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've put this one off for a long time because of the sheer bulk of the game, and the time it takes to get good at a game this large as Angband. Nethack is pretty involved too, of course, but at least I have the advantage of having played it for many years. Still, something has to be said.

Unlike many of the other games we've discussed, especially Nethack, Angband is a moving target. The active development it undergoes really is active, and various things about the game may change in the future.

While it's possible that everything I've said about Nethack will be invalidated by some upcoming brilliant release by the DevTeam, few seriously believe it will happen. (In fact, I would be one of the most anxious to have my notes invalidated.) Thus it is that, everything I say here should be considered provisional, although I will attempt to stick with the more permanent facts about the game.

The Journey Of A Hundred Levels

The object of Angband is, starting from a town level on the surface, to descend into a gigantic dungeon, find Morgoth on the 100th floor, and kill him. That's right:100 floors! Or 5000', as the game puts it, for each floor is 50 feet deeper than the last.

The dungeon actually goes deeper than that, and the player can continue to explore for higher scores, but level 100 is hard enough for most. Killing Morgoth earns the player the attribute "*Winner*" even if he later perishes. Nethack's dungeon at most contains about 80-85 levels, and they're all solidly limited at being one ASCII screen in size, while Angband's scroll around all over the place. A Nethack game may take days, Angband, weeks.

angband1.pngOn the other hand, Angband is a more random game than Nethack. The latter game has slowly been progressing towards giving the player more guaranteed rewards to balance out the random number generator (RNG). Angband takes the opposite tack, providing very little that's certain in every game. Most of what is reliable comes from the shops in town, which provide renewable quantities of some important items like scrolls of identify. This, and its many well-differentiated character classes, mean that Angband is far less likely to come down to a static game later on than Nethack, where most classes play similarly after the halfway-point.

On the other hand, Angband lacks Nethack's complicated, 1st edition D&D-inspired system of object uses and mixtures. An Angband item is generally more straightforwardly useful, or useless, on its face. While items must still be identified, the steady supply of identify scrolls in town, and other sources of this service, makes this more a formality in Angband. Use-identifying in Angband is a sucker's game, and later on it can even be instantly fatal. Use-testing isn't the best way to play Nethack either, mind you.

The source of these differences is probably the game's different lineages. All roguelike games owe their inspiration to Rogue, of course, but after that there evolved two different major philosophies of play, represented by the Hack branch and the Moria branch. (There were a few others yet that didn't thrive as well, like the Larn branch, and the various SRogues and UltraRogues.)

Hack stuck pretty closely to the Rogue basis, and took its greatest inspiration from the clever little bits, like standing on scrolls of scare monster and gaining max hit points from drinking healing potions while at top health. Moria, on the other hand, focused more on tactics and the turn-based, step-by-step movement and fighting. (For more information on this, check the previous column on Roguelike tactics.) Hack had a couple of competing versions that were merged and became Nethack. Moria became UMoria (the inspiration for Diablo according to that game's credits), and ultimately Angband.

Because A Game Called 'Valinor' Would Be Boring.

But what's this? "Moria?" As in, the Mines of Moria? Yes, one of the series' enduring trademarks is the huge number of Tolkien items and monsters that have been playfully thrown in with other D&D and invented creatures. "Angband" itself is the name of one of Morgoth's fortresses in the early days of Middle-Earth. Nearly every weapon Tolkien wrote about, and a good many he didn't and were assumed by the creators, are in Angband somewhere as an artifact. If they're not actually in a book you'd be forgiven for not realizing it, for they were given suitable Tolkien language names just like the others. The One Ring itself can be generated and used by the player, although it's the rarest item in the game, not completely positive in effect, and permanently cursed.

angband2.pngIt's important, by the way, for all you Tolkienophiles to not look for rhyme nor reason in the included artifacts or monsters. The developers just threw 'em in to increase play variety, but many are far from contemporary in the books. Much inspiration was found from the Silmarillion, and please forgive me for not cracking that book open again to find the details. While the main guys of The Lord of the Rings have been avoided (except for Smeagol, aka Gollum), one can find such notable bit characters as Farmer Maggot, Bullroarer the Hobbit, orcs Shagrat and Gorbag, and even the trolls from The Hobbit. The major uniques of the game, Sauron and Morgoth, are found on levels 99 and 100 of the dungeon respectively, and their deaths in the pits of Angband won't be found in any work written by John Ronald Reuel.

But what if you don't like the idea of playing the Generic Tolkien Roguelike? It's no matter. Perhaps Angband's most astounding attribute is that, after former maintainer Ben Harrison got done with it, it was perhaps the roguelike with the cleanest codebase of all. While not technically Free Software because a few bits of it were written by folks who have yet been found to obtain their permission to license the lot under a compatible license, the code is effectively open source, and has been used as the starting point of literally dozens of variants. Many major fantasy book series have served as the basis of an Angband variant at some point, the most notable ones being Amber, Pern, and the Cthulhu Mythos. Most of them retain Angband's cheerful chucking together of monsters and artifacts, sometimes retaining a portion (or all) of Tolkien's for good measure. There's even another major Tolkien Angband variant, ToME (Tales Of Middle Earth), which includes aspects from other major 'Bands and has a more complex world structure than Angband's 100-level downward dungeon.

Ancient Foes Compared: Angband vs. Nethack

One thing that Angband unquestionably does better than Nethack is preserve its sense of danger. Even expert players can never take the game for granted. It is possible for a perfectly-outfitted player to die to an unfortunate arrangement of monsters, even with pretty good play. A character missing an important resistance can find himself dead within a turn. There are monsters in the game who do so much damage with a single unresisted breath that they can empty a max-level player's hit points in a single attack.

angband3.pngI said unresisted. In Nethack, gaining some resistance will make the player nearly immune to that type of attack. A player with sleep resistance will never have to worry about being put to sleep, and if he gained it from eating a sleep-resistant monster (the most common source) he'll have that attribute for the rest of the game. The same goes for poison, fire, cold and electricity. A successful player will normally acquire all of these, and they're all binary, either 100% effective or not at all. A poison-resistant player will never again be affected by poison! Gaining poison resistance is actually an important game milestone, because it eliminates a common source of insta-death.

While resistances are just as important in Angband, the game implements them by way of a tiered system. For one thing, "resistance" is different from "immunity," which is more similar to Nethack's resistances but (only comes from certain artifacts?) is fairly hard to get. Angband has no way of gaining intrinsic abilities; all the resistances the player can get are through items or spells. A lot of its artifacts grant them, but there are so many possible artifacts, and no generation guarantees along the way, that the player must generally make due with what he finds and use caution to make up for the rest.

And there are a lot of resistances to acquire! Angband characters begin by
aiming for the basics of fire, ice, lightning, acid and poison. Eventually they'll want to gain resistance to confusion, blindness, paralysis, fear, disenchantment, life draining, light, dark, sound, shards, chaos, nether, and nexus. (What is nexus supposed to mean? It's the awful power of shuffling player attribute scores around.) In addition to equipment-granted sources, there are also potions that provide resistances for a short time. The permanent sources don't "stack" with each other, but the resistance from a temporary source and a permanent source does. Just one of them cuts elemental damage to a third, but two lowers that to just one-ninth. So, wearing two items that provide fire resistance doesn't provide any more protection than one, but wearing one then drinking a potion of Resist Fire will greatly decrease damage taken from flame while it lasts.

Because of the immense danger of taking unresisted breath damage from the wrong monster, gaining resistances is an important goal in Angband play. Nethack's like this too, but there are more common sources, fewer to gain, and because eating monsters can provide permanent intrinsics the player doesn't need to use up equipment slots to keep them. But this also means that, once acquired, a Nethack intrinsic resistance figures very little into later game strategy. Meanwhile, decisions concerning which ego items or artifacts to keep and which to dump lends depth to Angband's higher-level play.

"You Enter A Maze Of Down Staircases...."

Resistances help defend against sudden death, so it's essential to obtain them before encountering a monster which could cause that death. This is where knowing how the dungeon changes in character as the player delves deeper becomes important. Angband monsters and items are generated by dungeon level, so a player who knows the levels that Great Wyrms appear on can be prepared for their ultra-damaging attacks. Angband levels are discarded when the player leaves them and regenerated when returned to, with new monsters and treasure. Because of this, the player can explore the same levels as many times as he likes to find needed stuff. This eliminates the drive to explore ever downward to collect more stuff, but items are also generated by depth, so to find better types of stuff he'll eventually have to go deeper anyway.

The generation algorithm carries some other implications. There is a set of levels, around the 30s in the dungeon, that are colloquially referred to as "stat gain depth." These levels are the ones on which permanent attribute potions are most often produced. Many players stick around here until their stats are boosted as high as they'll go, because the stats will be helpful later in the game and there's no real penalty for doing so.

angband4.pngBecause of things like this, while there is generally less for an Angband player to learn to survive than a Nethack player, it's not a great deal less. Nethack is about as difficult as Rogue if the player knows nothing about the dungeon, but once he learns all the many gotchas, commands and hidden uses for stuff it's much easier. The essential knowledge successful Angband players is more things like generation probabilities, the abilities of monsters, and the advantages offered by X weapon or Y artifact. A perfectly knowledgeable player must still be careful, more careful than the equivalent Nethack player in fact. Nethack makes players remember facts, with Angband, what's learned is more like strategic knowledge.

Another basic play difference is that Nethack's play is more purposeful than Angband's. Nethack games in which the player just clears out levels and descends levels at his own pace are nearly always losses. A Nethack player must know what things he needs and how to get them, a process that, unlike Angband, is never as simple as searching shops and/or re-exploring levels at the best depth. Building a supply of holy water is a Nethack tactic that winning players learn is of vital importance. It requires finding an altar, sacrificing at it if it's not of the player's alignment, keeping in good stead with one's deity, obtaining potions of water (most often by diluting or cancelling other potions, itself a process with its own nuances), and finally prayer. The player must judge when he's running low and then take a break from exploration to initiate the process of making more himself.

It's nearly a side-quest all in itself, and lots of other stuff in Nethack is also like this: gaining protection, making proper use of magic lamps, building AC, using enchantment scrolls without destroying items, gaining artifacts through sacrifice, making dragon scale mail, using wishes. To do these things a Nethack player must be more obsessive than an Angband player, sometimes tripping back through many levels to get to a stash or altar. Ang-players may regenerate levels many times to get stuff they want, but that's a more open-ended activity, and its regenerating levels mean that it still involves dungeon exploration.

The Game With The Vaunted Vaults

This introduction wouldn't be complete without mentioning Angband's infamous vaults, perhaps the greatest risk/reward activity in any roguelike. First off, there exist in Angband things called pits. A pit is a middle-sized room with a lot of a theme monster, maybe easy ones, maybe tough. The contained monsters range from jellies to undead to dragons. They might have okay treasure.

angband5.pngThen there are lesser vaults, which are larger, contain a variety of monster, and come in many designs. The monsters and loot in a lesser vault are "out of depth," that is, it's generated as if the level were a bit lower in the dungeon, so it's a good way to get a leg-up on the difficulty curve. But since the player is probably not ready for the monsters inside, stumbling on a vault is a bit of a heart-stopping moment, like wandering into a zoo in Rogue (and not like finding a throne room in Nethack). But if he can survive or otherwise remove the monsters there's good treasure to be found there, including artifacts.

Finally, there are the greater vaults, which are always generated away from the main complex of rooms. Not only must the player dig to them, but they're surrounded by undiggable walls, and the player will have to excavate around to find the way in. And once he finds entrance, he'll face a truly awe-inspiring challenge: a large number of greatly out-of-depth monsters, with treasure to match. It isn't uncommon to find multiple unique monsters, named opponents with powers greatly above the average foe. Likewise, multiple artifacts are a frequent feature of these direst of rooms.

Now, Angband games can be of two types, determined by the player upon starting, those with "preserve mode" on or off. The difference is what happens to artifacts, those supremely powerful unique items, if one is on a level when it is exited. Remember, Angband levels are discarded once left, the layout and contents determined anew when the player returns. If there was an artifact on that level, then what should happen to it? Sometimes the player will have not discovered it, or maybe he wisely decided not to challenge a vault.

angband6.pngWhen preserve mode is on for that game, then artifacts on discarded levels are returned to the generation mix. It's really unlikely, but it's possible that the artifact could be found again later on. If preserve mode is off, then the artifact is lost forever! If it was a particularly good artifact then that can be a grievous blow to a promising game, and if the player fails to pick up many artifacts then it's possible to reach a point, in a very long game, when there just aren't many left to generate. This provides a tremendous urging of a player who has a greater vault generated on a level to make a run at it, or else not even know which artifacts were just removed from the game.

To make up for this, the player receives a "feeling" upon entering a level, a brief message letting him know, in vague terms, the general quality of the stuff there. If preserve mode is on these feelings reveal little information; Calris (a much-loved artifact) could be on the level and the player would have to explore it all to find out. If preserve mode is off, the level feeling will imply something very nice is on the floor, but the player must find it before he leaves the level or it is lost forever.

There, that should serve as a suitable introduction to Angband. We've now covered all five of the major roguelikes! Honestly, this one's not my favorite of the lot (it's all a bit too grindy for my tastes, like most MMORPGs), but Angband is perhaps the purest representation of roguelike tactics in any game. Later on we'll have a look at some of its variants, many of them rich games in their own right.

Links:
The Angband Newbie Guide