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.]

As you may have figured out by now, roguelikes are one of my favorite types of computer games. It's not that I hate other kinds of games, or even other RPGs. But roguelikes, good ones at least, provide essential gaming nutrients unavailable nearly anywhere else. They're games of skill instead of patience, which is rare for CRPGs. They are difficult but, once one knows how to play, often fair. And they and are set in a world of wonder and amazement balanced by great danger.

The possibilities there seem endless. You could play Rogue a hundred times and not experience two games that are similar to each other. You could play Nethack or ADOM for years and still encounter a new aspect of the game from time to time. Dungeon Crawl is more than just a game: it is dozens of games, each class and race playing surprisingly differently from the others. Just being a roguelike doesn't make a game good, of course, but the best are among the greatest games ever made.

I believe that, someday, eventually, the tide will turn in the public perception of roguelike games, or at least the core ideas that drive them. This is not due to any magical quality bestowed by turn-based movement or grid-based game worlds, which are a superficial determination of roguelikeness but doesn't get to what makes them interesting. No, one plays a roguelike to explore an unknown world, relying on uncertain resources, figuring the rules out along the way, and learning the underlying logic of the game. And of course, when people start talking about procedural content generation, they are unknowingly calling upon the ancient monster-deities of the Dungeons of Doom.

But these ideas did not originate with roguelikes. It must be remembered that approximately half of what makes roguelikes interesting as computer games was invented years before, in a pen-and-paper game created back when teletype machines roamed the earth.

That roguelike feeling

The soul of the roguelike, as I've mentioned before, was born in Dungeons & Dragons. But not a version one could recognize from reading any of the recent editions, 4e, 3.5 or 3rd. Neither can they be seen in 2nd edition AD&D, which is largely where it was abandoned. But it didn't originate from 1st edition either, or the "classic" books edited by Holmes, Moldvay or Cook. To find their source, whence sprung the ideas in their purest form, one must go back to Original Dungeons & Dragons, a game that the Internets are now calling "OD&D."

It is a style of game that, in the aftermath of the death of Gary Gygax but before then too, has become reexamined in recent months on sites throughout the internet. Tried, and found to be awesome.

Given that many of its players are still alive, it is somewhat shocking just how much about it must be rediscovered. It is sometimes forgotten that that game, originally, had a strong, explicit setting, one that will seem familiar to any roguelike player. The word "Dungeon" in the title of the game refers to what is now termed a megadungeon. It is not just the place where the orcs terrorizing town are hiding out, or where the drow base their assaults on the surface world, or where the mind flayers sit and brood.

It is where all these things happen, but is much more than any of those things. It is a huge space, stretching far down into the earth, its depths unplumbed, its age and origin beyond mortal knowledge. It is an archetypal setting, a meta-place.

odd1.jpg It is a world, as in underworld, to itself. While it makes more internal sense than those thrown-together roguelike worlds, still, its reasons for being are not really logical ones. Why does that dragon guard the pile of gold? Where do all these coins and magic items come from?

Why was all the bad magic stuff made; did anyone really think a sword -1, cursed would be useful enough to craft? The game provided answers, of a sort, to these questions. Respectively: dragons like treasure; deceased adventurers; and they were made by insane, prankster wizards.

Seriously, prankster wizards.

With respect to the memory of Gary Gygax, these are not good reasons. For D&D's origins, they didn't have to be. This is because Dungeons & Dragons grew out of an earlier game Gygax worked on called Chainmail, a form of miniatures wargame concerning itself with medieval combat. Now, wargames are not quite games in the same sense as Monopoly or Bridge. The ethic here is, paradoxically, not to win at all costs. It is to enact pretend battles, and bring to them enough statistical rigor so that the participants can see the outcome as definitive.

The goal of a wargame is to play the game itself, and see which side should win. The fun is had in the playing and fighting more than success, and certainly not to gain power and see one's self as some variation on the theme of badass. There are enough things that can instantly kill any old-school D&D character, regardless of level, that the term "healthy paranoia" takes on a special aptness. Characters die often, but are quick to roll up and largely interchangable, which is good, because the more work you put into making one the worse you'll feel when he kicks the bucket. Need I even remind you of the similarities here to a certain familiar type of computer game?

One might take this, also, to explain why roguelikes don't have stories to speak of. OD&D characters usually adventured without a motivation more complex than amassing treasure.
But this isn't really true of either game; narrative, after all, is inescapable. The things that happen to the character may be random strings of events, without reason, but human beings tend to perceive these strings as narrative.

"Storytelling" in roguelikes

Important events that make the game easier or harder get remembered and the rest of the game is viewed in their light. Finding a two-handed sword makes all monsters easier to kill. Finding a ring of slow digestion means hunger becomes much less of a problem, while wearing a ring of regeneration makes death from wounds less dangerous but starvation much more likely. A character might find an amulet vs. poison, then ironically die to poison despite it. It might be coincidence that strings these things together, but if there's enough random stuff going on, coincidences tend to happen.

The result of these things is that it's typically much more interesting to hear either an OD&D or a roguelike player talk about a favorite adventure than a player of more recent D&D, or those of modern CRPGs. The stories that fantasy writers come up with do not usually compare with the experiences of a sufficiently deep roguelike. There can be no goth-posing in a world where the monsters have so much over the players. No one is trying to tell a story during an OD&D game, and thus, the stories that do come have no affectation.

Don't believe me? Don't take my word for it. Check out the Shiren threads at NeoGAF and Gamespite. Dip into the archives of rec.games.roguelike.nethack and rec.games.roguelike.adom, searching those groups for the term "YASD". People have more fun dying in roguelike games than most folk have winning "traditional" CRPGs.

This is the same reason people obsess over The Sims, really. Human minds search for patterns in series of random events, recognizing them as narratives, and in attempting to explain them subconsciously attribute thought processes to the actors. This is the root of superstition, some would say of religion too, and it's why roguelikes don't lack for stories. What they lack are pre-written stories.

[Image from The Acaeum.]