Roguelike Updates: This Time It’s Personal

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.

My favorite roguelike, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, has updated to v0.18.1. For many players, the most exciting part of this update may be the new god, Pakellas, who specializes in evokable devices like wands (and the associated changes to wands in the game). Or it might be the new monsters and items, or the revamped Charms spell school, or the changes to the Orcish Mines, Elven Halls and Abyss branches. It might even be the the improved interface graphics and tiles. But I will remember v0.18.1 for another reason: it was the version in which I had my first successful foray into the “extended game”, going beyond simply winning in favor of tackling the toughest challenges the game has to offer.

There will be spoilers in this post, like last time. And you’ll want to read that post too, if this post is to make much sense.

The last time I wrote about Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, I discussed how I finally learned to play spellcasters in the game, and told the story of Paula, my Deep Elf Conjurer who came within inches of winning the game before I let her down with stupid mistakes. Well, since then I managed to win with Moon, a different Deep Elf Conjurer, scoring my third ever win. But Moon did something that neither of my other victorious adventurers had managed to do: she collected a fourth rune of Zot. You see, players only need three runes of Zot in order to find the Orb of Zot and win the game, but there are actually fifteen runes available in any given foray into the Dungeon. I had never tried to find more than three runes before, but Moon had done it. And it was easy.

In fact, Moon was doing so well that I was tempted to push onwards. She had been lucky enough to find both the Staff of Elements and the Hat of the Alchemist, two special artefacts that gave her incredible defenses. But I remembered Paula’s ill-fated excursion into Hell, which she barely escaped with her life, and decided not to jeopardize my first victory as a spellcaster. So Moon simply took the Orb and escaped the Dungeon.

But I was not satisfied. When I wrote the epic saga of my first ever win in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, I tried to capture the tension and excitement of my first win in a game I’d been playing off and on for roughly six years. I had naively thought I could write about that in one post, but soon it was clear that I could not convey the complexity of the game and the magnitude of the undertaking without getting into the nitty gritty details. The single post became no less than seven huge posts, forming an account of the single most rewarding gaming moment of my life. The stiff challenge of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup rewards long-term persistence, as players gradually learn the rules and the dangers of the Dungeon, and how to adapt when things go wrong. Having spent years gradually improving at the game, Urist Redbeard’s adventure — which was taking me as far as I’d ever been in the game — was uniquely terrifying and thrilling, because I knew if I made a mistake it would all be over and I’d have to start from scratch with a new adventurer. When Urist finally stepped out of the Dungeon and into the light of day holding his prize, I felt an elation stronger than any I’ve ever felt while playing a game.

After Moon’s adventure, I started to feel that same thrill, for the first time since Urist’s ascent. Moon was more powerful than Urist had been, powerful enough that I felt she could have delved deeper into the most terrifying places in the game. Places I’d never dared tread before, places I’d only ever heard about. Places that had, until now, felt unreachable; full of unholy forces of chaos, horrible demon lords, and worse. For the first time, I felt that conquering these places was within my grasp. It was time to seek all fifteen runes of Zot.

It turns out I was smart not to push my luck with Moon, because with her (and with Paula) I had not yet appreciated a critical stratagem for playing spellcasters: channeling, or the act of restoring MP in or before battle, so one can continue casting spells. MP regenerates over time, and I had been retreating periodically for this reason, but channeling is a more direct means to restore MP. The god Sif Muna offers this ability to her worshippers, but I was worshiping Vehumet for his aid in destructive magic instead, so that was out. Various evocable items can channel MP as well, although most come with side effects and require training the Evocations skill to be useful. Then there’s the Sublimation of Blood spell, which converts health into MP. Both Paula and Moon learned this spell, but it didn’t seem very impressive at the time. Later I learned that this was due to not having trained Necromancy at all. At low power, Sublimation of Blood will barely strike even, but with just a small investment in the Necromancy skill, it becomes really useful, especially when paired with the Regeneration spell, which I was already using to recover health quickly between fights. And late in the game, there’s tons of experience available and it’s easy to train Necromancy to high levels, at which point Sublimation of Blood can be absurdly efficient for restoring MP.

By channeling like this, and using regeneration from both magic and wearable items, my spellcasters became nigh unstoppable. And with a little luck, I had another powerful Conjurer, Relahn, in the running to win the game. Just getting to this point was a significant effort, as detailed in Urist’s saga, but now I was preparing to go even further. The thrill I’d felt with Urist Redbeard was back. Relahn was venturing into the great unknown once more, and she only had one chance to emerge victorious.

With my fighters, I had always collected the same three runes in my attempts at victory. The first two were from the Lair branches, which can be different each game; either the Snake Pit or Spider Nest will appear, but not both, and the same goes for the Shoals and the Swamp. Whichever two of those generated in my game, I would plunder them and take their runes. For my third rune I would raid the Vaults. But the Vaults are harder for a spellcaster, which is why Moon had opted to try the Slime Pits instead, and had a surprisingly easy time. I had heard horror stories about the Slime Pits, full of acidic slime creatures that would surround my adventurer, corrode his equipment, and ingest him. As such, I’d never set foot there with my fighters. But conjurers care little for equipment, and can rain fire down upon groups of enemies from afar. As such, it was easy to scourge the Slime Pits with fire, and steal the slimy rune. Relahn had no more trouble than Moon did raiding this place.

The Vaults were next; my fighters would usually “stair dance” here, luring a few guards back up the stairs at a time and killing them, before stopping to rest. But retreating up the stairs gives enemies several free attacks, something my fragile spellcasters could not afford. So Relahn instead magically hasted herself, used a scroll of immolation so that enemies would explode into clouds of flame when killed, then rained Fire Storms everywhere. This dispatched most of the guards, then Relahn continued to blast enemies that converged on her position and channeled MP with Sulbimation of Blood to recharge. When things started to get too hairy she teleported to relative safety and continued the assault. Soon enough everyone was dead, and the silver rune of Zot was hers.

So far, so much like Moon’s adventure. Now it was time to try for runes I’d never seen before. All of them lay in extremely dangerous places, most of which did not have an easy avenue of escape. My first target was the Abyss, a terrible, ever-shifting plane of chaos full of demons and otherworldly horrors. I’d only ever been to the Abyss involuntarily; certain enemies can banish adventurers there, forcing them to wander until they can find a way out. Actually, that doesn’t really describe the experience. It’s more like running for one’s life and praying for an exit before the endlessly spawning enemies bring inevitable death. A powerful conjurer like Relahn, however, could hold her own against the denizens of the Abyss, and restore her MP via Sublimation of Blood so she would not be overwhelmed by the replacements that would constantly appear. She could choose to delve deeper into the Abyss rather than seek an exit, in the hopes of getting her hands on the abyssal rune.

Except, it seems she never found an entrance to the Abyss. With previous adventurers, I’d always found an entrance to the Abyss somewhere in the Depths, on my way to the Orb of Zot. But not this time. I wasn’t sure if this was just a random fluke, or if it was a new change for v0.18.1. But it was bad news, because it meant that the only way into the Abyss was likely through Pandemonium, a much more dangerous place. In fact, my choices were now to either tackle Hell or Pandemonium, neither of which appealed. I discovered later that many players consider Hell to be the more dangerous option, but I decided to head there first because there is a guaranteed escape route. Adventurers must explore to find an exit from Pandemonium, so they must be prepared for a long stay. In Hell, one can simply head back the way one came. Plus, I’d dipped in there before, not just with Paula but with some fighters also, so I knew roughly what to expect. So I headed for one of the portals to Hell.

Upon entering Hell, Relahn found herself in the Vestibule, a wide open area full of demons and the special guardian, Geryon. Geryon isn’t too tough himself, but he loves to blow his horn to summon hell beasts to his aid. Relahn was ready for the demonic hordes, and rained fire upon them all. For those who resisted fire, she blasted with massive crystal spears (at this point, she was also very skilled in Earth Magic). Channeling when necessary, she was able to lay waste to everyone in the Vestibule, including Geryon. Taking his horn for herself as a trophy, she was then able to scout the entrances to the four branches of Hell.

Each of these four branches has a theme, based on some version of the underworld. Gehenna is the biblical fiery Hell, and the Iron City of Dis references Dante’s Divine Comedy, filled with hardened metallic defenders. Cocytus is themed after the Greek underworld, with icy demons roaming its watery depths, while Tartarus references the place of imprisonment for the Titans of Greek myth, and is populated with all manner of undead. Common to all branches, however, are periodic manifestations of Hell’s mystical force. This means that, every so often, adventurers will be afflicted with some malady, from direct damage to stat loss to the sudden appearance of huge demons within melee range. These effects are the reason many players consider Hell to be the most dangerous place in the game. But, Hell is relatively easy to escape. Each branch has seven floors, but retreating from any floor (even the seventh), leads directly back to the Vestibule. And Relahn is good at restoring both her MP and health quickly, without needing to stop and rest (and endure Hell’s mystical force).

Even so, she has to make strategic retreats every so often. Since escape from any floor is quick, she simply tries to get to the deepest floor as fast as possible, not bothering to explore the earlier floors. But she sometimes finds herself out of her depth and retreats to the Vestibule to recover. Relahn opts to save Gehenna for last, since her fiery attacks will be less effective there. Instead she tackles Tartarus and Dis, waiting on Cocytus until she can muster up a little more cold resistance. In Tartarus the main challenge comes from certain creatures that emit an aura of silence, preventing spellcasting in their proximity. At one point Relahn has to kill one of these with wands she’s been carrying around (and not using), and it’s something of a close call. But she’s soon able to reach the bottom of both branches and face their demonic lords.

Each branch of Hell is home to a unique demonic lord, guarding a rune of Zot. Relahn must take great care facing these foes, known as some of the toughest adversaries in the game, who come with their own entourage of powerful demons to dispatch as well. Magical hasting, copious use of Fire Storm and other powerful attack spells, and judicious teleportation see her through. Cocytus and Gehenna follow, and soon Relahn is the proud owner of the bone rune, iron rune, icy rune and obsidian rune, plus a few more trophies looted from their guardians.

Having conquered Hell, Relahn now has no choice but to enter Pandemonium. Pandemonium is another demonic realm, but it does not have anything akin to Hell’s mystical force, so adventurers may stop to rest in peace if they can find a quiet corner. It is, however, difficult to escape, generating an infinite number of demonic planes to explore, each with its own powerful Pandemonium lord to guard it, with exits back to the dungeon appearing rarely. Even worse, there’s no way to return to a previous plane, so one must fight on or die. Somewhere in its infinite expanse lie five more runes of Zot, one of which is guarded by a random Pandemonium lord, but the other four of which have unique guardians, much like the Hellish runes. These unique lords rank among the most dangerous creatures in the game, and if an adventurer leaves their realms for the next without stealing their runes, those runes are lost forever. Relahn wants to collect every rune, so she has to be ready for a long siege on Pandemonium. She’s been saving Pandemonium for last, so she’s as ready as she’ll ever be.

But she’s distracted immediately, because the very first plane of Pandemonium contains an entrance to the Abyss. I make sure to have her explore the entire plane before leaving, just in case there’s a rune there, but all I find are demons and an unremarkable Pandemonium lord, who is easily dispatched. Satisfied that Relahn hasn’t missed out on a rune, I have her enter the Abyss.

The Abyss has changed in v0.18.1. Before, one would simply have to explore its ever-changing environment in the hopes of finding an exit, or a passage deeper. Now, fighting enough of its denizens will create these portals, and they will appear faster for low-level characters, giving them a better chance of escaping if they are unlucky enough to be banished there before they are ready. At this point Relahn can easily dispatch the eldritch horrors that lurk here, so she creates an exit almost immediately. But she’s not interested in returning to the Dungeon. She’s here for the abyssal rune, so instead she must head deeper. The rune will only appear when one has descended to at least the third level of the Abyss, with monsters spawning with increasing frequency the lower one goes. The rune has a greater chance to appear if one continues to descend, but the monsters are a threat so it’s better to simply head to the third level and keep exploring. Relahn eventually finds the rune in a vault housing a horde of spatial maletroms that eat through the walls, spawning spatial vortexes that start spinning out of control. Relahn blasts them all with fire and soon they have all dissipated, leaving Relahn free to take the rune. Then she must wander for a while, killing everything she encounters, until a portal out of the Abyss appears.

This deposits Relahn back in the Depths, outside the portal to Pandemonium. She’s able to take a short breather, but there’s nothing else for it. It’s time to head back to Pandemonium for the long haul.

By this point, Relahn’s adventure has lasted through many play sessions (Dungeon Crawl allows saving, but saves are deleted if a character dies, so it’s only useful for breaks between play sessions). I am not usually prone to obsessing over a game — wanting to play it for hours and hours and thinking about it constantly not playing — something I attribute in part to the fact that my parents actively disallowed marathon gaming sessions when I was younger. But now I was indeed obsessed, even more so than I’d been when guiding Urist on my first ever victory. Relahn had already endured more than Urist ever had, and things were only going to get more dangerous. A single mistake and all that work would be lost. Other games I’d been playing or meaning to play were forgotten; there was only Dungeon Crawl and Relahn’s quest for supremacy. Any time I had for idle thought during the day was spent pondering Relahn’s quest, going over everything again and again in my mind to be sure I wasn’t overlooking a stratagem or approach I might need as I forged ahead. Relahn’s quest had taken over my mind, and I knew the only way to be free of it would be to see it through. My biggest fear was that, if it turned out I were not up to the task and Relahn met her demise, I would not be freed after all, remaining obsessed until I was able to lead another Conjurer through to the end. This was my chance to be done with it. I couldn’t fail.

Relahn’s time in Pandemonium was not exciting in the traditional sense, because most of the time she was more than a match for anything she encountered. But the random nature of Pandemonium meant it was often a long wait before she found a plane containing a rune and its accompanying spike in danger. The rest of the time just served to draw out the tension and keep me on edge for long periods of time. Relahn just kept going, and I couldn’t relax. When she did finally stumble upon one of the unique planes of Pandemonium that contained a rune, and a mighty and legendary unique Pandemonium lord with an army of huge demons, it led to a truly epic battle. I had to take my time with every move and carefully consider every threat, but Relahn was absurdly powerful. She was able to rain destruction on them all, and steal their runes. After what felt like an eternity, Relahn had found the demonic rune, fiery rune, glowing rune, magical rune, and dark rune. She then made her escape via the Abyss, and emerged into the relative safety of the Depths once more.

Relahn now had fourteen runes. Only one challenge remained: The Tomb of the Ancients. I had purposely kept this place for last, even though I’d found its entrance long ago, because, frankly, I was terrified of it. Themed after ancient Egypt, it’s full of mummies and their guardians, who are not only powerful adversaries but can inflict nasty death curses upon adventurers who kill them. The tougher the mummy, the more potent the curse, and given Relahn’s predilection for burning through hordes of enemies all at once, she could easily be killed outright as multiple curses hit all at once. I would have to be extremely careful here, but my success in Hell and Panemonium had given me some measure of confidence. The Tomb was the only place left to explore, so Relahn could never be more ready than she was now. She headed in.

The Tomb, unlike most other places in the game, has a more or less fixed layout every time. It’s designed to guide Adventurers through gauntlets of traps and into huge ambushes. In retrospect, after learning where everything is, I can see how a clever adventurer might circumvent parts of it, and thus avoid much of the danger, but neither Relahn nor I knew this going in, so she goes through with brute force. We both soon learn to hate the greater mummies that inhabit the place, as they take a long time to kill, hurl powerful magic of their own, and inflict the most severe death curses of all when killed (akin to the effects of Hell’s mystical force, but worse). Relahn is forced to fight a battle of attrition, retreating often, killing only a few enemies with each offensive, and using a lot of the consumable items she’d collected in order to recover. There was no reason to hoard them anymore.

At this point, knowing Relahn was so close to her goal, I couldn’t bear to take a break, even though it was getting late. I knew I should go to sleep, but doubted I’d be able to get any rest until this was settled. So I stayed up to see Relahn through to the end. After a long, cautious trench battle through the Tomb, Relahn finally reached the central chamber and takes the golden rune. She’d gotten her hands on all fifteen runes, and as the game itself said in the message log, it was time to go win.

Except Relahn also found something else: a figurine of a ziggurat. This was a reminder that there is one more challenge in the game. A ziggurat is a series of twenty-seven battle arenas, of increasing difficulty. Behind the enemies on each floor are exits and portals deeper, but if an adventurer exits, she cannot reenter. So it’s a gamble whether one can survive all the way to the bottom floor, which can very well present the most dangerous fight in the game. An entrance to a ziggurat always spawns in the Depths, but I’d forgotten about it. The figurine I’d just found can be used to open a portal to another ziggurat, if I so chose, and usually there are figurines at the ends of ziggurats themselves, so expert players can try to complete as many increasingly difficult ziggurats as possible.

Having never gotten this far before, I wasn’t interested in pushing my luck that far. But I realized this was a rare chance to actually try to conquer a ziggurat. Did I really want to win now, and forever wonder if I could handle a ziggurat? Did I want to lead yet another Conjurer all the way here again, just to try it? No, if I could get this far I could handle a ziggurat. It would be Relahn’s final challenge.

So I headed to the portal in the Depths, which I’d ran past long ago. Before entering, I dropped a lot of the items I didn’t need (mostly trophies from various demon lords Relahn had slain) to make room for the treasure I was sure to find. Then I headed inside.

The early floors were anticlimactic, with small packs of enemies that Relahn slew with ease. Each floor was themed after one of the locations in the game, and might contain (for example) a pack of spiders like those found in the Spider Nest, or a horde of undead common to the Crypt. For most of it, Relahn had no trouble at all. She looted spellbooks and tons of artefact jewelry, some of which was better than what she had on already. She also blasted everything with cleansing flame, often killing things before they were even within visual range. Even as the floors got larger and housed more and more enemies, Relahn was able to dispatch them all with little effort. But as I neared the bottom I began to fear what I’d find on the final floor.

The true challenge actually came on the twenty-fifth floor, when Relahn found a pack of mummies like those she’d faced in the Tomb. But this time there was no safe place to retreat. Just a wide open space filled with these deadly adversaries. Relahn rained fire upon them all, but she wasn’t able to kill the greater mummies quickly enough, and soon they had summoned demonic assistance and Relahn was severely wounded. It was the hardest fight she’d had so far, and I sat back and stared at the screen for a while, pondering what to do. It would be heartbreaking to lose Relahn now, due to my own hubris in raiding this place, when she could have easily escaped with all fifteen runes. I forced myself to think calmly and rationally. I tried using some of the healing items Relahn had collected from all the treasure vaults she’d raided, but her adversaries were dishing out as much damage as she could heal. So I resorted to very careful, strategic teleports, to get out of visual range of many of the enemies so she could focus on taking down those greater mummies. Miraculously, I succeeded, and their summoned allies dispersed with their death. Relahn was nearly dead, her stats and abilities drained by death curses, but she was alive. She rested up, and raided the treasure.

I pondered whether to continue onwards, or make a break for it. As I did so, I realized that a better way to handle that battle would have been to use Earth Magic rather than Fire Magic. Mummies don’t fly, so the Shatter spell could deal huge damage to more of them at a time than a simple Fire Storm could, and by this point Relahn has mastered Earth Magic, so it would be just as powerful as her flaming attacks. That realization steeled my resolve, and I pushed onwards.

I needn’t have worried. The last two floors were nowhere near as difficult (they didn’t have any mummies), and Relahn emerged victorious. The bottom of the ziggurat contained another ziggurat figurine, but enough was enough. She’d found all fifteen runes and conquered a ziggurat. It was time to go. Relahn exited the ziggurat, picked up the trophies she’d left outside, and prepared to take the Orb of Zot.

Her victory was easy, as I suspected. She’d already killed everything guarding the Orb of Zot long ago, before venturing to Hell, so she simply picked it up and started climbing. The Orb periodically tried to summon aid, but nothing it spawned could threaten Relahn. Even the occasional Pandemonium lord was no match for her now. She blasted everything that got in her path and climbed up and out of the Dungeon with ease. She’d made it out, with the Orb and all fifteen runes of Zot.

I’m happy to report that her victory did, in fact, release me from my obsession. The feeling of relief was not immediate, as the residual stress of the experience lingered. But the next day I felt so much better. My thoughts were clear again, my mind free to ponder other things. To think of other games, other activities, other tasks. If my descriptions of this endeavor have sounded unpleasant, even unhealthy, know that my success was unquestionably beneficial. I had proven myself, even if I was only proving myself to myself. And sometimes that is needed. It is easy, when faced with similar tasks and challenges every day, to feel that one is stagnating. New challenges, and new triumphs, do wonders for one’s confidence and peace of mind. Achieving this victory was not unlike mastering a complex piece of music, or (I surmise) a physical feat such as running a marathon or climbing a mountain. My challenge was mental — one of learning, adapting, and enduring under pressure — and it left me with a profound sense of accomplishment and renewed confidence. I have felt a dim shadow of this feeling when playing other games, but only Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has offered anything so fulfilling. I can say with certainty that it was worth the ordeal.

I wondered, at first, if this meant I was finished with the game. But I don’t think so. There are always other character types and strategies to try, and the game is constantly being updated with new things. Some of the changes in v0.18.1 were very helpful in Relahn’s quest, like the new amulets of magic regeneration, which help spellcasters get back into action quicker both before and after they’ve found a reliable means of channeling. Other changes I barely touched, like the new god Pakellas. I’m interested to try these things, to test new strategies against the Dungeon’s might, but I doubt I will ever feel quite the same sense of accomplishment again. Instead, I will play Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup the same way I play other games, able to enjoy the experience without it becoming an all-consuming ordeal.

But not right away. Now, it is time to return to all the other games I’ve been meaning to play. I’d even started one of them, but then left it unplayed for over a month as I learned magic in the Dungeon. It’s time to finish that game and others, to take a break from the Dungeon’s rigors and revisit all of the other things I love about games. And I’ll be sure to write about it all here.

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is available for free, both as a download and an online browser version. It can be everything from a short diversion to a monumental struggle like that described above. And it’s constantly evolving with new updates and changes. In short, it’s a game that will be a lifelong companion. You should try it.

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