When we think of early computer RPGs Ultima or Rogue are names that are often cited as the start of it all. In reality, RPGs as a genre predates them both, debuting in the late 70s. In fact, recent evidence suggest that the first-ever computer RPG originated on mainframe computers, originally in early 1975.
Developed on PLATO computers, a system first introduced by the University of Illinois, these machines were among the first to feature not only a touchscreen but also a primitive graphics editor. These RPGs, along with other mainframe games (such as the original Spacewar! and Adventure), were made available as applications that anyone could run. Many of these games were programmed by university students in their free time.
Still, they got so popular that they were often seen as a huge waste of time for students. Therefore, the programmers were forced to keep them hidden from system administrators since, if found, they would delete them. That's why these RPGs were often given such catchy names as "m199h".
Evidence suggests that the first RPG to arrive on mainframe was not, as it has been often thought, m199h but instead a more complete experience which this title actually copied. Over on the CRPG addict blog, there is strong evidence that m199h was rather a partial copy of an earlier game: The Dungeon (or the much less catchy "pedit5").
Aiming to reproduce the D&D experience on computer, these were fairly complete RPG games, with classic monsters such as vampires, goblins and the Spirit of Christmas (yes). A single character would enter the dungeon, searching for treasure and trying to survive as long as possible. No romance options though, sorry.
While some of these mainframe RPGs have been since lost to time, it is still possible to play pedit5 through a number of emulators. Still, evidence of pedit5 being the first ever computer RPG comes through mostly via printed help files and handwritten sketches of some of the monsters in the game. But they are strong enough, says the blog, to assign the title of first computer RPG ever to The Dungeon (or "pedit5").
Now, can we get in touch with Larian so they can get a remaster ready?