’t terribly obvious what form an adaptation would look like, so there were lots of early experiments.

Kaves of Karkhan feels like a game from a parallel universe where the standard text adventure format never dominated. I reckon the reason why it exists in the first place is that it comes from a series which started with a CRPG: Dragon Fire (1981), which was covered by The CRPG Addict in detail here.

Screenshot of Dragon Fire from Mobygames.

According to the manual, the second game, Kaves of Karkhan, uses the same characters as the first: an unnamed warrior, dwarf, huntress, and elf. (The first game had a wizard but you can’t control him in this game for reasons you’ll see in a moment.) The manual tries hard to build lore around these characters, even though they are unnamed:

There is little traveling in this time before the harvest, and a new face arouses much suspicion. Some say the barbarian seeks revenge upon a man with a quarter-moon scar on his left cheek. Others say he’s a professional bandit specializing In the exotic: the left hoof of the centaur, the lost crown of the Faerie King, the eye of the stingbat, and the like. And still others say he seeks to give up his present occupation as fighting man and find something more peaceful, perhaps as an artisan’s or baker’s apprentice. A few insist he flees memories of a lost love.

The story starts directly after the first, where the party defeated an evil dragon and received bucketloads of treasure. The dwarf is busy showing off in a tavern, including a jewel he found “outside one of the rooms on the third level”.

A hairline fracture suddenly appeared in the jewel’s surface.

The dwarf leaned forward anxiously. The crack seemed to be branching off, dividing, but silently. He was amazed. His jewel was crumbling right before his very eyes, but completely without sound.

A shadow suddenly obscured the crack. The dwarf looked up, but there was no one standing over him. He looked down and the shadow was still there, in fact had spread; the shadow crept across the surface of the jewel as If it were liquid. Upon closer examination the dwarf could see that the shadow had issued from the crack.

The gem was a container for a demon named Maldameke who is now breaking free. The wizard manages to contain the demon, for now

“Take the jewel . . . the pieces . . . return them . . . to Maldamere’s home … the bier … the top of the mountain … even one piece … will draw him … back there … trap him … in the Kaves of Karkhanl Hurry! Hurry! Cannot … hold him … long … but beware … beware … his influence … is still … felt … in those underground … realms … “

but the rest of the party now needs to “find your way through the maze of hallways within the crags of Karkhan, solve the traps, and then deliver your piece of the gem into the bier at the top of the mountain”. Each of the four original characters (warrior, dwarf, huntress, elf) picks a team to take along. In actual gameplay, I found no difference between the choice of main character (and you have no interaction with the characters you don’t pick), so the “team” is what’s important.

Yes, ten characters, and you need to keep track of their names and occupations (only in the manual). I used a spreadsheet.

After starting the game, you are told to open the entry doors you must solve an anagram.

It’s always two four-letter words jumbled together, but the words used are random from a fixed list. This one was STEMROPE. There’s lots more valid two word combinations here (like MORESTEP or MOSTPEER) but none of them work.

Then you’re dropped into a randomly generated first-person perspective, and the pain begins.

This incidentally means Kaves of Karkhan is the first 3D-perspective adventure by someone other than Med Systems.

The game moves sluggishly (especially at authentic 1981 Apple II speeds!) and the maze is so random it seems to have no logic at all. You can go down a dead-end hallway only to turn around and find a stairway up has appeared.

The main “gameplay” is a set of randomly appearing traps and encounters, and again, there seems to be no logic to their placement or appearance. A hall with a chasm one moment might turn into quicksand in another. (Only after defeating the obstacle the first time, though — you can’t switch which obstacle you’re looking at just by going back and forth.)

In order to get by an obstacle, you have to type a two-word command. Most of the time it’s USE (character) or USE (item) although there are a few exceptions. Quite often you can lose an item or die by getting it wrong; here’s a transcript of the water obstacle above.


Alana was my (now-expired) sorceress. I quite often would burn through my entire party (ending the game) while trying to get by a single obstacle.

Occasionally there is enough logic to passing an obstacle that I was able to do it first try; when encountering some weeds I tried USE MILES, my farmer…

…but for the most part, on each obstacle, I had to lawnmower down through my entire list of available objects and people.

Here I am getting by a mystic portal by using THROW BUCKET.

While there are some multiple solutions to puzzles (THROW SWORD also works on the above puzzle), I knew if I lost a character or item I could potentially get stuck, so I made generous use of save-states while I took notes on how to defeat each obstacle. My “favorite” piece of absurdity was using my acrobat to defeat a lake of fire.

Oh yes, the game is timed. If you switch emulator speed to “fastest” in order to avoid sluggish walking you get an immediate game over.

I’ve yet to beat the game — I keep wandering the maze in circles — and I may soon just call this one finished. I will still make one more post, because this game represents another stab at the ultra-rare adventure-roguelike genre (where puzzles form the primary gameplay, yet the environment is still highly generative).

I don’t know who to credit for this game other than the company (Level-10). The previous game in the series (Dragon Fire) was made by Rodney Nelsen. The follow-up game (which we’ll get to next, but is very different) was made by Gene Carr. I think it more likely Gene Carr was the author of Kaves (the 3D engine was in the latter game but not the former); however, at the moment I have no proof.

The one person involved with all three games was Steve Rasnic Tem, who did the manuals. At least with Kaves, the backstory is stronger than the game itself! Steve Tem later went on to write quite a few books and win a World Fantasy Award for a novella he co-wrote with his wife, Melanie Tem.

Here’s one last excerpt from the manual to close things out, for now:

Looking around him, once again the dwarf felt vaguely puzzled by the variety of types in the human community. No other race to his knowledge possessed such a range. Packed elbow-to-elbow in the tavern’s central room he could see a skinny youth carrying a rope looped over his shoulders, a short man carrying three companions twice his size, a tall man with his face covered by gray gauze — all shapes and sizes of humanity. The dwarf wondered how humans must keep track of them all; it seemed very confusing to him.

Posted February 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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10 responses to “Kaves of Karkhan (1981)

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  1. For SOMTREEP I would have kinda liked PRESTO ME.


    I’m picturing the rest of you just grabbing her by the wrists and ankles and giving her the ol’ heave-ho.

    ?USE JUG

    That’s some big jug if you can fit a person in it. Is it something you were carrying in inventory or an object that was already there in the room?

    Oh yes, the game is timed. If you switch emulator speed to “fastest” in order to avoid sluggish walking you get an immediate game over.

    LOL. And here were all of us who struggled with, say, getting shot by the Sequel Police in Space Quest 4 thinking we had a hard time of it with clock timer issues.

  2. I choose to believe that in the bucket puzzle you are blowing up a giant microwave oven.

    • That may legit be what you’re doing there.

      I mean, the sorceress is useless there so it isn’t just breaking some magic. (The sorceress is useless *everywhere* as far as I can tell, gah.)

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