@Play: Which Is Better, Ring Mail or Splint Mail?

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

Gary Gygax was a weird person. I won’t get into his life or history or, the casual misogyny of AD&D character creation, or the Random Harlot Table. But he did know a lot about medieval weaponry and armor, and to some degree this obsessive interest seeped out and infected a whole generation of nerds.

How useful is this armor in protecting someone? Five. It is five useful. (Image from National Museum in Krakow)

I know which is generally better: leather armor, studded leather armor, ring mail, chain mail, splint mail, plate mail or plate armor. I know that, although in life each is different, battles are random, and there’s countless factors that might determine who would win in a fight, the order in which I have given them is roughly how effective they are, because it’s the order that Armor Class increases, sorry decreases, in classic Dungeons & Dragons.

While the list of armors is presented, in practically every Player’s Handbook, with their effects on protection right there in order, unless you’re steeped in the material, it is not obvious, just from reading the names of the items, which is supposed to be better than another.

Splint Mail was rare in Europe during the medieval period. It’s also really hard to Google Image Search for without ending up with pictures taken from D&D material!(Image from Wikipedia)

This is a considerable roadblock, and one I struggled with for a while, when I first tried to learn to play Rogue, because that game expects you to know how effective each piece of armor is. You start out with Ring Mail +1. You find a suit of Splint Mail. Should you switch? People who play nearly any classic roguelike are going to run against this eventually. Even now, some games just expect you to know the relative strengths of each.

If you decide to take the chance and try it on, to Rogue’s (and Nethack’s) credit, it tells you immediately how effective the armor is on the status line, and you can compare its value to your past item. To Rogue’s (and Nethack’s) detriment though, if the new armor is cursed, you’re stuck with it, until you can lift the curse (to a new player, unlikely) or die (very likely). And then, unless you’ve been taking notes, you’ll still probably forget the relationship between the two items, meaning you’ll have to guess their relative value again later, and deal with the same risk.

Classic D&D tended to give short shrift to the intricacies of real-life armor use, simplifying a complex topic beyond perhaps what was appropriate. AD&D attempted to remedy that by going overboard, giving each armor ratings according to its bulkiness, how much of the wearer’s body it covered, how much it weighed and how it restricted movement. Gygax’s tendency towards simulation is responsible for some of the most interesting parts of the game, but it didn’t help him here I think.

Most classic roguelikes, at least, use the “bag of Armor Class” approach to armor, which is probably for the best. Nethack probably goes to far in the Gygaxian direction. If you find Plate Mail in Nethack, you’re almost entirely better off just leaving it on the ground, even despite armor’s huge value, because it’s simply too heavy. Even if you can carry it without dipping into Burdened status, or, heaven help you, Stressed, its mass and bulk lowers the number of other items you can carry before you reach Stressed, and carrying many other items is of great importance. This is the secret reason that the various colors of Dragon Scale Mail are so powerful in Nethack: it’s not that they have the highest best AC in the game (though they do), it’s that they’re also really light! Even if you don’t get the color you want, it takes concern about the weight of armor completely off your list of worries.

The use of armor underwent revision throughout D&D’s development. (This page lists the changes in detail.) For reference, the relative quality of D&D, and thus roguelike, armor goes like this.

NameNew-Style Ascending Armor ClassOld-Style Descending Armor Class
Leather Armor28
Studded Leather & Ring Mail37
Scale Mail46
Chain Mail55
Splint Mail & Banded Mail64
Plate Mail73
Plate Armor82

Why the difference in values? Up until the 3rd edition of D&D, Armor Class started at 10 and counted down as it improved. 3E updated a lot of the game’s math, and changed the combat formula so that AC was a bonus to the defender’s chance to be missed instead of a penalty to the attacker’s chance to strike. Because of that, now it starts at 10 and counts up. The changeover was a whole to-do, I assure you, but now two editions later we barely look back. Back in that day others were confused by the system too, and even Rogue used an ascending armor score. But Nethack, to this day, uses original D&D’s decreasing armor class system.

If you compare those values to those used in 5th Edition, you’ll notice that even the new-style numbers don’t match up completely. As I said, while the relative strengths have remained consistent, if not constant, the numbers continue to change slightly between versions.

That concludes this introductory level class. You’re dismissed! If you’re looking into the relative effects of different polearms… that’s the graduate-level seminar, down the hall.

@Play: Glorious Adventure in the Mystery Dungeon

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

It’s the shortest @Play column ever!

What is happening here? This is the newest Mystery Dungeon game, Shiren the Wander: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island. It’s actually a great deal of fun, a sharply-designed entry in the long-running classic roguelike series.

This isn’t “roguelike” like half the games on Steam. This is a true roguelike, even if it doesn’t have ASCII graphics: a turn-based RPG with substantial randomized elements, that demands that you live (or not) by your tactics, strategy and wits. I don’t begrudge others appropriation of the term, but it does mean I have to now use the qualifier classic when I want to discuss the old style. Really, it’s better to call games not in the original style roguelite.

The dungeon depicted is Heart of Serpentcoil Island, the traditional end megadungeon that most Mystery Dungeon games have. After finishing the “main” dungeon, and playing a lot of extra bonus dungeons that each show off a specific element of the game’s engine, there’s the megadungeon: a 99-level gauntlet of terror where you enter at level 1. None of the items you’ve collected throughout the rest of the game will help you here. You must start from scratch with just a riceball. You don’t even have a weapon or a shield to begin with: everything you have, you must find along the way.

The game doesn’t pull many punches in this dungeon, as you can see. At experience level 1, every space in a room (other than the entrances: that’s a secret tip for you!) could contain a game-ending trap. The only consolation is that they’re really quite rare! I was exceptionally unlucky in this run.

Additionally, the uses of many of the items, the scrolls, grasses, pots, bracelets and incense found in the dungeon, are unknown: their effects must be discovered, through means both blatant and subtle, for yourself. Some of them will be essential to your survival, let alone success; others, like the Ill-fated Seed, you really want to avoid using.

It’s a ludicrous test of knowledge and skill, and a fitting capstone to the game. If the experience shown in the video seems like it might put you off, at least it shows conclusively that the game isn’t taking it easy on you. If you win, and it can be won, it’s a great accomplishment. I’m still working on this one myself; I’ll let you know how it goes.

Roguelike Celebration Talks Start Tomorrow!

Ah, it crept up on me, so let me remind everyone that Roguelike Celebration begins today, although until tomorrow it just means they’re opening their social space for awhile. Nicole Carpenter at Polygon wrote a short piece about this year’s conference.

There is an admittance fee, but if you can’t afford it you can also get a free pass! Please consider paying them if you are able though, they do a lot of work every year in putting it together.

Here is the official schedule (linked), below is it presented just as a list of talks, with ✨sparkle emojis✨ around the things that personally enthuse me. ✨Just because!✨

Times given are US Pacific/Eastern. If you think the short times between starts are indicative of short talks, most of them aren’t that short, they have two tracks going on beside each other:

SATURDAY

9:30 AM/12:30 PM: Arron A. Reed, Klingons, Hobbits, and the Oregon Trail: Procedural Generation in ✨the First Decade of Text Games

10:00 AM/ 1 PM: Nic Tringali, ✨Abstract Space Exploration✨ in The Banished Vault

10:30 AM/ 1:30 PM: Linas Gabrielaitis, Fictions of Infinity in ✨Geological Finitudes

10:45 AM/1:45 PM: Ludipe, Exploring ✨Pacifist✨ Roguelikes

11:30 AM/2:30 PM: Florence Smith Nicholls, Another Stupid Date: ✨Love Island as a Roguelike

11:45 AM/2:45 PM Kes, Hunting the Asphynx: Roguelikes, ✨Provenance✨, and You

Noon/3 PM: Mike Cook, Generating Procedures: ✨Rule and System Generation✨ for Roguelikes

1:30 PM/4:30 PM: Scott Burger, The ✨Data Science✨ of Roguelikes

2 PM/5 PM: Nat Alison, In Defense of ✨Hand-Crafted Sudoku

3 PM/6 PM: Eric Billingsley, Scoped-down design: ✨Making a Tiny Roguelike

3:30 PM/6:30 PM: Elliot Trinidad, Touching Grass & Taking Names: Tuning the ✨Blaseball✨ Name Generator

4:30 PM/7:30 PM: Paul Hembree, Audible Geometry: Coordinate Systems as a Resource for ✨Music Generation

5 PM/8 PM: Jurie Horneman, Why ✨Dynamic Content Selection✨ Is Hard

SUNDAY

9:30 AM/12:30 PM: Mark Johnson, ✨Generating Riddles✨ for a Generated World

10 AM/1 PM: Jesse Collet & Keni, Fireside Chat About the Development of ✨NetHack

10:30 AM/1:30 PM: ✨Leigh Alexander✨, ✨McMansions of Hell✨: Roguelikes and Reality TV

1 PM/4 PM: Ray, Remixing the Layer Cake: Facilitating ✨Fan Reinterpretation✨ Through ✨Caves of Qud✨’s Modular Data Files

1:15 PM/4:15 PM: Crashtroid, Preventing Ear Fatigue with ✨Roguelike Music

1:30 PM/4:30 PM: Everest Pipkin, The Fortunate Isles: Fragment Worlds, Walled Gardens, and ✨the Games That Are Played There

2 PM/5 PM: ✨Jeff Olson✨, ✨Alphaman✨: Developing and Releasing a Post-Apocalyptic Roguelike Game in the ✨DOS Days✨ When Computers Were Slow, Memory Was Scarce, and No One Had Ever Heard of Object-Oriented Code

3 PM/6 PM: Dustin Freeman, ✨Live Action Roguelike

3:30 PM/6:30 PM: Jonathan Lessard, A ✨Simulation✨ with a View

3:45 PM/6:45 PM: Tom Francis, Generating ✨Boring Levels✨ for Fresh Experiences in Heat Signature

4 PM/7 PM: Patrick Kemp, Design Tooling at ✨Spry Fox

5 PM/8 PM: Stav Hinenzon, A Messy Approach to ✨Dynamic Narrative✨ in Sunshine Shuffle

5:15 PM/8:15 PM: Josh Galecki, ✨Procedurally Generating Puzzles

5:30 PM/8:30 PM: Jasper Cole, ✨Backpack Hero✨ – Player Upgrades and Progression

6 PM/9 PM: Brianna McHorse & Chris Foster, Fusing AI with Game Design: Let the ✨Chaos✨ In

The Worst Possible Day to Play Nethack

As we’re reminded by abadidea on Mastodon, that day is today, October 13, 2023.

Nethack uses the system time-of-day clock to affect the game in modest ways. It figures out the phase of the moon, and if it’s a full moon the player’s “base luck,” the number at which it starts and tends to trend towards, is +1. Luck affects the game in many minor ways, most notably affecting the to-hit chances of striking monsters. Full moons also affect werecreatures and the chances to tame dogs, but those effects are highly situational.

Playing on a new moon has one effect, but it’s a big one. If you’re fighting a cockatrice and you hear its hissing, and are not carrying a lizard corpse, then you always begin turning to stone, instead of there only being a one-in-ten chance. This is what is called a “delayed instadeath”: you don’t die immediately, but if you don’t take immediate action it’ll happen in the next few turns. That’s the next few turns from the game’s perspective: various events may conspire to prevent you from getting that action at all. (The Nethack Wiki’s page on petrification is instructive.)

If you do get the turn, one of the things you can do is eat a lizard corpse, or that of another acidic monster. (Eating dead monsters raw is something you just end up doing often in Nethack.) If those aren’t at hand, what usually works is prayer, provided that you haven’t prayed too recently, your patron god is not angry with you and you’re not in Gehennom. Ordinarily, if you haven’t been playing badly, your god isn’t mad at you. If you’re in Gehennom you’re in the late game anyway, and probably have had ample opportunity to obtain one of the several ways of halting impending calcification.

Prayer is nearly a universal panacea, if it’s available. But there is one other thing that can block prayer: if your luck is negative. Even if it’s by just one point, prayer will never work.

That’s where the only other date effect in Nethack comes into play: on Friday the 13th, your luck defaults to -1, the opposite of the full moon effect. So, unless you’ve increased your luck by one of a number of means, prayer will never work on Friday the 13th. And today is both a new moon night and Friday the 13th. Other uses for prayer won’t work either: if you’re weak from hunger? Too bad. Low on hit points? Sorry. Punished with a ball and chain? Not going to work. Wearing cursed levitation boots? LOL.

Days that both have a new moon and are a Friday the 13th are rare. The last one was in July of 2018, before that November of 2015, and the one before that was in 1999. So, um, if you’ve been thinking about trying out this weird old roguelike game you’ve heard about, you might want to wait a bit. Until tomorrow, anyway.

Shiren the Wander 6 is Out in February!

Chunsoft has announced a new Shiren the Wanderer game, Shiren the Wanderer: The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, for Nintendo Switch, due out on February the 27th! Some of the most popular columns from @Play on GameSetWatch were the screenshotted play I demonstrated of the fan translation of Super Famicom Shiren, and if the comments on the trailer are something to be trusted, there’s still a diehard group of fans out there.

Interestingly, the theme of this one is “back to basics,” suggesting that some of the greater mutations of the more recent games, like the Night rules, equipment experience and such, will be pared back. Some of those rules I like and some I don’t, but I have said that more recent Shiren games, while fun, feel like they’re lacking something. Some of the series enhancements starting from around Shiren 4 (which never got an official English release) I have issues with, particularly, monsters always going straight through blind intersections if they have no knowledge of Shiren’s location, allowing the player to take advantage of the AI to avoid conflict; and that Shiren’s healing rate actually decreases, not just relative to maximum HP but in absolute terms, as he gains experience levels. These are relatively minor qualms though, and most players won’t even notice them.

Here is that trailer:

Some noteworthy elements are the return of Shiren’s lady friend Asuka (who despite appearances is several years older than him), and of giant-sized boss battles, possibly using some of the engine enhancements done to facilitate large Pokemon in Rescue Team DX. I also appreciate that the story appears to be a naked grab for loot! It’s always felt to me that a wanderer’s life is, or should be, a hard-scrabble existence, and while our rogueish characters may affect the fate of the world, they’re still usually in it for themselves. That way, if they fail (and they fail often), you can laugh at them more than feel sorry for them.

I keep trying to do more @Play columns but other work continues to get in the way. I have a fair number of subjects to write about now though, not the least of which being my ill-advised decision to buy the super-skeevy Omega Labyrinth Life on Switch. I feel like paying money for that might have gotten my name on a list somewhere, so I might as well get some column inches out of it!

Roguelike Celebration Preview Videos

A little while ago Roguelike Celebration, this year on October 22 and 23 (later this month!), did a short preview as a promotional event. I mentioned this before, it came and went, and now the talks are online.

Nic Junius: Play as in Stage Play (38 minutes):

David Brevik on the Making of Diablo (30 minutes):

And, Aron Pietroń, Michał Ogłoziński on Against the Storm (35 minutes):

The Digital Antiquarian on Rogue and Successors

[EDIT: link fixed, thanks to the Grogpod Roguelike Podcast for pointing it out!]

I’ve been thinking about doing more @Play lately, but in the meantime, please read this mostly nice, lengthy article from The Digital Antiquarian on Rogue and its legacy. I say mostly because there are a few minor points I disagree with. Maybe I’ve played too much of it, but experienced players tend to view vanilla Nethack as maybe a bit too easy. There’s a ton to learn, but once you’ve internalized it all, you come to realize that most situations have counters, and it comes down to knowing what they are, and not pushing your luck too far. Ah! I’ve not said much on Nethack for years now! I should get back to doing that….

A screen of Amiga Rogue, from the linked article

The Digital Antiquarian: Going Rogue

Roguelike Celebration Preview Event on September 10th

The fine folks at Roguelike Celebration are holding a free “fireside chat” style preview event next month on the 10th, at 4pm US Pacific time, 7pm Eastern! Any rogue-likers out there should definitely have a look.

  • David Brevik will talk about the development of Diablo, a game that I understand some people greatly enjoy!
  • Aron Pietroń and Michał Ogłoziński will talk about hardcore city-building survival game Against the Storm!
  • Nic Junius will be presenting a talk titled “Play as in Stage Play: Designing Dynamic Narrative Moments Through Character Acting.”

You can submit a question for the talks here, and get a free ticket for them here! And look forward to the full Roguelike Celebration 2023 event on October 22 and 23!

@Play: The Angband Family Tree

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

It’s finally time. Time to reveal the maelstrom of roguelike games which has, as its center, the game of Angband.

You might be interested in our other recent columns on Angband: Re-introduction, Getting Started, and Version History.

Here is a chart of the 100-plus variants of Angband (homepage) that we know of. RogueBasin and the variants table at Tangaria were both major sources for this. You might have to right-click it and download to view it without blurring. Here’s a direct download of the PNG.

The degree to which these games have been changed from the original varies tremendously, from slightly hacks to repurposings to entire other games. In ToME, Angband was used as a base that would be completely rewritten, twice, and turned into something completely separate. Many of these games could have whole articles written about them. I’ve written at least one so far, on Zangband.

Looking through the chart, one can find two great jumping-off points from Angband’s source tree. One is PC Angband 1.3.1, largely because of being the original base of Zangband, and the other is Angband 2.8.3, which was the site of legendary maintainer Ben Harrison’s great cleanup of the code, which made it much easier to create variants than it had been.

Looking at the list, one might get the impression that this list also serves as a timeline, but that would be in error. Some variants would be updated over time, bringing in features from later in Angband’s development, and this chart doesn’t reflect that, and sometimes a game wouldn’t branch off from the newest version of the code. Please keep this in mind when looking through it.

A few interesting finds from the list:

Steamband is a complete reskinning in a kind of Jules Verne pulp steampunk style. It is what we might call a literary game, taking direct inspiration from a particular corpus of stories in the same way as Call of Cthulhu or Gygax era Dungeons & Dragons. In it, you start in a town in the center of the Earth, and try to ascend to the surface. It has some interesting ideas around the theme, but I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly because of its “race” system, which is easy to perceive as actually racist. I think its intent was to present the racial attitudes of the fiction works from which it was derived, which were really terrible, but it comes across, not to mince words, as gross these days.

There are two My Little Pony variants, based off of the “G4” version of the franchise that became meme popular for about 45 minutes of web time. Ponyband, a.k.a. My Little Angband: Dungeons Are Magic, derives from the popular 2.8.3 branch; Anquestria got its basis from the later 3.2.0.

ToME, a fairly popular variant, has the distinction of not only having a living homepage, but is also available on Steam and GoG. It has a free version, but other features are available to paying players. It’s a game that’s changed a great deal over time, starting out as Tales of Middle Earth. Now, little of its Tolkien basis remains, and its name has been retconned into “Tales of Maj’Eyal,” because you gotta have an apostrophe. Its page vaguely gives it an air of being an MMORPG, but I think it’s still a strictly single-player game. It is a game that, judging from comments, there is a great deal to get stuck into, but to my eyes it has a lost the simplicity of its origin, and it’s not an easy game to pick up. It is still under development though, and that is beyond laudatory for a game of its age and lineage.

Ironband is a challenge variant, intended to make the original game even harder. An “ironman” mode, preventing the player from going upstairs, forcing them to descend ever deeper, is part of the base game now. Ironband dates back to 2012, which may be before this mode was added, although I cannot date its inclusion conclusively right now. But whether is or not, by devoting itself to this mode of play, it is free to be completely redesigned around it. So, Ironband has streamlines the game in its service, removing races and classes, and giving the player all of their options at once. After the start of the game, there are no shops at all; everything the player gains after that point must come from the dungeon floor. Because all characters can use all things, there’s much fewer completely useless items. The “stat gain floor” phenomenon, where you have to grind on certain floors to get necessary potions to improve your attributes or risk almost certain death, has also been alleviated. Because dungeon progress is one way, it refreshes the skill points that your abilities require upon entering a new level, which is an interesting play decision: if you run out of SP, you can get them back by advancing a floor, but at the cost of increasing the game’s difficulty, possibly earlier than you’d want.

@Play: Highest-Rated Games of 7DRL 2023, Part One

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

It’s been a while since we had a look at the roguelike space. I’ve been waiting to make @Play’s return a review of some of the games of 7DRL 2023. Scoring is finally done, so we have a solid top-ten, or rather top 11, since there’s a three-way tie for 9th place.

7DRL stands for Seven-Day Roguelike, a game jam where people try to complete a roguelike game in one week’s time. While you don’t have to participate strictly during a specific week, people who participated this year from March 3rd to March 13th, and made their projects available through the popular and wonderful indie game distribution platform itch.io, could have their games rated by the community and included in the 7DRL 2023 itch collection.

Long ago when @Play was on GameSetWatch (R.I.P.), one year we reviewed every game that completed 7DRL. That I think was in 2011 or 2012? There were a bit over 60 games that year, and doing it nearly broke my silly head. This year there are 235 games in the itch.io collection, so I won’t be doing that. Also, since the jam doesn’t forbid the use of libraries that take a lot of the grunt work out of making a roguelike out of the process, there are entries from all across the game development and design skill spectrum, and the dregs of that barrel…. I won’t speak ill of them, since making any game is an accomplishment, let alone in a week’s time. But it isn’t always easy to find something to write about them that’d be interesting to read.

So I figured though that it might be interesting to have a look at the games that were rated mostly highly. This time, we’ll look at the three games that were tied for 9th place: Animal Party, Snapdragon and Totem of Seeding. I checked these games out on May 23rd, and they may not be in the state they were at the end of 7DRL’s challenge period. I’m more interested in telling you about fun things to look at and play than strict observation of the 7DRL time period.

9th Place tie: Animal Party

Animal Party, by Ethan’s Byproducts, with music by Kai Keys.
For Windows and HTML5 (playable in-browser). Made with Gamemaker Studio.

The definition of a roguelike game has drifted a lot since the days when the term was coined, as an umbrella term for discussions, on Usenet, for a variety of games that were playable on terminals. It was fairly obvious what a roguelike was then. Now, it often gets used for any game with a procedural element in its level generation, and a vaguely arcadey setup where losing means failure, forcing the player to start again if they wish to keep playing.

I use the term roguelite to refer to games that aren’t strict turn-and-grid-based tactical games, but that’s mostly my usage. 7DRL casts a wide net in their entries. Animal Party, for example, is mostly just a puzzle game sort of along the lines of the old Adult Swim-sponsored Girls Like Robots. Your task is to place a collection of friendly animals on the empty spaces of a grid, to defeat as many “evil” animals that are already there, while losing as few animals yourself. It’s not a tactics game at all, and so ranks very low in “Roguelikeness” (116th place), but high enough to tie for ninth in overall quality for the jam.

The rules are: Wolves attack Geese, Geese attack Frogs, Frogs attack Spiders, Spiders attack Hookworms (how?), and Hookworms attack Wolves (obviously through parasitazation). For every evil animal you destroy, you earn one ghost, which you can use as currency in a between-level shop where you can earn special powers to use to make later boards easier. For every friendly animal you lose, you lose one point of morale. Lose too much morale and the Animal Party is over, and I guess everyone goes home sad.

Complicating things is, while you don’t have to eat all the evil animals, you must place every animal you’re able. Earlier this means just placing one of each, but later it means filling every empty space on the grid. Your group gets bigger at two places along the way, and the grid sizes also increase. Eventually you’ll have more animals than spaces, which affords you a bit of leniency since you can choose which animals go in the spaces. You’ll notice pretty soon that, when your own animals get eaten, you don’t really lose them. Nothing decreases your party’s size, it only gets bigger.

In later boards you’ll probably have to sacrifice a few animals to fill each grid. Your animals are friendly to you but not to each other, and they’ll happily munch on their colleagues, so keep in that mind. Some of the evil beasts get random modifiers as the game continues. To find out what a given animal’s deal is, press the Tab key while hovering the mouse over it. There are animals that take two hits to defeat, animals that sate their attacker so that attacker can’t attack other animals after they’re eaten, animals that attack diagonally instead of in the cardinal directions, animals that attack two spaces away, and animals that explode when defeated, taking out all animals adjacent whether friend or foe. It must be something in the water.

One thing that may turn out to be important to playing well: animals get their turns in a process that goes row by row, with each animal being resolved on a row from left to right. You can take advantage of this to defeat an enemy animal from above, and depriving it of its own turns when the resolution order gets to it.

Most of the powers you buy in the between-level Ghost Shop, it should be remarked, are not one-time-use ever, but can be reused once per purchase on every level, so the things you buy early on have a great influence upon the whole game. My recommendations are the one that lets you move one enemy animal one space, and morale boosts, which give you a big five extra points. Using them, I was able to finish this game on my first attempt.

It’s a fun use of a few minutes of your time! It’s also browser-playable on its itch project page, and has chill music to jam to while you play.

9th Place tie: Snapdragon

Snapdragon, by sarn, vaalentines, Duckonaut and Oroshibu.
For Windows and HTML5 (playable in browser). Made with Gamemaker Studio.

Another game with really nice music! Maybe that’s going to be a theme this year. A good soundtrack adds so much to a game, even if it’s not a traditional roguelike feature.

From the screenshots it looks a lot like the classic game Snake, but running into your own tail doesn’t result in losing. You can shrink your length down to two spaces at any time by “Snapping,” with the C key, and you can also switch your head and tail with the X key, and dash by pressing Z before you move in a direction. All of these acts take one turn, so your enemies get to respond after each.

This is a lot more like a traditional roguelike than Animal Party was, following the classic rules of one move per turn, then the enemies all get to act. The enemies all have different movement patterns, with many of them able to move multiple spaces in a turn. It takes a while to learn their movement patterns and health. As a player aid, the game provides a warning of what each enemy will do, by showing its planned movement in yellow, then red on the turn before it moves.

Attacks are roguelike standard: you attack enemies by moving into them, and they attack you by moving into you. The enemies all seem to be various animals, including the likes of squirrels and crabs. You get three health units, but they’re all replenished at the start of every level.

Each level also has at least one key (you can only carry one at a time) and a treasure chest. If you can get the key to the chest, you’re given a special item. You can only have one item at once, so you should use it before you get another one. An unused key can be carried between levels.

Snapping slows you down by one turn, but if you’re not fleeing enemies you could probably just do it every turn. If you can evade enemies without worrying about them attacking your tail (you’re vulnerable all the way down), it’s a good idea to just get away, there are no experience points, or other game benefit to attacking enemies other than increased safety.

The description page says the game was actually finished in just two days, which was accomplished by narrowing its scope. I’d like to know what had been planned before, because Snapdragon is rather complex even in this feature-limited form, with multiple regions each with different monsters, graphics and gimmicks.

The verdict? It’s really nice! It’ll probably take you a few plays to get far into it, it rewards patience and careful planning, but isn’t greatly taxing.

9th Place tie: Totem of Seeding

Totem of Seeding, by anttihaavikko
For Windows, Mac, Linux and HTML5 (playable in browser). Made with Unity.

It is easily possible to play this game, in some ways a pretty standard random dungeon shooting action game that relies heavily on its loot system, without even encountering the feature referred to by its title. If you never interact with the titular totem in the first room, it’ll look a lot like the kind of game that’s been made since at least Binding of Isaac, which came out in 2011, and with a quirky art style where all of the characters and items are @-signs and letters, an unusual choice for an action game.

And I mean, that’s okay. It’s the Seven Day Roguelike challenge! No one expects greatness in seven days. The fun of Totem of Seeding comes from the fact that it’s one of those few Rogue-inspired games to use its letters for something other than representation: the game expects you to spell words with them.

The best use of this idea of which I’m aware is roguelike design wizard Jeff Lait’s Letter Hunt. Jeff has made all kinds of brilliant roguelikes over the years, many of them for 7DRL. In addition to making the popular game POWDER, he made Jacob’s Matrix, a non-Euclidian roguelike that still amazes me, and it’s far from the only astonishing variation on the roguelike theme he’s made. But to talk too much about Jeff in a review of a different game, that is not his equal, sounds like I’m trying to tear down Totem of Seeding. It’s a perfectly fine game in itself.

In overview, your character (an actual animated @-sign) explores a series of one-screen dungeon rooms, not unlike those from the original Legend of Zelda. They fight monsters with firearms, melee weapons and the odd magical item, most of which they find in treasure boxes in the dungeon. This is one of those games where your success is strongly tied to the items you find. It’s not a case where everything is good in some way or other: there are definitely some items that are better than others, and whether you have a good game or not depends on whether the roulette wheel lands on your numbers this time.

Good items? Shotguns, magic weapons, and anything that gives you a plus health or plus damage bonus. (Lots of things give you percentage bonuses, but as with a lot of games I’ve noticed, their effects are barely noticeable. You definitely want plus health bonuses, not percentage bonuses, the difference is huge.) Bad items? Most other things, but especially melee weapons, which for interface reasons only the enemies can make good use of.

Your camp is in the first room, where you can rest at the campfire to refill your health or visit the Totem. We’ll get back to the Totem, don’t forget about it.

There is an exit from the room, and when you go through it, you’ll be in the first room of a dungeon with a random, three-letter name. You can, at any time, go back to this first room and to your camp. That will end the dungeon run; the next time you go through the exit from the camp room, you’ll be in a different three-letter-named dungeon, with a different map, different enemies and different loot.

There will be times when it wil be best to abort a run and go rest at the campfire, but it’s important not to make too much use of this resource. Every time you start a new dungeon, the day number advances, and the higher the number, the harder the monsters will be. The game generates more monsters, they’ll have more health, and they’ll be more in each room. It also seems there will be fewer treasure chests. Day 1 is laughably easy, and Day 2 usually not too much of a bother, but they get much harder from there.

Before too many days the enemies will severely outclass the items you probably have, turning into damage sponges. Totem of Seeding calls itself a bullethellish roguelike, and while it’s only a few enemies that force you to dodge to that extent, you’ll run into them pretty soon, and much more often as the days advance.

The worst enemies are Skeletons, who have guns of their own; Orcs, who not only have guns but fire lots of shots; and Kobold Warriors, who often dual-wield melee weapons and rush you as soon as you enter the room. The room generator sometimes puts enemies right next to you as you enter, and there’s times when a Kobold Warrior will be right in striking distance as you walk in. This usually ends your run immediately. The play balance could use a little more work, is what I’m saying.

Sometimes you’ll find traders, NPCs who will offer to give you a randomly-chosen item if you give them a different randomly-chosen item, that you’re probably not carrying. Sometimes you’ll find blacksmith NPCs, who will offer to improve a randomly-chosen item you’re currently carrying. Because of this, you’ll often find yourself wielding an upgraded version of the pitiful Pistol you start with. Blacksmiths, in practice, never improve an item in a way that’s noticeable. Once, for me, it made an item much worse, in that it replaced a plus-health bonus it had with a different bonus. Way to help, @-person.

When you explore the last room in a dungeon (the game helpfully provides a map, viewable with the Tab key and with a portion shown in the upper-right corner) you’re told about it, and it tells you then to go back to camp. You still have to walk all the way back for some reason, through the deserted halls. Fortunately travel is pretty quick, and dungeons tend not to be very large.

That’s the shell of the game, a kind of game that’s been iterated upon by many people over 12 years. Now we come back to that Totem.

By interacting with the Totem, back at camp, you can pick a seed for the next dungeon you explore. This is the standard kind of random number generator seed that many other randomized games use to let you decide what dungeon you’ll explore. This has been going on since at least Dreamforge’s Dungeon Hack, back on DOS.

There are two complications to the way Totem of Seeding works. First, you can’t use just any numbers or letters in your seed value. You have to use the letters representing the items you’ve found in the dungeon so far the current play. This means your first day of exploration will always be a random dungeon. That three-letter dungeon name I mentioned above, that the game gives to each dungeon you explore, is a freebie seed the game gives you. And using the items for their letters consumes the items. Fortunately, as said before, the game gives you lots of useless items.

The second complication is rather unusual: the dungeon seed you enter must be an actual word. The game doesn’t let you enter just any sequence of characters, even though to an RNG’s stomach they all taste just the same. The game enforces the real-world word requirement regardless.

To encourage players to make longer words, the game’s generator artificially juices the generator the more letters you use in the seed. Seeds must be a minimum of three letters long; if you can’t make a word of that least that length, you’ll have to settle for the standard, anemic generator you’d usually get. You’ll get some items out of it, but unless you’re still on the first couple of days, they’ll probably be useful only for collecting letters for later seeds.

Each additional letter in the seed has a great effect on the next dungeon. A four-letter word gets you rather better items. A five-letter seed got me some items that increased my health to nearly ten times the pitiful 10 health I began with! Longer seeds also generate longer dungeons, so, a better chance you’ll find items with the features you want, and more letters to use in seeds on later days.

One issue with this system is that it makes vowels very important! And as far as item gen goes, not all items are lettered equal. Apples, frequently-appearing consumables that give you a paltry 3 HP when eaten, are the letter ‘o’. The common English vowels ‘e’ and ‘a’, conversely, are not common letters in the dungeon chests.

Because of the way the game monkeys with the loot generation when you seed with longer words, it drives home the fact that the loot generator is being used against you. Its favors are only bestowed on those who appease it with the proper lexical sacrifice. If you don’t feed it good words, it won’t feed you the tools you need to survive. And yet it was that loot generator itself that gave you the letters you have to work with. Due to this fact, some games you’ll just be screwed over. Sometimes you don’t find any vowels in the first dungeon, or not even three letters. A deficit like that will cause your power level to fall behind the advancing difficulty, and it’s unlikely you’ll catch up.

This is a definite flaw. The game could use a little more balancing in its item generation to account for it. But it’s the kind of flaw that I’d find, typically, in a big game, something I’d find on Steam. For a 7DRL, to make too much of a problem like this is grossly uncharitable. It’s a game made in seven days. And by a single person too! Treat it for what it is and you’ll still have a decent amount of fun with it, more than you’d have thought possible under such a design constraint. I look forward to seeing what its developer does with the idea from here.

@Play: Angband Variant, Zangband

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

I’ve been lagging behind a bit with @Play, which I apologize for. There are a lot of Angband variants, and even just covering important ones, there’s a lot to go over, and I’ve suffered from many distractions lately. So I figured I’d just take a more leisurely pace for a bit, which works out because many variants have quite a bit to say about them. So let’s start out with what’s probably the most important Angband variant of them all:

Zangband

Lineage: PC Angband 1.3 > Angband– > Zangband

First released in 1994. Last update 4/2003

We could consider Zangband to be the first major Angband variant. It forked directly off of frogknows, but contains modifications to Angband dating after that. Its list of maintainers includes Angband maintainers Ben Harrison, and Robert Rühlmann, who took over as lead maintainer Zangband from Topi Ylinen. Of note is that he stopped being the maintainer of Angband at around the same time that Zangband entered stasis, and previous Angband fansite Thangorodrim went dark. Maybe Morgoth finally got him.

The standard Angband starting town can be shapes other than rectangular, have a wilderness outside its walls, and if you go far enough you can find other towns, with other kinds of shops.

It’s a tradition to name Angband variants with some variation upon its name. The Z in Zangband stands for Roger Zelazny, the author of the Chronicles of Amber series, and contains monsters and items from that series. Cribbing from fantasy literature has long been a way that roguelike authors have paid homage to their favorite stories.

An interesting aspect of Zangband is its version of the Angband character auto-roller. Instead of going until it hits minimum stats that you specify, asks you to “weight” various stats on a scale of 1-100, and then rolls 500 characters and picks the best one rolled as judged by those weights. This means you can’t just set your character to roll dice indefinitely until you get the perfect character–or at least, you can’t do that automatically. Nothing stops you from killing the process if you don’t get a character with stats you like and trying again, as many times as you like. Statistical cheese has, after all, long been part of the flavor of rolling up character stats, dating back to all those D&D house rules groups used to make characters more powerful/interesting than typically produced by the old roll-3D6-six-times-then-assign system.

Standard dungeon levels look like classic Angband for the most part.

In addition to adding a lot of new character classes and monsters based on the Amber books, and other sources as well because why not, Zangband opens up the world outside the starter town. You can step past the walls of Angband’s town and see the outside world! That world works rather like a horizontal dungeon: instead of diving down into the earth, you can explore outward in all directions through the wilderness, which is filled with varied terrain kind of in the style of Minecraft. A new character can die very quickly that way, however; unexpectedly, the first levels of the main dungeon are rather easier to survive than just outside the town’s gates. If you have a means of defeating strong monsters, though, it’s possible to gain levels very rapidly without traveling too far from the starting town.

Some of the overworld terrain elements can also appear in dungeons. These green marsh plants do damage if you wade through them.

Out in the wilderness there are other towns to find, some of them with their own entrances into the dungeon (which work just as if you had entered it from the main town). As you progress out further from what we might call Point Zero, the monsters found in the wilderness get more dangerous. Some towns have special kinds of shops that are not to be found in the starting shop. The game’s bosses, which have been changed to the Amber-flavored Oberon on Level 99 and the Serpent of Chaos on level 100, are only found down in the dungeon.

In addition to various kinds of room template designs, sometimes you find a whole themed level, like this huge swamp area.

While it did pick up some of Angband’s later advancements, it still halted development nearly two decades ago. Angband has changed a fair bit in the time since Zangband became frozen, so to speak, in Amber. Playing it requires getting used to the many little things that Angband has abandoned in more recent years, like having to actively search for secret doors and traps. If you’re playing a magic-using class, it’s possible for your starting spellbooks to get incinerated by a fire attack, then for you to head back to town and find that it’s not for sale. Once you’re alert to the danger of this, you’ll know to buy extras when you can and keep them in your house. It’s the kind of affliction that affects most players exactly once, which is a common enough experience in the world of classic roguelikes.

We’re back to classic Angband rules here, so selling things you find in the dungeon is an important source of money.

Zangband is notable for itself inspiring a bunch of variants, in fact a lot of Angband variants get those genes through Zangband as an intermediate parent. Its inclusionist philosophy of adding a whole bunch of monsters and things, and its inclusion of a persistent overworld (which it originally borrowed from Kangband) might explain the attraction.

While Zangband hasn’t been updated in nearly twenty years, its website persisted doggedly until just earlier this year, at zangband.org. Sadly, it has finally succumbed to linkrot, and now can only be found through the graces of the Internet Archive. Its Sourceforge repository still exists however, meaning you can still obtain the game through a living site, at: https://sourceforge.net/projects/zangband

@Play Extra: Inner Details of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon

The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are interesting offshoots of the mainline Mystery Dungeon titles. They make clear a stark difference between primacy and popularity: if you only care about sales, then there is no question that Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are the main games, because their sales vastly outweigh the other games. The games in the second generation, Explorers of Time/Darkness/Sky, are the best-selling Mystery Dungeon games of all. You have to know that there’s around 30 other games, many much older than the Pokemon flavor, in fact older than Pokemon itself by three years, to know the whole story.

Yet the PMD games are still Mystery Dungeon titles, and they play very similarly. They’re graphical roguelike dungeon-crawl games, just, you, your teammates, and your opponents are not generic fantasy creatures, but Pokemon. That is, specific fantasy creatures. Trademarked ones, in fact.

Because PMD’s fairly popular, you’re more likely to find investigations into its internals than the Shiren or other Mystery Dungeon games, just from the number of people who exist in its audience with both the will and skill to investigate. Yet, those internals are close enough to the MD standard that they even provide insight into how classic Mystery Dungeon operates.

YouPotato TheZZAZGlitch’s usualy video stomping grounds in Pokemon, but they have a fondness for PMD, so they’ve made a video on how the first generation (Red/Blue Rescue Team) generates its dungeons, and what do you know, many of these floor types are also very familiar to me from my time exploring the Shiren games, and it doesn’t seem a stretch at all to presume they’re run by the same, or at least a very similar, algorithm.

And YouTuber Some Body (who has a low number of subscribers, maybe folk should send them some love?) has two videos explaining how the AI in those games works. The first is of more general (well, less niche) interest (the one above), while the second is more about covering exceptions and edge cases.