Looking at the RPG in Roguelikes

I only tried TOME (Tales of Middle Earth) due to posts called “A Day in the Life of -” on the main forum.  The game’s been updated now, and supposedly it’s changed to the point where the familiar features are quite different from the game I remember.  Still, the stories were basically explaining game mechanics, odd and interesting events, and weaving a story for the character around them.  One of the best writers tended to take odd character combinations (a sorcerer with amazing speed, but ridiculously low health) and turn them into interesting characters (the one he was writing was a sort of British professor type) as well as explaining how to survive.

TOME, back then, did have story arcs.  You started the game, and you could fight off bandits that took over a house in town (which gave you storage space), you could gather mushrooms and avoid deadly dogs, or you could delve into a dungeon.  Most roguelikes tend to fall into two categories.  Some have towns, multiple dungeons, and sometimes special rooms or areas for quests.  Others have a single dungeon (which may have special rooms, special floors, or themed levels.)  Typically, roguelikes have random generation for the dungeon like areas.  Plot wise, many roguelikes keep the plot in quest text, or in item descriptions.  If you play one type of character and reload, you’re only getting a different story due to your capabilities (the order of quests or the type open to you) and due to the randomizer.  For a lot of people, they don’t play roguelikes for the story, and don’t care about the story.

Character building and “balance” tend to be important to roguelikes.  Many games offer you a range of various options, with bonuses and negatives.  They also tend to try to force the player to keep moving and to keep the difficulty fairly high. This may include things like monsters hunting you down if you spend too much time on a level, or reduced experience if your level is too high.  If you’re good at roguelikes, you can abuse pathfinding or stairs to attempt to avoid damage (by dancing around columns or retreating up stairs.)  In turn, roguelike designers have attempted to design ways to make this more difficult.  Some games, like Dungeon Defenders, pare down the size of levels and the amount of time a game takes to something like a ten minute game.  Due to death being cheap and easy, there’s sometimes an element of luck as you progress through the game.  In a standard RPG, this level of difficulty would usually be a negative.

Some games, like Nethack, are based around a learning curve.  You need to learn, much like starting a new SaGa game, what a sword with an unusual amount of damage means.  Or why you’re in an area with a bunch of boulders that you can push.  Or how to identify items or steal from shops.  You can, in turn, also die very quickly.  IVAN or ADOM are good examples of roguelikes which can and will kill your character quickly.  Many roguelike fans tend to say that death is part of the experience of learning how to play the game, and it’s only unfair when it’s too hard to learn how to avoid it.

I’ve been playing a lot of Dungeons of Dredmore lately and enjoying the occasional Infocom reference within the game.  A friend of mine has also been playing the game.  He’s favoring a dodging unarmed character, which is giving him trouble when he can’t easily avoid enemies.  However, he’s doing pretty well.  I, like most roguelikes I’ve puttered with, am trying variations on mages.  One character, for example, is a ley walker, alchemist, golemancer, and mathematician.  Translating this from game terms, my character recovers magic quickly, can brew health and magic potions, can summon pets and create walls to funnel things away, can teleport, and has buffs and debuffs.  The main problem with that character is that she can’t do hand to hand combat, and my strongest attack is summoning thermite.  Thermite floats around a monster, and then either moves to the floor or from body to body (if the monster dies.)  They can then be spread if you touch the cloud of thermite.  Due to her low HP, blundering into thermite is a pretty bad idea. On the other hand, I destroyed a monster zoo (a room full of closely packed monsters) via just sitting behind a wall brewing potions while my thermite and pets killed everything.

I suppose one reason why I’m enjoying Dungeons of Dredmore is that the game is pretty kind with allowing you to make it more simple.  I’m on a lower difficulty level, sans permadeath, and I’m doing smaller dungeons (to increase levelling, and to make exploring go by more quickly.)  I am enjoying the fact that different builds play in different manners.  For example, my unarmed mathematician can’t fight a zoo unless if he has a favorable location so he can get his debuffs down and push enemies away from him.  My golemancer can make walls for a good location, but she needs at least 56 MP to get her thermite / pet robot working, and that’s not counting getting the walls up to protect her (and she’s starting with about 80 MP.)  My pyromancer demonologist, on the other hand, has killed several zoos via just setting up walls of fire and covering the floor with tons of fire, and then was promptly killed by accidentally getting too much fire damage, or damage from debuffs leaving her way too weak.

The randomizer also makes things more interesting. Early on, my pyromancer tried to upgrade her shoes on an anvil of Krong, and promptly had them cursed.  I haven’t seen a single pair of shoes which she can wear for the past 8 levels. (I have seen, mind you, two pairs of plate mail shoes, but they’re bad for mages.)  She has, on the other hand, just about the best staff in the game (and a scarf that apparently helps her strangle things.)  My golemancer has pretty terrible equipment, but she’s got a full set of equipment.  My unarmed guy has a ridiculous amount of elemental damage on his kicks and punches (thanks to Krong and random drops,) which includes a great deal of existential damage.  Apparently being kicked in the groin makes monsters question if they exist.

I suppose, for me, roguelikes offer the chance to build your own story, via the ways the game helps / hinders you due to randomness, and the ability to build a custom character.  They don’t offer a complex plot, and death tends to be very cheap and easy.  Still, there’s a certain appeal of heading down another set of stairs, and seeing what ridiculousness awaits you.  If you don’t mind a learning curve, and you love character building, then you’ll probably find a roguelike that works for you and feels like a great game.  For other people, rpg fans or no, a roguelike is an unfair obtuse game that kills you just when you think you’re doing well. Still, the character building aspects are fascinating to me.

For example, I’d love to see a SaGa game that let you build your character like Dungeon of Dredmore’s skills.  While yeah, you’re not getting an amazing story, there’s been rpgs that I wished just let you get to the meat of the game as fast as a roguelike lets you get to exploring. Many roguelikes don’t offer flashy combat or flashy graphics.  Your strategy depends on the enemy abilities and positioning, and the random dungeons make the strategies vary from area to area. Strategic RPGs could steal ideas for combat.  Randomized loot is another area that could be interesting to RPGs.  For example, consider how some RPGs offer loot based on your level or based on the area of the game.  After a certain point, chests with randomized loot in Might and Magic games are pointless.  Dungeons of Dredmore, however, is still interesting, since I can turn unique items into experience (with a skill,) or I could find another hat that makes my fighter better at making enemies question their existence.

  1. Ampersand’s avatar

    I’m really fond of roguelikes conceptually, but I rarely ever really get into any of them for some reason. The ones I’ve played the most are Dwarf Fortress, Stone Soup, the DooM RL, and Desktop Dungeons if that counts. Even then I’ve never gotten that far in Stone Soup or DooM, and I think I spend more time messing with DF’s raws than I do actually playing it, adventure mode or otherwise.

  2. Rav’s avatar

    Desktop Dungeons feels very puzzle like to me, but I have played it. Part of my frustration with that game is that late game stuff (in the free version, that is) requires more luck than skill to finish. For example, you can’t kill certain boss combinations or challenges without a good dungeon layout, good spell sets, and luck. That seems almost unfair to me.

    I’ve never played Dwarf Fortress, but I do love watching people’s stories about adventure mode. It doesn’t look that fun to actually play, but the stories of – oh – a hostile human town over a demon worshipping cult, and the main character swinging in and defeating the cult by a well timed thrown fish is the stuff that I suspect RPGs wish they could create. Of course, for every amazing story, there’s the “Demon ambassador is rampaging through my town and I can’t destroy him” or “Well, my fortress is destroyed because a slug made of steam visited” kind of things.

    I wonder if I should do a thing on random dungeons. The ways that randomized games have set rooms is an interesting way of encouraging you to feel familiar and comfortable with an area even if it’s all randomized. Plus, there’s sort of a thrill in Dungeons of Dredmore to recognize that you’ll get a nice rare item, or something like that. Early randomized dungeons in RPGs tended to be hampered by disk space, so you tended to get samey mazes or simply almost unwinnable combinations.

    I do agree, though, that it’s a pain in the neck to get “deeply” into a roguelike. Nethack’s the worst for me, since you can be amazingly competent (and have a high chance of winning,) if you know all the ins and outs of what you will find. I suppose SaGa games are like that too. If you know what you’re doing, you can be competent and confident, but if you don’t – well – death is cheap.

    Thanks for the comment, Ampersand!

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