It finally happened. After playing Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup off and on for about six years, I have finally managed my first win.
If you’ve missed my posts about roguelikes, you might want to take a look at them here, especially the introduction. I also specifically wrote about Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (and some of the other hardcore roguelikes) here. For those who don’t want to read through another long post right now, the basic idea is this: roguelikes are games (typically fantasy RPGs involving large dungeons) that you can easily play for your entire life. They are procedurally generated, extremely conplex and difficult to win, and if you die you must start all over with a fresh character and a fresh dungeon. Finally getting your first win is a momentous occasion that only the most dedicated players will achieve.
I’d like to tell you the story of Urist Redbeard, my mountain dwarf fighter who, against all odds, managed to retrieve the Orb of Zot from the bottom of the Dungeon and escape. Hundreds, probably thousands of other adventurers had tried before him, guided my my hand, and all had fallen. But with each of their deaths I was slowly learning, honing my strategies so I would not repeat the same mistakes. And it paid off. On November 25, 2011, Urist, heavily wounded, stumbled out of the dungeon and into the sunlight with his prize.
This is going to be full of spoilers, so if you are intrigued to learn how to play Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup yourself, I urge you to read no further (or read my previous, mostly-spoiler-free post on it), and to download the game for free here. But to be honest, the spoilers here won’t help you too much; not until you’ve spent a lot of time learning the basics. They will reveal some of the dangers you will have to face as you get farther in the game and how I dealt with them, which is something one is supposed to learn for oneself, but by no means will this knowledge make the game easy or trivial. Many players enjoy preparing themselves for the challenges beforehand. And this account will likely do more to show you the appeal of a game like Dungeon Crawl than my earlier post ever could. Still, players who desire the pure experience should at least try the game before reading this.
You sure you want to keep reading?
Urist Redbeard began the game as a level 1 mountain dwarf fighter (incidentally, I found the name Urist from a list of names given to dwarves in Dwarf Fortress; I was having trouble coming up with enough dwarven names on my own). I like that race/class combination because, while it’s not necessarily easier than other character builds (although it’s certainly easier than many), the strategies for playing it are relatively simple. Dwarves are great at wearing heavy armor and using shields, both of which help immensely for a melee fighter later in the game. For weapons, they prefer axes or maces and flails. I chose to start with a mace because maces and flails offer better one-handed options than axes do, and I wanted to keep using shields. As a fighter, I would not be using magic either. Magic can be incredibly useful in Dungeon Crawl but it has complex rules and is difficult to learn while also learning about the dangers of the dungeon for the first time.
You may have noticed that I’m slipping between first- and third-person here. I’m probably going to do that a lot; in some ways, I was Urist Redbeard, in (mostly) complete control of his actions, and so I identify with his journey and his actions as if they were my own. But I am also a guide, one who has worked with countless adventurers before Urist, and will likely work with many more after him. In that capacity Urist and I are very different. I know things he does not, like the rough layout of the Dungeon and its various branches, the relative danger of different types of monsters, and the types of weapons and armor that Urist is likely to find. Sometimes I’m drawn into his shoes while other times I step back and play more of an omniscient puppeteer. So I hope you can forgive the changes in tense.
Urist’s quest was the same as every other adventurer’s: descend to the bottom of the Dungeon and retrieve the Orb of Zot, then escape. When so many had fallen before, there was no way for me to know that Urist would be the one who made it. As a result, I don’t have any screenshots of his actual run through the dungeon, except the one at the top of the post documenting his victory. But I did put a few representative shots in here to give a sense of how the game looks. Anyway, he entered the dungeon with a mace and a suit of scale mail, the standard equipment for a fighter. His were of dwarven make, and as a dwarf this means he had a slight edge in the early parts of the dungeon. This is good because the early sections can be the toughest to survive, especially for a fighter. Fighters are particularly dependent on their equipment, and until better stuff is found things can get tough.
The early parts of the Dungeon are straightforward: explore each floor, collect items and loot, and fight the monsters you encounter. Once a floor has been explored completely, descend to the next one. Later on things will get more interesting, but for now it’s simple exploration and collecting. Fortunately, the auto-explore option in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup means this is a breeze, and the game only really demands my full attention when something interesting occurs, like fighting a monster or finding some items. Early monsters mostly consist of goblins, hobgoblins, rats and the like, and are no match for Urist’s mace.
The first order of business with Urist is to get some of the magic scrolls and potions in the game identified. The easiest way to do this is to use them, but it pays to be a little smart about it. One of the most useful magical scrolls in the game is the scroll of identify, and I don’t want to waste one by reading it before I have found an item worth identifying. Also, scrolls of teleportation can be dangerous if they zap you into a pack of enemies when you’re not ready to handle them. So for the time being I simply collect all the scrolls I find and save them until later. Potions, on the other hand, I drink as soon as I find. These can have a variety of effects, from healing to slowing to poison, but fighters are usually robust enough to survive any bad potions. As long as there aren’t any monsters in sight and I’m at full health, I chug them.
There’s nothing worth identifying on the first floor, so I head downstairs. I carefully find each of the three stairways down and descend each in turn, so I will know where the upstairs are if I need to retreat from something on floor 2. I keep exploring. I find my first altar, a burning altar of Makhleb. This is actually fairly early to be finding altars, and Makhleb could be a useful god to worship for a fighter. He grants magic-like abilities to his worshippers which provide ranged attack potential, and later on allows the summoning of demons. In return he asks the constant killing of enemies and the sacrifice of their corpses. Being able to worship a god this early would give me a head start on gaining favor and accessing the more powerful abilities, but I’ve got my mind set on worshiping Okawaru the Warmaster, so I hold off for the moment. The second floor is also where Urist gets hungry for the first time. He brought some food with him into the dungeon but it’s not a good idea to eat that yet; non-perishable food is very valuable. Instead, I look for a monster I can butcher. The player can butcher monsters for their meat in Dungeon Crawl, but some of them have poisonous or even mutagenic flesh. Meat from most monsters has a chance of making you sick instead of sating your hunger, but certain creatures like rats and giant bats will not, so I hunt for one of those. As a dwarf, Urist doesn’t particularly like eating raw meat so he’s only willing to do so once he’s hungry. Also, raw meat will spoil over time, so it’s a good idea to wait until he’s hungry before going hunting anyway. In the early levels of the dungeon, rats and bats are common, so I have little trouble in finding food. I plan on living off of monster meat until I get a big enough supply of non-perishable food.
I finally find a piece of jewelry, which is definitely worth identifying. Jewelry in Dungeon Crawl comes in the form of rings and amulets, and all of them are magical. For most, it’s impossible to find out what they do without identifying them. Armor is identified when worn, and weapons will get identified with use (faster if you’re skilled with that type of weapon), so I typically save my identify scrolls for jewelry. I start reading all the scrolls I’d been collecting to see what they do, eventually find the identify scroll, and use it on the amulet I just picked up. It’s an amulet of warding, which is actually one of the most useful amulets for a fighter. It provides one level of life protection, which helps with particularly nasty enemies that can drain your experience, possibly even causing you to go down a level. Additionally, an amulet of warding will protect against attacks by magically summoned creatures. I put it on.
The third floor is where I find my first unique enemy, Terence. Unique enemies appear only once per game, usually have some sort of theme, and are dangerous if you’re not prepared to take them on. Terence is an evil human fighter, and he’s wielding a flail. That’s good, actually, because he’s probably got a pretty nice one that I can use to replace my starting mace. Plus, Terence isn’t really that tough. I dispatch him after a few traded blows, grab his flail, and equip it. It glows with a divine light, which tells me that it’s a flail of holy wrath. These weapons do extra damage to undead and demons, which can be quite useful. But, since it’s not dwarven it probably won’t do more base damage than my mace, unless it’s also enchanted to do extra damage. To find out, I use it for a bit until Urist can identify it fully. Turns out it’s just a standard flail with the holy wrath brand, so I stick to the mace for now. But I hold on to the flail in case I encounter some tough undead, or the ghosts of previous characters.
By now I’ve found a few more altars, but not Okawaru’s. I’ve also reached level 3, which means I can pick a statistic to increase. This happens at every third level. There are only three statistics in Dungeon Crawl: Strength, which affects how much you can carry and how much damage you do with melee weapons, Dexterity, which affects how accurate your melee and ranged attacks are and how good you are at being sneaky, and Intelligence, which affects your magic points and spellcasting skills. If three stats seems too few to you, know that Dungeon Crawl also has a slew of skills that your character can learn, which are heavily influenced by racial aptitudes. Since Urist is a mountain dwarf he gains skill in armor use, shields, and maces and flails faster than average, and he’s been steadily building those up as he fights through the first few Dungeon floors. Anyway, as far as stats are concerned, I’ll be putting all my points into strength. The harder Urist hits, the less time monsters have to do him harm before they fall.
Before continuing I see Grinder. He’s a shadow imp, and he’s quite dangerous for a low-level character. I run away rather than try to fight him, finding the nearest stairway back to floor 2 and climbing it. Then I take a different stairway back down, and continue exploring the third floor. Luckily, I don’t run into Grinder again, and proceed on to the fourth floor.
On the fourth floor of the Dungeon I catch sight of some human slaves, who head toward me to attack. This means that Pikel the slavedriver is nearby. Soon I catch sight of him too. He’s a big kobold, and he always wields a whip of flaming or a whip of electrocution. If you can kill him, his slaves become neutral towards you and will wander the dungeon fighting monsters. I try tangling with him, but this turns out to be unwise; he’s got a whip of electrocution, which has a 33% chance of hitting me with a large amount of electrical damage, to which I am not yet resistant. This extra electrical damage is a constant amount, independent of how much damage the whip itself caused, which means it’s not so useful later in the game. But early on it can be devastating, as I discover when Pikel takes Urist all the way down to 1 HP with a single strike. The hit did 16 damage in total, which is a lot considering Urist only has 41 max HP at the time. This is probably the closest Urist comes to death in his entire run through the dungeon. Fortunately, he’s carrying a potion of heal wounds, which I have him chug immediately. Then we run away. Same trick as before, where I retreat up one stairway and come back down another. Enemies in Dungeon Crawl will only follow you up or down stairs if they’re right next to you when you take them, so if you’re careful about positioning when you retreat you can get out of trouble that way.
Part of the problem was that Urist is still wearing the scale mail he entered the dungeon with. This doesn’t offer much protection and lets enemies hit him fairly easily. I’m hoping I’ll catch sight of some better armor soon. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly when I do; I remember that it’s a plate mail, which means Urist leapfrogged a few tiers of armor. Plate mail and various forms of enchanted plate mail are typically the go-to armors throughout the middle part of the game, only being replaced with powerful dragon armors towards the end. I don’t think I’ve found the plate mail yet when I run into Pikel again. But I’m at full health, and I’m not surrounded by his slaves, so I decide to try taking him on again. It’s a tough fight, but Urist is able to withstand a few electrical discharges from Pikel’s whip and takes him down with his mace. I have him grab the whip of electrocution. In previous versions of Dungeon Crawl, whips were their own category of weapon, but this made them rather useless. There are only two types of whips in the game: normal whips and demon whips. Demon whips are great, but you can’t find them until much later, and a normal whip isn’t going to last you until then. So in more recent versions of the game, whips were folded into the maces and flails category. Since I’ve been building Urist’s skill in maces and flails, Pikel’s whip of electrocution is going to be a very useful weapon. The electrocution will make short work of most enemies (except flying enemies) in the early sections of the game.
Moving on to the fifth floor of the dungeon, monsters are starting to get a little tougher. Packs of orcs are fairly common, including orc wizards and orc priests. Orc wizards aren’t too tough but they can turn invisible and confuse you with magic, as well as hit you with puffs of flame or frost. Orc priests are much worse; they can call upon the wrath of Beogh, the god of the orcs, which causes quite a bit of damage. They don’t even need a clear line of fire to do this, they just need to be able to see you, which means they can hide behind other orcs and blast you from afar. Fortunately, they’re not too tough if you charge them before they can do too much damage, and my new whip of electrocution makes short work of them.
While exploring the fifth floor of the Dungeon I find an antique weapon shop. Antique weapon shops sell unidentified weapons, but in Dungeon Crawl you can get an idea for whether a weapon is worth it from its description, even if it’s not identified. Certain weapons will be described as “glowing” or “runed”, and these are likely enchanted. Or maybe they’re cursed. But they’re worth checking out, and I spot a glowing crossbow in the shop. I’ve got some spare scrolls of remove curse so I decide to take a chance on it. I’m lucky, as it’s not cursed. Crossbows are pretty much the only ranged weapons that mountain dwarves are any good with, so it’s a great investment. Normally I wouldn’t be able to find one until much later. It also means I can drop the daggers and spears I’d been collecting to clumsily throw at retreating enemies. Now I can shoot them full of bolts instead.
On the sixth floor of the Dungeon I find a glowing drain. This leads to the sewers, one of the special “portal” areas. These areas have entrances that will disappear if you wait too long, but can provide treasure if you can handle the dangers within. Essentially, they’re a gamble. You can’t prepare beforehand and then come back, because the entrance will be gone. So do you enter now and test your luck? I usually decide to enter portals because I’m a sucker for them. Also, there’s usually an easy way to retreat if you’re in over your head. But if you back out, just know you won’t be able to return, ever. It’s a one-shot deal. Previous adventurers had tackled the sewers before, so I knew they weren’t particularly dangerous, so I have Urist head on in. It’s fairly uneventful. The sewers are full of rats (including the tougher green variety), snakes, and both normal and big kobolds. Big kobolds are the only real danger here, but my whip of electrocution makes short work of them. By strategically retreating to dry ground when monsters appear and letting them stand in the shallow water, I can shock multiple enemies at once as the discharges from my whip arc through the water. Unfortunately, all I get for my trouble are some potions and scrolls. And experience, of course.
Finishing the sewers, I descend to the seventh floor of the Dungeon, making short work of most enemies with my electrified whip. But it’s there that I spy the ghost of Urlik Deepdelver, an experienced mountain dwarf fighter. Urlik was one of the many adventurers to die in the dungeon, and he now haunts his place of death (floor 7), looking to make fresh adventurers share his torment. By this point I’ve found a plate mail so I’m decently armored, and I could use my flail of holy wrath to deal extra damage to the ghost. But I decide the whip is better. The ghost is resistant to cold and poison, but not electricity, and the powerful electrical discharges will probably do more damage than the holy weapon will. Plus, I can attack with my whip faster than with the flail, so I’ll increase the chance of an electrical blast. With that decided, I have Urist wait in a narrow corridor so he won’t get surrounded, and let the ghost come to him. When it approaches, he cracks his whip and engages in battle. It’s easier than I expect. Urist is able to block most of the ghost’s attacks, and the whip steadily chips away at its ethereal substance, with the occasional explosion of sparks dealing a wallop of damage. Urist destroys the ghost, who will prey on adventurers no more.
The seventh floor is also where Urist finally finds the Ecumenical Temple. I’d been spying quite a few altars during Urist’s descent, but none belonged to Okawaru the Warmaster. But there’s a very good chance that I’ll find his altar in the temple, which always contains several altars to most of the gods in the game. I enter, but before looking for the altar I make my first stash. I’ve found several scrolls of enchant armor, and a few of enchant weapon. The latter come in a few flavors; I’ve found some that increase weapon accuracy and some that increase weapon damage. These scrolls are all quite valuable, but I want to save them for later, when I can pour them all into a really awesome suit of armor and a particularly useful weapon. If I carry them around, they’re liable to get burned up by fiery magic that gets thrown my way, so it’s better to stash them somewhere safe, like the Temple, where there aren’t any monsters to run off with them.
After dropping those, I explore the temple and soon find Okawaru’s altar. I kneel before it. Okawaru is a very useful god for a fighter, especially one who plans on using a lot of armor, because he will gift adventurers with powerful armor and weapons. In return he asks for the constant killing of monsters, the sacrifice of fresh corpses, and the protection of one’s allies. He also grants the ability to temporarily increase one’s skill with all weapons, and to temporarily increase the speed of one’s attacks, although using these abilities costs piety which must be regained through killing and corpse sacrifices. Urist dedicates himself to glorifying Okawaru in battle, and Okawaru welcomes him. But there are no gifts or special abilities yet; first Urist must prove his worth in battle, and gain Okawaru’s favor.
Urist has done well to make it to the Temple, but countless adventurers had gotten that far before. Many had dedicated themselves to Okawaru, and some had even become his champion, but still they fell. There’s a long way to go yet, but Urist rises with new determination in his eyes. With Okawaru’s divine favor, he vows to descend to the bottom of the dungeon and retrieve the Orb. His whip crackling with electricity, Urist Redbeard climbs the stairs out of the Temple, ready to face the dangers lurking deeper in the Dungeon, to bring glory to Okawaru, and to meet his destiny.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Urist’s epic saga.