Roguelike Updates: Axe And You Shall Receive

Readers who are unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction to the genre, or peruse the various Roguelike Highlights posts. Also remember that you can click on images for bigger versions.

Just because I spent four months playing nothing but indie platformers doesn’t mean that the various roguelikes I’ve covered on the blog have stopped updating. It’s time to catch up with the latest developments! The biggest news for me was the release of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup v0.12 (it’s now at v0.12.2 with a few more bugfixes). While the nickname for this release, “High Vaultage”, refers to the redesign of the Vaults dungeon branch, I was actually more interested in another change: axes now hit up to seven targets around the wielder with each attack. This presented an excellent incentive to return to a race/class combination that I’d dabbled with before: the deep dwarf berserker.

Attentive readers will know that my first and only win in Dungeon Crawl was with a mountain dwarf fighter named Urist Redbeard. Since then, mountain dwarves were removed from the game, deemed too similar to minotaurs and hill orcs. The official in-game explanation is, I believe, that they went extinct. I like to think that Urist Redbeard brought this catastrophe upon his race when he returned with the Orb of Zot. Or maybe he used its power to transport the mountain dwarves to a better place — Dungeon Crawl is light on lore but it seems the surface world must be in dire straits if so many adventurers are compelled to brave the horrors of the Dungeon to find the Orb. Whatever the reason, mountain dwarves no longer ply the depths of the Dungeon, leaving deep dwarves as the only dwarven race in the game.

Deep dwarves actually play very differently. Unlike mountain dwarves, they never left their underground realm, and subsequently developed in strange ways. They are unable to heal naturally, relying instead on potions, wands or magic spells to restore lost health. To compensate for this weakness, they have inherent damage resistance that makes them much hardier than other races in a fight. They also start with a wand of healing, and have the innate ability to recharge the wand by permanently sacrificing one point of magic power. Using and recharging the wand in this way provides a reliable source of healing early on, but cannot be sustained long-term because one’s magic power will eventually run out. Instead, there are a few different strategies for reliable healing later on. One of them is to worship Trog, the god of rage.

Trog has a few advantages for deep dwarves. He hates magic and does not allow his followers to cast spells, which means one’s magic power is free to be used for recharging. Trog also grants an ability providing rapid health regeneration for a short time that works for deep dwarves. It costs piety and works best at high piety, however, so it can’t be used too often. But the best part about Trog is that he will give weapons as gifts. He usually gives weapons that one is skilled with already, and they’re usually enchanted in some way. Usually, he will eventually give a vampiric weapon as a gift. Vampiric weapons heal the wielder a small amount each time they hit a living creature (i.e. not undead or demons). Axes now hit up to seven opponents at once. I think you see where this is going.

Deep dwarf berserkers start the game already worshipping Trog, and they start with an axe and some axe skill. They use their wands of healing and Trog’s regeneration ability to heal until Trog gives them a vampiric axe. Then they go back and grab all the enchant weapon scrolls that they left in a stash somewhere (this is important, otherwise the scrolls will burn up when enemies attack with fire magic) and use them all on the shiny new vampiric axe. At this point they are nearly unstoppable. Their damage resistance means they already take much less damage during combat than other races, and the healing provided as they slice through enemies means they can usually stay at more or less full health during all but the toughest of battles. And it simply feels right for berserkers to charge into battle rather than hanging back to tackle enemies one at a time. Even with the ability to cleave through multiple opponents, however, there’s still some strategy involved; the axe swings through all adjacent spaces except the one directly behind the player (i.e. the opposite direction of the actual attack), and the enemy that’s attacked directly takes slightly more damage than the others. Walls will also interrupt the swing, and getting surrounded by enemies means one will take more damage as well. It’s a nice balance between careful planning and gleeful bloodlust.

My deep dwarf berserker named Thlumz officially became the second-greatest adventurer to ever delve the Dungeon. He battled through the newly redesigned Vaults branch, which posed little trouble. It used to be much like the main Dungeon but with an open layout, but now it has its own unique layout and many unique enemies. These have abilities like locking nearby doors to prevent escape or calling nearby allies to converge on an adventurer’s position. A magic user or ranged weapons fighter might have trouble handling them, but a berserker does not run, nor shy away from hordes of enemies. Thlumz conquered the Vaults with ease, as he did the rest of the Dungeon, and proceeded to descend all the way down to the bottom of the Realm of Zot, and into the Orb chamber itself. The game’s final challenge. He made a few mistakes here, most notably neglecting to adequately protect himself from mutations and the chamber’s many traps. He was afflicted by all manner of unpleasant genetic disorders, and was even teleported to a different part of the chamber with no clear avenue of escape, but miraculously he survived. With the guards dead, he picked up the Orb of Zot. All that remained was to escape the Dungeon.

One downfall of worshipping Trog as opposed to Okawaru (Okawaru had been Urist Redbeard’s choice) is that one will receive all sorts of weapons as gifts but never any armor. This means one can easily end up with insufficient defenses and missing utility items. For example, Thlumz did not have a pair of Boots of Running, which would have increased his movement speed. I did not appreciate how important these are for escaping the Dungeon until Thlumz made his run. The Orb has a tendency to summon terrifyingly powerful Pandemonium Lords to its defense if an adventurer grabs it, and these like to summon their own swarms of demons. Thlumz did all right early on, but there were twenty-seven floors to climb, and he couldn’t outrun his adversaries. He still had his wand of healing to protect from damage, but this didn’t help with other afflictions. Eventually a swarm of demons attacked his mind, reducing his intelligence below zero. I should have seen these attacks coming, and had Thlumz throw on his Ring of Sustain Abilities to protect against them, but in the chaos of the escape I didn’t notice until it was too late. With all of his potions long since shattered during combat, there was no way to restore his mind. He stumbled onwards for a little while longer, before collapsing, dead, on the Dungeon floor.

With Thlumz’s death, I couldn’t bring myself to start all over with another deep dwarf berserker, so I tried a different character combination. In the past I’d made a few attempts at playing a magic-using class, but found them to be much harder than fighters. Fighters have little need to mess with the game’s skill system; simply turn on their preferred weapon skill, armor skill, fighting skill and optionally the shield skill, turn off everything else, and that’s it — experience will go towards increasing those skills only. But magic users must carefully balance the various magic skills and combat skills, prioritizing some for early survival and others to prepare for later challenges. Then there’s the huge array of spells to learn, the fact that spells can often fail and require certain skill levels to cast reliably, and the much wider selection of viable gods to worship. To try and ease myself into using magic, I’d tried a few magic/fighter combinations, such as transmuters. Transmuters specialize in magically transforming themselves into various creatures and then tearing through enemies. They focus on unarmed combat and transmutation spells. They’re pretty fun, and a certain detail caught my eye. The most powerful transmutations spell is Dragon Form, which turns the caster into a giant fire-breathing dragon. But it actually belongs to both the transmutations school and fire magic school, so if one is not skilled in both types of magic, it’s very hard to cast. Unless, of course, one is playing as a draconian, a sort of human-dragon hybrid. For these creatures, Dragon Form is just a pure transmutation spell, making it much easier to cast reliably. So I gave myself a new goal: to turn into a badass dragon.

Draconians can be tricky to play. The only armor they can wear are boots, gloves and hats (not helmets, just hats), which is only partially compensated for by their hard scales that act as natural armor. They do have some boosts to unarmed combat, with the ability to tail-slap enemies, but they also gain experience very slowly. And then, when they reach level 7, they molt into their adult form, which confers various strengths and weaknesses and (usually) a breath attack. For example, a white draconian will gain an ice breath attack and become more attuned to ice magic and less attuned to fire magic. Grey draconians gain extra-tough scales and do not have a breath attack, but also no longer need to breathe at all and can move around freely underwater. Which adult form one gets is random, so it’s hard to plan for. But, draconians who cast Dragon Form will retain their innate abilities, transforming into the appropriate type of dragon (i.e. white draconians become ice dragons, etc.). Which is pretty sweet.

It took some time to get there. The early game is quite tough for draconian transmuters, and I had to learn the best way to manage my skills (short version: focus on unarmed combat only until it’s at level 5, then focus on transmutations only until I can cast Spider Form reliably, then start branching out). But I did finally manage to transform myself into a dragon. Behold Wing, the white draconian transmuter, in his fearsome ice dragon form:

Being a dragon is awesome. They can fly, they (usually) have a breath attack, and their unarmed combat damage output is insanely high. The only downside is a low armor rating. Wing tore through the Lair of Beasts as a dragon, and then headed back into the main Dungeon and rampaged down several more floors. Then he ran into a orc warrior, who are usually not much of a threat at this point in the game. But this orc warrior happened to have a halberd of distortion. And when he hit Wing with it, it banished Wing to the Abyss.

Oh no.

The Abyss has also received a makeover in v0.12. What used to be an endless, random plane of chaos full of horrible demons is now five separate floors of endless planes of chaos, full of demons and several new horrors unique to the Abyss. It’s very early in the game to be banished here, and I know Wing has little chance of survival. He’s definitely not going to last long if he tries to fight, so I revert him to his natural form and put on his Boots of Running (Wing had opted to worship Okawaru for his combat-boosting abilities and armor gifts, which I hoped would fill out Wing’s limited armor slots with something useful). Then Wing runs. It’s not long until he’s being chased by some seriously terrifying things, including a Hellion, which likes to cast Torment and cut Wing’s health bar in half. But even more terrifying are the things I’d never seen before. What the hell is an Ancient Zyme? Or a Starcursed Mass? I soon find out the answer to the second question, when the Starcursed Mass that was chasing Wing splits into several Starcursed Masses, which shriek their otherworldly song and obliterate Wing’s mind. Goodbye, Wing. It was fun turning you into a dragon.

Overall, I quite like the changes in v0.12 and it’s a great reason to head back to Dungeon Crawl if you haven’t played in a while. But that’s not the only roguelike to have updated recently; DoomRL has hit v0.9.9.7, with a bunch of new content including special levels and challenges. There are also sprite graphics included by default now, although those have been in for a little while. Brogue is sitting at v0.7.2, with only minor bugfixes since the last major update. The roguelike-like Transcendence has reached v1.1, with better mod support and online stat tracking. I haven’t been back to Tales of Maj’Eyal, but it keeps updating anyway, now at v1.04. POWDER now has an Android port. The experimental user-generated roguelike Mercury is now on to Season 3, and features starting items by Michael Brough, creator of the excellent Corrypt. Roguelike-like Red Rogue is now at v1.0.3, with many bugfixes. And while there have sadly not been any updates to one of my new favorite roguelikes, Caves of Qud, the developers are planning to return to the game after they’ve finished with some commercial projects. Clearly there are plenty of other roguelikes to play while we wait.

Happy delving!

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