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.]

This is a game that does things that sometimes defy belief.

Many people have wondered over the sheer range of possibility here. They see the huge array of random items. They see wishing and item transformation, altars and prayer. They see that players can eat dead monsters and gain (and lose) abilities from their meal. That items can be blessed and cursed, and have different effects depending on that state. The tremendous variety of monsters. That players can take potions of water, make holy water out of them at an altar, then use that to bless other items. They see that the game implements special rules on certain real-world dates, like Friday the 13th.

All of these things, as we've covered before, are true of Nethack. But now, we are not talking about Nethack. We're taking a look at a copy of Nethack that came to our world after falling through a wormhole from a mirror universe. We're looking at ADOM.

That ADOM bears so many features first seen in Nethack indicates pretty strongly that its creator and maintainer, Thomas Biskup, was greatly inspired by that game, and borrowed many of its aspects. And like Nethack, there is far too much to say about the game in one column. This week I shall attempt to give a good initiate's-eye view of the thing. Again, and as usual, I am more concerned with examining the game's play, its innate coolness, and its problems than with avoiding spoilers, although, again as with Nethack, most players must be spoiled greatly to have even a slim chance at winning.

adomoverworld.gifThe Guise Of The Overworld

Perhaps the first thing that players notice upon beginning a game is that they do not begin in a dungeon level or town, but in a screen-sized overworld map reminiscent of (although less graphical than) those from some of SSI's Gold Box AD&D games. The map is dotted with towns, clearings and dungeons, some challenging to find, and some accessible only by finding routes through some of the dungeons.

Some of the dungeons are relatively small, while others, such as the Caverns of Chaos and the accurately-named Infinite Dungeon, are much larger. They usually start easy and get tougher the deeper a player gets, but there are exceptions ready to catch the unwary, as anyone happening upon Darkforge will discover.

One thing it's important to note about this map is that it is not randomly generated, but is always the same. Although the actual dungeon layouts and item identities are mixed up anew for each game, the properties of the dungeons and towns do not change. But this is not necessarily a point against ADOM, for no major roguelike has yet to make random overworld generation work satisfactorily. Some of ADOM's dungeons are uncommonly harsh if entered at the wrong time, so it is possibly a good thing that the player can know which these are with experience.

terinyo.gifOur Very Special Quest Stars

ADOM's quests, as with much of the rest of the game, can be considered either good or bad things. To many they will be both. Roguelikes are usually relatively straight-forward games in which, while they may have the occasional detour into a dungeon branch for some necessary object, are still primarily played from the surface down. New players can generally keep hitting the downstairs and be reasonably assured they're going in the right direction.

This contrasts with ADOM's complex itinerary of dungeons, levels and opportunities. Some of them become unavailable after certain game thresholds, or are open only during a small window of the player's adventuring career. If a player doesn't know how to talk to people (Shift-C, for Chat) then some locations, which can only be entered after talking to particular folkwon't even appear on the map. Most roguelikes can be explored, though maybe not survived, easily by new players and, while their chances of success may be minimal at first, at least they can be assured that they aren't missing out on something happening halfway across the world that they aren't even aware of, simply because they hadn't met some invisible appointment. ADOM does not have that assurance.

For The Love Of Purple 't'

The quests themselves are pretty cool, and sometimes they contain surprising verisimilitude. Some of the types of challenges a player may engage in are unknown anywhere else in the roguelike genre. To pick one early, easily-observed example, there is an early quest in which the elder of a village asks the player to ease the suffering of the village carpenter, who has gone crazy and run off to the bottom of a nearby dungeon. The wording of the quest is such that the player considers that he is expected to kill the carpenter to accomplish this. However, on level four of that dungeon is a healer, who helpfully offers to heal the player should he speak to him.

Early in my own ADOM-playing binge, which took place while the game was still under active, heavy development, on one of the first visits to the dungeon, I got it into my head to try something strange. What would happen if I lured the carpenter, who follows the player through the dungeon and will also chase him up through staircases, to the healer? Would the two fight? I was startled to discover that the healer then healed the carpenter, restoring his sanity and causing him to drop some items! Later versions of the game even made this a prerequisite for learning the Healing skill and Bridge Building skills.

The experience of happening, purely by accident, across this interaction played a major role in my early fascination with the game. I suspect the players who come to love ADOM, who discover this kind of thing through spoilers, cunning or accident, feel the same way about it. However, it can also be seen as one more instance where spoilers are practically required to win at the game; the Healing skill, which greatly improves hit point regeneration, is almost required in order to make headway into the game, yet it is easy to kill the carpenter accidentally or for survival's sake, making it quite hard to acquire.

But because of this proliferation of quests, there are times when ADOM doesn't feel quite as random as it should be. The items that are found in a play of a roguelike game determine its character. A game of Nethack with, as a lucky friend of mine discovered recently, Mjollnir resting happily at the player's feet on the starting square of the game will feel different from one where artifact weapons are harder to come by, or one with few scrolls of identify, or one with an early ring of slow digestion, or pair of speed boots, and so on.

But Nethack also contains a number of hard-coded items and areas, and sometimes that makes the game feel less random than it should. ADOM, unavoidably, has the same problem.

adomoutlaw.gifWhy Is The Trollish Warrior Fleeing From That Kitty-Cat?

Another prominent example of an element of ADOM that is difficult to discover without spoilers or being bitten, in this case one that could result in the end of a player's first potentially-winning game, concerns cats. There are three monsters in ADOM that are considered to be of this type: wild cats, cave lions and cave tigers. As far as monsters go they are apparently ordinary, just another monster type in a game that also contains dogs, rats, spiders, lizards, bears and Greater Molochs, but there is a secret peril regarding them.

Late in the game there is a guaranteed monster, the Cat Lord, whose strength is directly proportional to the number of cats slain by the player during his adventures. There is no known maximum to the strength he can attain through this, and it is possible for him to become a rude surprise indeed. If the player manages to kill no cats on his quest, the Cat Lord will actually be peaceful, and give the player a very powerful item for his trouble. But this Cat Lord business is remarked upon hardly anywhere in the game; it's only alluded to in a fairly obscure way, hardly enough warning to prompt a player to avoid killing all of a certain type of monster (which tend to get in the way at the least opportune times) unless, of course, he's already been spoiled.

It is not my job to apologize for roguelikes, but to honestly report on them for good or ill, and in the end all roguelikes, even those supposed friendly towards novices, like Rogue and Crawl, have this problem built into their design. It is just a bigger version of that shock players receive upon first encountering a powerful, previously-unknown monster. ("A capital 'T,' huh? How hard could it be?") But the further a player gets through a roguelike, in which the game must be begun anew after each loss, the more it stings. And when that loss comes from a hitherto unknown, seemingly arbitrary cause, it stings hard.

With ADOM, these stings are many. Kill a cat? Bad move. Hit a karmic lizard with a melee weapon? Bad move. Stand on an altar with an intelligent monster nearby? Really bad move. Once again, Nethack also has its fair share of arbitrary peril, as anyone who's smacked a floating eye knows, but at least in that game, for the most part, it is the obviously fantastic beasts and objects that cause the problems.

ADOM reserves a special kind of smackdown for people who kill cats. Because of this, and a great many other idiosyncrasies, it is difficult to recommend the game to roguelike newcomers.

adomlevel.gifDamnation By Degrees

Perhaps ADOM's most-defining element is "corruption," by which it means a series of mutations that the player's character undergoes during the game according to a timer. There's 19 corruptions in the game, each of which being a different, specific mutation the player undergoes, and they function as both rising difficulty level and an ultimate time limit on the game. If the player lives without winning long enough eventually they'll all happen, in random order. Some of them are helpful, but most are mixed blessings. A couple, Poison Hands and Mana Battery, are obnoxious effects that make it extremely difficult for the player to make use of his inventory.

If a player receives all the corruptions, he only has a little while longer to play before he devolves into a puddle of chaos. Like Rogue's food supply, this isn't a hard limit but can be pushed back by using certain items (some are available for completing specific quests) or by wishing for them. There is a quest that will wipe a player's corruption slate clean once. Still, corruption removal is rare enough that none of these means can (typically) be relied upon indefinitely, and there exist traps, items, and especially monsters that can corrupt a player early. Most players who never get past the midgame may not even know that corruption exists, or that it's time based, because there is a good buffer of buffer radiation that can be absorbed before the first corruption occurs, because many early locations in the have no "background corruption," and because corruption doesn't become a big problem until the ninetieth day, when the rate doubles. Once the player gets in gear and begins exploring dangerous areas, corruption is unavoidable, and must be taken into account in any long-range strategy.

The Bizarre Cathedral

One thing about ADOM that bears mentioning, because it perhaps explains many of its successes and problems, is the fact that, unlike almost all the other roguelikes currently played today, it is not open source. It is beer-free, not freedom-free. The reasons Thomas Biskup gives for keeping the source to himself, and a handful of people who write ports to other operating systems, varies according to the citation: that he prefers to keep some aspect of mystery in the game; that he'd like for there not to be a plethora of variants such as with Angband (although its variants are common because of the relative ease of modifying that game), that he was scared by some people who angrily demanded, via email, the source, that he someday plans to make a commercial version with graphics, and that it wouldn't be as much fun for him to write it if others were looking over his shoulder.

Whatever the reason--and with it being his program, he doesn't have to give one--it does preserve some aspect of mystery in the game's workings. The route to the "ultra" endings of the game, special extra quests that can be completed for greater glory, took dedicated players on the ADOM Usenet group quite a long time to determine. To this day, despite the presence of that special brand of obsession only diehard roguelike players can muster, there are still things about the game that are not known. Meanwhile the promiscuously open source Nethack has no mysteries to the sufficiently determined, and there are dozens of die-hard players and modders who can quote the source chapter-and-verse.

But there are also real disadvantages this decision presents to the game's maintenance. Of course there is the quality argument, for there are almost always bugs in a computer program and the more eyes looking the fewer there will be, but it also presents problems for its design.

Nethack's vaunted verisimilitude did not arise fully-formed from one person's brain, or even entirely from within its Devteam, but from the work of many dozens of developers submitting their modifications. A good proportion of the most-recently added features originally came from popular variants Nethack+ and SLASH'EM, variants which could never have existed if the source were not open. Over time, many of the rough edges of Nethack's design have been worn down by a legion of coders, each fixing what they cared about, and adding stuff as they liked. As noted earlier, there are many patches in existence now that arguably improve the game. Nethack grew up through the accretion of these patches, but ADOM relies entirely upon the skill of one person. At the best, an open-source game can seem like the product of a godlike intelligence, greater than any one of its contributors, but ADOM is the product of Thomas Biskup, and whatever brilliances or blindnesses it has are, for better or worse, his.

In the end, the greatest danger is that the game will turn out like the Lost Roguelikes: Advanced Rogue, XRogue, SuperRogue and URogue. Nethack is immortal due to its widely-distributed source, while those other games are only recently been recovered. In twenty years Nethack will still survive--whether it's the Devteam working on it or someone else. One cannot say that so confidently about ADOM.

ADOM (a.k.a. "Ancient Domains of Mystery")