EDIT: If you are reading this from the FUTURE, please note that Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup was on version 0.9 at the time of writing, and the game has changed significantly since. Older versions are all archived here, however, if you want to try any of those.
As I mentioned in my introduction to roguelikes, most players eventually gravitate towards the most complex games. These are the games that can last you an entire lifetime, with deep, complex systems that take years to fully learn and master. Finally managing to win one of these games is a truly momentous event, one that many players will never achieve. But even if they do not, they’ll still fondly remember their best attempts, sagas of their own making that were not pre-determined by the developers. Just because your character eventually succumbed to overwhelming odds doesn’t mean he or she was not a great hero, whose last adventure became a legend for the ages. Or maybe your character’s death was actually rather stupid and humorous instead. Either way, that particular character is gone, living on only as a fond (or humorous) memory. It’s time for the next would-be hero’s story.
The steep learning curves of the most complex roguelikes mean that players will usually pick a favorite and stick to it, as recalibrating one’s playstyle to a different game is difficult. There are three main options: Nethack, Angband variants, and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. While the title of the post gives away my personal pick of the three, I’m going to briefly discuss the other two in comparison. Let’s begin!
Nethack is possibly the most famous roguelike. It’s also one of the longest-running, with its first version released in 1987, followed by continual communal development that is still active today. But the last gameplay changes were made in 2003, with more recent updates including additional tilesets and support for more operating systems. This means that Nethack is also that most rare of beasts: an (essentially) completed roguelike.
Those unfamiliar with the game often assume it has something to do with hacking or computers, but this is not the case; it’s a traditional fantasy-themed roguelike, although there’s a lot of humor mixed in. The name arose because the game was based on an earlier roguelike called Hack, which was in turn based on the original Rogue. Development of Nethack included online collaboration over Usenet, therefore the “net” prefix was added to the title.
Indeed, the influence of the original Rogue is clearly present in Nethack. The game opts for basic ASCII graphics (although there are options for tilesets), dungeon levels are single-screen, and it utilizes the traditional style of keyboard commands. Except there’s a lot more commands. A lot more. The level of simulation in Nethack is simply staggering. You can engrave messages into walls of the dungeon. You can train your pet to steal from shops for you. You can grow crops, dig out tunnels, cause explosions, become permanently invisible, transform into other creatures, and much, much more. The game is also packed with secrets, from unexpected uses for items to various ways to bypass certain special enemies to tricks involving the shopkeepers, and so on. Even veteran players who have played for years can discover some previously unknown behavior.
Unfortunately, this complexity means Nethack has one of the steepest learning curves of any roguelike. There are plenty of guides online to help you out, but the onus is on you to learn it. While I’ve never really gotten deep into the game, I can definitely understand the appeal. If Nethack sounds interesting to you and you don’t mind a few spoilers, I’d recommend looking for some “ascension posts” which describe a player’s first win. These will give a better sense of how rewarding the game can be than anything I could write. A great example is this one.
2) Angband variants
I haven’t spent much time with this family of games either, so I’m not sure if there’s a “definitive” variant or not. The one I tried was called ZangbandTK, but there are others. The original Angband began in 1990, as an extension of Umoria, a roguelike heavily inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Angband variants show a lot of similarities to Dungeons & Dragons in their character and combat systems, and I imagine this will appeal to many fans of the tabletop game. The most notable design characteristic of these games is that unlike Nethack and many others, a new dungeon level is generated any time you use a stairway, meaning you can never return to a dungeon level once you leave it. This makes retreat dangerous, but also means that the player can continually regenerate dungeon levels in order to build their character’s skills or to look for special loot. The dungeon is very large, featuring 100 levels, but there is a town to retreat to in order to sell things and accept quests. Some variants contain an overworld map as well with side dungeons in addition to the main one. By the end of the game, a player can obtain some extremely powerful loot, typically much better than can be found in other roguelikes.
Graphics are again ASCII or simple tilesets, and the games are played with a large set of keyboard commands. The learning curve is also quite steep. A similar level of complexity as Nethack, perhaps, but with alternate rules that some prefer.
3) Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
This is my personal favorite. It is the open-source continuation of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl (aka Dungeon Crawl or simply Crawl), which was first released in 1997 and was abandoned in 2005. The Stone Soup continuation has considerably updated the base game, and is still active today, with v0.9.1 released recently.
I like Dungeon Crawl for many reasons. One of the biggest is that it makes a great effort to improve the user interface. While the game can be played in a console with ASCII graphics and keyboard-only commands like Nethack and Angband, the game also includes a graphical tiles version. But rather than simply acting as replacement graphics for the same game, the tiles version adds much more, from mouse support to visual displays of inventory and character statistics. Many people claim that Dungeon Crawl has the most intuitive roguelike interface, but let’s be clear: it’s still not very good. All the keyboard commands are still there, with a mouse control system and graphical displays incorporated on top. It’s better than most roguelikes but it’s nowhere near as intuitive as Dungeons of Dredmor, for example.
But the tile graphics really help in a lot of other ways too. Not only are there unique graphics for each type of enemy in the game, but at a glance the player can determine what type of weapon the enemy is wielding, whether it has noticed the player, whether it is attacking or retreating, how wounded it is, and whether it is berserk or in some other special state. There’s also a minimap, which is crucial since the dungeon levels are much too large to fit on one screen. Add an in-depth auto-exploration option which can be adjusted to have your character automatically pick up certain items, and determine which events will stop the exploration and return control to the player, and the tedium of traveling through these large dungeon floors is gone. There’s also an (admittedly slightly clunkier) fast-travel system which lets you make a bee-line for the stairs, or even travel to a specific dungeon level or special location, which makes moving through the dungeon a breeze. Then there’s great search feature. Do you vaguely remember dropping a certain potion somewhere, and now you need it? Just search for it, and the game will let you know that there is indeed one back on level 6… would you like to fast-travel to it? There’s even a shopping list to help you remember which items you wanted to buy from shops but didn’t have enough money yet.
But in addition to the streamlined control and presentation, there are some core design decisions that I really appreciate. The game eschews things like towns, NPCs, quests and an overworld area in favor of a single, giant dungeon. This creates a more focused playing experience: it’s just you versus the dungeon, no running back to town to heal up and sell things. There are shops in the dungeon, but you can only buy items, not sell them. This removes the desire to tediously drag every piece of loot you find to a shop to get more gold. Dungeon levels are persistent, with three upstairs and three downstairs per level, making strategic retreats a viable and essential tactic. When a dungeon level has been cleared out, the monster spawn rate is much slower, which means the player is always encouraged to move forward. In fact, some of the most difficult decisions in the game arise when you’re not sure where to go next. You could explore the Lair of Beasts, but there’s a hydra in there that will trounce you. You tried the Orcish Mines instead, but the bottom level is filled with powerful orcish warlords and sorcerers. You’ve traveled down the main dungeon a bit farther and found the Hive, but you don’t have poison resistance so that’s a bad idea. And going any deeper in the main dungeon means you get wrecked by stone giants and invisible horrors. So where do you go? You’re going to have to try somewhere, and hope you can survive it.
These various dungeon branches are another great thing about the game. The main dungeon is only 27 levels deep, but there are myriad side-branches with various themes, some of which lead to even more branches, and you’ll need to explore at least some of these if you want to grab the Orb of Zot from the bottom of the dungeon and win the game. Some branches contain the runes you need to gain access to the Orb, while others simply contain treasure vaults, but all of them are quite dangerous when you reach their lowest level. Depending on your character’s race and class, you will likely want to tackle some of these branches rather than others, and ideally in a certain order. A fighter and a mage might end up going to completely different locations in their attempt to retrieve the Orb, as some areas are more appropriate for the mage’s long-range magical attacks while others are better for the fighter’s brute force melee approach.
I also love the system of gods and religion in Dungeon Crawl. Many roguelikes use a simple system based on character alignment: there is a good, neutral and evil god, and each will respond to your actions appropriately. In Dungeon Crawl, there are 18 unique gods, each with their own characteristics, desires, advantages and disadvantages, and you can choose to worship any one of them. Fighters might choose Trog, the god of rage, who grants them the ability to go berserk at will and provides gifts of weapons, but who disallows the use of magic and requires constant kills and corpse sacrifices to keep him happy. Okawaru is similar but supports less aggressive play, providing gifts of both weapons and armor and granting bonuses to combat skills. Or maybe Cheibriados, the slow god, is a better choice; he encourages you to wear heavy, cumbersome armor that slows your movement speed, but in return grants huge stat boosts and several invocation abilities that help slow and damage enemies. There’s also a god of healing, several gods geared towards magic users, a god of necromancy, a plant god, a god of slimes, a god of orcs who only accepts orcish worshippers, and even a god of chaos who will bestow great boons or heavy curses depending on his fickle mood. Or you can try and play through the game as an atheist for an extra challenge. Whatever you choose will greatly alter your playstyle, and makes for very interesting variations on subsequent playthroughs. And if that’s not enough variety for you, you can try out another of the 23 (soon to be 24) character species or 27 character classes, each of which plays very differently.
And of course, like all the best roguelikes, Dungeon Crawl is always fair. If you die, it’s because you did something wrong. You didn’t retreat when you should have. You went to a dangerous area before you were ready. You misjudged an enemy. Recently I was doing fairly well with a dwarven fighter, and I’d just stumbled across some crystal plate armor. Since it was better than my current armor, I decided to put it on. I was at full health, and there were no enemies in sight. But as my character was changing armor, a hydra came around the corner and mauled me. I was literally caught with my pants down, trying to hop into a new suit of armor as the hydra bit chunks out of me. I never got another turn; I was forced to watch helplessly as the hydra methodically took out my entire health bar. I died. It sucked. But the thing is, I knew the hydra was around somewhere because I caught sight of it before. I knew that changing armor takes several turns during which I would be unable to act. Why didn’t I retreat to a safer location before making the switch? I was stupid. So I died.
But I’ll be back. Not with the same character, but with another, trying his luck against the legendary dungeon that has claimed the lives of so many adventurers.
I’d like to finish with my own most memorable playthrough. Once, on a previous version of of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (v0.6? I can’t remember), I made it to the bottom. My dwarven fighter (I have mainly been playing that combination) had become the champion of Okawaru, glorifying his name through battle. I had fought my way through the Snake Pit, and through the hydras of the Swamp, and finally to the bottom of the deadly Vaults. I had found treasures of immense power to aid me in battle, and received more as gifts from Okawaru. Countless times I’d escaped deadly situations, or prevailed against immense odds. I was a master warrior, more than a match for anything I encountered, so I descended to level 27 of the dungeon and entered the Realm of Zot. The monsters there were some of the toughest I’d faced, but with Okawaru’s guidance I prevailed, and finally reached the Orb’s chamber. I stepped inside.
This was it; the ultimate test of my mettle. No other adventurer had ever made it this far. I knew the Orb must be heavily guarded, but I’d never been here before, so I didn’t know what I was about to face. Soon, I found out, as several terrifyingly powerful Ancient Liches appeared as I rounded a corner. Before I could reach them they’d summoned hordes of huge demons. My weapon was enchanted with holy wrath, dealing out extra damage against my demonic foes, but they called upon the fires of hell, dealing massive damage. I tried to run, but freshly summoned demons blocked my escape, and all of my teleportation scrolls had been burned away by fiery attacks during my descent. So I made my last stand. I took as many of the demons with me as I could, before I was finally struck down, on the threshold of victory. The greatest adventurer to ever face the Dungeon had fallen.
I never made it that far again, and the more recent updates to the game have made things even tougher. But I’ll keep trying. And one day I’ll see that chamber again. When that day comes, I’ll be ready.
If you’ve tried some simpler roguelikes and are looking for something deeper, or perhaps you’re just intrigued by these complicated and crazy games, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is the easiest of the three for new players to get into. It has a tutorial (which, like Dungeons of Dredmor, is separate from the main game as I recommend), as well as a hints mode for the main game, and the mouse controls are often easier than the keyboard commands. But if Nethack or one of the Angband variants sound more like your thing, by all means check those out.
Soon, you’ll have some epic sagas of your own to tell.
I’ve covered the main roguelikes that I wanted to cover, but the Roguelike Highlights series is not over. I will still offer some highlights on interesting or unusual roguelikes in the future, so keep your eye out for those. In the meantime, may your characters suffer many epic and / or foolish deaths!