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Temple of Apshai Trilogy, a computer game published by Epyx in 1985, came with printed documentation so unusual that it had its own title: The Book of Apshai. You can browse a scanned copy online, courtesy of the Museum of Computer Game History.
Because I obtained my own copy of this game and its manual at age 13, the book plays an outsized role in my overall cultural literacy. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a meme punchline these days, but my first exposure to it came from the pages of this manual. So did the word “sinew”, knowledge of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the very term “RPG”.
I don’t think I can speak to the objective quality of the work, due to my deep personal relationship with it. But I did read it again recently, because I wanted to express my fondness for it in public, somehow. I think my best route here is a brief exegesis of its component parts.
Before I begin: I don’t know who wrote The Book of Apshai. It feels like a tiny injustice that its inner front cover contains art credits, but nothing about who produced all the text. My educated guess: Epyx hired out the artistic talent, while its own employees wrote the words, and they simply didn’t deem it necessary to credit the latter. Hey, I don’t get named credit for my day-job technical writing, either…
It says “Temple of Apshai Trilogy™” in the largest type, then “The Book of Apshai” in smaller but still prominent type below Ken Macklin’s illustration, and then “Instruction manual” in still-smaller type below that.
This arrangement is how I arrive at my assertion that the printed manual acknowledges its role as the instructions for the computer game “Temple of Apshai Trilogy”, and yet stands apart as something beyond that, with a tangential but separate name of its own.
Here’s Ken Macklin’s page in a video game art database, and this might be his online portfolio, if we can believe that he transitioned over the years from painting generic dungeon dudes to perky astro-teens, and why shouldn’t we?
This page identifies the book as “The Temple of Apshai Trilogy”—which, I would point out, is one word longer than the actual title of the game. I maintain my position about the book’s actual title, further evidence for which we shall encounter later.
On that note, the table of contents all by itself teases that this is an unusual instruction manual. Okay, we can expect “Introduction” to lay out some prologue material, and I recognize “The One Minute Adventurer” as “quick-start” material, but the rest of this could be anything.
The critter emerging from its hole here is an “antman”, the signature beastie of the Apshai games. Like all of the book’s interior art, it was drawn by Matt Mott. He may be the Matt Mott of You Drew That Creations, but I suspect he’s instead the person behind the Matt Mott Art facebook page.
The first of many of the book’s spot-art illustrations by Mott of a scowling dude with a big sword. It strongly evokes the interior artwork from the Dungeons & Dragons manuals from the 1970s and 1980s—an implied connection that, as we shall see, the publishers of this work felt happy to readers to draw.
The page’s bulleted list includes mention of the book itself: The Book of Apshai, well well. It also steps through the book’s own contents, and I note that this includes, in just a few words, the only explanation of the “Scrolls of Apshai” section that takes up the bulk of the manual’s pages. We’ll get to that.
I want you to appreciate that this manual for a D&D-style computer game quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as its epigraph. I might have heard of Emerson before I first read this book as a junior-high schooler, but I cannot guarantee it.
There’s the word “sinew” in the first sentence.
This opening essay introduces the entire notion of role-playing games, using remarkably oblique language. The first paragraphs acknowledge that the player character is not a person but a collection of attributes and statistics, but still one that can embark on adventures worthy of such florid prose. “The Trilogy of Apshai, like truth and beauty, cannot be told,” it whispers. “You must experience to know.”
This prologue reaches out to Greek myth and Christian allegory to describe the mystery, danger, and allure of the Apshai games we are about to play. It makes no attempt at the more concrete stage-setting you’d find in most any other fantasy RPG manual. Then it excerpts Shelley’s poem to close things out, alongside a lovely piece by Mott of the crumbled ruins it evokes. To this day, I think of this drawing when I encounter any reference to “Ozymandias”.
A modern wag might read these three pages and snort “TFW you need to write the introduction to a game you haven’t played.” I would counter with the truth that this game had no world-building, or at least none worth delaying the player over. The game comprised 12 levels of “dungeon” and a single, text-only “inkeeper” screen for managing your character sheet and spending your money. The author had nothing to express beyond vibes, here, and pulled in threads from real-world culture and literature to put the reader into the right anticipatory mood.
This section hits me where I live. Friends, this two-page spread is a marvelous example of efficient technical writing, and I have lessons to learn from this today.
The first page contains bullet-lists to get the game booted up on no fewer than three computer systems of the day, with room left over to reprise the Commodore instructions both with and without the use of the Epyx Fast Load cartridge. The second page has a five-step guide to whipping up a (certainly doomed) character and shoving them into the dungeon, just to sate the hungry reader’s immediate appetite for digital mayhem as quickly as possible.
I feel humbled. The “quickstart guides” that I write in my day job look nothing like this. They should look a lot more like this.
I just noticed that the scowling sword dude on page 7 has had his right leg replaced below the knee with a prosthetic of some kind. The hair and spikes on it imply that it is an appropriated antman leg. Holy cow! This detail absolutely escaped until this very moment.
The book pulls a little trick here! The “One Minute” guide might have gotten you into the dungeon door, clutching your dagger and ready for action, but it doesn’t, like, tell you how to actually swing that dagger at anyone. Or, indeed, how to move at all. Those secrets are found in this separate two-page list of basic rules for new players.
The previous section used two pages to get players up and running, putting something on their computer screen. Then, they need turn the page only once more in befuddled exasperation to find enough information to at least toddle around the dungeon a bit, clubbing a rat or two before succumbing to a pit trap.
This continues to be very good technical writing, designed around the contours of the product.
While the tone shifts from the allegorical to the practical for these sections of the manual, the tone stays arch, never taking itself too seriously. The monsters exist to “join you for fun and games”; no frame story about saving the world here. We all know what you’re here for, and we’re gonna meet you there.
Without any further segue, we arrive at the most detailed part of the early manual, laying out the RPG nitty-gritty specific to Apshai. This includes how to read your character sheet, how combat works, and how to navigate both the character-management and dungeon-crawling interfaces.
That description would probably match the manual of most any other CRPG published between 1980 and 2010. It competently knocks through everything that a new player needs to feel like they fully grasp all the mechanics that the game exposes to them. If I feel a special fondness for the text here, that’s because it was, in fact, my very first RPG manual.
All that said, a handful of features stand out. Most obviously, one does find several lovely examples of the hand-drawn “screenshots” typical of the era in this section, rendered into frames with bulging edges in order to simulate a convex cathode-ray tube surface.
The first paragraph of page 10 contains the book’s first, completely unshy reference to “published ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ games”, brazenly misspelling D&D’s full name and not even feinting towards a trademark acknowledgment. It rather implies that there is no single game called “Dungeons & Dragons”, but that instead it’s the name of a whole loose genre—which, I suppose, isn’t entirely wrong, but wow! I don’t think the writer was going for cheek here—I truly believe they were trying to use the most clear language available to them. Everyone knew what “a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ game” was, and “fantasy role-playing game” felt like jargon!
And then on page 11, we come to the section “Characters from past adventures”. This explicitly invites you to go ahead and import your favorite D&D characters into Apshai by straight-up typing in their stats and equipment into the game’s character-creation screen, entirely on the honor system, as an alternative to rolling up a first-level dweeb. It is almost certain I abused this feature to create demigods who rolled through the dungeons easily, having a grand old time, and I have no doubt that most other kids playing this game did exactly the same. As an advocate for player-managed difficulty, I applaud this design decision, even if it was made for entirely different reasons in the mid 1980s, and wish more games published today advertised mutations like this as core features so proudly.
The section heading “The body and soul: on death and dying” is another of those common idioms that strikes me as so remarkably unusual to find in a computer game manual.
The book subtitles this thick section “A master reference guide”, and I think this was meant to suggest to the player to treat it something like the Dungeon Master’s Guide in D&D: Not really for players to casually read through, but accepting that most will probably do it anyway.
And in what really seems like a slip, nothing else on the section’s sole introduction page describes what you’re meant to do with the following fifty-odd pages. As such, I remember having to puzzle it out myself, and I still feel every bit as impressed today as I felt enchanted way back then.
The “Scrolls” section is divided into thirds, one for each of the three Apshai dungeons in the collection. Each of these subsections is further subdivided like this:
This section isn’t easy to read cover-to-cover, coming across as a jumble of disconnected fragments. Yet, one can still see the care that went into their authorship: none of the room descriptions repeat themselves, even when talking about bare hallways. The author always spinkles in little details, when applicable: “A cleanly picked skeleton reclines against the west wall halfway down the passage”, or “The corridor smells strongly of vanilla.”
The graphics of Temple of Apshai Trilogy are quite sparse: all the rooms on a given level are rectangles of different dimensions, each completely bare except for your character, any monsters, and treasure-chest icons that symbolize things you can take a closer look at.
The game tells you the number of each room as you enter it, and announces the name of each monster as you encounter it, and prints an index number of every trap you trigger or treasure you find. The idea, then, is that while you tool your guy around this extremely basic looking computer-dungeon, you continuously flip around those fifty pages in the middle of the manual, receiving a much richer description of your immediate environment.
The room descriptions, especially, feel in conversation with the map layout. Quite often, those little details in the text become represented on the map with treasure icons, inviting a closer look, leading to a multi-step pointer-chase between book and screen. This leads to some surprises that I still remember and admire to this day.
For example, page 58 includes this sentence: “In the center of the court there is an immense, beautifully carved statue of a bearded man; he is smiling beatifically and appears to be offering you something in his outstretched hand.” In the game, a treasure icon does indeed appear in the middle of the large area, signaling an interesting goodie of some kind. If you move your dude up to it and type
G for “get”, the icon vanishes and the game displays
T17: EMPTY HAND in the status window. Turning back to the printed treasure table on pages 60 and 61, we find: “T17—An empty hand, that’s what you are offered.”
I also note that, with a couple of exceptions, none of these room descriptions mention the presence of any monsters—a bit strange for dungeon levels crawling with hostile baddies! But that’s the thing, you see: rendering colorful pixel-critters, printing
OH NO! ANGRY BEES, and playing uh oh here comes trouble music are all things that the digital portion of Apshai performs passably well. Its partner, the printed manual, describes everything else aside from the fact that a rabid hyena is lunging at your throat, adding a layer of subtlety to what is otherwise a rather blunt experience of hacking through digital cellars.
When read as intended, printed details such as paw-prints in the dust or the faint smell of vanilla in the air serve as tension-setting warnings to the player about encounters they can expect in adjoining rooms. You’d never know it by simply reading through the book, but antmen—the game’s signature monsters—smell like vanilla. Passages mentioning a whiff of vanilla mean that antmen lurk nearby, while ones the describing the air as cloyingly thick with the scent are attached to rooms filled with chitinous enemies to fight or flee from. Nothing in Apshai states this connection explicitly, and making it for oneself feels quite magical, especially for a younger player.
Two pages of entirely fictional “lore” that any more recent game’s manual would put at the very beginning, not on page 77, tucked behind acres of reference material.
Again, I can only hypothesize as to the intent here: the writers approached The Book of Apshai as a work of technical writing first, and a fantasy game-book second. The chosen introduction only sets a tone with light strokes, rather than weighing the new player down with all this heavy syrup about priests and prophecies and ancient curses. This allows the manual to get the new player where they really want to be—actually playing the damn game—all the faster.
The manual closes on a ramblingly high-spirited three-page apologia for fantasy role-playing games in general, and the Dunjonquest brand of their digital adaptations in particular.
Confusingly, other than a few passing mentions early on, nothing else in the manual mentions “Dunjonquest”, the underlying system that Epyx used for Apshai and several other games. This feels like it was initially written for some other publication, or perhaps was intended for reuse across several titles’ manuals? Either way, it opens with a rambling litany that once again evokes a wide range of classic literature and ancient epics, turning it into graceful bookend to the manual’s highly unusual introduction, whether or not that was intentional.
Of all the sections in the book, this one feels the most like it was written by the game system’s creator. It speaks so passionately about RPGs—still an obscure and misunderstood cultural novelty at the time—that it sold me on them. Some digging in the Internet Archive reveals a review of Temple of Apshai Trilogy in a 1987 issue of Antic magazine*, one that I recall reading shortly before I bought the game. This means I probably played the game that summer, right before my freshman year of high school, where began two things: an obsession with D&D and its surrounding culture that would last for many years, and a love for expository writing which continues to drive and define me.
It all started here, with this anonymous author doing their best to express and share the joy that both facets of this work gives them.
* I found it in the Archive by keywording on “Mr. Bill”, remembering the reviewer’s snark over the game’s penchant for printing
OH NO! every time a monster appeared.
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