@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.

@Play: Angband Version History

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

Back in the GameSetWatch era, I focused more on a general kind of audience for @Play. No, really! I notice that I’ve gotten a fair bit more detailed so far in the Set Side B era. That’s especially the case this time, which is a dive into the history of Angband. But there’s a purpose to this: after knowing where Angband’s been, it’ll help us when, next time, we finally look at its huge number of variants. That should be a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to it. I hope it’ll make up for all the time I had to spend building this one.

Angband has a long and somewhat convoluted history. There aren’t many open source games with its longevity. It’s managed to keep going by changing ownership somewhat regularly, with each maintainer adding their own stamp to its play.

The Release section of the current Angband homepage rephial.org goes into exacting detail over what was introduced when, but it’s a lot to sift through, and in terms of volume most changes are just bugfixes.

I have gone through all the pages and tried to render down the essence of each change, and what effect it had upon Angband. In this article, we follow along with the various changes that have been made since its origin, and in the end try to note the best version to play, for people interested (or not) in its various aspects.

Our previous articles on Angband are this general introduction, and this description of its features and early going.

AnteAngband

Some of this will be familiar to people who have been reading @Play on Angband so far, so I’ll keep it brief. MORIA was created by Robert Koeneke in 1983, and may be the first true “roguelike” that wasn’t Rogue itself.

Moria was written in Pascal, a fine language that, sadly, isn’t nearly as popular as C. UMORIA (5/3/1987) is a reimplementation of Moria in C. It was updated until July 7, 1994, with one last gasp on 10/13/2008 by a different developer.

ANGBAND was based on UMoria 5.2.1, and is where our story really begins.

Other variants of Moria include Morgul (1993), PC Moria (unknown years), and VMS Moria (1983-1985).

Early History

It’s hard to see this zoomed out, but this is a timeline of the development of some prominent roguelikes from Moria to current Angband (4.2.4). Some positions are fudged a little where I have no precise date.
Full resolution version

Angband 1.0 (1990): The first version of Angband was derived from UMoria by Alex Cutler and Andy Astrand. My indications are that Angband was largely a bigger version of Moria back then: 100 levels instead of 50, beat up Sauron and Morgoth at the end instead of a balrog. This version probably doesn’t survive, and doesn’t seem to have been widely distributed outside the University of Warwick.

What The Frog?

Angband 2.4.frogknows (April 11, 1993): This version was called (right on its title screen) “2.4.frogknows,” was produced by Steve Marsh and Geoff Hill after Angband’s creators graduated, and was the first version with a wide release. This version put a definite stamp on the game, and founded aspects of what many consider iconic about Angband. Amazingly, binary and source versions of frogknows are available from the current-day Angband Home Site.

How does it differ from UMoria?

  • Added more Tolkien, D&D and Rolemaster monsters
  • More object types, including rods, which don’t have limited charges, but instead have a timeout between uses
  • More races
  • Special dungeon rooms
  • Monsters can be generated in groups
  • Monsters have more spells and abilities
  • Special monsters based on defeated players (“ghosts”) can appear in the dungeon and attack you
  • Treasure pits, a predecessor of vaults, appear. These are large rooms with lots of treasure but also out-of-depth monsters
  • Artifacts and level feelings are added
While this title screen identifies it as 2.4.frogknows, this is PC version 1.0.

frogknows got ported to classic Macintosh, Atari ST, and Amiga. The CRPG Addict played this version of Angband and reported on the experience on his blog.

It helps, when giving dates, to give some idea of what else was going on in the world at the time. In the same year as frogknows, Bill Clinton was inaugurated as U.S. President, and child sexual abuse allegations were made against Michael Jackson. It was the 16-bit era in console video gaming. Secret of Mana came out for the SNES. Arcades saw the release of Mortal Kombat II and Super Street Fighter II. Among roguelikes, the NetHack DevTeam would release 3.1.0, the beginning of modern NetHack, but they hadn’t yet gotten to the venerable 3.1.3 version.

If you’re only used to 4.2.4, there are some specific things to be aware of. Mages are much more fragile starting out in older versions, with very slow spell point regeneration, while warriors can be played in a much more direct, hacky-smacky style. It you get stuck on a dungeon level, there’s probably a secret door you didn’t find; use the ‘s’ key in corridors and along walls to search for them. You must remember to wield torches to use them, you don’t start with anything equipped. Artifacts and ego items look just like normal items until identified. You don’t find stacks of useful potions and scrolls at once, but have to find across them one at a time.

PC Angband

Seemingly on the same day as the release of frogknows, Charles Teague (who helped with frogknows) released PC Angband 1.0.

PC Angband went on its own for awhile. In the year 1993: April 20: 1.1; May 20: 1.2. August 18: 1.3; August 28: 1.3.1; it switched hands to Charges Teague. Then, March 7 1994: 1.4; and then, by Phil Yellott, on February 18 1995: 1.4.1b. After that, the line seems to have been merged back into mainline Angband.

Most versions of Angband before 2.8.0 are lost, and those that survive are usually only available in source form, but 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 of the the PC Angband line survive and are playable in DOSbox. 1.0 and 1.1 also survive, but their closeness to frogknows means that the Angband site links them from its page.

PC Angband 1.2 (5/20/1993): Players could look at monsters to determine how wounded they are, and a stat autoroller was added.

PC Angband 1.3, 1.3.1 (8/28/1993): Targeting was added, allowing players to launch missiles and magic in arbitrary directions, not just in the orthogonal and diagonal ones. (You still can’t do this in NetHack, since it would materially affect other aspects of the game.) And players could gain more than one level at a time.

1.3.1 is an auspicious release, as the base of Angband’s first variants. One of these is Angband–, which seems to be lost, but would serve as the foundation of ZAngband, a mega-variant that itself saw a lot of iteration. It would inspire CthAngband, ToME, and Hengband, all variants that continue to see a lot of interest even now. Hengband is a Japanese variant with several notable children itself, and ToME has been rewritten several times, and now is basically its own separate, full-fledged game. You can even get it on Steam. We’ll talk more about variants, a huge topic, next time.

While the Angband site mentions a later version originating the “Monster Memory” feature, there was some form of recall of abilities, even extending between games as far back as Angband 1.0, as shown here.

Mainline Angband, 2.X

Angband 2.5.0 (12/8/1993): Charles Swiger took over as maintainer. Versions from this to 2.5.9 were released with many technical and miscellaneous changes that I won’t bore you with. Targeting was ported into mainline Angband with 2.5.6.

2.5.8 is the only of these versions that is available on the Angband home site, and even that only in the form of source code.

PC Angband 1.4 (3/7/1994): The last version of PC Angband, and Charles Teague’s last contribution to the game. Many of its changes were merged with the core game. It added a new speed system, and other miscellaneous adjustments.

Angband 2.6.0 (9/4/1994): More miscellaneous changes over three versions, and the end of Charles Swiger’s tenure. 2.6.1 and 2.6.2 are available as source code.

The Macintosh port of 2.6.1 marked a notable addition to the roster of people who have worked on Angband….

Angband 2.7.0 (1/14/1995): Ah! With this version, Angband legend Ben Harrison began his work. The current Angband homesite calls it the beginning of the Second Age of Angband.

Ben Harrison cleaned up the code greatly, almost rewriting it, and fixed lots of bugs, resulting in the 2.8 line being the foundation for many variants. A lot of Angband’s reputation for spawning variants is due to this version, both directly and by its successors. Ben Harrison also founded a notable Angband Home Page on the World Wide Web, that survives today. (The successor to it, thangorodrim.net, has not been so lucky.) And, Ben Harrison invented the Angband Borg, in which one’s computer plays Angband itself, learning about the game as it goes.

2.7.2 added the Scroll of *Identify* to the game, which offers complete information on an artifact’s properties. (Angband loves emphasizing words with asterisks.)

2.7.4 is notable because it’s one of the few versions of Angband from back then that’s still available in compiled form, and downloadable from the Angband site. Its Windows version doesn’t work well for me, producing a garbled display on Windows 10. The DOS version appears to be salvaged from someone’s playfield; it has a valid save file for a character named Whopper, a Human Paladin, who is in the middle of exploring the dungeon, and carries the artifact “Sting.”

2.7.5 rewrote dungeon generation. 2.7.6 added a health bar for monsters. And 2.7.7. removed player ghosts “temporarily,” but they have yet to return even today. This is the version that rephial.org says added Angband’s famed monster memory, a set of spoilers that the game creates and maintains as you play, collecting all the information that your characters have learned on their adventures. However, some form of this extends back as far as PC Angband 1.0.

2.8.0 (10/12/1996): 2.8.1 expanded dungeon spaces so more than one item can fit in a space. Up until then, any dungeon space could only hold one object on the ground. This sometimes caused enemies to leave less treasure than they would otherwise have if they were being fought in a corridor, since there simply wouldn’t be enough room for it all. (The Mystery Dungeon games abide by this restriction, where it adds some unexpected wrinkles to its gameplay.) It also made it so any player race can try to play as any class, although some are probably not good ideas with the stats the game assigns to them.

The 2.8 series on Windows contains rudimentary graphics, but several of its releases don’t like to work on current Windows.

2.8.2 removed the prompt for the number of items to drop, sell, or destroy at once. Instead, players could specify a count before the command, similar to Rogue and NetHack’s repeat systems. After vocal outcry from some players, 2.8.3 added it right back again.

Angband 2.8.3 for Windows, with font graphics enabled

2.8.3 was Harrison’s last official version, although he’d release a version of a prospective 2.8.5 for testing. This version seems to be the first version with support for Allegro tile-based graphics on Windows, but it’s not enabled in the supplied binary. It contains the font-based graphics of the other 2.8 versions, but they have to be enabled in ANGBAND.INI, by setting the variable Graphics therein to 1. Although the tiles are tiny and hard to make out, it’s recommended to play this way, as the terminal graphics are messed up on current Windows. You can somewhat get around this by use the Look command (‘l’) to identify characters in sight. This version does not have compiled DOS binaries on the Angband home site. This (the garbled terminal graphics and Graphics=1 in ANGBAND.INI) is also true of several of its successors.

2.9.0 (4/11/2000): A new Angband for the year 2000. Robert Ruhlman took over the reins of Angband with this version and created the thangorodrim.net website (Wayback link). 2.9 added birth options (see the previous article for more on those), one of them being a way to enforce the “ironman” playstyle, where characters are disallowed from ever using upstairs. Other birth options remove shops or artifacts from the game, or else replace the built-in set of artifacts with randomly-generated replacements. Font graphics can be enabled in ANGBAND.INI on Windows, but are on by default on DOS.

Angband 2.9.0 for Windows, with graphics enabled.
Angband 2.9.0 for DOS, check out the marble border

Angband 3.X

3.0.0 (3/30/2002): A notable change with this version was the addition of Lua scripting to the game. You might think that sounds like it’d be a great idea, after all lots of other games have used Lua, but it actually didn’t see much use, and would be removed from the code with 3.0.8.

It’s minor from a play standpoint, but 3.0.2 removed the term “Genocide” from the game, in order to disassociate a mere computer pastime from real-life horrors. The effect was renamed to Banishment, although this meant that the pre-existing Priest spell Banishment had to itself be renamed to Banish Evil to avoid nominal confusion.

3.0.4 marked two significant changes. With this version junk items, which were included as dungeon flavor but served no real game purpose, were no longer generated in the dungeon. And this was the version to, finally, remove haggling over prices to buy or sell from shops, which I have to say, after experiencing Moria, is probably my own personal favorite change. (Up until this point, the game had already been shortening haggling a lot.)

Robert Ruhlmann stopped maintaining Angband with 3.0.6 (6/8/2005). It’s also the last version supplied with DOS support.

The last DOS Angband: 3.0.6

3.0.8p1 (prerelease, 6/24/2007): Anna Sidwell takes the fiery spikéd torch from Robert Ruhlmann, and removes Lua support. This is the first version to have item “squelching,” allowing the player to set the game to automatically ignore items they aren’t interested in. Mouse support is added, and the code cleaned up again.

3.1.0 (beta, 1/24/2009): This version marked fairly large changes to gameplay. Monsters here ceased to drop so many items, potions began tending to appear in stacks, and healing became proportional to wounds taken. (I’m not quite sure what that means.) A “bad” class of items from previous versions, that reduce a stat and provide no upside, was replaced with alternate items that lower one stat but raise another. Gold generation was toned down in the later dungeon, and traps start out only generating relative safe types, with the worse ones saved for getting progressively deeper in the dungeon.

Angband 3.1.0, TTY mode

Graphics here, by default, are TTY-based, but can be switch to tiled graphics from the Options menu fairly easily. If the window is too small for you (easily possible), the size of the screen can be adjusted in steps from the Window menu.

Angband 3.1.0, Adam Bolt’s tiles, in bigtile mode
Note: from here, Angband comes with multiple tilesets, so how the game looks depends on the tiles selected. If you have the time/energy/artistic skill you could make your own.

3.1.1 (beta, 7/29/2009): Another auspicious moment for the game of Angband. For many years Angband had suffered, after being worked on for so long and by so many hands, of not having a clear line of copyright for all its code, which prevented it from going full GPL. While everyone generally agreed that the game should have fully open source and no one was really against it, the community’s inability to contact everyone who contributed to the source code meant they couldn’t fully relicense it. With this version, the last of these rights issues was finally cleared up, and Angband became available under a dual license, both GPL and its own Angband source license.

3.1.2v2 is credited to the Angband Development Team, I think signalling them taking over from Anna Sidwell.

3.2.0 (12/24/2010): Armor Class, the game statistic indicating how protected a character is from harm, was changed to make heavy armor more worth it relative to their weight. The speed system was changed again. Element resistances was extended to cover carried items. With this version, all artifacts became immediately recognizable: items with names are instantly known, although your character still won’t know what their abilities are until discovered in play. Until that point, you would eventually get a good feeling about a specific item if it was an unrecognized artifact that had been carried for awhile.

Starting in this version, I notice, you can resize the window to get more of a view of the world.

Angband 3.2.0, David Gervais’s tiles, with the window expanded a bit

3.3.0 (7/31/2011): Dungeon generation got another long-overdue overhaul. New cavern and labyrinth special level types were introduced. Level feelings, a part of the game going back to frogknows, were redesigned, separating the danger level of a level from the treasures on it. Resistances were revamped. This version made the spiking of doors, in order to slow down pursuing monsters, a feature that had long been in the game and derived from tactics in classic D&D, more effective.

Angband 3.3.0, nomad’s tiles

3.4.0 (9/14/2012): Development pace slowed for a bit here. Various changes over the years had resulted in Angband becoming easier, and this version attempt to restore some of its classic difficulty.

3.5.1 proudly identifies itself as a variant of Moria

3.5.0 (12/24/2013): Changed the game a fair bit. Charisma, often the dump stat in D&D-derived games, was removed entirely. Item generation was rebalanced, ego items redistributed by level, and shops by default no longer buy items from the player; you can instead donate an item to a shop to be identified or recharged. Money in dungeons was made more plentiful to compensate. (Shops will buy items again, and less money will be generated, if enabled with a birth option.) Random monster generation was toned down, and continuing the trend towards removing bad items, Scrolls of Curse Armor and Curse Weapon were removed. And with this version, door spiking was removed entirely, along with jammed doors and bashing them down. I guess people didn’t like it as much as it was thought they would.

Angband 3.5.1, with multiple windows

By this point Angband on Windows had come to default to offering the multi-headed display. (One of the Ben Harrison released versions also turned it on by default, I forget which one.) It also offers current-day Angband’s choices for tile size. At a glance, it looks a lot like the 4.0 series.

Modern Angband (4.X)

4.0.0 (6/29/2015): Nick McConnell takes over maintaining Angband. A new rewriting of the code begins, with the intent of not making game changes until it is finished.

4.1.0 (6/25/2017): Big changes are made to the game after extensive forum discussion. I described many of these aspects in more detail last time. Active searching (with the ‘s’ key) is removed entirely after 24 years; stepping next to a secret door now always reveals it immediately. Identification of equipment properties and curses takes on its current rune-based form, and classic roguelike “sticky” curses are removed entirely. All potions, scrolls, and mushrooms are immediately identified on first use, and wands, staves, and rods usually identify when used, unless they only work by affecting monsters and none are present when tried. Conversely however, Scrolls of Identify and *Identify* are now gone, replaced with Scrolls of Identify Rune. More level generation types are added, including a “Moria level” in homage to the original game. Status ailments that could be inflicted by monsters were made more interesting.

4.1.1 added a birth option to make dungeon levels persistent, not being regenerated when left and returned to. It’s still in as an experimental feature today.

4.2.0 (8/17/2019): As of this writing, it’s the current major release of Angband. (The newest minor version. 4.2.4, was released 2/22/2022.) This version revamped the magic system, adding two more types to make for four major varieties, and added druids and necromancers that specialize in them. The number of spellbooks was reduced so players don’t have to lug as many around. Shapechanging is added for players and monsters. Many new mechanics are added to the game with this version.

Angband 4.2.4 (main window only)

What Flavor Of Doom Is Right For You?

Some of these versions of Angband are still available to download, so you can play the one that’s in the most accord with your personal preferences. Over the years, some features have been toned down or removed entirely, and others introduced and given prominence. Generally speaking, later versions of Angband are easier than earlier ones, and also put more of the focus on combat than dungeon exploration, but this not a universal trend.

  • If you want an experience as close to Moria, and Rogue, as possible, you’ll want to seek out 2.4.frogknows. You’ll get an authentic, but sometimes annoying, game.
  • 2.7.5 removed player ghosts. It also added, or at least improved, the monster memory. Memory is a great help, over many games, towards recognizing which monsters are the most dangerous and why. (The full history of the monster ability recall function will probably have to wait for another time.) 2.7.6 is the first version after this point that survives.
  • For graphics, 2.7.6 and successive versions have tile graphics if you change Graphics=0 to Graphics=1 in ANGBAND.INI, which will also ungarble the console on modern Windows. For Windows tile graphics, version 2.8.3 is likely the earliest version with Allegro support, but you’ll have to build it yourself.
  • 2.9.0 added birth options, letting you customize the game more to your liking.
  • 3.0.0 added Lua scripting, which might be interesting to modders.
  • 3.0.2 added item squelching, helping streamline the exploration of the dungeon.
  • 3.0.4 is when haggling with shopkeepers, a long-standing feature going back to Moria, was finally removed.
  • 3.0.8 removed the problematic “genocide” terminology, and Lua scripting.
  • 3.1.1 is when Angband’s rights issues were worked out.
  • With 3.2.0, artifacts became known on sight, greatly reducing the possibility of missing out on something great, and dungeon generation was overhauled.
  • Like the idea of spiking doors to delay pursuers? That was in the game from all the way back in frogknows, but was made more effective in 3.3.0.
  • Hate that idea? It was excised from the play entirely in 3.5.0.
  • 3.5.0 is also when shopkeepers stopped buying items from players without enabling that as a birth option.
  • Hate tapping the ‘s’ key to find doors? That was removed in 4.1.0. Up until then, if you didn’t have a magic aid to searching, you could get stuck in parts of the dungeon where all the doors out were hidden. With this version, stepping next to a hidden door is enough to reveal it.
  • Hate cursed items that make it hard to stop using them? Like the rune-based ID system? Both aspects also changed in 4.1.0. That’s also when identification was changed: identify scrolls were removed, but it became less dangerous to ID things from use, and dungeon generation was overhauled again.
  • If you like magic other than just Arcane and Divine, you’ll have to play the most recent line, and thus probably should go with the current version, 4.2.4. If you have no other preferences you should also go with this version to get the latest features and play niceties.

Well that was certainly a long and dry description, but it’s definitely shorter than what I had to read through to get it here. I think it’s still interesting for a look back at a twenty-nine year old game that has been through many different hands. After all that, while it’s changed a lot, Angband still feels a lot like it did in 1993: it’s a tactics-heavy dungeon exploration and combat game, with a lot of area to explore, but with occasional heart-stopping moments of terror.

Next time will be the end of our Angband discussion for now, where we embark on the long-promised exploration into the world of its variants. Angband variants are based on different versions throughout its long history, so having this version key to refer to will be very useful. See you then!

EDIT: Explained frogknows a bit better. Made a few other clarifications. This was a hard article to write.

Sources:
http://www.roguebasin.com/index.php/Angband_version_history
https://rephial.org/release
Use of the various versions available from rephial.

@Play: Wading Into the Pits of Angband

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

Last time we re-introduced Angband. This time, we go more into what it’s like to play its current versions. Our aim here is, as with one of the the Omega articles, to get you to a point where you can play enough of the game to tell if you’ll enjoy it more long-term. Angband is nowhere near as obscure as Omega is, but despite its influence on gaming, it’s still well off the radar of most players. My hope is that this article will serve as an introductory blip at the edge of the screen.

Window Mania

Suddenly, your whole desktop is full of terminal windows.
These labels are for default settings.

When you begin a game of modern Angband on Windows, you might be slighty overwhelmed. The screen fills up with terminals! This “multi-headed” approach seeks to keep more useful game information available at once. There are keystrokes that make that other information available on the main screen, so at first everything but the main game window can be ignored. As you get into the dungeon, you’ll find the other windows more useful.

If you’ve come back to Angband after a long absence, you might be dismayed by this appearance. All of these windows can be individually closed by clicking the close-window button in the corner. If you want them back, go under the Window menu and select Reset Layout.

All of the windows are fully configurable; to decide what each does, you can go under Term Options in the Window menu, but this stuff is for players who want to customize everything.

If you were used to, or prefer, the old ASCII display, it can be activated by going under Options | Graphics | None. There are other tile options there, and you can also choose tile scaling under “Tile Multiplier,” although explaining too much about that is getting into the weeds.

Changing the graphics settings will cause the game to try to set them back up as you had them on later plays, which you might not appreciate if you were trying to get the game back to how it was before you played around with the settings! If you really want to return to the old system, then close all the other windows and set the graphics to None, and then close the other windows. To get it back use the Reset Layout option, although you should know that you must actually be in a game to do it, it won’t work from the title screen.

Piecing By Parts Your Pretend Person

Starting a new game in Angband puts you into character creation. You can spend a lot of time picking a race and class, spending points or rerolling stats, all in order to have all that effort wiped away by a drunk mercenary in town before you even enter the dungeon. My advice is, just pick something fun and get started, because your first game will probably end pretty quickly. Classes that the developers judge doesn’t play well with your chosen race will be printed in a darker color, so just try to steer away from those. When the game asks if you want to do stats with point buy or with a roller, I suggest you go with point buy and stick with the defaults. Customizing these things is more for players who already know the game well and know the consequences of high (and low) stats.

There are two major “types” of character in Angband: those who fight in melee and with missiles, and those who cast spells. All characters but Warriors can do at least a bit of both. Magic users can do some hand-to-hand fighting when needed, but conversely Warriors won’t be able to use magic at all.

If you’re used to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, It should be said that, unlike as in that game, your class determines some essential and unchangeable aspects of your character. These are listed for you when you press, by default, Shift-S. Each character that can use magic only avail themselves of one type. In previous versions that was either Arcane Magic, which you might think of as magic magic, and Divine Magic, or what the game calls “Prayers.” Each was the domain of either wizards and allied classes, or priests and their relatives. Recent versions have also added Nature Magic, for Druids, and Necromancy, for Necromancers. In the game, this means you can buy and find spellbooks that your character cannot use.

Initial Interests

Welcome to Town!

When you actually begin playing, you’ll be dumped into a Town that, for some reason, has sprung up above this deadly deadly dungeon. You might not expect this on your first game, but the Town Level has is own dangers: at Level 1, you can be easily killed by its more disorderly residents, and in fact you will probably find the first level of the dungeon to be safer. The monsters in Town disappear when you go downstairs, so you could lose all your assailants at once by just dipping downstairs then back up again.

You start out with some gold for buying basic supplies. If you’re playing modern Angband, by default the game will start you out with okay equipment with which you can jump right into the first level of the dungeon.

Following this paragraph is a chart of the most-used keys. You can use the ? key, then ‘a’, to get a list of all the keypresses. Angband is extremely adjustable and all of these keys can be changed, and in fact there is a “roguelike” keyset that uses more traditional keys. You can switch to the roguelike set by going into game options (by pressing the equal key, ‘=’), pressing ‘a’ to go into User Interface options, then ‘a’ again. There are a ton of things you can change in these menus, including defining all the other keys. This chart assumes that they are unmodified:

NOTES
Keys that are different between Angband and Roguelike styles are in boldface.
An alternate way to use items, without having to learn so many keys, is to go into inventory then press the item’s inventory letter, which offers a list of things you can do with it.
In modern Angband there is no ‘s’earch key; searching is automatic when you step near something that can be searched for.
There are three kinds of ‘zap’ function, for wands, staves and rods; there’s more information on these items further down.
Even once you learn a spell (with Shift-G), to cast it you still must have the book.
Modern Angband lets you save without quitting, but it still marks your character as deceased if they die.

Stabby-Stabby vs. Whoosy-Sparkly

When getting started, it’s useful to keep in mind the difference between fighting and magic-using characters. There are nine classes in modern Angband. The first on the list, Warrior, is the only class with no magic at all, other than the magic devices and artifacts they may find. The next four in the list are the “pure” spellcasters, and the last four are the hybrid classes, with fighting and magic.

To attack with a melee weapon, well, this is a classic-style roguelike. Just make sure it’s equipped using the ‘w’ key, which stands both for (W)ear and (W)ield, then walk into a monster you want to attack. To use missile weapons it’s a little more complicated. Equip the right kind of launcher (a bow if you have arrows, a crossbow if you have bolts) then use the ‘f’ key, for Fire, to launch it. You can rapidly switch between weapons you’re carrying with the x key. In previous versions you would have both a primary and a secondary weapon and ‘x’ would switch between them, and you might still end up playing a variant that does things that way. In Angband though the x key just switches weapons. Missiles automatically go into a special section of your inventory called the quiver.

Using magic is a completely different process. For your main spells, you buy a magic book in the Temple in town. Each book contains a number of spells, of various difficulty levels. To see what’s in a book, you [b]rowse it, with the ‘b’ key; to learn a spell out of a book, you [g]ain it, with the ‘g’ key. Depending on your level you’ll have a different chance of learning or casting it, and you can only know so many spells. To cast a known spell, use the ‘m’ key, for [m]agic. Unlike as in NetHack, even when you know a spell from a book, you still need a copy of the book to cast it! Casting a spell both has a chance to fail and costs spell points, but at least spell points regenerate over time, unlike in Omega.

I feel seen.

Exploring the Pits

Recent versions of Angband begin you with everything you need to jump right into the dungeon if you so choose. While you may want to use your starting funds to buy a few healing potions or Scrolls of Phase Door to use in emergencies, many players choose to begin by diving right in. The first few levels are pretty boring; the quality of stuff you find increases rapidly over the first few levels, although some care should be taken with the tougher monsters. It is an exciting way to play.

So you’re in the dungeon, what now? You need a light source; the game defaults to giving you a few torches, one of them equipped, which don’t provide great light but it’s something. You light a torch just by equipping it; using it other than that is unnecessary. You might consider upgrading to a lantern later; those are reusable by refueling them with oil. A prominent early artifact, the Phial of Galadrial, if you can find it, provides light that never runs out.

On top of depleting light, you also need to eat periodically; this can be done by either eating food (you start with a little) or reading a scroll of “Remove Hunger.” The scroll is more effective, but only gets you up to 50% fullness, and is vulnerable to fire attacks.

Aside from such basic outfitting, what you’re mainly here for is to kill monsters, lots of monsters. Once you’re in the dungeon it won’t be long before you find them. Some monsters shouldn’t be engaged with, at least in melee. This is often the case for molds and jellies, which sometimes have things they can do to you or your equipment. If a stat gets drained, it’ll be restored when you gain an experience level, so try to hold on that long. If your equipment gets damaged, there’s not much you can do other than switch to something else.

Your inventory in Angband is your life. Not literally, but very much so figuratively. Nearly all situations can be escaped if you carry the right items with you. Particularly useful is things of “Teleport Other,” that let you send a monster away from you, as in the current version of the game (4.2.4) no monster resists this.

It’s a balance, writing an introduction like this; a lot of the experiencing of playing a new game is in discovering things for yourself. There’s a lot of things I feel like I shouldn’t spoil, and it’s not like I’m an expert on playing Angband myself, but I think it’ll help to tell you that the basic play loop is: explore down into the dungeon until either your resources run low, things get too toasty for your, or your inventory fills up, then read a Scroll of Word of Recall to return to town and dispose of/utilize your acquisitions in a safer setting and replenish your supplies in the stores. Shops in the town always contain a lot of certain basic items, especially those Recall scrolls. Word of Recall always takes some turns to activate, so you can’t rely on it to get you out of immediate danger. Also, scrolls are not fireproof, and having multiples can really help you out should something happen to one of them.

As if they somehow know the details of your efforts, shops stock better and better items depending on the deepest level of the dungeon you’ve been to. It’s a good idea to keep checking in with the shops whenever you return to Town. Money serves no game purpose other than to spend in Town shops, so you might as well use it.

You’ll find the usual basic types of roguelike magic items: potions, scrolls, rings, and amulets. It’s worth keeping in mind the limits of each type of item. Magic and scrolls can’t be used while you’re confused; scrolls additionally can’t be used while you’re blind; potions are heavier but can be drunk whenever you have a spare turn. So if you’re confused a Scroll of Phase Door can’t help you, unless you cure the confusion by drinking a healing potion first.

There are three kinds of “charged” items: wands, staves, and rods. Confusingly, using default keys, wands are used with the ‘a’ key (Apply), staves with the ‘u’ key (Use), and rods with the z key (Zap). Each tends to have their own uses. Wands and staves have limited number of charges, times they can be used; some magic can recharge them, but also risks destroying the item. Rods are the odd item out; instead of limited charges, they have a timeout between times they can be used.

On top of this, some items you find in the dungeon can also be used, with Shift-A. Particularly keep this in mind if you find dragon scale armor, as their breath weapons can be quite powerful! The strongest items in the game, called artifacts, tend to have these kinds of abilities. Artifacts are the items that have names, usually in quotation marks.

Many of the strong items have functions that must be identified. Old versions of Angband used an identification system not unlike that of Rogue and Hack, but more recent iterations have overhauled this entirely. Now, equipment items bear runes that you identify independently. While it may take several identifications to find out all of an item’s runes, once you know a rune you’ll recognize it on other items for the rest of the game. Known runes can be seen with the Inspect command, Shift-I. If there are any unknown runes, there will be a couple of question marks after the item’s name: (??). Runes can be identified with one of the spells, or by reading a Scroll of Identify Rune, but if something in play causes a rune’s effect to function, like if it’s a rune of Resist Fire and you get hit by a fire attack, the game will immediately identify the rune for you.

Another thing that got overhauled in recent versions is the game’s curses. No longer are there the traditional “sticky” curses, which prevent you from equipping the item until the curse is removed. Now, you can freely remove a cursed item if you like.

Your character has an inventory limit, and can only carry a maximum of 23 items on them. Multiple items of the same type “stack together,” occupying a single inventory space, but item stacks are limited to 40 items before further items will spill over into another space. There are some weird nuances to this: arrows in your quiver, even of different types, appear to take up one stack unless you have more than 40. The game also keeps track of the weight of items you’re carrying. There is no limit to how much weight you can bear, but depending on your Strength you’ll get slowed by carrying excess weight.

Don’t forget to keep checking the contents of the shops in town. They change periodically while you’re exploring the dungeon, and tend to improve in what they carry the deeper you’ve been (although with commensurately higher prices). Money is good for nothing else in the game than buying things from these shops, so go ahead and spend it. In addition to identification, charged items you sell to shops get recharged, so if you have the money you can then buy it back with its improved capacity.

You’ll notice that some items tend to get printed with dark gray text. These items tend to have some negative effect for your character, or are possibly useless. Magic using characters will see a lot of the heavier armor is printed in gray, to indicate that they will suffer from reduced Mana when wearing it. However, wearing armor might be worth it for the protection it offers. It is a tradeoff kind of thing, don’t you see.

Speed deserves special mention. Your character’s speed is rated using a score that’s displayed in the sidebar. In general, every ten points of speed above 0 is an extra turn relative to the average monster, and every ten points below is an extra turn they get relative to you. This measure breaks down beyond +/-20, but it’s difficult to get that far.

When you fight monsters, you’ll notice the window that is by default in the lower-right fills in with information about them. This window is your view into Angband’s vaunted “monster memory.” As you play, not just your current game but many games, the game keeps records of all the statistics of the monsters you fight that your characters have deduced. This information is saved to a file as you play and isn’t reset when you start over.

Uh-oh.

At first experience levels come quickly. Angband lets you progress through the dungeon at your own pace. When you enter a level, most of the time, you’ll get a message indicating the game’s opinion of how dangerous the monsters are on it relative to how deep that level is. This message is called the level feeling. Much of the time you’ll see messages like the level seems safe or tame, but once in a while you’ll get a more dangerous-seeming message. In particular look out for the message “Omens of death haunt this place,” that’s the worst possible message and means bad news lurks about. There is also a second message, called the object feeling, that gives a sense of the quality of treasure on the level, but it only shows up after you’ve been on the level for a bit.

Your character has the ability to ‘t’unnel (Shift-T) through walls with the right implement. There’s sometimes money embedded in walls, which can be detected with Detect Treasure magic or just spotted in a corridor wall. Weapons generally are used to do this, although most weapons really suck at it. There exist in the game special weapons, shovels and picks, that are made specifically for digging. They’re awful at combat, but good for striking the earth, although it still takes a long time to do it in terms of turns. Current-day Angband automatically uses your best digging item when you try to tunnel, so you don’t have to bother changing your equipped weapon.

Recent Revisions

Angband has changed a lot since then. Like Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, its developers have worked on it, removed some other elements, added others, and what was left has sometimes been modified greatly. Current-day Angband is not really the same game as the old version, so it’s worth throwing out any old assumptions. Of special note, I’ve seen players mention the game seems to be easier than it used to be.

Some of the specific things that have changed:

  • The magic system has been reworked, to need fewer books. Angband magic requires you keep a spell’s book in your inventory to cast it, so this opens up inventory slots for other items.
  • People who played Moria will remember how you had to go through a rigamarole of haggling with merchants whenever buying or selling something. It may have been interesting once in a while, but it really could wear on your patience over the course of a long game. Thank the Valar it is no more.
  • As stated earlier, the magic equipment system has been changed. Instead of identifying wearable items individually, you effectively identify them in parts now. Each item bears a number of runes that determine what its properties are, and you identify those individually. Once you’ve identified all the runes, you know the item.
  • Curses are runes too now, there are many types of them, and items can have more than one. The traditional roguelike “sticky” curses, that prevented you from taking items off, are gone. Instead, many curses are subtle and not obvious in what they’re doing until the curse rune has been identified, and other items offer tradeoffs between good properties with curses. Some curses may even be of situational use. The removal of sticky curses (of which I’ll have more to say some time) removes most of the danger, but also much of the frustration, of using the equipment you find lying around.
  • There are still individual magic items, potions, scrolls, wands, staves, and rods, that must be identified individually. Now you can give up an example of each item to a shop that deals in it and in exchange it’ll be identified for you. Because of this, the old Scrolls of Identify and *Identify* are gone, although there are now scrolls that identify a rune.
  • To do away with the loop of lugging items back to town to sell, most of which are otherwise useless to you, now shops don’t buy items from players. If the item is useless, you can just leave it in the dungeon, as there is no monetary benefit to having it. To make up for the loss of funds, money found in the dungeon tends to be greater in value. (But see below, on “birth options.”)
  • What was once known as “preserve mode,” in which artifacts you never find on a level before you leave it are put back into the item generation pool and can be found at a later time, is now the default.
A few of these really change the game!
“Generate a new, random artifact set” upends the game quite a bit
“Force player descent” and “Word of Recall has no effect” duplicates “Ironman mode” from previous versions
“Monsters learn from their mistakes” sounds hilarious

Some previous features have been changed to “birth options.” These are options that can only be changed at the start of the game, by entering Options (again, by pressing the Equal key, “=”) during character creation. One of these birth options reverts shops to once again buying items from players, in exchange for finding less cash in the dungeon. “Preserve mode” can be disabled, which improves level feelings to compensate. And an option in older versions called “Ironman mode,” which prevented you from returning to dungeon depths you’ve been to before, always forcing you to explore deeper and deeper, has become a pair of birth options. And there’s even a birth option now that will cause Angband’s levels to persist once you leave them. There’s other interesting birth options too, including one that replaces all the built-in artifacts with randomized alternatives!

There’s much more to say about Angband, especially about its history, and perhaps its greatest legacy: it has a vast number of variants. People modifying the source code have made more than 100 alternate versions of Angband over the years! This seems to be in large part thanks to the efforts of previous maintainer Ben Harrison, who cleaned up the code greatly, making it relatively simple, by roguelike standards, to make meaningful changes. But let’s save those matters for next time.

@Play: A Reintroduction to Angband

Of all the @Play columns, which begin to approach 100 in number, I have only directly tackled Angband once. I admit, that’s a huge oversight. Our first treatment of Angband was on GameSetWatch, which now only exists on the Wayback Machine. A reprint of that column is in my @Play collection Exploring Roguelike Games, out in print through CRC Press, but that’s admittedly kind of expensive.

Don’t let this retro title screen fool you, these days, on Windows at least, Angband has full-color graphical tiles.

An Angle on Angband

If you’ve played a Hack-like, Angband (home page) will probably look fairly similar at first. It, too, is a grid-based dungeon exploration game where you fight lots of monsters and find objects with unknown properties that you must discover as you play. Both games have randomized maps, dangerous monsters with fearsome abilities, powerful magic items to use against them, spells you can learn and cast, and traps you must look out for. Both standard-bearer for the Hack series, NetHack, and Angband now feature graphical tiles by default, although they can also be played in the old ASCII-based format.

Where the games differ is in their general philosophy of what dungeon exploration means. While NetHack has lots of strong monsters, it seems to take the view that the dungeon itself is your greatest opponent. The puzzle of figuring out item identities is a larger part of the game, and NetHack offers both more uncertainty in identification and more ways to identify. NetHack has more set locations that offer specific puzzles players must overcome, like finding the Luckstone at the bottom of the Gnomish Mines, or getting past Medusa, or crossing the moat around the Castle; Angband has only one set location, its Town, although there are lots of special areas that can be randomly found within its dungeon levels.

NetHack’s dungeon cannot be exited without giving up the game, for even once you get the Amulet and escape, you’re thrown into an End Game that functions as a coda to your adventure; in Angband, you’ll probably leave the dungeon many times in order to avail yourself of the Town’s useful services. In Angband, this Town offers shops where you can buy and identify items, but the shops are all menus. NetHack’s shops have a physicality, in that they’re rooms in the dungeons, overseen by a Shopkeeper character, which allows players to steal from shops if they can survive the shopkeeper’s eyes and wrath. And, of course, NetHack has its iconic pets that can help you explore the dungeon and provide other services, while in Angband you fight alone.

NetHack’s has a stronger sense of place than Angband, where dungeon levels are much larger but also less distinctive, and anyway are forgotten once you leave a level. If you go downstairs then right back upstairs in Angband, you’ll find a completely different map waiting for you, with new monsters and items. NetHack’s dungeons persist so long as your character survives, and you can go back to a level after a long time and find it’s largely as you left it.

It’s possible to see a kind of rivalry between NetHack and Angband, but I think this is largely an illusion. Both games know what they’re about and are content to pursue it in their own way.

While NetHack has more name recognition, lots of people like Angband! It’s spawned several popular variants all its own. One of them, ZAngband, is basically its own game by now, with a ton of variants and other notable branch-offs.

The Legacy of Moria

While Beneath Apple Manor has many aspects of a roguelike, Rogue is still at the center of the roguelike genre. Rogue inspired Hack, and then, NetHack.

But also, Rogue inspired Moria, and in fact Moria predates Hack by several years. Moria may be the first “roguelike” game, in that it’s not Rogue itself but was clearly inspired by and derived from Rogue. Even the “direct” descendants of Rogue, like URogue and SuperRogue, came along after Moria. If there is another character-based game played on university computing terminals between Rogue’s release and Moria’s, word of it has not come down to me.

UMoria

Moria was created by (the recently deceased) Richard Koeneke. First written in a dialect of BASIC, then converted to one of Pascal, he left university and, like many other roguelike authors who exited academia, appears never to have worked on their game again. But he opened the game’s source, and some other people ported it to C, and called the new version UMoria. UMoria still exists, and can be downloaded to play locally or via a web browser.

The significance of Moria and UMoria on the history of computer gaming cannot be overstated. Rogue was popular yes, and has inspired a legion of games taking one or more of its aspects and running with them. But there is something fundamental to the core of Moria that has seeped even more deeply into CRPGs. Diablo’s credits mention UMoria as a direct inspiration, but more than that, the basic sense of Moria has become pervasive.

It is easy to forget now that there used to be all freaking kinds of RPGs, and early on games in the genre looked very different from how they look today. dnd and Oublette on PLATO systems have a slightly familiar kind of overhead view, with the walls of the dungeon around you drawn in lines, but monsters don’t exist outside of your immediate interactions with them. Wizardry, what is now weirdly called a “blobber,” has a grid-based world that is experienced in first-person, and this became a very common means of presentation, inspiring… well, all of these are purely from memory: The Bard’s Tale series, the Might & Magic series, Dragon Wars, Dungeon Magic, Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Hack, Swords & Serpents on the NES, the dungeons of Phantasty Star on the SMS, Arcana over on the SNES, a funky 3D version of the original Bomberman on MSX, and countless other games that presented the mazes without the monsters. Even Strong Bad has wrestled against one of the blobber ilk with his begloved hands. (“Who’s Strong Bad,” asks half of my audience. I know, I’m old.)

UMoria

In particular, it should be remembered that Dungeons & Dragons, which inspired this whole category, was not a solo game. Despite promises of solitaire play in the 1st Edition AD&D DM’s Guide, you really needed at least two people, a player and a referee, or “DM,” to play; most groups had multiple players, each playing one or more characters. This is still how D&D is most commonly played today. Rogue was one of the games that, by attempting to offer a solo version of the experience, put the emphasis on the solo.

But Rogue has other things going on in it. Its identification game is a work of genius by itself, and the way its systems work together make it special in ways other than just being a D&D simulation. Its descendant Moria, on the other hand, offers a more generalized RPG framework, and that is what has come to suffuse and infect nearly the entire rest of video gaming. What Moria did was generalize the solo fantasy RPG experience. Moria has multiple attack types, like fire, cold, and electricity, and resistances to them, has equipment items with add-on special properties, and has a bunch of generally plain monsters but with colors that identify their properties like they were palette-swapped.

In fact, I do not think I am being hyperbolic when I say that, due to Moria’s influence on Diablo, nearly every game now that features what they call a “loot system,” is actually offering a Moria-style loot system. It is that pervasive. And Angband, as UMoria’s direct descendant, has kept up that system and elaborated upon it for over 30 years now.

J.R.R. Tokens

Angband started out as mostly a themed version of UMoria. If the name Moria sounds familiar, like you might have heard it in a movie once, that’s because it comes right out of Tolkien. The Mines of Moria* are the dungeons of the game, and that’s why at level 50 the player fights a Balrog, trying to do a better job of it than Gandalf did.

* Off the subject. A fun game to play if you’re of a frame of mind is, when watching the relevant scenes in the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring, to refer to random things as “the Something… of Moria!” You can start from outside with “The Gates of Moria!” Say it like Gimli, with a gruff voice, and it helps if you can rouse yourself to try a Scottish accent. It’s more entertaining if it’s a bad one. Then: The Halls… of Moria! The Goblins… of Moria! The Hasty Retreat… of Moria! The Panicked Screaming… of Moria! I find that one can amuse themselves for quite some time this way.

Well you might have heard that there are other Middle Earth books than The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of these, cobbled together by John Ronald Reuel’s son Christopher Tolkien, is The Silmarillion. It’s a big collection of backstories and myths and legends of questionable canonicity.

You might remember that the Mines of Moria were not the final destination of the LotR books, but merely a stop along the way. If you read The Silmarillion, you’ll know that there were once even worse places in Middle Earth than that. One of them was a stronghold of Morgoth, called the pits of Angband.

That’s why you fight Morgoth in the game of Angband, on level 100, and his lieutenant Sauron, the same entity that was the big baddie in The Lord of the Rings, on Level 99. And what’s more, all of Angband is deeply drenched in token Tolkienness. It’s got a bunch of Tolkien monsters, both unique types, from the afore-mentioned end bosses down to Farmer Maggot and his dogs, to representatives of species like goblins, orcs, Ainur, and Maiar. A lot of the items have add-on properties like being a weapon “of Westernesse,” which in game terms means it’s quite good.

LotR inspired some iconic fantasy book covers.
These were scavenged off of Reddit.

Despite how deeply it plumbs the pits, If you approach it as a full adventure in Middle Earth where you can visit the Shire, smoke a pipe with Frodo and hang out with Strider, Angband will disappoint you. It takes the wonder and beauty of The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings series, and the Silmarillion, and uses them as basically a list of monsters and items. Some of the variants that I’ll get to later try to restore a bit of that, but for the most part Angband is a game of tactical combat, map exploration, and loot collection, and anything from the literature that doesn’t fit that purpose is left out. There’s no Land of Mordor, Where the Shadows Lie; no Gondor with its rich history, except where it involves special monsters and items; and no sad departure of the Elves to the West. (Writing about Tolkien involves capitalizing a lot of seemingly random terms.)

It’s not that Angband seeks to balderize Tolkien, but that it just has no place to use those aspects of his work. These are generic fantasy exploration and tactics games that have been given a coat of Tolkien Paint, probably by Tom Bombadil, who has had difficulty finding work lately.

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Painting by the Brothers Hildebrandt, borrowed from this page.

What Angband gets from the Lord of the Rings and its subsidiary books is a rich lore that it can just do with as it pleases. It lends weight to the games. Instead of just making up a bunch of monsters, which often falls flat, it puts on an Elven Cloak and seems richer for it. It’s not just Angband itself; there’s a whole family of Angband variants that work by replacing (or sometimes, just supplementing) the Tolkien stuff with material from some other author, from Roger Zelazny to Anne McCaffery to H.P.Lovecraft to Terry Pratchett.

That makes a good enough introduction! Next time, in a week, we’ll offer some early playing advice, then maybe a timeline of Angband and its versions, and after that will come the Herculean task of looking at some of those many variants. See you soon-adillo!

@Play: An Early-Level FAQ For Omega

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

We’re approaching the end of our burst of coverage of Unix, DOS, Linux, Mac and Amiga roguelike Omega. There are even other places to play it that have arrived since then, including OS/2, Windows console native, Windows with graphics, and even in-browser.

My experiences with Omega have been filled with death, frustration, annoyance, exasperation, and death. But I have also greatly enjoyed the game. While even with source-diving I have not gotten much farther than completing the Goblin Caves, the game is still enjoyable for me to play. There’s lots of cool things to discover, powerful items to find, and interesting strategies to formulate. In Omega one may see early forms of ideas found in venerable NetHack and ADOM.

Those two games have had a lot more fan obsession directed at them over the years, which has broken off some of their sharper edges. There are entire genres of NetHack variants devoted to fixing things about it that some people disagree with.

Omega has not had this advantage. Rather more things will just kill you in Omega. There are a lot of things that deserve experimentation, but that experimentation will often result in an expedited demise, or else make your character unplayable, or merely erase much of your progress.

At @Play we are of the opinion that more people should play all roguelikes, be they classic, modern, or lite. So please, allow me to present a basic strategy FAQ for Omega. Information from this has been derived from many sources: an old FAQ for 0.75, ancient posts on the Usenet group rec.games.roguelike.misc (that’s a link to Google Groups, so follow it before it goes the way of late lamented Reader), and the source code to Omega (these here are the sources I examined).

Why am I so into this? It’s because it’s a worthy game, one that can give an interested player a lot of enjoyment, yet few people talk about it anymore. And yet there is a real sense that this game could someday just vanish. While there’s several Github projects hosting the source with grandiose aims, like converting the code to use C++ or making a “Next Generation” version, they haven’t seen movement in several years.

In a file in the code, Omega creator Laurence Brothers offers his hopes for future development of his project. But then he graduated from college, and passed the game on to others, who, after some initial effort, have not done a great amount with it in the decades since.

Adult Life happens to everyone, and no one should be faulted for failing to maintain an old terminal game that was mostly played by college students. But it is a shame that Omega doesn’t have an inscrutable and forbidding DevTeam like NetHack does, to be mysterious in their aims and slightly malicious in their efforts.

As I’ve said, I’ve been tooling around a little with the source code. Omega’s structure isn’t that hard to understand. Maybe something will come of it. If it does, you can be sure that I’ll mention it here, and probably try to get some more column mileage out of it. Until then, here is a whole lot of strategy discussion on Omega.

This is pretty long! It may be the longest single @Play column I’ve ever written. It’s basically a FAQ itself, although in actuality few have done any asking for a long time. NetHack and ADOM have full wikis. Omega deserves one too, but until that day happens, this is what I’ve been able to piece together.

This logjam of an article is presented along the lines that, if people want to read it, it’s here, and if they don’t, well, at least I’m done talking about Omega for now, and it’s all here neatly in a single page that you can hit Close Tab on with a song in your heart. I don’t expect you to share my obsessions, only that you recognize why I’m obsessed, and to consider if you’d like to house this ancient DOS roguelike in your own brain too.

About as far as I’ve been, having completed the Sewer dungeon.

Here, you will discover how to join guilds, what spells the religions teach, how to immediately earn thousands of gold pieces, the details of more than one secret game mechanic, what to wish for, and how to enter Omega’s secret cheat mode….

Here are the previous posts on Omega: onetwothreefour. And while we’re at it, here’s the two previous posts on Omega’s contemporary Alphaman: firstsecond.


What Is The Objective?

So, what is your character trying to accomplish in Omega? The answer is: who knows?

In its way a bit like Animal Crossing, there is no definite ending to Omega. Your character can retire if they earn 50,000 gold pieces and buy a condo in Rampart. If you do that, then visit it and choose to retire, to the game, that’s a win: it calls the function p_win(), and ends the game. Pay off Tom Nook!

The other form of winning involves becoming an Adept, which means completing the Adept’s Challenge. In the game’s code this is called a “bigwin.” I am not completely sure of the requirements, but part of it involves going to the Astral Plane, which is done through the auspices of the Oracle of the Blue Flame, so don’t attack her! Once you do so you can make wishes when you want, but your score is frozen at the moment you complete the challenge.

Another form of victory is to get your name in one of the positions of the scoreboard. Instead of a Top-X list of scores, it’s a number of positions in the game world. If your character gets to the top of a guild, or a religion, or completes all the Duke’s quests, or gets the greatest Law or Chaos alignment score seen on that installation, gets commemorated, not just on the scoreboard, but as a presence in the game world for future players to hear about.

Some Nuances

Alignment

Maintaining alignment is a weird process. Omega was created at a time when old school D&D’s lawful/chaotic system was still in recent memory. In this moral setup, good and lawfulness get generally conflated, as do evil and chaoticness. A necessarily reductive, even medieval, outlook upon the world, no distinction is made for rulebreaking to help the oppressed, or the enforcement of evil laws.

In D&D, you decide your character’s alignment when you create it, and the DM is expected to enforce that decision, with consequences should the player’s actions not line up with it. This is especially bad for paladins, who can lose all their class powers. In roguelikes like Hacklikes, ADOM and Omega, alignment naturally changes according to the player’s actions: if you do lawful things, your character slowly becomes more lawful, and the same goes for chaotic things.

There are a small number of things that can greatly affect your alignment. One of them is reading a scroll of law or drinking a potion of chaos when you’re already of that alignment. I find it instructive to recognize how Omega represents: law is information, but chaoticness is physical. There is a “chaos sea” in the game, but no such physical manifestation of law. Even so, each undoes the other.

Over time, the things that affect your alignment the most are small but frequent changes, especially how you deal with monsters. If you attack a monster before it gets a swing on you, it’s chaotic; if you let try to hit you first, it’s lawful. No allowance is made for whether you had a choice in the matter.

If you are purposely trying to change your alignment, the best way to do it is, perhaps oddly, by threatening to intelligent monsters.

By threatening them, instead of killing them wordlessly, you get three lawful points. If you threaten them and they surrender (usually from goblins), you’re give a choice to kill them, rob them, or to free it.

If you let them free, you get two more lawful points. If you rob them, you gain two chaotic points, which is not enough to overwhelm the push towards lawful. But if you execute them on the spot, you gain thirteen chaos points, enough to negate the lawful gain and ten more! It’s unsporting, but it’s a good way to ensure that you stay chaotic, like, if you’re in the Sorceror’s Guild and you don’t want to get mega-cursed, or want to advance with them.

Guilds

One of the first things you’ll want to do in a game of Omega is to join at least one guild in the town of Rampart.

There is a ton of information to relate on the guilds and what they each do, their requirements for joining, what you get when you join up and advance, etc. I decided to summarize it all by way of this chart:

You might have to right-click it and save if you want to get a good look; I’d like to increase its size by more, but WordPress seems determined to maintain that left margin, argh.

The Fighting, Magic and Religion categories of guilds are all mutually exclusive with each other: you can only belong to one of each at a time. Some will throw you out if you escape their good graces, which allows you to then join another one: the Paladins if you cease to be lawful, the Gladiators if you somehow escape a match without winning, and the Sorcerors’ if you stop being chaotic-although in that case, you also get pretty heavily cursed, and they refuse to sell you mana for the rest of the game. (I’ve seen at least one report that they outright kill you, but this is not supported by my reading of the source code. They do cause some damage, though.)

The whole early period in Rampart is a lot like an extended character creation session. In D&D terms, you don’t even have a “class” until you pick out your first guild. It’s a good idea to not to earn any experience points until you’ve joined at least one XP-using guild, so you don’t waste any.

Once you’re a member of a guild, however, it can be a good idea to hold back before joining a second. Your earned XP is split between all the guilds you’re a member of. While you’re a member of only one guild, all of your experience goes only into it, making your advancement in it very rapid. The next-to-last rank in each guild is reached at 4,000 XP. It’s not hugely difficult to get to this if you only have one. That’s only like four trifids. If you have four XP-needing guilds (the maximum), you need to get 16,000 XP to get that far.

The exception to this is the Gladiators. Advancement in the Gladiators doesn’t use XP, and so it doesn’t take a share of the XP you earn. This, makes the Gladiators rather best fighting guild for the magic reliant. Even if you never choose to fight in the Arena, you can still take advantage of their extra combat maneuver point and gym credit. You still need pretty good stats to get accepted by them, however.

The highest rank in all the guilds but the Gladiators requires both completing a special quest and exceeding the guild experience total of the last player to reach the top of that guild. In the Gladiators, you must beat a character with about the strength of the current Arena champion. On multi-user systems, players may compete on a shared scoreboard. Provided you then retire, this puts your character up on the scoreboard as the leader of that guild.

Back in the day, I’ve read, players would compete with each other to get up on the board; nowadays, is there any system in the whole world still running Omega this way? It is sadly a lost form of gaming. Nowadays, if you’re playing solo and don’t come up with a different name for all your characters, you’ll end up with multiple slots taken up by the same name, which breaks your perception of the world, a little.

This explanation of higher-level Omega play brings with it the caveat that I myself have yet to win, despite (and, in a way, because of) all of my experimentation with Omega. I will report in with more on Omega’s endgame someday, once I’ve managed to get to it.

So, which guilds should you choose?

Fighting guilds: My favorite is the Gladiators, because they don’t take a share of XP away from the other guilds, and because they give you gym credit, which lets you pick which stats you want to improve. The Mercenaries mostly give you cash, Strength, and Constitution. The Paladins don’t give you any stat advances at all, and you have to be Lawful to join and remain a member. They do give you a lot of perks though, and every advancement gives you a very good item. That absence of stat advances hurts though, it means you end up spending your own money on stat boosts to make up for it.

Magic guilds: There are two choices here. The tradeoff here is between a chance of random spells from the Collegium Magii, or specific spells and half-price mana refills from the Sorcerors. The randomness from the college is fun, and sometimes gets you very powerful magic (and free experience for learning it!) but makes it difficult to plan your magic game. The Sorcerors’ discount on mana helps you make much more use of your spells, whatever they end up being.

The college is free to join if your Int is at least 18. The Sorcerors Guild is much cheaper to join if you become more chaotic first; the fee can be reduced to as little as 100 gold pieces merely by executing a few goblins (talk to the with ‘t’, threaten them, then kill them).


Religions: The main reasons to join a religion, it seems to be, are some extra Power and the many spells they can teach you. Here they are, and the levels on which you receive them:

Level 3 in all the religions teaches Sanctify, and Level 4 gives you Blessing. The Lords of Destiny don’t offer any spells other than those, but you do still get Pow for advancing.

Note that Set grants Invisibility at Level 1, and again at Level 3, which seems to be an error. Getting Invisibility right away is a point in favor of Set, but getting it twice is a point against him. And Athena and Hecate get Shadowform, a very cool spell, a whole level before Set does.

Pawn Shop

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the pawn shop in Rampart. It’s a rotating selection of random items for sale at a discount. Everything there is pre-identified, both good and bad items can be found, and a large selection of items can appear there. There’s enough good items that show up that it’s usually worth your while to check in, but not so many that it makes the random items you find in dungeons pointless.

Coupled with the cash from robbing the autoteller, it’s a great resource that helps make every game feel different, even when much of the opening time in Rampart is not actually all that random. It also has a lot of psychological value. As I mentioned last time, Omega can be really capricious, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to save your character. If you’re going to be forced to start over for frustrating reasons, it helps a lot to know you can look in on the pawn shop and have a good chance of finding something useful and different to help your new character get on their feet.

If you’re playing Omega 0.90, you’ll find that the Pawn Shop has a much larger selection!

Strategies

There are a lot of spoilers here, many of which derived from reading the source code. That is your only warning. A game like Omega benefits strongly from having a community around it, to trade discoveries and observations and compete against each other. This community used to exist. Its annals are recorded in the archives of rec.games.roguelike.misc. It doesn’t seem to exist any more. Please take these notes in substitution for it. I have yet to get into the later portions of the game anyway. The early phases are the hardest parts to survive, so maybe this will help get you through the early frustrating phases.

Rolling a character

Major effects of the stats
Strength: Damage with heavy weapons and carry capacity
Constitution: Maximum hit points
Dexterity: Chance to hit and damage with light weapons, chance to disarm traps
Agility: Movement speed and dodging
Intelligence: Chance of learning spells randomly and some aspects of spellcasting
Power: Maximum mana points

Caveats of the above: I have yet to decode the source far enough to be sure of the effects of Strength and Dexterity in fighting; what’s given here is summarized from the game’s help file. There may be minor cases for each that are not covered here.

So long as your character can join a guild that can increase the above, low stats are not necessarily a big problem. See the section on guilds, above, for more information.

Robbing the autoteller

The ATM is “badly programmed,” not in the game’s code but in the game’s fiction, and can be easily exploited. Use Shift-O to open an account and set a password. (All of the ATM key commands are shifted, for some reason.) Then use Shift-P to enter a password, and enter anything except the password you entered. The teller will print a message saying the police have been alerted, and to press space to continue. Hit any key other than space, and after about half a minute you’ll have from 1,000 to 4,000 more gold pieces and five more chaos alignment points.

You can use those alignment points to get started on a career of gleeful lawlessness, or have the Archdruid neutralize most of them, or give 100 gold pieces at the hospice (or 1 gold piece five times) to get back to net zero if you want to join the Paladins or a lawful religion.

Exploring town

Rampart has a lot of resources available, enough so that it can be hard to keep them all in your head. I offer this chart to summarize what’s there. Note, while the layout of the main city is the same from game to game, many of these locations are moved to a random door. Most of these doors will be the ones that are open at the start of the game, but two, the Thieves’ Guild and the Brothel, will be in random closed (yet, unlocked) doors.

The Hedge Maze

The hedge maze is probably the most dangerous location in Rampart, other than the Sewer dungeon. Traps in the maze are a concern; setting off an alarm trap in here can be disastrous, setting the whole guard off looking for you. If this happens, the game can become almost unplayable. Talk to one of them and they may ask you to give yourself up. Doing this pacifies them, but also means you are sent to the City Gaol, although you tend to be released the first time this happens.

There are certain locations in each hedge maze layout that tend to generate either a trap, an item or a monster. As you play you’ll gradually get a sense of where those are.

The primary attractions in the hedge maze are the house of the Oracle, who gives advice as to the next places to go as well as having a mirror that can provide a free self knowledge spell, and the entrance to the Sewers, a popular second destination after finishing with the Goblin Caves.

Around the side and back of the maze is the Cemetary, which has some interesting items in it, which are unfortunately guarded over by liches. At the entrance to the cemetery, when you try to walk in, you’ll be asked something like “Are you sure?” This is not because of any special property of the cemetery itself, there’s a peaceful invisible monster, a haunt, standing in the entrance.
Of special note, the hedges of the maze are separated from the castle by only a narrow moat of water. It is thought that there might be a secret back way into the castle, if one could get past the moat….

There is one more interesting property of the hedge maze. Randomly each game, a few of its bushes are chosen to be trifids. They look identical, and it’s not easy to tell them apart from hedges without special means. If you walk into either, you’re asked if you’re sure.

Walking into a hedge can do a variety of bad things to you, including tearing up your cloak or poisoning you, but walking into a trifid is usually fatal-unless you’re carrying a bucket of salt water outside of your pack! If this is the case, then instead of getting devoured by an evil plant monster, you automatically destroy the trifid and get 1,000 experience points for it! This is usually enough to advance you to the next experience level until you get up to 8,000 XP, and even then it’s a substantial boost. The more experience you get from methods like this, the less you’re put at the mercy of Omega’s combat systems.

The key is, you need the bucket of salt water to perform this trick, and also to either identify which bushes are the trifids. The salt water is sometimes sold for cheap in the Pawn Shop, and are reasonably common finds in the Goblin Caves. Identifying the trifids can be as simple as walking systematically through the hedges, although it’s best if you go cloakless and have poison resistance from a ring. You can also use some spells, like Firebolt and Ball Lightning, which destroy hedges but don’t affect trifids.

Why am I so into this? It’s because it’s a worthy game, one that can give an interested player a lot of enjoyment, yet few people talk about it anymore. There is a real sense that this game could vanish. There’s several Github projects hosting the source. They tend to have grandiose aims like converting the code to use C++ (last update: three years ago), or making a “Next Generation” version (last update: six years ago).

In a file in the code, Omega creator Laurence Brothers mentions his hopes for future development of his project. And then he graduated from college, and passed the game on to others, who, after some initial effort, have not done a great amount with it in the decades since.

Adult Life happens to everyone, and no one should be faulted for failing to maintain an old console game that was mostly played by people in college. But it is a shame that Omega doesn’t have an inscrutible and forbidding DevTeam like NetHack does.

I’m tooling around a little with the source code. Omega’s structure isn’t that hard to understand. Maybe something will come of it. If it does, you can be sure that I’ll mention it here, and probably try to get some column mileage out of it. Until then, here is the conclusion of our strategy coverage of Omega. Previous articles are here: firstsecondthirdfourth.


Spells

Certain spells, if you can get them, can make your journeys much easier:

  • Invisibility makes most enemies escapable if you can get at least one space away from an attacker. It offers no protection in melee combat, but no one can chase or shoot you while you’re unseen. Items can make you invisible too, though.
  • Sleep used against you is dangerous (but see more on that below). Sleep used against a monster tends to be even more dangerous for them, however: they tend to stay asleep indefinitely until attacked. You can doze a monster in the Arena and take your time resting for many minutes (with the comma key), and I haven’t seen the opponent awaken yet!
  • Firebolt is does moderate damage, and can destroy hedges. It doesn’t affect trifids, so it’s a good way of telling them apart.
  • Ball lightning is even better, and can affect a 3×3 area. However the low-end attack spell, Magic Missile, tends not to be too helpful.
  • Identification is extremely important if you don’t join the thieves’ guild; there are so many cursed items that some means of identification is basically required, and identification scrolls are too uncommon.
  • Shadowform makes exploration a lot easier, making overland travel faster, letting you pass through walls, and making it harder for many monsters to hit you.
  • Curing is nice for battling disease without having to find healers or a Potion of Curing. Healing, however, isn’t that useful; it doesn’t heal for much so in battle it’s mostly giving your enemy free hits, it consumes your precious mana points, and if you’re not in battle, you can use the comma key to rest for ten minutes for a similar effect.
  • The Enchantment spell is extremely useful if you can get it. It allows you to add pluses to equipment, weapons, armor, and rings, at the cost of mana points. All of these things help out a lot. I have discovered that enchanting an item to more than +6 will probably destroy the item. Beyond that, the catch is that nothing in the game that I know of grants Enchantment specifically. The only way to get it is through random means, particularly studying at the Collegium Magii.
  • At higher levels I can’t offer much advice. Two gods offer Hellfire at top rank, which instantly kills many monsters. Disrupt does high damage at a point in sight of your choosing. Disintegrate can destroy both monsters and walls.

Free experience

There’s a good number of ways to gain experience points without fighting!

  • Every lock you pick with thieves’ picks gives you 3 XP. Given the number of locked doors in Rampart, and the low experience requirements for the lowest levels (level 1 at 20 XP, level 2 at 50), if you can get picks somewhere, you can gain two levels right off the bat that way. You get free lockpicks from the Thieves’ Guild, but you don’t have to be a member to pick locks, or gain experience from it. If you don’t want to join the guild, sometimes you can find some in the pawn shop.
  • Disarming a trap earns 5 XP. If you score a critical success on the roll (more common at high Dexterity) and manage to salvage a trap component, you gain another 25 XP.
  • Greeting the Archdruid in the temple north of Rampart (talk with the ‘t’ key) is worth 300 XP. This is not only worth three levels from zero XP, but if you’re a member of only one guild or religion, it’s nearly enough to get you to the first level of advancement in it, which happens at 400 guild XP points. Reaching the first tier in a religion earns you two new spells! The biggest danger of doing this is the chance that you’ll be eaten by the lions and doberman death-hounds that perpetually roam the countryside.
  • Scrolls of Law and Potions of Chaos earn you experience points relative to how much alignment you have in their areas. They can be worth a lot! Don’t read/drink one if you’re of a different alignment, though.
  • I mentioned above that killing a trifid by carrying salt water earns you 1,000 free XP!
  • At the brothel in town (“The House of the Eclipse”), if you knock on the door at night and have 500 gold, you’ll have an “educational experience” and earn 100 XP. This also has a chance of increasing your Constitution, unless you answered “n” to the sexual preference prompt at the start of the game. In that event, you’ll instead have a chance to increase Intelligence. That’s rather a lot of money for 100 XP, but it’s a risk-free option if you have a lot of cash.

Survival

Food

You can always buy cheap food from the fast food places in Rampart, but they weigh 20 units. Although the default description of fast food is “red-and-white buckets,” they’re just food rations that haven’t been identified yet. Other food may be lighter, but can only be found randomly. I usually buy 10 food rations to start out, which is enough to make it to the Archdruid’s temple and back to Rampart. Note that the food rations you find in dungeons may be poisoned food, which is a different item class than normal food rations.

Combat

Remember to set your combat routine! That’s Shift-F. Read the game’s help about combat to find out more about it. At first you only two points to spend. Generally I find it’s best to spend them on Lunge Center: you get hit more often, but at least you can strike opponents with reasonable frequency. Whenever you gain some Agility, gain a level, or join the Gladiators, check to see if you gained another combat maneuver point. All of these matter, but except for the guaranteed bonus point you get as a Gladiator, they seem to be awarded a bit randomly. My first addition to my combat routine is Block Low at the start; after than, Block Center. From there I may add extra attacks. You can have as many as eight points, which can make you quite the terror.

If you’re against a stronger foe in an encounter, and have a chance, set your fighting routine to blocking at as many different levels as you can. You can escape from an encounter if you get to an edge of the tactical map, even if monsters are adjacent to you. Remember to set your moves back to how you want them later.

If you speed drops significantly (to 0.50 or slower), you’ll be warned that your maneuvers have been reset. This usually means you’re already in big trouble.

Lunarity

This is an obscure but extremely important aspect of Omega! At the side of the screen, there is a display they tells you what the current phase of the moon is. Do not ignore it!

If the phase of the moon matches your alignment, then you get an extra to-hit bonus equal to your experience level, and also do double damage! But if the phase is opposite your alignment, then you take a to-hit penalty of half your level, and do half-damage!

The Lawful phase is a full moon; the Chaotic phase is a new moon. Each is each other’s bad phase. For Druids, the half phases are the best times, and the bad phases are both full and new moons. Each phase period lasts for two game days. If you’re not aware of the effects of the moon, the result is your character just mysteriously rocks or sucks every so often. Lunarity also affects the magic consumption of your spells.

Overworld

In the overworld, unless your character is really strong, there is always the chance the game will screw you over with an adverse effect. Chaos storms can, on a whim, reduce your Power by 10 and zero out your mana, or teleport you into the middle of the Chaos Sea, or even reset your experience total and level to zero and remove all your spells and guild ranks. These eventualities are unavoidable, except by wearing Seven League Boots, which nullifies outdoor travel time. In all other cases they happen ever game hour when on the land. The only solution is to spend as little time outside as possible. Being a Druid, riding a horse, or being in shadowform can reduce this time, but only Seven League Boots negates it entirely.

Aside: One possible result of a chaos storm is being teleported to a random location in the overworld. A possible result of this is being sent to the middle of the Chaos sea, surrounded on all sides. Your only recourse in this instance is to try to swim to shore. The following is one possible result of that:

Summarized: the player is given a big negative alignment boost, then usually a whole experience level, and is then killed outright. Thanks for nothing!

Traps

Four types of traps offer special dangers:

Alarm – In dungeons, basically harmless. In Rampart though, probably makes the game unplayable until you turn yourself in by talking to the guards out trying to kill you.hysically, harmless. But spellcasters will find their magical reserves instantly depleted by this, usually meaning an expensive trip to the Sorceror’s Guild at the very least.

Disintegration – Destroys your cloak, your armor, or you, in that order. It does no damage to you personally if you’re wearing either of those two things. Just be sure to always be wearing either of those things.

Acid – Does damage, but more importantly, can destroy multiple items you’re carrying, even in your pack. Worst of all, if the trap decides to destroy a wand it’ll explode and cause a manastorm, doing heavy damage to you. I’ve been wiped out by two wands exploring from an acid trap.

Abyss – This is the worst trap. Teleports you to The Abyss, a place where you fall for an arbitrary distance, then back to the countrysite to land and take falling damage from the distance you fell. The higher amounts of damage are uncommon, but all too possible, and it can thdo any amount of damage.

Curses

Generally curses are of the typical roguelike style. Both wearable equipment and wands you’re carrying can be cursed. Worn equipment that gets cursed can’t be removed unless you can somehow lift the curse. The item often gains big negative effects too, like Rings of Strength are transformed into Rings of Burden when cursed.

I don’t have all the information on curses that I’d like to give you. As near as I can tell so far, to actually remove a curse, you have to get a blessing from a god you worship, which relies on sacrificing a good-enough item to them first. Scrolls or spells of blessing do not appear to work, although a blessed item is further away from being cursed to begin with and so can be an effective preventable measure. Your best recourse, that I know of, is to destroy the item by bashing it (Shift-Z). Some items may take multiple attempts.

Dungeon features

Rivers

Water is sometimes a big obstacle dungeons. Once in a while you might get a setup where you can’t make forward progress. You can jump over water, but only if you have seen the ground on the other side and know it’s empty. This is a prime use for a scroll of clairvoyance, which lets you map out a small square section of the current dungeon of your choosing. As an aside, this definition of “clairvoyance” in roguelike terms may have been an influence on NetHack’s, which maps out a section of the dungeon around the player. Or, maybe it was the other way around, and NetHack inspired Omega?

Anyway, a good way to die is to jump into water, which puts you at the mercy of whether the game thinks you’re carrying too much weight to swim out. You’ll be offered the chance to drop various objects to try to lighten your load enough, including as a single action, dropping your entire pack to be lost in the unknown depths. This is one of a number of ways the game has to destroy your whole non-equipped inventory at once; others include overweighing your horse while out in the countryside (it runs off and your pack is in its saddlebags) and an effect from touching a stone in a village.

It’s difficult to have a horse in a dungeon, since your character automatically releases a horse when you enter, but if you can manage it, it seems that they will swim across it readily. The way I know is to befriend a horse found in the dungeon.

Statues

There are statues in Rampart and the villages too. You can try to bash them (with the ‘z’ key), which can turn them to rubble, cause them to give you a random hint, or sometimes come to life. I have seen a statue, in a dungeon once, actually come to life when I stepped near it and immediately attack me. (It was a salamander, and since I didn’t have fire resistance at the time, I died very quickly. Statues aren’t defined to be of any type, they describe as “A strange-looking statue,” so there’s no hint as to what a statue might turn into. It’s for the best to be wary of them.

Rubble

Rubble is created when you tunnel through a wall, sometimes when you bash a statue, and when a monster destroys a door, as well as sometimes just generated randomly in dungeons. When you step on rubble, sometimes you take a small amount of damage, and sometimes you’re stuck in place for a number of turns. You don’t have to repeatedly try to get out of the rubble to escape it. All that matters is the amount of time that passes. You can still attack adjacent monsters while you’re stuck in rubble, you just can’t leave it.

Altars

Altars appear in dungeons as well as in Rampart and villages, and can be used for the same purposes. Most of these random altars will be of alignments other than that of your current god just from the law of averages, so if you’re already in a religion, praying at one in the dungeon is usually a bad idea. You can interact with altars in a couple of other ways. You can bash one, but this will draw the wrath of the altar’s deity. You can also cast the spell of Energy Drain at one. If I read the code right, you might get a couple of points of Power out of one this way if you’re not in a religion, but in any event you’ll still suffer from divine wrath. In this case, you take a random amount of damage between 0 and ten times your experience level, which is often a chance of immediate death. For many characters, this has the potential to be instantly fatal. I shouldn’t have to say this, but especially don’t bash or cast Energy Drain on an altar belonging to a god you’re a follower of.

Lava

Most lava takes the form of isolated pools. You can jump over it. I wouldn’t jump into it. Having a horse is no use here. There seems to only be one defense against walking into lava, other than just answering “n” to the question of whether you’d like to cook yourself: from reading the code, if your character’s name is “Saltheart Foamfollower”, and it’s got to be that exact capitalization, you’ll only take one damage from lava. It appears to be a reference to the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen Donaldson.

Conditions

Poison: Caused by hedges, spells, traps and some monsters. Means your hit points decrease maybe once a game minute. Cure it at the Healer’s, at the Paladins if you’re a member, a potion of poison antidote, or by eating lembas. It goes away on its own if you can survive long enough, but don’t take it lightly.

Disease: Caused by spells and some monsters. Means you don’t naturally heal. (Usually, you regain some hit points every ten minutes.) Get it cursed at the Healer’s, the Paladins if you’re a member, by eating lembas, or by drinking a potion of curing. Note, this is a different curative potion than poison.

Stat loss: Caused by poisoning and miscellaneous other causes. This lowers a stat, but not the max stat associated to it. Cured with a potion of spell of restoration, or by resting for a week in a rented condo. (That cures a number of the more obscure conditions.)

Slowness: This is caused by some spells, especially those of the goblin shamans. It is a long-lived condition. The only cure I know of is a week of rest in a condo, which you should avail yourself of as soon as possible.

Sleep: This one is extremely dangerous. Although the game still lets your character block and even counterspell while you’re asleep, you don’t get to take any non-automatic actions. The death march of flipping through page after page of attack messages, unable to do anything, is one of the most frustrating events in Omega. Fortunately it’s simple to become completely immune to sleep: just eat a schezuan pepper, which when unidentified are described as being “withered reddish stringy vegetables.” They’re not uncommon in the Goblin Caves, and sleep resistance is important enough to get that, if you haven’t found them by the time you’re done with Level 5 in the Caves, it’s worth regenerating the caves to gain more chances to find one. (You regenerate a dungeon by entering a different dungeon, even if just for one turn, the Sewers in the Hedge Maze are good for this. When you go back to the Goblin Caves, they’ll be unmapped, with a new set of monsters, and some of the treasure will be different.)

Level drain: Your level is distinct from your experience total. You can lose levels without losing experience points, which is what level drain is. If it happens, it’s immediately bad, but you get those levels back the next time you earn XP. You can also lose experience points, which in turn brings your level down. That can only be fixed by earning those experience points anew. Certain interactions with altars, particularly, can cause that, like asking for a blessing when a god doesn’t think you’re worthy.

Of special note, conditions are recorded by the number of turns they have left. There are special cases in the code that cause conditions that have more than 1,000 turns to never run out! At that point, the game considers them to be permanent! This is true of both good and bad conditions.

Specific monsters

Lions – Deadly if you’re not already a competent fighter, and fast. A common source of death from random encounters. If you don’t think you can take one, you might set your combat sequence to all blocking at different heights, then trying to get out of the map.

Goblin Chieftains – Common foes in the Goblin Caves, and will kill you a lot if you’re not ready for them. Setting one of your combat sequence items to Lunge Center helps. The big trouble with them is the great axes they wield, which have the potential to go lots of damage. If your own Strength is high, they aren’t bad weapons to wield yourself.

Goblin Shamans – They begin appearing at Level 6 of the Goblin Caves. You need to be sleep resistant (use the schezuan pepper trick I mentioned) before you try fighting them. If one of the slows you, rent a condo for a week to cure it.

Grunts – Usually pretty easy to beat, but if it connects with that club it can do 20+ damage. Best to treat it with respect, especially the one that shows up in the Arena.

Phantoms – They can drain your levels, which a cloak of negimmunity can protect against. They’re also incorporeal, so you can’t just smack them to re-death, but they can be harmed with magic.

Salamanders – As near as I can tell, you just want to make sure you have fire resistance. If you do, they’re pretty easy. If you don’t, you will be well-roasted.

Horses – Can be tamed by giving them a bag of unmilled grain (give with ‘g’). Talk (‘t’) to a tamed horse to ride it.

Mendicant Priests – These annoying supplicants follow you looking for a handout. Once they see you, they stick to you like glue, and can block you in a dead-end. You can give them a trinket to make them go away; this counts as a lawful act. They aren’t hard to kill, but can curse an item if you don’t finish them quickly.

Itinerant Merchants – Worth talking to on the off chance they have a good item for sale. They usually just sell junk, or hype their stables back home.

Fnords – These peaceful creatures are nevertheless very dangerous; while you’re adjacent to them, they summon other monsters, who probably won’t be peaceful. Usually best to just slay, despite this being a chaotic act you may want to avoid.

Soldier Ants – As in NetHack, soldier ants are a particularly deadly foe in Omega. They’re fast and the can poison you. While poisoning in Omega doesn’t have the risk of instant death that it does in NetHack, it drains significant health over a short period of time. If you get stung more than once, you’re probably done for. It can be worth trying to drink unidentified potions to save yourself; either Curing or Neutralize Poison will end the condition. It might be best to turtle up (set your fighting maneuvers to all blocks) and make for the stairs.

Harder foes – Run. A tactic that might work is to set your combat maneuvers to all Block at different heights, to “turtle up.” If you do that, and you do escape, remember to change your maneuvers back after. Note, however, that if you see a really out-of-depth monster, there’s a good chance that it’s actually a phantasticon, a fairly weak creature that masquerades as other types of monster. Its alternate appearances do not give it any special powers. It flips randomly between forms every few turns, so hang out at a distance and see if it changes.

Miscellaneous advice

Here’s something really basic: how should you run the game? Most of my playing has been in the DOS version of 0.80.4 running in DOSbox, and that’s how I suggest you play. Every other version has some issue: the Amiga version requires you set up UAE and figure out how to activate it in Workbench; the OS/2 version requires you set up a virtual machine running that OS; the two Windows versions both hide your location from you (the player) when you (the character) are invisible, a joke that’s not so funny when it makes the game difficult to play. The DOS version also hides your location, but still reveals where you’re standing with the terminal cursor.

In that DOS version, when you see the Oracle in the Hedge Maze, the game will ask if you want to ring the [b]ell or look in the [m]irror. Due to a coding oversight, after you look in the mirror, it looks like the prompt is still active. If you then press ‘b’, it’ll be interpreted as a movement command (diagonal down-left), and ask something like “Are you sure?” If you then answer ‘y’es, you’ll walk into the hedge, where you might get stuck, poisoned, or if you’re really unlucky eaten by a trifid. There is a command for interacting again with something right where you’re standing: the ‘@’ key.

There’s a similar issue when you step on a disintegration trap. The game will flip immediately past the notice that your cloak or armor has been destroyed. You can see the notice if you press CTRL-O (in DOS) to look back through the message buffer. Be careful not to step on the trap again immediately after, as you’ll probably disintegrate yourself if you do.

Don’t forget to check the key commands, with ‘?’. There are different keys for ordinary play and the overworld map.

It’s easier to get started playing a chaotic character than a lawful one. A chaotic character can get cheap mana from the Sorceror’s Guild, can build experience and alignment alike by threatening goblins then killing them (starting at around Level 5 you can even do it to chieftains), and you don’t have to worry about giving monsters the first try to hit you. Lawful characters have to play a bit more carefully at first. Neutral characters (like druids) have to play more carefully still.

Don’t drop anything in the overworld, as you won’t be able to pick it back up.

When you see an unfamiliar monster (especially in the overworld, where almost anything can turn up), the first thing you should use is Shift-X to identify it. Especially if it’s displayed as a letter with a background color, it’s almost guaranteed to be something dreadful.

Unlike NetHack, there are no “false” rumors. Anything you read on a hint sheet, hear on the wind, or get from other sources is true.

True Sight protects you from blindness.

At the start of the game, if you plan on going Lawful, it’s not a bad idea to save enough money from the ATM to join the Thieves’ Guild, which can be done before you get to +10 alignment. You can join the Paladins so long as your alignment is >0, so there is a window in there where you can join both. Once you’re in with the Thieves, they’ll never kick you out, but the Paladins definitely might.

Why join the thieves? They identify things cheaply, and then buy the identified things for more than the Pawn Shop will. Identified things generally sell for much more than un-identified. Joining the Thieves, depending on your Dexterity and alignment, may cost more than 1,000 gold. If you don’t have the cash from robbing the autoteller, you might get trapped in a spiral where it’s difficult to scrounge up enough money to join later.

If you get trapped in a dungeon, which happens once in a while, you can tunnel (Shift-T) through walls to get out of it, but you’ll leave a pile of rubble where you dig, which can trap you for some turns and harm you when you try to get over it. Also: if you tunnel too much on a level, you can collapse the dungeon around you, usually resulting in an immediate demise. (There are several warning messages that appear before that occurs though, so occasional tunneling is okay.) Tunneling is generally not useful for getting money embedded in walls, though: the money gets buried in the rubble.

Monsters in Omega never follow you through the stairs to a different level. This is an important fact!

Once the money from robbing the autoteller is used up, you may find yourself in need of more cash. The money you find in dungeons (in the early game at least) tends to be small amounts, worth 10 gold or less.

Here are some other likely sources of money. The best way to earn cash in the early going is selling great axes from goblin chieftains to the Thieves’ guild. You can’t do this unless you’re a member. You get more money if items are identified. If you identify them first, you can get 133 gold each, which tends to pay for your membership before long. The pawn shop doesn’t pay as much, but can be an acceptable fallback, although they, too, pay more if an item has been identified. Neither location will accept cursed items, but great axes used by the goblins are not generated cursed.

Once you find better magic items, you can get a good amont of money from them. And look out for “huge green gem” and “some stones,” as those are gem stones that bring you a lot of cash once they’re ID’d.

It’s risky at low levels, but there’s the Arena. Look out for the grunt, apprentice ninja, and especially salamander opponents in the early going. The salamander follows the apprentice ninja, you really want fire resistance before you tackle that one.

If you’re really low on money, you can go to the Public Works building in Rampart to get your money increased to 99 gold once.

When you talk to an animal, you get a silly reaction that results in the animal handing you an academic paper indicating that ANIMALS CAN’T TALK, DUMMY. Har har.

The Alchemist’s shop in Rampart can buy monster parts from you, or else for a fee turn some parts into useful items. But if you go to see them with such items in your pack, you might be dismayed to constantly be told you don’t have anything. In fact they can use lots of things, but they can only see items if you’re carrying them in one of your main inventory slots. They won’t notice anything in your pack.

The single most useful thing you can do to survive the early game is buy a good weapon (warhammer or morning-star for strong characters, epee or rapier for dexterous ones), then set your fighting routine (Shift-‘F’) to Lunge Center. I usually check the Pawn Shop before buying something in the Armory, in case something better can be had there for cheap. If you’re a strong character, you should probably switch to a great axe, from a goblin chieftain, as soon as you can.

The second most important thing is to have decent armor, which takes the edge off of each source of damage. I usually go with chain mail, or better if the Pawn Shop has something, but try to upgrade to plate, or especially . Generally, I find good heavy armor is better than light armor, even if it slows you down a bit.

Many of the miscellaneous items you find in dungeons, like tin soldiers or broken swords, have no useful purpose, but a few do. We’ve already noted eating schezuan peppers makes you permanently sleep resistant. Giving (with the ‘g’ key) a sack of grain to a horse can make it rideable.

The general loop of the early game is to find useful stuff in the Goblin Mines that you can identify at the Thieves’ Guild (only open at night), then either use or fence there. Use this money to improve your equipment and build your stats at the Gym and Library. There are stones you can touch in the towns that can also improve your stats, but they can have severe drawbacks, including but not limited to destroying everything in your pack.

If you manage to get the Enchantment spell, I know from experimentation that enchanting rings past +6, at least, is risky.

The problem with most good armor is that it’s heavy, and reduces the amount you can carry back to town at once. An exception to this is the best armor the Armory sells, lamellar armor, which offers both great protection and is very light. The problem is, it costs 3,000 gold pieces.

Omega has a cheat mode, which is called “wizard mode” by roguelike tradition. The DOS binaries have it enabled. While broadly intended for development use, it’s also a good way to learn how to play the game. You can activate it by going to the very upper-right corner of Rampart and attacking the corner of the wall to the north-west. The game will ask if you’re sure. Wizard mode is cheating and will disqualify you from the winner’s board, but it can be a less frustrating way to get used to Omega. It has a couple of special commands: Ctrl-W maps the current area, and Ctrl-X lets you make a wish.

If you do this, or you get a wish randomly (which happens once in a great while), a text prompt will appear asking what to wish for. The first thing you’ve got to know is, you only get one try. If you wish for something and the game doesn’t like it, it tells you “you feel stupid,” and what you actually receive is bupkis.

There’s a very limited number of things you can wish for. This isn’t an Infocom-style parser, nor a NetHack-style wish for an item. You can only wish for one of a small number of discrete things. This is a pretty big spoiler, but the game is so laughably precise about what you can wish for and how you must wish for it that I’m going to go ahead and lay out the whole damn list, directly from the source code. You can wish for:

  • Power (grants a lot of mana)
  • Skill (seems to grant one experience level in 0.80, or a flat 10,000 xp in 0.90)
  • Wealth (10,000 gold)
  • Law or Chaos (25 alignment points in that direction)
  • Balance (zeros out alignment completely)
  • Location (asks you which area of the game you want to go to)
  • Knowledge (teaches you a highly random number of spells, and may reduce the casting cost of some spells you already know)
  • Health (heals you and curses any poisons or diseases)
  • Acquisition (gives you a random item, works differently in wizard mode)
  • Summoning (sends in a monster, also works differently in wizard mode)
  • Death and Destruction work, but they’re really not a good idea.
  • You can wish for Stats only from wizard mode

Everything you wish for must be in lowercase beginning with a capital letter, and with no trailing spaces. You won’t get anything you wish for if you don’t capitalize it! The code uses the standard C library function strcmp() to do the check, so you have to get it exactly right.

If you do some searching for old Omega spoilers, you might find indication that you can wish for the main stats in normal play. That used to be possible, but was removed from the game by 0.80. You also used to be able to decide what was summoned. It’s not the only feature that had been heavily nerfed: blessed rods of summoning used to let you specify what you wanted to summon in an oblique way, but in 0.80 and 0.90, it’s always random.

And…

Rods of Apportation lets you get money embedded in walls.

Day businesses in Rampart open at 7 AM and close at 9 PM. Night businesses keep the opposite hours.

Dungeon levels can have multiple down and up stairs, but each has only one entry point coming from above and below. All the stairs doing down from a level lead to the same upstairs. All the stairs going up from a level lead to the same downstairs. If you teleport into a level, you end up at the same entry point. This can be taken advantage of sometimes to speed your travel, but it can also slow you down. It also means, if you’re sent down into a level by a pit trap, you’ll always be left at a place where you can immediately walk back up stairs.

White underscores in dungeons are elevators, they ask you to enter a dungeon level to be taken to. Don’t use them to ascent by more levels than there are in the dungeon. If you’re on Level 3, and go up three levels, it’ll take you to the surface. Higher than that and you’ll suffer a terrible fall.

Goal levels in dungeons cannot be warped to, so go to the level before. The goal level of the Goblin Caves is Level 10, and the goal of the Sewers is Level 18. The other dungeons you’ll have to find yourself (or read one of the FAQs linked below).

The Return spell from the Explorer’s Club is great, acting somewhat like Angband’s Scroll of Recall, or Diablo’s Scroll of Town Portal. Cast it on the first level of a dungeon, and it’ll take you to the deepest level you’ve been to. Otherwise, it’ll take you back to the first level. It usually takes some time to activate though. Because of its operation, it’s usually a good idea to go down stairs you find in a dungeon, even if just for one turn, if they’ll take you to a level you haven’t seen.

In addition to the chance of arbitrary damage, when you trigger an abyss trap, the game rolls d100, and if it comes up 13, you meet Yog-Sothoth (people familiar with H.P. Lovecraft will recognize the name), and if your alignment is higher than -10, you just die instantly. If your alignment is lower than that, you are granted 2,000 XP. There is no special effect if the number comes up as anything other than 13.

At Last!

We’re done talking about Omega for a good while! If you need more information, some documents on the official Omega distribution site may help you, although they’re all for 0.75: the FAQ for 0.75, a hint sheet, and a spoiler file. There’s more to say, I’m sure, but let’s save some for a future time.

Next month, we’ll have some other roguelike obscurity to talk about. See you then!

@Play: The Omega of Omega

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

So let us talk about what is probably the worst thing about Omega: it’s capriciousness.

If you read the experiences of the CRPG Addict you might be given to thinking that Omega is actually pretty easy. Judging by the title screen on his review, he was playing 0.71, a version I don’t have access too, and may actually no longer be available anywhere on the vast World Wide Web.

My version is 0.80, which it seems like it must be harder than his. Also, he backed up his save games, which, while the instructions specifically suggest it if you’re having trouble, is still cheating. All of my games have been played traditionally. And let’s be clear as to why: because I’m a snob. A roguelike snob.

Of course most classic roguelikes have a degree of deadly capriciousness, but for some reason it’s especially bad in Omega. I don’t think I’ve seen a game with as many ways for a game to go from terrific to dead instantly, often without warning and in a single turn.

Here’s a list of ways this can happen, most of which I’ve personally seen.

  • To get it out of the way: you can be struck by a cosmic at nearly any time above-ground (and even underground? I don’t think so). That does 10 damage purely from random chance, with no way to avoid or reduce it. If you have less than 10 HP, your game is just over. Some characters don’t even start with 10 maximum HP.
    Cosmic rays are triggered at two different places in the code, on tables for indoor events and outdoor events. My reading of the code indicates that indoors, a check that can produce a cosmic ray happens every ten game minutes, and outdoors it’s every game hour. However, depending on the terrain, multiple hourly checks can be made per move. Cosmic ray hits are far from the only bad things that can happen per hour, so it’s best to go by road if you can, and with other travel aids if possible.
  • The hedge maze in Rampart is a terrific source of deaths. Traps in there can absolutely wipe you out, or else make the game unplayable. Traps exist elsewhere, but the hedge maze both has a higher density than elsewhere (it always seems to have at least one, and probably has several), and is right there in Rampart. There are a small number of possible layouts for the maze, and traps tend to appear in the same kinds of places, so eventually you figure out where you should search. Specifically: fire traps and scythe traps do a lot of damage, an abyss trap can bestow a bunch of falling damage arbitrarily and effectively teleport you, acid traps do damage can destroy multiple pieces of equipment, a disintegration trap can destroy equipment or kill you outright, and an alarm trap won’t do any damage, but it will make all the guards in Rampart permanently hostile, dooming your character unless you can take them, which is unlikely at the point in the game when you’ll be exploring the hedge maze.
  • Once you step out of the starting city of Rampart there’s the countryside, a whimsically deadly region where you can have “encounters,” during which you may be killed (I can attest) by bandits, goblin shamans, lions, bears, bog haunts, mirrorshades, liches, or even “doberman death-hounds,” who are both fast and get lots of attacks.
    Encounters can generate a monster right beside you, and in that case the game even gives it the first turn. Many times my games have consisted of spending the 15 minutes or so getting all my chores in Rampart done to get my character started, leaving town, getting an encounter on the way to the Archdruid’s temple, and getting wiped out literally before I could do anything. The only thing you really can do about these situations is decrease the amount of time you spend outside.
What did Lawrence Brothers have against dobermans?

I’ve died to random encounters three games in a row before:
#1: Upon exiting the Archdruid’s temple, immediately, a random encounter. Then, in the tactical map, they got a turn before me and I died. I don’t even know what it was; it was invisible and killed me with a missile.
#2: Upon exiting the city of Rampart, again before I got a turn, a random encounter. This time it was a goblin shaman casting spells. One was an area effect spell that killed the caster and awarded me an experience level, but then also killed me.
#3: I got some steps towards the Archdruid’s temple before I got a random encounter that completely surrounded me with hedges. Trying to wade through them poisoned me to poison death.

How did I even wander into this situation?
  • Disintegration traps deserve special mention. I have again checked the game’s code and discovered the logic is: when you activate one, if you’re wearing a cloak, it’ll get disintegrated, no checks, no save, it’s just gone no matter what it is. If no cloak, it’s your armor that gets disintegrated. If no armor, it’s you. Traps in Omega are not common in the Goblin Caves, but can be anywhere there, and there’s lots of space for them.
  • Back to the hedge maze. Monsters can get generated there too, sometimes out-of-level ones, like lions, bears, “were-swarms,” frost demons, or pterodactyls. It’s right by the cemetery too, and sometimes it gets incorporeal visitors from there.
  • The hedges themselves can easily kill you. The game always asks if you’re sure when you accidentally miskey into one, thankfully. If you answer ‘Y,’ you open yourself to be stuck to the brambles for a not-insignificant number of turns, getting poisoned (easily deadly if you’re still at level 0), have your cloak ripped apart, or, if your luck is particularly bad, walking straight into the waiting tentacles of a trifid. Moral: YOU SHOULD ANSWER ‘N.’
  • Then there are the monsters who have unusually deadly attacks. Salamanders can breathe fire for high damage and from a distance unless you have fire resistance from a ring. Bog things can outright frighten you to death in melee. Until you learn that you should wear heavy armor to survive the Goblin Caves you’ll frequently get missiled to death by goblin chieftains, which are a prominent early source of fatality.
  • Learn to handle them, and later in the Goblin Caves your bane becomes goblin shamans, who can do a variety of awful things to you. The worst of these is sleep. If you get put to sleep, they’ll be able to get off several spells after. While somehow you can block their attacks, and even counterspell their continued enchantments, automatically while asleep, you’ll still often get slowed, snowballed, cursed, diseased, or poisoned. Entering a new level there is a particularly tense moment once these guys start showing up.
  • Oh here’s a good one. Fighting tooth and nail against goblin chieftains got my hit points down, but I was resting between fights and not doing too badly. Then not seeing any monsters around I walked across the room, happened to step next to a ‘1’ character, a statue. It came to life immediately as a salamander and promptly roasted my ass. I prefer my ass uncooked.
  • Get a load of this. Rolled stats until I got a character who had an Intelligence of 18, so they could join the Collegium Magii for free right away, and also could join the Gladiators. Did both those things. Bought ten buckets of Lyzzard Partes for early rations. Tripped over a hoplon, a good shield, and found both ring mail +1 and a war-hammer + 2 in the pawn shop. Found the Thieves’ Guild by dint of checking nearly every door in town. Joined the college but failed at the roll for learning a random spell. Went to the Arena and chose to fight the first opponent, a lowly goblin. Set combat tactics to Block Low then Lunge Center. On my first attack against the puny green foe, I take one hit point of damage from them, then: “Oh no! You hit yourself! You died!” Eleven points of damage from a fumble at level 0. That’s like having a fatal accident at after-school martial arts practice.
“Stop hitting yourself!”
At INT 18: “Killed by stupidity.”

It’s not just death that particularly bad luck can cause.

  • Weapons can shatter if you roll particularly badly in a fight. In general, you should consider your equipment in Omega as ultimately temporary.
  • Punching is of little use against strong enemies, so I bought a broad sword for 180 gold. Ventured into the wilderness. Got a random encounter involving a freaking lich. I managed to get away, but not before it destroyed my broad sword from a distance with a spell of Destructo Weaponum. I headed back to town and bought another one, then went to the Goblin Caves. Saw some money, stepped to pick it up, but surprise, there was an acid trap there! It destroyed my thieves’ picks, a bucket of Lyzzard Partes, and my broad sword again! Grawlix grawlix.
How does corrosive acid shatter a sword?
  • If an item gets cursed, you don’t have many recourses. I’ve never seen a scroll of blessing work on them; reading the source code suggests they’re just not strong enough. The most practical thing to do is break the weapon to bits with your bare hands: use the ‘z’ key.
Corporal Phantom guards the entrance.
  • Phantoms that appear in the hedge maze can level drain you; the main defense against that is a Cloak of Negimmunity, which you probably won’t have at that stage. If you just walk near the hedge maze, it’s possible to awaken a phantom sleeping inside. Phantoms are incorporeal, so weapon attacks don’t work on them, and once they’re awake they can chase you, floating right through buildings, throughout the whole city. The entrance to the city is a long passage with walls on both sides; if you don’t have a way of dealing with the phantom (use magic if you can), it’ll block the passage when you leave town, and get a few free hits on you when you return.

And then there’s the worst death of all, an attack by the dread monster Segmentation Violation:

Omega still has some decades-old bugs in it.

So what is my point? It’s not that you shouldn’t play Omega. It’s that you have to expect that your game could end at almost any time. Your game is not yours to have. Your character lives on borrowed time, so do as much with it as you can while you’ve got them.

These are a few things you can’t completely prevent, but what you can do is reduce their frequency. You can reduce the number of spaces you walk through in dungeons. You can try not to be slow when traveling the wilderness. If you encounter a trap, it might not be fair to it, but riding a horse will mean its effects are more likely to happen to it than to you. And good armor is almost always helpful, if you can afford it.

But sometimes, you just die. That’s just the kind of game it is. As you get better at Omega, you still suffer from them, but as you learn to play more effectively, you do find you get farther much more often.

How best to do that will be the subject of the next, and last for now, column on Omega.

@Play: Omega, Character Creation and Inventory

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

We’re continuing our look at the classic late-80s and early-90s roguelike Omega! Here are parts one and two.

Omega is a cool game with a variety of RPG adventuring to be had, but it also has a slightly steeper learning curve than a Hack-like. So, under the principle of getting the broccoli out of the way so we can get to dessert after, let’s go over a couple of the more mechanical parts of the game: character creation, and the game’s unusual inventory system.

A note: It is the year 2022, we are all busy people, and Omega is an open source game. Thus I have availed myself of reading the source code to get some details of how Omega does things internally. This might be considered to be cheating, but honestly? Omega doesn’t play fair in some areas, so I feel no guilt about reading the code. One of the virtues of roguelike games is that often one can source dive and still find the game very challenging to play, and that’s definitely the case with Omega.

Character Creation

The first thing Omega asks you is if you want to [c]reate a character, or [p]lay as yourself.

If you choose to “create a character,” the game generates stats in D&D style, rolling virtual dice to produce a set of stats in the range of 4 to 18. You’re given ten re-rolls to try to get the best stats you can. (Under the pre-alpha, development version, you get 30 re-rolls. That version has been pre-alpha since 2001.) The system used is similar to the Dungeons & Dragons tradition of summing three six-sided dice for each stat, but there’s two departures:

  • You’re spotted one point on each stat: it’s impossible to roll a stat less than 4 by this method. You still can’t roll more than 18: one of the dice is essentially five-sided.
  • When the game rolls Intelligence, it saves the two six-sided dice that were rolled, and also uses those two die values for your Power, Agility and Constitution. Meaning, a lucky character in Intelligence will probably be lucky in several more things. I don’t know why it was designed this way, but it explains some trends in stat rolling I’ve seen.
When rolling character statistics, two of the dice are shared between four stats!

If you run out of re-rolls, the game throws you into play with the last set you rolled. There is absolutely nothing saying you can’t immediately quit (Shift-Q) and start over with a fresh set of re-rolls.

If you choose to “play as yourself,” the game will give you a series of questions and ask that you answer them honestly. They include things like how many pounds can you bench press, how many miles you can run, and can you shuffle a deck of cards with one hand.

It does not ask if you can juggle. Omega characters cannot juggle.

If you’re asked a number and answer higher than a certain amount, the program will print a message expressing incredulity, but accept it anyway. A few of the questions ask if the player has some supernatural abilities, like “Do you have ESP?” and “Can you see auras?” A bit of a spoiler: if you answer these in the negative, your character probably won’t have much Power, and Power is important. You definitely should lie about this.

At one point the game asks if you’re “physically handicapped,” which seems insensitive to me. If you’re in a wheelchair, why should you be expected to carry that over into the computer games you play? But again, everyone lies here anyway.

The last question asks if you’re Irish, which is worth a couple of extra points of Power, so here, too, you should apply a bit of the old blarney.

By lying, you can use the quiz to get yourself a character with 18s in everything without difficulty. You could think of it as an easy mode, in that you can still die pretty easily. After you take the quiz, you’re given the option to save your answers to easily get those stats again. I use the roller system when I play, to add additional variety, but it’s up to you.

Whichever method you use, you’re then asked for your character’s name, then whether you’re interested sexually in [m]ales or [f]emales. Ahem. Poly and asexual players might feel snubbed by this, but secretly, the game also lets you answer ‘y‘ or ‘n‘! Answering ‘y‘ for yes means your character will be considered interested in both; answering ‘n‘ for no means neither. This doesn’t have a huge effect on the game, but it does matter for brothel visits: if you answer ‘n‘, you have a chance of gaining an Intelligence point for a visit. If you answer something else, the point you might gain is in Constitution.

What Do These Numbers Mean?

If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons-style attribute scores you probably already have a good intuitive sense of what the game’s stats do, many of which are the same as in D&D. But not everyone knows those, and even old-schoolers might miss some of Omega’s nuances.

In D&D, these are relatively set in stone except for the occasional gain upon gaining a level. In contrast, Omega has several ways for stats to increase, and a few ways for them to go down.

  • Strength helps determine the damage done by heavy weapons. If your Strength is high, you should look into a smashing or a two-handed weapon. Just as important, Strength determines your maximum carry weight. Even if you’re not carrying anywhere close to your maximum, being weighed down even a little reduces your speed, which is dangerous in a roguelike world! It also helps you join the Mercenaries and the Gladiators.
  • Constitution affects your maximum hit points. It doesn’t seem to give you resistance to poison or disease. You need at least average Constitution to join the Mercenaries.
  • A high Dexterity makes it easier to hit monsters, and also affects damage done with light weapons missile weapons. It reduces the cost of joining the Thieves’ Guild.
  • Agility determines your base movement speed, which affects how often you act and how easily you can run away from monsters. Since Agility factors into speed, it’s really nice to have. You need good Agility to join the Gladiators.
  • Intelligence affects the chance to learn spells from random sources. You need an Intelligence of at least 13 to join the Collegium Magii. If your Intelligence is 18, joining it is free! It also helps you cast a couple of high-level spells, but day-to-day, it doesn’t seem to affect much.
  • Power directly affects your maximum mana (that is, magic) points, making it very nice to have for spellcasters. High Power reduces the cost to join the Sorcerors’ Guild.

During the game, there’s a few more, derived from your level, the above statistics, your equipment, and the whims of fate:

  • Hit Points (HP), of course, are your character’s healthiness. If you run out you die, but that’s far from the only way.
  • Mana Points are your character’s immediate magic strength. Your maximum is your Power times your character’s level plus one. (Remember: Omega starts counting levels from zero!) Spells cast come out of this total. A subtle thing about Omega is that your Mana also counts as a protective factor. Some spells that monsters cast will be automatically countered if you have enough mana left.
  • Hit is your chance to hit, given a general situation.
  • Dmg is a measure of the amount of damage you might do. Luck matters for a lot; I’ve had a character with a Dmg of over 40 take several whacks to dispose of a lowly sewer rat.
  • Def is how easily you can dodge blows. Pluses on magic armor go to decrease this.
  • Arm is what D&D players would call “damage reduction,” it’s a property of heavier armor that reduces the hurt you take that gets through your Def.
  • And finally there’s Spd, or Speed, measured as a decimal value. A Speed of 1.0 means you act as often as an average monster. High Agility, low carry weight, riding a horse, and Boots of Speed can improve this. I’ve seen as high as 2.50. Carrying a lot of things can save your bacon, and being a little under 1.0 can be okay. I try to keep it above 0.70, preferably 0.80. Your ability in battle decreases sharply below that.

There is also a weird system in Omega that confuses some players, the “combat maneuver sequence.” This system was intended to be transparent to players who don’t care about it, so you don’t need to know about this to play, but you do need to know it exists, because of a bug that manifests sometimes.

When you walk into a monster to attack it, it’s not considered a single hit as in other roguelike games. Instead, your character can automatically perform as many as eight separate moves! Each move can be an Attack, a Block, a Lunge, or a Riposte, and each of these moves can be either High, Center or Low.

By default, your combat maneuver sequence is Attack Center, Block Center, and that suffices in many cases. But some enemies like to attack at certain heights (rats tend to bite at your feet, for example). Intelligent monsters are known to watch for when you attack at a given height, and to then block more often at that height, so changing your combat string sometimes can be helpful.

Higher levels, higher speeds, and being a Gladiator all can give you extra maneuver points, and they’ll go unused if you don’t acknowledge them. You change your combat sequence by pressing Shift-F. There’s subtleties to the system that I’m not covering here, but the game does a good job of explaining it in the help for that function.

The thing you need to know is: there’s a bug in Omega that, once in a while, causes it to forget your combat string. And if your Speed drops too low, it might reset your string to the default. If you’re fighting and you notice that you aren’t seeing any messages from your side, no hits, no blocks, not even misses, you might want to hit Shift-F and at least choose a default string (press ‘!‘).


Keyboard Reminders

I mentioned the main keys back in part two. If you need to be reminded of them, you can get a complete list in-game by pressing ‘?‘ (the traditional roguelike Help key) and then hitting ‘l‘.

Many of the keys are roguelike standard, but there are a few that are different: the pick-up-an-item key is ‘g‘, on DOS the recall-message key is Ctrl-O, and to zap wands you use ‘a‘, I guess for ‘a’pply. To use miscellaneous items, it’s Shift-A; it’ll ask if you want to use an item or an artifact. Artifacts are powerful and rare items, and you usually won’t find any of those until much later.

Omega uses both number pad and the vi keys, with added diagonals, for movement. In case they’re useful (maybe you don’t have a numpad), the vi keys with diagonals are hjkl and yubn.

One of the keys, the letter ‘i‘, is your gateway to your most formidable challenge to learning Omega: its inventory system. Prepare yourself!


Oh Boy, It’s Time To Explain Omega’s Inventory

Probably its inventory has dissuaded more players than anything else from playing Omega. I think it’s really not hard to understand! It’s just different, so it takes a little getting used to. Please try to bear with me, and try to consider what Omega’s creator Laurence Brothers was trying to do with it.

The first thing you have to know is your character has two inventories. The most obvious one consists of the equipped items, the ones your character wears on their person; the other is the character’s pack, which is just a bag for loose things.

Most of the time you’ll want to deal with your character’s equipment items, and just store extra stuff in your pack. There is an array of item slots around your character’s body. If this were Ultima VII or Eye of the Beholder or some other 90s CRPG you’d probably have a paper doll display to drag item icons into, but this is a terminal-screen roguelike, so your equipment slots are all represented by letters of the alphabet.

In most roguelike games, you use the ‘w’ key to Wield a weapon, Shift-W to Wear armor, Shift-T to Take off armor, and a couple other keys like that. Not so in Omega. Instead, you move the item you want to use into the proper slot, and it’s automatically utilized. So to wield a weapon, you put it into your weapon-hand slot, which is slot b. To use a shield, you put it into your shield slot, h. (Unlike D&D characters, Omega characters have figured out they can attach a shield to their arm!)

Omega’s item system generalizes the idea of wielding weapons, wearing protective gear and magic items, and having a few items at-hand for immediate use. Instead of having special commands for these things, they’re all put to use using the same process. If you put items where they’re supposed to go, your character will use them.

Gym Class Movie: Your Body Slots And You

So, you have a plethora of slots in which you can place the various fantasy accouterments that are necessary to successful exploration. Here is a list of these slots. When playing, you might want to keep a list of these until you’ve internalized them all:

*: “up in air”
a: ready hand (for general items, like maybe a torch)
b: weapon hand (for what you use to bash things)
c: left shoulder (a place to store generic items)
d: right shoulder (likewise)
e-g: belt (more generic item slots; I’ve kept a goblin corpse in one before!)
h: shield (used automatically in combat situations)
i: armor (put a piece of body armor here to wear it)
j: boots (like above but goes on your feet)
k: cloak (goes over armor)
l-o: fingers (slots for up to four magic rings)

I hope that’s easy enough to understand. Note, if you’re playing 0.90, these letters will be a bit different. They were rearranged a bit to avoid confusion with the inventory management keys.

The most vexing, yet most used, of these slots is the “up in air” item. This is a special slot used as a crossroads between all the other slots and your pack. Whenever you obtain a new item, it goes up in the air, and throws up an inventory prompt so you can communicate to the game what you want to do with it.

A Romp Through The Prompts

When you press the ‘i‘ key (that’s lowercase: in Omega, capital letters are always shifted), you’re shown the list of your item slots and their contents, and the cryptic line:

d, e, l, p, s, t, x, >, <, ?, ESCAPE

If you pick up an item you’ll get a very similar line, except with a tilde in it, and without the list of item slots! This is the short prompt. From the short prompt, if you just press tilde (~), you’ll get to the usual inventory list.

Pressing ‘?‘ describes what these keys all do, and offers to show you full help, but I’ll give you an overview here. They’re all pretty important.

One of the slots will be highlighted with a >> cursor in front of it. That’s the “current item.” You can move the arrow to point to other items with ‘>‘ and ‘<‘ to move up and down. (> and < are the standard roguelike keys for Down and Up. Why don’t the arrow keys work? That’s a good question.) Most of the other commands make use of either this current item, or the “up in air” item.

The ‘e‘ and ‘x‘ keys are your main tools for getting items where they need to be. ‘e‘ exchanges an item from the up-in-air slot with the current slot. ‘x‘ does the same thing, but it also automatically closes the inventory display if the operation ends with the up-in-air slot empty.

If you leave the inventory screen with an item up in the air, that item will fall to the ground! It’s not a place to keep things indefinitely. As I said before, Omega characters can’t juggle.

If you’re at the short prompt, there will be no visible item slot list, and no cursor. Instead, the ‘e‘ and ‘x‘ keys will ask you the letter of the slot you want to move the item to. When you’ve played enough to have memorized what the slot letters are, you can use those and play much faster. Before you get to that point, you can just press ~ to get to the list. There is no game advantage to using one over the other.

Another important inventory operation involves getting stuff into and out of your pack. Your pack also has slots, but they’re all generic.

Pack operations take time. Omega actually simulates your pack like a stack. While you can get items out no matter where they are in it, items deeper in the pack take more time to dig out. Items you want available for instant access are best kept in your main inventory slots, if not in your ready hand (a), then maybe on your shoulder (c, d) or belt (e-g). These slots all can contain any item; slots like shield (h) and armor (i) can only contain those kinds of items.

Items deeper in your pack take more time to reach.
Ideally though, you won’t keep immediate emergency items in your pack at all.

The ‘s‘ key shows the contents of your pack; ‘p‘ puts the up-in-air item or pointed-at item into your pack; ‘t‘ takes something out of your pack. The ‘t‘ key also offers to show you pack contents if you press ‘?‘. Another thing to note: for some reason, pack letters are all capitals. If you try to get something out of the pack, but don’t press shift, it won’t work.

Remaining functions: ‘d‘ drops the up-in-air or current item immediately; ‘l‘ gives you a text description of the current item, ‘?‘ gives you a reminder of all these keypresses, and ESCAPE transports you out of Inventory Land, and back to the game world proper.

The Inventory System In Practice

So how does this work in play? Well, at the start of the game you have no food. So enter buildings until you find one that tells you:

Commandant Sonder’s Rampart-fried Lyzzard parts. Open 24 hrs. Buy a bucket! Only 5 Au. Make a purchase? [yn]

Answer ‘y‘ to use some of that starting money to obtain some sustenance. It asks “How many?”, so let’s say 10, a good amount for the start of the game.

A passel of Lyzzard Buckets, for your pleasure. *** MORE ***

Omega’s *** MORE *** prompts work like NetHack’s, but appear at the right edge of the screen for some reason. Press the space bar to clear it. You’ll then be thrown into the inventory short prompt:

Action [d,e,l,p,s,t,x,~,?,ESCAPE] ‘Up in air’: 10x red and white striped bucket

You have an item, the new-bought buckets, in the up in air slot, so if you just pressed escape you’d drop your newly-acquired food. What you might want to do is press ‘p‘, to put the item in your pack for later. But if you want to eat immediately, you could press either ‘e‘ or ‘x‘, to move it, to ‘a‘, your ready hand slot. If you do any of these things, you’ll keep the Buckets O’ Lyzzard, and not drop them.

If you put them in your ready hand, or somewhere else on your person, then now you can eat! Exit inventory (if it didn’t happen automatically) and press ‘e‘, the Eat key:

Eat — Select an item [a,?]

Even if you have other items on your person, the food is the only thing that can be called edible, so it’s the only letter listed. You can press ‘a‘ now to chow down.

Your mouth feels like it is growing hair!

Well, it is fast food after all.

If there was already something in the ‘a’ ready hand slot, then the food will go into that slot and whatever had been there will be moved up in the air. You only have so many suitable body slots. You can usually stash anything into your pack, with ‘p’, if you don’t want to be fussed. But your pack has limited space too. If all your suitable body slots and your whole pack are full, you’ll probably have to drop an item.


Ah, that was a lot of broccoli. Are you still with me? Next time, we’ll actually be able to go into game strategy!

@Play: Omega in Overview

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

If you missed it, you might want to start with our brief narration of the beginning of Omega.

Omega is beloved of a small but devoted cadre of players. Like Alphaman, it is a prominent early roguelike with an overworld, but unlike Alphaman the world map is the same from game to game. In this it can be recognized as a predecessor of ADOM. It is probably the classic roguelike with the most detailed and interesting town, the well-named city of Rampart.

It’s finger lickin’… um, good?

The CRPG Addict, whose Sisyphean project is to play, complete, and write about every CRPG ever made, reviewed Omega in the early going, although his victory over the game was the easiest kind of win (retirement), and he cheated by restoring save files. Although it must be said, Omega’s own help text itself suggests that players back up their saved files if they’re having trouble, and there are some things about it that almost make me want to play that way.

Omega’s sense of difficulty is a bit unusual. It is overflowing with random events, some of them you can’t do anything about, and it’s possible for those events to kill you with very little warning. But if a character can survive the early going, there are also non-random resources that a knowing player can take advantage of that can help them get a leg-up on the game. In this way it’s like NetHack, in that there are counters to randomness, and a bunch of necessary lore to discover that greatly enhances one’s chances of winning.

Much of this lore has been saved in FAQs, spoiler files, blog posts, and comment sections scattered throughout the internet. Most of these sources remain out there to find, but the nature of the web and the intervening years have made them harder to find than they once were. I’ll present a list of links you can use to find them later, but I’ll gather the most important early-game for you once we get into its gameplay.

Omega is a game that has entertained players for many years. In its heyday it was a popular topic of discussion on the Usenet group rec.games.roguelike.misc. But it does have a number of attributes that have fallen out of favor with players nowadays. I’m not even talking about the typical things one has to get used to in order to play most classic roguelikes. Omega has some particular things you’re probably just going to have to acclimate yourself to if you’re coming to it from contemporary types of computer gaming. This isn’t to seem overly critical; there are a lot of interesting adventures to be had in its world, but there is a bit of a learning curve. But let me give you a broad overview first.

The Hedge Maze of the City of Rampart

About the Game

Omega’s origin is said to extend back to the late 80s, but records on the internet extend only as far back as about 1993. It was created by Laurence Raphael Brothers while he was at Rutgers University. He passed the torch to others to maintain the game at some time before 1993, but even version 0.90.4, the most recent version of the core code of Omega, lists his name in the source code as copyright holder. Lawrence Brothers has been known to sometimes get in contact with people who write about Omega, including the CRPG Addict.

In 1993 it seems Robert Paige Rendell picked up development of Omega. Erik Max Francis currently maintains the official Omega Distribution Page. While the core game has seen no development in a long time, ports for various systems have been made, including OS/2, classic MacOS and even a Windows port with graphical tiles.

Omega doesn’t present you with a great scenario at the start of play. It is more like a general setting, in TTRPG terms a sandbox that you investigate on your own. Your explorations are mostly directionless at the start. There is a character you can turn to that can provide players with a direction for their explorations, and you can also get quests from the Duke of Rampart, but the game doesn’t point you in their direction, and nothing forces you to heed their words. Omega is more like an adventure setting than a single mission you are trying to perform.

The game world is like that of ADOM, with an overworld, a sprawling sequence of above-ground terrain, with locations in it to find and explore that are in the same places every game. It’s the contents of these locations that are randomly generated every time you play. The dungeons are generated and persist, but only if you don’t enter another dungeon; if you go into the Goblin Caves, then leave and go to the Sewers in the city, when you return to the Caves they will have been refreshed. The layout will be the same, but the map will be forgotten, and the monsters will be different. A player can take advantage of this fact.

Lions lurk outside the city gates

The other kinds of locations seem to remain the same each time, although the city of Rampart, the main urban location in the game and the place where you begin play, has mostly the same map every game, but the contents of the buildings are mixed up when the game begins, and its hedge maze area is selected from one of a number of possible layouts. Rampart is the center of the game in many ways. Most of its guilds are based there, and to advance in them and get many of their benefits you’ll have to return to haunt their doorsteps. There are other settlements in the game, but none of them are anything like Rampart. It’s a cool location. It might be the greatest city in all roguelikedom.

The Layout of Rampart

Rampart is the largest city in the game, and where your journeys begin. It’s a good place to pick up supplies, decide which guilds and religions you want to join, and get equipment.

Places in Rampart with set locations, and randomly-placed locations once you’ve discovered them, can be moved to quickly with the Automove command (Shift-M). For more information on the city and places of interest within it, I must ask that you wait until next time. Until then, why not explore on your own, and see what you can figure out? All you have to lose is maybe twenty or thirty lives.

Basic Keys

?: Help. Provides a lot of information about the game and its systems. Refer to the ‘l’ option here for more keys that aren’t listed here.

  • numpad/vi keys: walk, bump into enemies to attack them
  • numpad 5: run
  • .: Wait 10 seconds, note this is twice the length of time it takes to move a step
  • ,: Wait a specified number of minutes
  • s: Search surrounding spaces for secret doors or traps
  • i: Inventory (explained further down)
  • x: Examine something in a location in sight. (very useful for distinguishing what monster or item is on a space)
  • g: Pick something up at your feet. (Think of it as ‘g’ain)
  • e: Eat something
  • q: Drink a potion (‘q’uaff)
  • r: Read something
  • a: Zap wands and rods (think of it as ‘a’pply). Note, to be used, most items must be worn on your person. You can’t just use items out of your pack, you have to get them out first.t: Talk to someone. This is used to greet some characters and threaten monsters. Talk with and greet a horse you own to ride it.
  • f: Fire a weapon or throw an item.
  • o: Open door. (used frequently)
  • c: Close door. (used less often)
  • m: Cast a magic spell. You specify which spell you want to use by entering its name. You only have to enter as many letters as to distinguish the spell from the others you know.
  • Shift-A: Use miscellaneous items or artifacts. The item that lets you escape the Arena when you win a fight is of this type.
  • Shift-F: Change your attack routine. (‘F’ight)
  • Shift-S: Save the game (supply the filename as an argument on the command line to load the game)
  • Shift-T: Tunnel through a wall (use in moderation)
  • Shift-M: Autotravel to a known location in your current town. Places that are the same from game to game are automatically known, randomly-placed locations must have been entered at least once. As with spells, you enter the place’s name, but only have to enter as many letters to uniquely identify your destination.
  • Shift-E: Get off your horse.
  • Shift-D: Disarm a trap.
  • Shift-G: Give an item to someone.
  • Ctrl-I: Look in your pack.

On Inventory
To use most items, they can’t just be in your pack, but must be in one of your equipment slots. Your “Ready Hand” slot and your three Belt slots can hold almost anything, and are good ones to use for single-use and miscellaneous items. I like to keep food in the ‘e’ slot of my belt.

  • x: E’x’change the up-in-air item with the one (if present) in one of your inventory slots.
  • s: Show contents of your pack.
  • p: Stash the up-in-air item in your pack.
  • t: Take an item from your pack.
  • d: Drop an item from the selected slot

—–

I’ve got much more to say about Omega, but this article is already much longer than I wanted it to be! There’s so much ground to cover that I’m increasing the post frequency of @Play for a bit, so you won’t have too long to wait for the next part. In the meantime, you might find these links to be of interest….

@Play: The Alpha of Omega

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

This is the beginning of our exploration of classic roguelike Omega. Instead of opening with a mere explication of the game and its history, I figured I’d offer some play examples through screenshots, and give a bit of the story of my experience with it, while explaining some of the points of the game’s beginning along the way. After all, my aim is to get you interested in this game, maybe even to try it out yourself, and a mere description of it is unlikely to push you very far in that direction.

A more detailed description of the game is coming soon-tomorrow, in fact. In the meantime, this short play was under version 0.80.2, which is the current “stable” version, and has been for over 20 years. There is a newer “development” version, 0.90.4, which is almost as old.

So, I started a new game of Omega. Starting characters are rated on the traditional D&D scale of 3 to 18, though they can become higher during play. A few rerolls resulted in stats that were above average across the board. While the highest was only 16, none was beneath 12. I accepted them and named the character Rodney. (It’s a lucky name. Bad luck.)

All games of Omega begin in Rampart. The layout of the city doesn’t change generally, but the location of some businesses and places does, as does the layout of its hedge maze. Rampart is safe to rest in, unless you gain the ire of monsters in the hedge maze. They won’t come out to bother you unless you go inside and they see you.

I decided to go for a chaotic build this time, which meant not being able to avail myself of the many benefits of Paladin-hood, but allowing my character to worship Set, who grants the spell of Invisibility when joining. Invisibility is helpful for escaping inopportune battle. It also means I can go ahead and rob the ATM right away instead of waiting until after joining up with the Paladins or a lawful religion.

This is a spoiler, but it’s one of the most-used plays in Omega, and it greatly helps you get characters underway. To rob the ATM, open an account (press Shift-O while interacting with it), choose a password, then press Shift-P and enter a different password than you entered. The ATM will tell you the police have been called an to “Press space to continue.” Press any key other than space. There’ll be a little display and you’ll end up with between 1,000 and 4,000 more gold. This will break the ATM, so you can’t do it again, and give you a bit of Chaotic alignment, but it’s not much and you can get it reduced easily by talking to the Archdruid, which you should do really soon anyway.

The ATM money is important for joining one of the magic guilds and the Thieves’ Guild, which are very expensive to a starting character, and help you pick up some bargains from the city Pawn Shop. My exploration of the city found the Thieves’ Guild in the upper-right corner of the city. I joined up with three guilds: the Collegium Magii, the religion of Set, and the Thieves’ Guild.

The Pawn Shop often sells useful random items, and its stock slowly changes as time passes. In this game its starting inventory included boots of speed, a terrific item that can make the early game much easier. It also had a scroll of spells. Reading a scroll of spells provides a chance of learning a random spell, which can also greatly improve a character’s viability. Sadly, this one provided nothing.

Having higher Dexterity, I decided to go with light weapons. The choice in Omega is generally between heavy bladed and crushing weapons, which use Strength, or light and missile weapons, which rely on Dexterity. I went with an epee, costing 100 gold, which turned out to be a great choice for this character.

Rodney’s various career tracks now underway, they visited “Commandant Sonder’s Rampart-Fried Lyzzard Partes” and bought 20 buckets (it’s easy to run out of food in the wilderness), and then stepped out of town for a stroll north to see the Archdruid. A chat with the Archdruid provides 250 experience points, enough to immediately advance a character to Level 3. A Level 3 character is far from omnipotent, but won’t be in danger of being fried by a cosmic ray, which happens in Omega from time to time. You can also get your alignment neutralized somewhat there, but I was leaning into Chaoticness.

Back in Rampart. A place to get a few extra gold pieces is fighting the first opponents in the arena, which is usually pretty safe if you restrict yourself to the first four. (Note, if you join the Gladiator guild, you’ll earn more money for your fights, but will also be advanced to harder opponents!)

There’s a general sequence of events in Omega’s early game that provides for optimal play. After robbing the ATM and advancing to level 3, I usually like to tackle the hedge maze. At level 3 the opponents here are usually not too bad, although there’s always the danger of encountering something hideously strong: I once got roasted here by a fire-breathing salamander. The traps here can also be dangerous for the unwary.

One reason for exploring the hedge maze is to get access to the Oracle, who eventually provides access to an important late-game location, but also gives advice on where to go and can reveal your alignment to you. When the game asks if you want to attack them, be sure to say No! You may also find a few random items and the entrance to the Sewers, an early dungeon.

Then it’s off to the Duke of Rampart to get the first quest, which involved killing the Goblin King. The Duke will only deign speak with you if you’re at least Level 3. Outside town, the Goblin Caves must be searched for in the wilderness, with the ‘s’ key, but are always in the same place: three spaces south of the city.

Here we see the result of casting Object Detection. It’s cheap to cast, and can provide aid in determining which passages to explore in dungeons. But mana points in Omega don’t naturally regenerate over time, only from gaining an experience level or other explicit sources, and so must be guarded jealously. One of the more horrible things that can happen to a magic-using Omegan is stepping on a Manadrain Trap, which can leave you helpless. If you’re not in the Sorcerers’ Guild they charge a ton of cash to refill your mana. It’s worth looking out for powtabs in the pawn shop, which restore mana when eaten.

The Goblin Caves have a winding kind of structure, and often have copper pieces embedded in the wall. You can tear down many walls by using the Tunnel command (shift ‘T’), but this produces a pile of rubble that harms you when you wade through it, and that takes time to dig yourself out of. It’s mostly useful for getting yourself out of passages where you’re trapped by neutral NPCs who block you and refuse to get out of your way. (Or you could just kill them, if you’re of chaotic bent.)

As you gain character experience, you also advance in all the guilds you’re a member of. The guilds provide extra benefits as you gain standing with them; the Collegium Magii teaches you the Identification spell, although if you’re a member of the Thieves’ Guild, item ID is pretty cheap there.

Advancing in a religion is a good source of spells. Several of these spells came from worshiping Set. I currently know only one combat spell: Firebolt. It isn’t bad, although it’s costly to cast.

Here’s an instance of some of that bad luck I mentioned! If you fail an attack particularly badly in combat, you may drop your weapon, or it may even break! This kind of tragic happenstance is all over the place in Omega. You just have to roll with it. If all you have is your hands you’re useless in a fight with ! It can be worth it to carry a spare in your pack.

A good test of whether your character is doing well is if you can easily defeat the chieftains in the Goblin Caves. A Goblin Chieftain is fast, and hits hard with their great axes. If you’re wielding a weapon not indicated by your stats they’ll put an end to your adventure very quickly.

While Goblin Chieftains are bad, Goblin Shamans, which look identical on the screen (a green G) are even worse! They can cast a variety of annoying spells, and can poison you, give you a disease (get this cured at the Healer’s in town) or even put you to sleep. That last one nearly ended the game by itself.

There’s identification scrolls and spells in Omega, and you can pay the Thieves’ Guild to identify things you’re carrying, but there are also random scrolls that outright identify an entire category of item. These are all identified as “Jane’s Guide to Treasure,” and they’re definitely worth purchasing if you find one in the Pawn Shop.

Some traps in the dungeons are particularly nasty. Abyss Traps can teleport you to a random location, and also tack on some damage too. I already mentioned how dangerous Manadrain Traps can be to a magic user. Disintegration Traps can annihilate a piece of equipment you’re wearing. The choices are either to search every space (and even that might not be enough) or hope for the best. If your Dexterity is pretty good, it’s usually not hard to disarm known trips with Shift-D.

It was a pretty good game, but it ultimately ended at the hands of a bog thing in the wilderness. Turns out they’re pretty tough. Who knew? Omega is of the school of game that teaches primarily by killing you over and over again. Each new monster is a fresh opportunity to possibly get slaughtered because you don’t know if it’s too strong for you to tackle, or the special trick to beating it.

Maybe that’s a good indication of what playing Omega is like? I have elided a lot. Tune in tomorrow for a more traditional introduction to Omega.

@Play: Alphaman, Part 2

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

This is @Play #89. We resume our examination of 1995’s post-apocalyptic DOS roguelike, Alphaman! If you missed it, don’t forget to check out part one!

Checking Berries and Inspecting Gadgets

I’m an outspoken fan of interesting identification systems in roguelikes. You’re free to disagree with me, but I find that they add a layer of strategy to the use of items. In many games, when you randomly find a good item, it makes sense to immediately press it into service. Often there is no skill in its use; you use, wear or wield it, and from then on its powers are at your disposal. At its furtherest extreme it’s like the random number generator is playing you. There should be some decision-making involved to properly utilize the item once it’s found. Maybe items have limited durability that has to be managed? Maybe items change over time, so you must know when best to use them? Or, as with Rogue and Hack, maybe you don’t know what many items are at first, and must figure that out through some risky and costly manner.

Congratulations!

Alphaman uses an identification system, but it works differently from Rogue’s. While there are items that can identify other items, for the most part you don’t identify things like that. There are two major classes of unknown items in Alphaman: berries and devices.

Berries are somewhat like Rogue’s potions. They’re one-use items that are generally consumed to activate. Alphaman has 35 kinds of randomized berries to discover on each play. While the game gives you insight into a few berries at the start of the game, most berries must be discovered by testing them. Like Rogue’s potions, there are good and bad berries, and like in Rogue, once you know the function of one variety of berry, you know it for all other berries of that type. Good-type berries might heal you, restore your fatigue, permanently increase your defense, or help you figure out how to use gadgets. Bad ones could poison you, cause you to grow useless extra limbs or blind you. And then there are the interesting cases, the berries that could be either bad or good, depending on its color. Most berry effects are temporary, although some, like the berry of blindness, last a significant number of turns.

An important thing to keep in mind about berries: known berries are marked with an asterisk, but their descriptions don’t change in-game. You must check your known items list to find out what a berry does. Flipping between the inventory and the discovered items list does get annoying after a while.

Alphaman’s innovation with berries is giving each a ripeness level. All berries have a color that tells you how ripe it is. The colors go through the spectrum, from red (least ripe) to purple (most ripe). Ripeness is kind of like the curse/bless system of NetHack, but all berries naturally become riper over time. More ripe berries are more powerful than less ripe ones.

You will probably have to consume some berries to identify them. If it’s a bad berry, you want to identify it by eating it unripe. If it’s a good berry, you want it to be ripe to maximize its effects. But some berries give bad effects when unripe and good effects when ripe. That’s especially the case for stat and experience effecting berries, which are very helpful when eaten when ripe. A few berries are also better off thrown at enemies than eaten yourself. Decisions, decisions.

Gadgets are also divided into two classes, small and large. There are 97 types of small device and 38 of large. Fortunately you don’t have to use-identify them! There is a command, F, to figure out how to use a device. You aren’t guaranteed to be successful, and if you fail your chance very badly you could break the device, or, if it’s a grenade-type item, cause it to go off in your hands.

Many kinds of gadgets are humorous, and some are useless, but a few apparently-extraneous ones have a secret function that can be discovered if you experiment with them. Like, a microwave oven can ripen berries, and toilet paper can be used as a weapon against dung beetles. Try using items, with the U key, to see what they do. A handful of items can also be “Unused,” with Shift-U: this is usually used to un-equip wearables, but that’s also how you get things out of a Backpack item.

Mutations and Fatigue

Two unique characteristics of Alphaman are the way it handles mutations, and its fatigue system.

Mutations are in other roguelike games, of course. They’re important elements of both ADOM and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Alphaman uses them as an extra couple of perks your character receives upon creation. Unlike many other games, starting an Alphaman character is very quick: you get basic stats in a number of D&D-like categories, and are randomly assigned one Physical and one Mental mutation. You don’t gain more mutations as a character progresses. The ones they begin with are the only mutations they’ll have through the whole game.

Mutations are used the same way as items, with the U key, for “Use.” Most of them have a short delay before you can use them again. All of these mutations are beneficial, but you don’t get any say in what you get, other than by start-scumming, quitting and restarting many times until you get your favorites. Some mutations immediately increase one of those middling starting stats up to epic levels. Most mutations are very helpful if you know how to use them correctly, but figuring out the best way to use them might take a few games. I especially found the Quills mutation, which gives you an innate missile weapon you can use in a pinch and directly damages monsters who attack you in melee.

“Pooped”

Fatigue is a very interesting addition to the roguelike formula, in my opinion. Every action you undertake carries with it a cost in energy, which comes out of your fatigue level. Fatigue is shown on screen by a status that runs from Well Rested down through Pooped, and eventually Exhausted. Your actions become less effective as your fatigue rises. If this sounds burdensome, it needn’t be. It doesn’t take very much to restore your fatigue level. All you generally need to do is rest a few turns, with the period key, to get your level back up from Pooped to Well Rested.

What fatigue does is impose a limit on doing many things in close succession. Fighting large numbers of enemies at once, even if they’re attacked one at a time, will tire you out a lot. If you’ve being chased by monsters and are a little faster than them, you can probably store enough of your stamina by running until you’re one space away, then resting a turn while they catch up. Carrying a lot of things, measured by your on-screen Encumbrance level, or having a low Constitution stat causes you to become fatigued more easily. But so long as you think to rest a few turns after fights you should be okay.

Spoilers

This section is spoilers, but they are the kind that, at this late date, I think will help a player decide whether they want to play this unusual and interesting game more than actually give anything away. Still, if you want to go in completely fresh, you’ll want to skip this section. (I gave a few very minor things away above, but that’s pretty light.)

To win at Alphaman generally requires:

  • Finding Elvis’s Hideout, and getting the Blue Suede Shoes from the real Elvis (who is friendly, but won’t give you the shoes until all the Impersonators are defeated). BTW, all of these places are considered “castles” by the game.
  • Finding the Munster’s castle, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, which contains a map to reveal the location of the Grinch’s stronghold. The stronghold can be found without the map, though you’ll have to search around for it.
  • Finding the Castle of Those Who Came In Second to find Buzz Aldrin’s Space Suit, which confers radiation resistance. The Grinch’s place is always in the middle of a radiation zone, which will rapidly sap your health while you’re within it. It is possible to acquire radiation resistance by other means, so this may be optional.
  • Finding Trump’s Casino for the ID card to get into the Grinch’s castle. You’ll easily know the casino—most of the monsters and items found inside it are “Trump” monsters and items, as in, Trump Ghouls, and the Trump Cheese Grater.
  • Finding the Castaway’s Fortress to obtain the Keptibora Serum from Gilligan, which provides 24 hours of resistance to the Grinch’s nerve toxin. The Castaway’s Fortress is always surrounded by water, so a means of travel to it must be sought.
Some of the jokes in Alphaman have not aged well, but there are bits that are rather prescient.

In the roguelike way, each of these steps contains many unexpected perils, and it may take you multiple attempts at each, falling victim to each major obstacle at least once, before you discover the way through. If you have the time, energy, and patience to put up with that, then Alphaman will supply you with many hours enjoyment. The pleasure of this may begin to diminish for you as you die more and more often, however.

You first games are likely to be short, so not much lost, but the further you get, the more you lose when an unexpected danger kills your hapless character. (“It’s a rosebush, how hard could it be?”) One thing that might help you, that’s not a tremendous spoiler, is that the various castles you have to explore can mostly be done in any order.

He’s a mean one! He really is a heel!

At the very end of the game you’ll face the Grinch, and he has one last nasty surprise for you. I am torn, a bit, about whether to spoil this, but it is in a chapter of spoilers, and it may save you a loss at the very end of your journey. So I will reveal this: Your final task is not to kill the Grinch. Think about who he is, what he came from, look around his castle for significant items, and thing how you might be able to find a way to appeal to his better nature. That’s all.

Alphaman’s Legacy

The legacy of 20th-century hussle.

1995 was towards the latter days of the age of shareware. It’s easy to forget, but there were different types of shareware. There was the first-hit’s-free type, the kind that gave out the first episode but where the publishers released the others by mail order or or commercially. That was the model that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom used, and was probably the most successful. Then there’s the kind that lets you play up to a certain point, but to go beyond that you had to pay for a registration code, that unlocked the rest of the game. This often got assigned the moniker of “trialware.” Then there’s what we might call “true” shareware, where the game, in full, was distributed, and while it might nag you to register it, there was no need to to keep playing. If players enjoyed it, they were on the honor system to send in their payment. One of these true shareware games was Alphaman.

Alphaman’s creator Jeffrey Olson tells me he only ever received about 30 paid registrations for his game. At $15 each, that comes up to $450, which given the number of hours he put into it doesn’t seem like proper recompense. Perhaps it’s because of the prevalence of free, sometimes even open source roguelikes like NetHack and Angband, which were already on releases that current-day players would see as reasonably complete. Jeffrey doesn’t harbor any hard feelings, he says, he was just happy to meet people who enjoyed his game.

In the years since its release, Jeffrey has been doing quite a lot with his life! He graduated with a doctorate in Physics from Cornell University. He made hardware that will travel to the planet Jupiter on the Europa Clipper:

“[…]cooling a JPL infrared spectrometer to detect what chemicals are present on Jupiter’s icy moons, and to the asteroid Psyche, cooling a gamma ray spectrometer that will detect what elements are present in the metallic asteroid. I wish I had put a gamma ray spectrometer in Alphaman.

Jeffrey also also been married for 30 years, plays soccer every week, plays the trombone, and makes his own beer to share with friends. A high-school friend of his, Peter Jessop, helped test the game, and has done voice work for a wide range of big-name video games, among them Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption! It’s always nice when one of our team does good.

I asked Jeffrey if he had anything to say to people who have played and enjoyed Alphaman over the years, and who might play it in the future. He said, “Thanks for taking the time to play Alphaman. I hoped you enjoyed playing as much as I enjoyed creating it, and sorry about all the jokes from the 1990s that aged so poorly. I’ll always be embarrassed by references to Dan Quayle, Mary Decker, and the Kevorkian Machine….”

Thanks for your efforts, then and now, Jeffery. We’ll meet again in the Adventurer’s Lounge someday, after the last quest is done.

@Play: Alphaman, Part 1

@Play is a continuation of a column on roguelikes that I did back on GameSetWatch. At the moment it is monthly, so please look out for it! GameSetWatch no longer exists on the living web, but it can still be found in the Wayback Machine. (Many of its best articles are also preserved in the book Exploring Roguelike Games, published by CRC Press.)

Yeah, I’ve been ekeing a living out of these wastes for years, even since The Bomb ended life as we knew it. Life back then was simple. You might have had a soul-crushing office job, but you didn’t have to face off against vampiric warthogs or psychic blue jays. Just on the way here I was set upon by a stalk of asparagus with a chip on its shoulder and deadly radiation coming out of its leafy head. I had to run up close to it and whack it to death to make it stop zapping me. At least, I think it was dead. It wasn’t moving no more, but the same thing’s the case with normal asparagus. Maybe it’s just resting.

I’m on a mission here from out of state to find the source of a deadly nerve toxin with the power to destroy the rest of life on Earth. First I have to find my informant, Elvis Presley. Yes, that Elvis. The world’s always been a weird place, the nuclear war just made it a whole bunch weirder. But before I can find him, I’ve got to get to his castle. No, not Graceland, the one here in New York. I don’t got time to fill you in on how much you been lied to.

Look over there, it’s a gazelle! Looks harmless, doesn’t it? You see that laser gun on its back? DUCK YOU FOOL, get down behind this rock! Okay, here’s what we do. You run over there to distract it, and I’ll get up close and poke it to death with my pitchfork. We’ve only got once chance at this, we either take down this antisocial ungulate or the whole world, such as it is, is toast. It might suck, but at least we’ve got all these cans of Spam littering the ground to survive off of. You don’t like Spam you say? What do you think this is, a convenience store?

Nuclear weapons have destroyed civilization. You’re a mutated human living in a valley in central New York. This looks like the end.

But maybe it’s not. The world is in bad shape, but life continues, in its way. But maybe not for much longer. An outside group has sent you in as its agent to investigate rumors of some entity that’s obtained a deadly and virulent nerve toxin that could wipe out what remains of life on the planet. You don’t have much information on this being or its location at the outset of your quest. Only that it’s some creature known only as the Grinch….

Alphaman Basics

Alphaman is a console-based roguelike computer game released for DOS in 1995. This means it doesn’t qualify as an early roguelike, but it’s still pretty old.

1995 was the year of Windows 95, and at last the beginning of Microsoft’s push to eliminate MS-DOS. DOS wasn’t dead yet though, which was fortuitous for Alphaman, since it’s a DOS console program and can run in Windows 95’s DOS compatibility layer. Nowadays if one doesn’t have access to a PC from that era, they’ll probably have to run it on the emulation platform DOSbox.

It’s been a while since I’ve done an @Play, it might be worth it to go over some really basic basics of both it and classic roguelikes generally.

The smiley-face is you. Letters of the alphabet are monsters, most of which are trying to kill you. Walk into a monster to hit it with your currently equipped weapon.

The large green punctuation symbols (not the periods) represent foliage; you usually want to go around these things, but sometimes you might be able to break through.

Other colored punctuation and symbols are usually items you can collect. When you walk on an item, you automatically collect it. This might burden you a lot, if you are carrying many heavy items. When you’re burdened (check the Encumberance status), you tire more easily and get hungry faster.

The red border is the edge of the current section of the world map. Walking into it will give you a brief glimpse of the world around you, then you’ll appear in the next screen over.

You might find a purple symbol in the wilderness. These are lairs. You can go down, into the lair, with the < (Lesser-Than) key. (Note: This is the opposite from other games! In most classic roguelike games, > goes down and < goes up.)

You might find a large blue rectangle with an opening in one side. These are ruins or castles. Walk into the opening to enter and explore. These usually extend both up and down. You can find nice items and tough monsters there. To win the game, you will have to find and explore several castles.

If you press the Question Mark key, you’ll be shown this very helpful screen telling what the various keys do. A capital letter means to hold down Shift while pressing it. Especially note these keys:

  • u: Use an item, including wearing armor and wielding weapons
  • U: “Unuse” an item, taking armor off and cease wielding a weapon. This also gets items out of a backpack.
  • d: Drop an item (use this to become less encumbered)
  • f: Try to figure out a device
  • e: Eat food (Cans of Spam and Beef-A-Roni, mostly). Also press ‘e’ to eat berries.
  • . (period): Rest (to remove fatigue)
  • s: Search, checking the eight squares around you for hidden passages, useful in ruins and castles
  • p: Use your physical mutation
  • m: Use your mental mutation (the u key can also use these)
  • t: Throw an item. Use this with darts, shuriken and other missile weapons. You’ll be asked to pick a spot to throw at.
  • Z: Sleep. When the sun goes down you must find a quiet place and sleep through the night. Inside a cleared level of a structure or lair is good for this.
  • F1-F7: Changes the display to show more information. F2 brings up your inventory, F3 lists items you have identified, F4 shows a summary of your condition, F5 shows the overworld map, and F7 shows a list of symbols relevant to your current location.

As you play, you’ll eventually find better weapons and armor. For armor, Unuse the one you’re currently wearing with Shift-U (items in use are marked with an asterisk in the item list), then use the new one by pressing U. The effectiveness of your current armor is represented by your “Armor Class” in your stats. Armor Class affects how easily monsters can hit you with physical attacks. The game will seem a fair bit easier if you’re wearing good armor.

Alphaman uses the old D&D paradigm for Armor Class, in which lower numbers are better! It starts at 10 and goes down. Negative numbers are especially good! Leather and Hide Armor are weak, Ring and Chain Mail are better, Plate Mail is very good. How are you supposed to know that if you haven’t played a lot of D&D, or aren’t a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism? It’s just one of those little things that all RPG players must absorb, eventually. Some of it you have to figure out as you go. It’s part of the game.

Note, in Alphaman, protective equipment tends to wear out with use. Eventually as you take blows, you’ll be told that your armor is damaged, and then, destroyed. It would be good to have backup armor to put on when that happens.

Up, Down, and Around

As mentioned, Alphaman is set in the future, after a nuclear war that ended civilization, instead of the usual D&D-inspired fantasy scenario. This puts it in the ballpark of D&D’s neglected sister game Gamma World, and its ancestor Metamorphosis Alpha. Instead of magic spells there’s advanced technology and weird mutations, and replacing the monsters from myth and folklore there are deranged versions of animals and plants. Because the setting is on Earth, just in the future, it is less anachronistic to include places, devices and even people from our planet’s history. Alphaman really carries this aspect to extremes with its many pop culture references, as we’ll see later.

A glimpse of the “overworld,” the large-scale map of the landscape that connects the areas.

The most popular roguelikes from the time had a “vertical” structure. They were made of a series of single-screen dungeon levels extending deeper and deeper into the earth. Rogue, Hack, NetHack and Larn all do this. ADOM was also like this in its original form, before it got an overworld. Moria and Angband have vertical dungeons, but each dungeon level took up multiple screens, and those games flip between them when the player gets near one of the edges of the viewable area.

Alphaman has vertical dungeon areas, that extend conceptually either down into the ground, or up into above-ground buildings, or both. But it also has an “overworld”: a wide above-ground region that sprawls out many screens north, south, east, and west. There is both an overworld screen that reveals the large-scale lay of the land, and individual screens contained within it, each representing one square of the overworld. At the start you’re shown the overworld and your location within it, but you’re immediately taken down into your current screen. When your character moves to an edge of that screen, the overworld map and your location are again shown for a moment, then it’s replaced by the map of the new screen your character has entered.

In most roguelikes it is standard practice, in vertical dungeons, that the game stops counting the actions of creatures off of your current level. If you’re adjacent to a monster on the previous level it might be given a chance to follow you, but otherwise it cools its heels while you’re away, assuming you’re not playing one of those games where dungeon levels you leave behind aren’t forgotten about completely.

A swarm of irate critters intent on mischief.

Alphaman works like that when you’re in a location that plays by vertical dungeon rules, but on the overworld, monsters on screens that you leave are not forgotten about. They continue to receive turns, even while they’re out of sight of your character, and can follow you across a substantial portion of the overworld map. It is very likely, as you flee, that the new screens you enter will contain monsters of their own who will happily join in the chase, until you’re leading a whole cloud of angry letters across the leafy landscape of post-apocalyptic New York.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Apocalypse

Anybody got any butter?

As you might have picked up from the introduction, Alphaman has a lot more pop culture references than the typical roguelike. NetHack, a game that some consider to be excessively burdened by jokes, is reserved compared to Alphaman. In addition to ultimately fighting the Grinch:

  • Your first major destination is a castle of Elvis Impersonators where you must find the real one,
  • You may visit castles belonging to the Castaways of Gilligan’s Island and the Munsters, and could even end up exploring a Trump casino,
  • A lot of miscellaneous monsters may be found throughout the game, like the inhabitants of the castles, as well as: Mr. Potato Head, a “Bush,” who if defeated summons a “Quayle” (this game was published long before the era of Bush 45), an “Algore” that plants grow around, King Kong and Godzilla, “the Blob,” and others.
  • A wide variety of wacky devices and objects, some of which are useless, including (just a few) a Chia Pet, a Cheese Grater, and a mask of former Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, which blinds you but scares off monsters.

As the Bush/Quayle and Tip O’Neill jokes suggest, the humor of Alphaman is of a distinctly 90’s flavor, and so as time passes the jokes age further and further out of currency. Some people reading this may not even have been alive during the reign of the first George Bush. On the other hand, slaughtering your way through a castle-like Trump Casino carries a special vicarious thrill that people from the 90s probably wouldn’t feel nearly so deeply as today. An important item to collect there is Trump’s “Presidential ID Card.” Did Jeffrey Olson know something then that we didn’t…?

We have so much to tell you about Alphaman, and its creator Jeffrey Olson, that we’re saving more of it for next month. See you then!

Links

The site with the last remaining original mirror of Alphaman is ftp.funet.fi. Alphaman there is alpman11.zip. It can also be found on Abandonia. Alphaman was not the kind of game to get a physical release, and the end screen requests that you distribute it far and wide, so there are no legal issues there.

To play Alphaman now, you’ll need a means of running MS-DOS. You could spin up a virtual machine that runs DOS, but most people will just want to use DOSbox. DOSbox requires a little configuration, but can be used in many different platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux.

Here is the source code to Alphaman, on GitHub.

Here is The Alphaman FAQ, on Usenet (1995) via Google Groups, which, amazingly, Google hasn’t shut down yet.