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

"Commercial games cheat for you and against the monsters: The unarmed orc falls to the ground, dying. 'Whirling Blades of Doom... backpack', he gasps. 'Barbecue sauce... left pocket.'

"NetHack plays fair between you and the monsters: The orc wins the race to the Whirling Blades of Doom. He seizes it, grins, and whirls it at you. You fall to the ground, dying. Your last sight is of the orc reaching for his left pocket.

"Slash'em cheats against you and for the monsters: Staggering and more than half dead, you advance to the slain monster. If you can use the Whirling Blades of Doom against the rest of the pack, you just might live through this.
...There is no weapon at the corpse. The Whirling Blades of Doom are an intrinsic attack, not a separate weapon. The next platypus in line opens its bill. This one is a fire breather. Thoroughly barbecued, you fall to the ground, dying. When you hit the ground, something breaks in your left pocket.

Rob Ellwood, writing sarcastically in rec.games.roguelike.nethack

Beyond The Kitchen Sink

slashem-lamb.pngSome people consider Nethack to be the game with the "most". The most monsters, the most items, the most places, the most interesting things, the most everything. These people are wrong. They are wrong because there exists SLASH'EM, a Nethack variant that contains everything Nethack does, and then some.

SLASH'EM (capitalized because it's an acronym, standing for "Super Lotso Added Stuff Hack – Extended Magic") is a variant of Nethack that adds in hundreds of things more. It is a super variant, with bits culled from many other versions: Nethack--, Nethack+, SLASH, the Wizard Patch, Lethe and Heck are big influences, but it also has its own unique bits in the stew.

It's interesting to consider the differences between the base game and this one. As we have seen, Nethack's devteam used to have a more inclusive development philosophy, but around Nethack 3.1 that stopped, and all the versions since have been much more conservative. But SLASH'EM never stopped adding stuff. In addition to being up-to-date with the features in the most recent vanilla, it has five additional character classes, five new races (hobbits, drow, lycanthropes, vampires and doppelgangers), new abilities called "techniques" for many classes and races, a ton of new weapons including many new artifacts, new magic items in most categories, and a great many new monsters. Nethack's reorganization in 3.1 added dungeon branches to the game, but other than the addition of Sokoban some time ago (itself an import from SLASH'EM) it has steadfastly refused to further expand the dungeon. Meanwhile SLASH'EM has lots of branches, many of them optional.

It may be that there's good reasons the devteam reined back their impulse in adding things to Nethack. Or it may not. SLASH'EM has everything Nethack does and much, much, much much more. But it hasn't had the balance work put into it Nethack has. Tougher monsters appear sooner, there are lots more of them, and they have all kinds of nasty new things they can do to the player. Some standard Nethack tricks, like shopkeeper theft, are harder to perform. (Shopkeepers are much tougher opponents, too.) If, in adding a new feature, the developers had a choice between easier and harder, in SLASH'EM it will usually be harder.

The dungeon is BETA SOFTWARE, features may be more awesome than your universe will allow

slashem-yellowjackets.pngAn imperfect, but useful, way to think about it is being the "unstable" code branch of Nethack, both in design and tendency to crash. There's lots of new features, but much less of a guarantee that the game is fair in any way, or that it won't bomb when you look at it funny. But the Nethack devteam has been known to get ideas, and even code, from the game for inclusion in the original. Maybe the greatest example of this is Nethack's most unique role, the Monk, who suffers substantial penalties to wearing armor, wielding weapons, and eating meat. Yet SLASH'EM Monks are still fairly different from Nethack ones.

So what's different? This is far from an exhaustive list, for SLASH'EM has been quite promiscuous in adding ideas from user-made patches, but some highlights include:

Most monster classes have new members. Some of the more interesting ones are:
- Gypsies, which may offer the player draws from a Deck of Many Things
- Various Lovecraft monsters, like Father Dagon, Mother Hydra and deep ones. Also their invented-for-SLASH'EM cousins, deeper ones and deepest ones.
slashem-cockatoo.png- Lots of animals, including chickens, cows and sheep. Some of them are more dangerous than experience with their real-life counterparts might lead you to believe. The first screenshot game I started ended due to an irate cockatoo.
- A larger assortment of werebeasts. Since lycanthropes are a new race, and lycanthropy is an acquirable condition, this can also affect the player.
- Some humanoid species have royalty which can appear on special levels. Among them are Kroo the Kobold King, Grund the Orc King, Ruggo the Gnome King, and Aphrodite, boss of the nymphs, who can't be happy about her royal neighbors.
- Some other creatures have new unique versions: Pegasus the winged horse, the spiders Girtab and Shelob, and... Jumbo the Elephant?
- Austrialian monsters! Echidnas, koala, wombats, Tasmanian devils, wallabys, kangaroos, "wallaroos," and platypuses (no, the intro quote wasn't joking about that)
- There are no new mimics, but there are new mimic-like monsters like killer coins (a Wizardry reference), killer food and tripe rations, and a particular favorite of mine, the "bad egg."
- A few other D&D monsters have made their appearance, including a Beholder (undoubtedly irate for being commented out in Nethack for so long) and long-time D&D favorite Vecna the Lich.
- Of course, each new role has its own quest dungeon and unique leader and nemesis.

More?

slashem-mangler.png There are also a large number of new weapons, including multiple lightsaber types. An entire new category of weapons are modern firearms, which are more powerful than arrows but with much rarer ammunition. They are not generated laying around the dungeon floor, but soldier monsters sometimes get them on creation, making them a much deadlier class of opponent.

The main quest has an additional step besides collecting the three unique items to get to the Amulet. Now the player must also get two out of three aligned keys, which reside on special branches off the main dungeon. Of course, they are guarded by unique monsters.

Most major variants of Nethack these days take it upon themselves to address what is seen as the biggest flaw of the game, how the second half of the game, Gehennom, has become increasingly irrelevant (for its supposed hellishness, few characters die there), boring (maze after maze with no special features), and annoying (that damn mysterious force on the return trip). SLASH'EM is no different, and it has a much shorter Gehennom. To compensate, the main dungeon is much longer, and Gehennom is now composed almost entirely of special levels. Each of the named demon lords has his own now, including everyone's favorite, Demogorgon.

slashem-nightgaunt.pngAlso along the lines of fixing perceived flaws, unicorn horns in SLASH'EM have different trouble-fixing odds than Nethack. In the original, the factor in telling what a unihorn will do when applied is its curse/uncurse/bless status. At its best, it can fix a wide range of status ailments, and also make many dangerous potions harmless, while also helping to identify them. And it doesn't degrade with use. And it's a moderately-decent weapon in a pinch. To increase its curative properties in SLASH'EM, on the other hand, it must be enchanted as a weapon, which is a harder thing to do than just blessing it.

One of the places SLASH'EM got many of its ideas from is an old variant created by now-devteam-member Stephen White, called Nethack+. One of the biggest things in that game was that it allowed shopkeepers to provide services for the player in exchange for some money. This was very good in that it made money a big part of the game again (it's been devalued ever since it lost its central place in game scoring), and it gave shopkeepers more personality. This was very bad because, to prevent higher-level players from just taking advantage of all the services offered then slaughtering the shopkeep to get his gold back, shopkeepers had to be made much stronger, which in turn made it much more dangerous to steal from shops.

Even More?

Altar conversion is riskier in SLASH'EM. Other gods are much more likely to get mad at you for converting their altars to your own alignment, sending in tough minion monsters to attack you. Conversely, sometimes sacrificing on a co-aligned altar will result in your own deity sending you some help to follow you around and slay stuff on your behalf.

slashem-dungworm.pngSLASH'EM has lots of new artifacts, which range from interesting choices drenched in D&D lore, like the Hand and Eye of Vecna, to the Bat From Hell, which is not, let's say, the flying kind of bat. The game is a lot more serious about artifact alignment than Nethack, though, so it might help to consult a list to make sure the weapon will like you before you pick it up.

Nethack's reference list ranges far and wide, but it doesn't get as geeky as you might think. The nerdiest gag I have seen in the main game, by a good margin, is a Ranma 1/2 reference on one of the T-shirts. On average, SLASH'EM's references tend to be one Nerd Tier above Nethack's: there is an artifact spoon called a Houchou which instantly kills any one monster it's thrown at*, Undead Slayers sometimes start out with a whip, and Monks have a ability which causes them to do special moves if the right arrow-key sequence is input***.

* Final Fantasy IV.
** Castlevania.
*** Fighting games, and also, perhaps, Final Fantasy IV.

Nethack creates bones levels (saved dungeon levels from when players die) less often at later levels. SLASH'EM reverses this tendency, creating them more often the deeper the player gets. The result is that deaths later in the game are more likely to have their stuff preserved for a future player, but the monsters that did the killing are also more likely to hang around.

In addition to new shop types like pet shops, shop prices have been remixed a bit, requiring price IDers to learn anew what everything is. The most useful items, like magic lamps and artifacts, tend to have much higher prices than before.

Dear God, Still More?

slashem-migodrone.pngLater on there is a special level, the Black Market, that is one of SLASH'EM's more interesting opportunities. Originally from Nethack+, most of the level is filled with a single gigantic general store. The way shops are generated is, the larger they are, the more varied their contents are likely to be. However this one is unique among them all: prices are 25 to 50 times greater there, it has special defenses against theft, polymorphed players are not allowed inside, it's on a special branch so one cannot just dig his way out, and the proprietor, One-Eyed Sam, has much greater resources for messing up thieves, including a weapon that has an instadeath effect and a cancellation effect. The result: the shop is large enough that useful things are bound to appear there, prices are high enough that players won't be able to walk out with more than an item or two, and theft is much more difficult to get away with than usual. Fortunately, the level doesn't appear until quite deep.

slashem-asphinx.pngIn Nethack, if the player polymorphs, it eventually will expire and return him to normal, but for monsters and items it is permanent. In SLASH'EM, all polymorph is temporary unless special measures are taken to make it permanent. This means you can't change a pet into something powerful and expect the benefit to stick, even though the usual polymorph risks like death from system shock or polymorphing into something suicidal are still present.

A big, yet often overlooked, feature added to the game is "techniques," which are special command options only certain roles or races can use. This greatly helps define the roles, although some of the techniques are a bit questionable as far as the role's milieu is concerned.

slashem-toilet.png
And at last, in addition to doors, fountains, sinks, thrones, altars and graves, SLASH'EM adds toilets. The uses for such a thing I leave to you to discover. As you might guess, they can be helpful in cases of sickness, or of overeating, or for interacting with a particular deity-figure.

But Why?

What is all this good for, other than blowing the minds of folk who think Nethack is too complex? As mentioned before, a major incentive for variant authors is to fix things in a game they find lacking. With Nethack, the things most often fixed are a loss of difficulty in the late game, ennui once all the monsters and items are fully known, and Gehennom. This may make SLASH'EM's development strategy more evident: it is a game made specifically for Nethack experts.

slashem-pitbull.pngThis may be why it's so much harder than Nethack. One cannot get as far here with a lucky start, like a pet polymorphed into a dragon, getting a lucky shopkeeper kill, or even an early wish. This evens out the game's balance, but also "fixes" one of those things people like about roguelikes: how a game plays can have a different feel depending on what they find on early levels. There are more different kinds of dangers to prepare for in SLASH'EM, so Nethack's big panaceas, like unicorn horns, prayer and magic resistance, each covers a smaller proportion of them. Level drain, in particular, goes from being trivially defeatable with an elven cloak to requiring special measures for protection, making vampires a serious opponent again.

The tremendous difficulty makes it difficult for me to recommend the game to anyone but die-hard 'Hackers. If you're already not thrilled about playing a game as difficult and complex as Nethack, then SLASH'EM may cause an allergic reaction. It is definitely a game with a certain userbase in mind... but for that userbase, it can be a lot of fun to play around with... at least until the Nethack devteam finally releases its next version. And who knows when that will be....

slashem-cthulhu.png

Addendum

It's been a while since the last column, so some minor things....

After a long hiatus, Tim Biskup has returned to roguelike development and is resuming work on JADE, his promising follow-up to ADOM. He's started a development blog to keep people informed about it.

Sega has released the DS version of Shiren the Wanderer to the US market! Will gamers take to it? It's possible many won't have the chance: no store near where I live carries the darn thing, and I've ordered my own copy from Amazon.

And finally, the RPG world was rocked by the news that Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax has passed away at the age of 69. As I mentioned back when the column first got started, much of the original inspiration for Rogue can be traced directly to the D&D books, and Nethack in particular attempts to keep the spirit of that version game alive. Gygax was long a defender of a game mechanic approach to role-playing games, the core hack-and-slash play, as opposed to the storytelling focus most creators have now. A joyous play style, not concerning itself so much with motivations and (usually bad) storytelling as it is with killing monsters and taking their stuff. There's still room for that kind of game, isn't there?