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The End of a D&D Campaign Was the Beginning of Doom

Doom, widely-regarded as one of the first successful first-person shooter video game, has its roots in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that went disastrously wrong when one of the player characters made a literal deal with the devil...and lost.

astral-dreadnought-cacodemon.jpg

What's the Big Deal About Doom?

Doom pioneered first-person shooter games and introduced several innovative elements that are commonplace today: 3D graphics and interaction, networked play, multiplayer, and the ability to "hack" the game to customize it. Doom's reach is long, with over 10 million copies sold. In addition to multiple sequels and remakes, it spawned a board game and even a film. Co-creator John Romero extrapolates on Doom's legacy:

The first-person shooter genre. Video game violence. Multiplayer. Maybe e-sports. The game engine. Modifying games. The mod community, which is where Portal and Team Fortress and Counter-Strike and all these other huge franchises came from.

Even Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson cites Doom as a major influence. But Doom in turn was strongly influenced by Dungeons & Dragons.

Doom's D&D Roots

John Carmack was a dungeon master first, which helped refine his world-building skills at an early age, as described in David Kushner's Masters of Doom:

At home, he grew into a voracious reader like his parents, favoring fantasy novels such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He read comic books by the dozen, watched science fiction movies, and, most enjoyably, played Dungeons and Dragons. Carmack, more interested in creating D& D than playing, immediately gravitated to the role of Dungeon Master. He proved himself to be a unique and formidable inventor. While most Dungeon Masters relied on the rule book’s explicitly charted styles of game play, Carmack abandoned the structure to devise elaborate campaigns of his own. After school, he would disappear into his room with a stack of graph paper and chart out his game world. He was in the third grade.

While at Softdisk, Carmack launched the beginning of what would be a hugely influential Dungeons & Dragons campaign that they played on Saturday nights:

For the majority of the time, however, those late nights at the lake house were a perpetual programming party. With Iggy Pop or Dokken playing on the stereo, the guys all worked into the wee hours. Occasionally, they’d take a break to play Super Mario on the Nintendo or maybe a round of Dungeons and Dragons. Carmack had been building a large D& D campaign for the guys, and on Saturday nights they’d gather around a table and play into the early morning hours. With Carmack as Dungeon Master, the game took on depth and complexity. It was quickly becoming the longest and deepest D& D game he’d ever created. And there were no signs of it letting up.

It wasn't until a business meeting with Sierra that the video game creators would hit on an idea that would strongly influence Doom.

The Carmack Campaign

After leaving Softdisk and founding id, the principals found more time than ever to devote to their D&D campaign:

It was truly evolving into an alternate world, which, like all fiction, deeply reflected their own. It wasn’t just a game, it was an extension of their imaginations, hopes, dreams. It mattered. The deepness of their Dungeons and Dragons adventure was due in no small part to Carmack. Whereas most Dungeon Masters would create small episodes that lasted for a few hours of play, Carmack’s world was persistent; players returned to it every time they regrouped. The game they played now was the same one he had been writing since he was a kid in Kansas City. It was as if a musician had been composing an opera for several years. The guys would pass Carmack’s room on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night and see him hunched over pages of notes, sketching out the details of their game.

Carmack was a fan of the open-sandbox style of play that was prevalent in the early years of D&D:

Carmack’s D& D world was a personal masterwork of forests and magic, time tunnels and monsters. He had a fifty-page glossary of characters and items such as “Quake,” a fighter with a magical “Hellgate Cube” floating above its head, the “Chalice of Insanity . . . a chalice from which you get Jellybeans of Insanity which, if ingested, will cause you to go nuts and fight everyone around you” and the Mighty Daikatana sword. He relished the feeling of creating a place others could explore. The way D& D was played, he, as Dungeon Master, would invent and describe the set and setting. Then it was up to the players to dictate how they wanted to proceed.

The early id Software and the future creators of Doom were intertwined with the campaign:

In their game, the guys created an imaginary group of adventurers called Popular Demand: Romero named his character Armand Hammer, a fighter who liked to dabble with magic; Tom was a fighter named Buddy; Jay, a thief-acrobat named Rif; Adrian, a massive fighter named Stonebreaker. With each adventure, Popular Demand gained power and prestige. They were a living metaphor of id.

And just as the company considered being bought out by other companies like Sierra, Carmack decided to insert his own devil's bargain into the D&D campaign.

A Deal with the Devil

After Carmack set out on his own to found id Software, they had an opportunity to meet with Sierra, who saw enough talent to consider offering a stock deal. It was a decision that would change their lives forever...and one that had its own twisted reflection in their D&D game:

In Carmack’s game, he had designated two different dimensions of existence: a material plane (which Popular Demand inhabited) and a plane of demons. After months traversing the material plane, however, Romero was getting bored. To spice things up, he wanted to retrieve the dangerous and powerful Demonicron, a magic tome that gave a knowledgeable user the power to summon the demons to the material plane. Carmack consulted his D& D rule book. If used thoughtfully, he told them, the Demonicron meant enormous strength to the group, guaranteeing them all the riches of the world. With it, Romero thought, he might get his hands on an ultimate weapon like the Daikatana. But there were risks. If the Demonicron fell into the hands of a demon, it would cause the world to be overrun with evil.

It seems likely that the Demonicron was at least partially inspired by the Demonomicon of Iggiwilv. Power Score has a very thorough article that details everything there is to know about the tome:

The Demonomicon first appeared in an AD&D 1st edition adventure called The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth by Gary Gygax. The group adventures through an old lair that once belonged to Iggwilv. The Demonomicon is in a room that is guarded by Iggwilv's daughter, a warrior-maid vampire fighter named Drelnza. The Demonomicon is one of seven tomes found near the vampire's hidden coffin. In later publications, we learn that the first volume of the Demonomicon was the Tome of Zyx, written by Zagig of Greyhawk. Iggwilv, who was known as "Tasha" at that time, stole the tome and added to it. The Tome of Zyx became better known as the first Demonomicon.

The players eventually seized control of the Demonicron. Fellow programmer John Romero's character, Armand Hammer, had it in his possession but wasn't sure what to do with it. Eventually, he hit on an idea:

In recent rounds Romero had been toying with the Demonicron, the darkly powerful book he had encouraged them to seize from the demons. It was a dangerous move, one that would either help them rule or destroy the world. Carmack grew increasingly distressed at Romero’s recklessness. He didn’t want to see the game he had spent so long creating get ruined. In a desperate move, he called Jay Wilbur back in Shreveport, asking him if he could fly up to Madison to reprise his D&D character and help stop Romero. But Jay couldn’t make the trip. Ultimately, Carmack decided to test Romero’s resolve, to see just how far his partner was willing to go.

Late one night Carmack the Dungeon Master brought the devil in to play. He told Romero that a demonic creature in the game had a bargain to make; Give him the Demonicron and he will grant you your greatest wishes. Romero said, “If I’m going to give you this book, then I want some really kick-@$$ $#!+.” Carmack assured him the demon would oblige with the Daikatana. Romero’s eyes widened. The Daikatana was a mighty sword, one of the most powerful weapons in the game. Despite the pleas of the others, he told Carmack he wanted to give the demon the book. It didn’t take long to find out the consequences. As the rules of the game dictated, Carmack rolled the die to randomly determine the strength of the demon’s response. The demon was using the book to conjure more demons, he told the group. A battle of epic proportions ensued until Carmack declared the outcome. “The material plane is overrun with demons,” he said, flatly. “Everyone is dead. That’s it. We’re done. Mmm.”

Here is where fantasy and reality diverged. Armand Hammer made a deal with the devil that destroyed the world. id Software asked for $100,000 up front. Sierra turned them down and the deal was off, but that fateful turn for the D&D campaign left such an impression that it showed up in their next project. It was Tom Hall who came up with the idea of a Doom story bible:

The game would begin, he wrote, with the player assigned to a military base conducting experiments on a distant moon. The experiments go awry, however, when the scientists accidentally open a portal to hell, releasing an onslaught of beasts— much like what happened with Romero in their Dungeons and Dragons game. The action would start with the player engaged in a game of cards with some other soldiers. Suddenly a burst of light would flash and the demons would come, ripping the player’s best friend to shreds. Tom wanted to create an immediate sense of terror as the player watched his pal die a terrible, instant death. He named the doomed character in the game Buddy— the same name as that of the Dungeons and Dragons character he’d played.

John Romero explains what happened next:

Something just clicked. We all loved sci-fi, especially Aliens: it was a fast-action movie and id wanted fast-action games. So what if – instead of finding aliens, like in every movie in the world – a player opened up a portal to hell? Your character, a space marine on a Martian base, would then have to fight all the demonic monsters pouring out.

The apocalyptic theme isn't the only element that D&D inspired in Doom.

The Beholdernaught

The cacodemon is probably the most iconic of Doom's monsters, a big floating red ball with a single eye and maw that spits fireballs. D&D players will immediately recognize its resemblance to a beholder. The influence of D&D goes further however:

The monster's general visual design is similar to that of the Beholder, a similarly one-eyed classic Dungeons & Dragons monster (with eye stalks instead of horns). In addition, the Cacodemon was created from a cropping of a creature that appears on the cover of Manual of the Planes, a Dungeons & Dragons expansion book. The creature itself is known as an Astral Dreadnought, and was created by Jeff Easley for that book.

To see just how closely the cacodemon was modeled after the astral dreadnought on the cover of AD&D's Manual of the Planes. If the similarity to one of the "dragons" of D&D is striking, even the "dungeons" influenced Doom.

Sandy Petersen, Level Designer

Tabletop role-players know Sandy Petersen from his extensive work on Call of Cthulhu and more recently the board gameCthluhu Wars, but Petersen's game design skills have also been put to good use in developing levels for first-person shooters. It's perhaps no surprise that his Lovecraftian sensibilities influenced Doom's level design:

Doom had a horrific feel at least in part because I was part of the project. In fact, I designed 20 out of Doom's 27 levels.

In fact, Petersen stretched the game engine's limits:

I loved it most when I'd try some weird experimental thing. Then John Carmack would berate me for stretching the engine too far. Then Romero, McGee, and Green would do a bunch of levels imitating it, because they liked it. Then John Carmack would change the engine. One good example was when I did a whole outdoors level, set in a city. Then everyone else had to make one.

Why has Petersen's contributions gone unnoticed by the gaming community at large? Petersen's answer:

Because video game companies, steeped in evil, do not put the creators' names prominently on the box cover. They want you to think that the game was developed by a formless corporation, instead of real people.

Doom is Not the End

In the next installment we'll look at another game influenced by the same Dungeons & Dragons campaign and a spiritual successor to Doom. A little game known as Quake.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments

pming

Adventurer
Hiya!

Two of my most favourite things in the world...D&D and DOOM! :) Been doing both for about as long as they've been around...with no end in sight of stopping.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

That’s some interesting history. It would appear that in the game and the real world, Daikatana was cursed!

I gave the new Doom a try the other night, and it made me feel old. The game looks amazing, but man, did my fingers ache after playing it!
 



Jhaelen

First Post
Huh, it's really striking how closely Doom's Cacodaemon resembles the Astral Dreadnaught's head. Interesting article!
 

"While most Dungeon Masters relied on the rule book’s explicitly charted styles of game play, Carmack abandoned the structure to devise elaborate campaigns of his own. After school, he would disappear into his room with a stack of graph paper and chart out his game world."

Clearly written by someone who had no idea what "most dungeon masters" were doing.

"It was truly evolving into an alternate world, which, like all fiction, deeply reflected their own. It wasn’t just a game, it was an extension of their imaginations, hopes, dreams. It mattered. The deepness of their Dungeons and Dragons adventure was due in no small part to Carmack. Whereas most Dungeon Masters would create small episodes that lasted for a few hours of play, Carmack’s world was persistent; players returned to it every time they regrouped."

Sigh


"Carmack grew increasingly distressed at Romero’s recklessness. He didn’t want to see the game he had spent so long creating get ruined. In a desperate move, he called Jay Wilbur back in Shreveport, asking him if he could fly up to Madison to reprise his D&D character and help stop Romero."

This sounds like another player's perspective, not one from a DM.


"As the rules of the game dictated, Carmack rolled the die to randomly determine the strength of the demon’s response."

?

Don't get me wrong - this is interesting and I think the id guys have a pretty important place in video/computer gaming history but I would rather hear this interpreted by someone who understands what's being discussed. Are all of these quotes coming from Masters of Doom?

Also - is there something new here? The article at the top is from 2013, another is from 2014, and the book is from 2003.
 

Zarithar

Adventurer
Agreed... some of the wording irked me as well. The writer clearly hadn't met or talked to many DMs.
 

talien

Community Supporter
It's an interesting point about sandbox style games. If you're the type of DM that lets anyone do anything and the dice determines what happens, then yeah I could totally see lobbying for a more level-headed player to try to influence another player to not "ruin" the game. It's perhaps a bit foreign to more narrative play styles, but I witnessed it happen in my games in high school and there was definitely some "DM-lobbying" to get players to move the game in a certain direction.

That said, the quotes are definitely from a non-tabletop gamer.
 


WackyAnne

First Post
Wow, how did I not see how the cacodemon was pulled so directly from that Manual of the Planes before? I may not own the book, but the number of hours I've played Doom should have stuck with me. I knew beholders had to be the inspiration, but great to learn more about the process of inspiration from D&D to Doom - although it was pretty cringeworthy how little the author knew about how D&D is really played and run.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
No, he's right - you early 90s fully-formed DMs with intricate original plots and immersive players were the exception, not the rule. For every one of you, there were ten of us Noobs who were only just getting into using the rulebooks in a fashion other than quite literal. Me, I was only just getting into not calling a DM's campaign his "dungeon" (We didn't say, "we're playing John's Campaign on Thursday", we said, "we're playing John's Dungeon, and after that Jim's Dungeon is next week". And the height of play was getting those cool Gauntlet/Belt/Hammer combos and more gold than was possible to carry by the laws of physics.

My first homebrew world was in the late 80s, and I still have the campaign bible. It was a horrendous derivative mashup of Faerun and Krynn, and my players at the time loved it. Sometimes I feel like we gamers wear the slightly too-rose tinted glasses and forget some of our campaigns we ran at age 10/15/25 were pretty damned horrible in hindsight - dosn't make them any less awesome when we were playing 'em.
 

Wicht

Adventurer
No, he's right - you early 90s fully-formed DMs with intricate original plots and immersive players were the exception, not the rule.
My early players/siblings/friends players were definitely not into complicated plots. But I was heavy into world-building, dungeon crafting and trying, in vain, to make my writing not so derivative of Tolkien. I will say that I was probably not doing all that by the 3rd grade. I think it was more 4th - 5th grade for me.

My first really good campaign didn't come till college (91-93), but I note that his campaign being most discussed was not 3rd grade but rather much later in life.
 

No, he's right - you early 90s fully-formed DMs with intricate original plots and immersive players were the exception, not the rule. For every one of you, there were ten of us Noobs who were only just getting into using the rulebooks in a fashion other than quite literal.
Not sure who you're addressing here but John Carmack and I are less than a year apart in age. The article mentions that he started in the third grade. I assure you, that was not "early 90's" for either one of us. By the time you get to the early 90's I expect he did have a whole lot of material since it states he was running the same world that he had started back then. The note about "disappearing into his room with stacks of graph paper" is what everyone I knew who played D&D at the time was doing - because there weren't a bunch of published campaign worlds for people to share. I'm not claiming any of them were better than any others, I'm just clarifying that's completely normal for late 70's/early 80's DM's to do. I still have notes from back then and I'm sure a lot of other people do too.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Not sure who you're addressing here but John Carmack and I are less than a year apart in age. The article mentions that he started in the third grade. I assure you, that was not "early 90's" for either one of us. By the time you get to the early 90's I expect he did have a whole lot of material since it states he was running the same world that he had started back then. The note about "disappearing into his room with stacks of graph paper" is what everyone I knew who played D&D at the time was doing - because there weren't a bunch of published campaign worlds for people to share. I'm not claiming any of them were better than any others, I'm just clarifying that's completely normal for late 70's/early 80's DM's to do. I still have notes from back then and I'm sure a lot of other people do too.
I'm addressing your and Zarithar's comments that the author mischaracterized the majority of DMs in the early 1990s; the majority of DMs then (as now) weren't running detailed, immersive campaigns, they ran as proscribed by Gygax largely, even in the 2nd edition days, and most of the time weren't more sophisticated than Flanaess or Faerun clones. From time to time I see on these forums and other venues gamers who seem to imply that lots of D&D players were doing detailed, immersive campaigns since the 1970s (I had this discussion with a guy named Diaglo a lot) but in fact the more I talk to older gamers reliving their experiences it wasn't that common. Not "didn't happen", just "not common."

There were always outliers, as Carmack and yourselves show; the kinds of people who frequent message boards to discuss D&D most often overlap this same outlier group - if campaigns on the whole are more intricate nowadays, I surmise it's because the pregens and APs are, not because the average DM has gotten way better. In the 90s (and 1980s) I was just one of the tons of players using modules, dragon magazine, dungeon magazine, and just stringing them together with not much in the way of long-term character goals, plot arcs, and original material. It wasn't until I was in my late 20s before I really caught on to some really great DM habits. So anytime I see the argument that "DMs weren't usually like that", I like to remind people that yes, yes it was -probably still is, really, if the local convention scene still looks like it did for me a few years ago. :)
 

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