Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

I apologize for the fairly dry reading last time, but now hopefully now you'll all able to actually play these things, should you at some point develop the urge to try them. So now that we've gotten some of the basics out of the way, allow me to say a few words on behalf of the second roguelike game ever made: Rogue itself.

I say it's the second, yes. The first one wasn't a computer game at all. It was the random dungeon rules published as Appendix A in the back of the Dungeon Master's Guide, way back in the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Ultimately, the play experience that roguelikes seek to duplicate is that of a hack-and-slash roleplaying game, like those improvised sessions of D&D, and most of them are steeped in it. Hack-and-slash has come under a lot of criticism as lacking in story and character development, but a well-designed game of the type brings much more to the table than just the killing of monsters. (Click through for more.)

Foundations of the Dungeon

The first edition D&D books contained, within their poorly-organized pages, all the information a sharp DM with a dozen bookmarks needed to improvise such a game. What room is behind this door? Roll dice to find out. Is there a trap inside? Roll for it, and which trap it is. Are there monsters, and if so what are they? Roll on the appropriate level tables. What treasure is found? Tumble those bones. There are even tables that can be used, if the DM decides, to determine what kind of decoration is on the walls. r

Cover of D&D DMG 1st Edition, scavenged from Wikipedia The book admits that random determination is not usually the best way to play the game, but there is still a certain charm to those chaotic games. What made this interesting to players is that there are so many strange obstacles, and so many magic items with which to overcome them, that each game will have a wildly different character, and with good players and a better DM, many items can be put to use in such ingenious ways that there are actually not a lot of situations that cannot be overcome in some way. At its core, roguelike games seek to replicate that kind of play.

Since player ingenuity matters for so much, the developer must not shirk from the challenge of taking into account the unusual uses players might find for things. Nethack’s infamous devteam is so good at this that has a abbreviation for it: TDTTOE, which stands for The DevTeam Thinks Of Everything. Even the more combat-oriented roguelikes, such as Angband, tend to have some element of this.

But I'm getting off the subject. It's time to settle some misconceptions, and of the many there are in the mainstream gaming press about roguelikes, the most serious have to do with Rogue itself.

But It's So Hard

There are still many things that Rogue does better than any other game, even its descendants. Although its days of ruling the computer lab are long over, people will likely still be playing Rogue twenty years from now. While it has been around for well over two decades, there are still many interesting things about it -- even when compared to other roguelikes.

Unlike many other random games that grant the player some static benefits to make up for the capriciousness of the Fates, Rogue doesn't do much to blunt the spiked edges of its random number generator. In a game of indefinite length, it's just a matter of time before there occurs a situation the player is ill-prepared to survive. The longer you live, the more likely you will die. Because of this, a properly-played game of Rogue is always a seach for treasure carried out at break-neck speed, where every move counts, where both ruthless monsters and the player's limited food supply drive a continual thirst for more loot. A game of Rogue that is not won as rapidly as possible is probably lost. (Well, games are probably lost in any case....)

The primary reasons players must be loot-happy are the 26 monsters from A to Z, the bloodthirsty residents of the Dungeons of Doom. Many of them are quite unwise to face in melee combat, no matter what level you may be. Most RPGs are balanced so that the player grows in power, through level gains and equipment, at roughly the same rate as the monsters' stats improve, so that he faces a constant level of challenge throughout. In a few games the player actually grows in power faster, especially if he's been building up his experience level and doing subquests for better equipment, so that at times final bosses sometimes seem easier than ordinary monsters faced early on.

The Subterranean Arms Race: MAD (Mutually Assured Dragons)

Distinguishing Rogue from these games, including other roguelikes, is that its monsters increase in power faster than the player improves. The player begins the game stronger that most of his opponents, but the average experience and equipment gain of the player on a given level is not enough to keep up with the increase in monster power. As the game continues this difference builds up, until near the end many monsters can wipe out a player in three, or even two, turns. Even if you were to take his time to build experience (and your food supply means you can't), you'll still be unlikely to survive fights deeper in the dungeon by merely pounding away at foes. While many RPGs almost seem like you could progress by taping down the 'A' button, it is impossible to win at Rogue by playing in a mindless manner. The high strength of monsters late in the game demands that players must learn to flee, or perish.

Even the weaker monsters pose serious dangers, some of them draining strength, armor, and even maximum hit points when they strike. To an experienced Rogueist, it is priceless to behold the look on the face of a console RPG fan playing and discovering that, when a Rattlesnake drains the player's strength, or an Aquator strikes and lowers his defense by one, that those penalties do not go away after the fight, but accumulate until a means is found to overcome them.

In addition to the controls, this is another reason Rogue is quite formidable to new players. As with random 1st edition D&D sessions, the game is not impossible only because of the great usefulness of some of its treasure. A single scroll of scare monster, properly utilized, can allow a player to safely destroy any number of foes.* A single zap from a wand of slow monster can allow even weak characters to destroy a Troll without risk. A scroll of genocide eliminates one entire species of the player's choice from the world, potentially taking care of all Dragons without even having to see one. So useful are some of the things that may be found just lying on the dungeon floor that in other games they would seem unbalanced. Here, they're just right.

These factors contribute to place Rogue, even after all the years since its creation, among the most difficult roleplaying games ever made. Although most other random games take greater steps to decrease the sharp-edged chaos of their dungeons, at their core they all deal with the same issues: how much loot to give out, how fast do the monsters get tougher, and how rapidly must the player explore? Rogue's answers to these questions are a lot less conservative than players are used to.

Some versions of Rogue rank among the hardest winnable computer games ever made, so hard that many play for score, with no expectation of victory. The following statement is astounding enough to risk a descent into boldface type: Rogue is much more difficult than its successor, Nethack. Nethack has a reputation as a player killer, but it also contains great helps if you know how to use them. Once one is aware of the true dangers, risks and resources in both games, it is obvious that Rogue is harder. In Nethack almost every game can be won, but in Rogue possible victory is never guaranteed.

Unavoidably this means Rogue is a less fair game, as a good percentage of games ultimately cannot be won even with perfect play... but that fact doesn't dissuade people from playing Solitaire, either.

This, at last, concludes out introductory look at Rogue. Next time, we have a look at the most popular player activity besides playing the games: telling stories about them.

* After the cliffhanger last time, I can at least spill the beans concerning scrolls of scare monster: to use one properly, one should not read it, but rather stand upon it....