Roguelike Updates: Square Dancing On Stilts

Readers unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction to the genre, and possibly peruse some of my Roguelike Highlights posts. And maybe read about why we might want to start calling them deathcrawls instead. Also, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

I haven’t had as much time to play roguelikes as I’d (rogue) like, so this coverage of recent updates is far from comprehensive. But I have managed to follow the latest developments for Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Caves of Qud, and Approaching Infinity. Read on for some thoughts.

First, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, which is now at v0.17.1. The update is titled “Squaring the Circle”, because the area a character can see is now a square around their position instead of a rough circle. While that may seem odd, the reasoning is sound: movement in diagonal directions takes the same amount of in-game time as movement in cardinal directions, but players and monsters couldn’t see as far diagonally as they could in other directions. That meant, for example, that sneaking up on an enemy was easier if done diagonally. The square sightline solves this without resorting to confusing tricks like diagonal movement taking more time.

There are other changes as well, mostly a huge slew of rule tweaks, but there are also some new items and monsters and other interesting stuff. What I ended up playing with most, however, are some older changes to the spellcasting classes. In an effort to try out some new race and class combinations, I used the “random viable character” option when starting games, which randomly picks a race and then an occupation that that race is good at, rather than a truly random selection which might offer some really difficult combinations. One of the characters I got was a Deep Elf Conjurer, a pure spellcasting character. If you’ve read my earlier Roguelike Updates posts, you may remember that I’ve never really learned to play a pure spellcaster effectively. I’ve wanted to learn, however, so I went to the (spoiler-filled!) wiki page for Dungeon Crawl and checked if anyone had written a strategy guide for a Deep Elf Conjurer.

Someone has! It’s really old, actually, but it turns out that some big changes to the starting spells available to Conjurers happened way back in v0.13 that I wasn’t aware of, and the guide does a good job of describing how to make the most of them. The new and tweaked spells make Conjurers much easier in the early game, and do a much better job of teaching the player about the strategy needed to use magic effectively.

First, let me say that it’s not at all obvious that a Conjurer would be the default magic-using occupation to pick. It sounds like someone who engages in party tricks or summonings, rather than someone who hurls magical fire at her enemies. But what a Conjurer actually does in the game is specialize in Conjurations, the school of magic associated with offensive spells. Other magic schools that sound like they would be all about attack magic, like Fire Magic or Ice Magic, are actually more general; anything involving ice, including spells that create icy armor or cool down the caster to slow their hunger rate [EDIT: I was confused about this spell, it actually slows down nearby enemies], fall under Ice Magic. The offensive spells, like Throw Frost or Bolt of Cold, belong to both Ice Magic and Conjurations. Conjurations is the one to get if you want to blast enemies with magic.

Conjurers start with a spellbook containing non-elemental conjuration spells, which means they are equally effective against all enemies. And the selection is a nice mix, demonstrating how to use different magical attacks effectively without being too powerful, so they still need to be supplanted with better spells later in the game. The weakest spell is Magic Dart, which is like the magical equivalent of a standard weapon attack. It only costs one magic point to cast, it never misses (although enemies can absorb all the damage sometimes) and it has no hunger cost, but it doesn’t hurt enemies much. Other spells get more interesting: Searing Ray cleverly introduces the concept of a “beam” spell, which can pierce through several enemies in a straight line. Searing Ray starts out weak, but the caster can continue casting it on consecutive turns by simply standing still and waiting. This costs additional magic points each turn, but it also makes the beam more and more powerful, until it is eventually tearing through several enemies at once. It’s a good introduction for how to use more powerful spells like Bolt of Fire that characters may learn later in the game, but since it takes several turns to reach full power it’s much less versatile than those higher-level spells.

Then there are spells like Dazzling Spray, which fires like a shotgun blast that can hit multiple enemies and temporarily daze them, or Iskendrun’s Mystic Blast, which is a powerful single-target spell with a chance to explode on impact, acting like a weaker version of the Fireball spell that characters will use later in the game. There’s also Fulminant Prism, which places a magical “mine” on a space that will explode after a few turns. If monsters destroy it, though, it will do less damage, or none at all if they get it right away. But with careful positioning it can be very useful.

The best spell of the bunch, however, is Iskendrun’s Battlesphere. This summons a battlesphere that follows the caster around and fires a powerful blast of energy any time the caster blasts an enemy with a different spell. For example, if the caster has a battlesphere active, she can cast a magic dart at an enemy, and the battlesphere will fire a much more powerful blast at that same enemy. Since the battlesphere lasts for a short while, casters can summon it and then go around shooting enemies with cheap Magic Darts to trigger the battlesphere’s destructive magic.

The goal with a Conjurer, then, is to be able to cast Iskendrun’s Battlesphere as soon as possible. This is easier said than done, however, because spellcasting in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is complex. Spells cost magic points to cast (which recharge over time), but also make the caster more hungry, and they have a chance to fail completely if the caster’s skills aren’t high enough. Spell hunger can be mitigated by training the Spellcasting skill, but that won’t help much in terms of casting success rate; for that, skill in the individual school(s) of magic are what matter most. So, conjurers must train up their Conjurations skill in order to learn and reliably cast Iskendrun’s Battlesphere. Just to complicate things further, characters can only memorize a certain number of spells at a time, a number that increases when gaining levels and training the Spellcasting skill, and wearing heavy armor will impede casting ability.

That’s a lot of stuff to juggle, but by focusing only on Conjurations and the spells available in the starting spellbook, characters can learn the basics relatively easily. Those starting spells are enough to get through the early game, and after that spellcasters can become much more versatile, learning spells from other schools and amassing a useful array of magic for all situations. After many attempts, I managed to get a Deep Elf Conjurer into the mid-game, and was enjoying it immensely. It was very different than playing a fighter, as I usually do. Spellcasters can be amazingly powerful in combat, but if they run out of magic points, they find themselves helpless. This never happens to fighters. It meant I had to be very careful about managing my resources, and cautious because my Conjurers were far less resilient than my fighters. But slinging magic around was great fun, and I’m excited for the opportunities that would be available to a powerful spellcaster, who would be better equipped to handle some of the extra-tough, optional locations in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. If I find some more free time, I’ll take some more Conjurers for a spin.

That’s what I spent most of my roguelike time doing, but I’ve also been keeping an eye on Caves of Qud. It’s been updating regularly during its stint in Steam Early Access, and I did play it some more after my last post about it. I got far enough to confirm that the main quest line has not been extended from what was there in the original freeware version (yet). I was initially disappointed that recent updates did not involve adding more to the story, instead focusing on fleshing out the Six Day Stilt, religious center of the Mechanimist faction. But then I remembered that the developers eventually intend to add a quest line for each faction, rather than having a single “main” quest to follow.

The current quest line in the game involves the Barathrumites, scientifically-inclined sentient cave-bears who are a good choice for those who like tinkering up some artifacts from salvaged scrap. Which I do. The Mechanimists, on the other hand, worship these ancient relics without understanding them. While I haven’t been to the Stilt to learn more yet, I’m guessing that players who want to use the powerful ancient technology of Qud without investing a lot of time and effort into building their own gadgets might prefer siding with the Mechanimists. I hope that future updates bring a full quest line and story to the faction.

Checking now, I see that the latest update improves support for user-made mods, letting players add their own artifacts, blueprints, books, quests, and more to the game. It will be interesting to see what people come up with. Updates continue on a weekly schedule, and what’s there already is great, so I think the $10 price tag is easily worth it.

Last on the list is Approaching Infinity, which I liked a lot. It’s a game I hope more people play, but fear they may be turned off by the $40 price tag and the fact that it’s only availabe direct from publishers Shrapnel Games rather than from the more popular online retailers. I think it’s worth it. The new update brings the game to v1.3 and adds some new officer classes, a new alien race, and new quests from an existing group who are found deep underneath the surfaces of planets. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, but it sounds like a great excuse to get back out into space.

I’m sure there are many other roguelikes with interesting updates, but these are the ones I was following. If you know of a particularly interesting update I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments. May you have many procedurally generated adventures!

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