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.]

A month ago I was roaming the Dealer's Room aisles at Dragon*Con, the foremost convention for those who can't make it to PAX. At that particular moment, I was looking at the wares of the dice guys: some store who rents one side of an entire aisle side and fills it with all, yes all, kinds of dice. d100s, studded like golf balls, alignment and class choosers, corridor determinants with different dungeon hallways on each of 12 sides, and others still. They even made customs with a special dice burning machine.

For someone with an greater-than-usual interest in randomness and how it relates to gaming, it was awesome. But right across the hallway was something better. I nearly missed it, and probably would have if it hadn't been for the eyes of fellow 'Con-goer Matt Chew, who said aloud while I gawked at the dice: "Huh, roguelike?"

In these situations, I tend to keep my expectations low. I can hold forth on a dozen topics that no one will ever expect me to hold-forth-upon anywhere other than the internet. And Dragon*Con, despite being one of the largest fan conventions in the United States, has a relative dearth of game-related booths due to being scheduled for the same weekend as PAX. So hearing someone bring up roguelikes unprompted is a unique experience for me, and it took a few seconds before I turned around to see what it was.

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It was the booth of Nathan Jerpe beneath a banner reading "Roguelike Fiction," selling deluxe packages of his game Legerdemain. He had a table with a laptop set up demonstrating the game, with its output directed at a projector to show it off. And despite the fact that the game, written in Java emulating a console, is available for free from the game's website, he was selling packages containing a CD, a map and a hintbook for $20 a pop. The packages were contained within Ziploc bags in such a way that brought fond memories to this player who barely remembers the days when the first commercial CRPGs were sold in similar plastic bags containing cassette tapes and xerox'd instructions.

legerdemain3.pngThe similarity was not lost, it seems, on many convention goers. In a conversation we had on the last day of the con, Jerpe mentioned that several people had talked fondly of those old days, some of their experiences with such as the early Wizardry and Ultima games, others of Rogue, Moria and Angband. In all, Jerpe reports that he sold nearly a hundred packages during the con, an impressive accomplishment for an admittedly-obscure game, with ASCII graphics, available for free on the internet.

I was one of those purchasers, and not just so as to better write a column about it. Despite being one of the most widely-defined video game types (for nearly any game sold anymore can legitimately call itself a role-playing game if it chooses to carry that baggage), those games that do bear the name are often depressingly similar to each other. If it's a Western game, it's either fantasy Grand Theft Auto or Baldur's Gate. If it's a Japanese game, then it's probably a Final Fantasy wannabe. The reasons for this have less to do with developer ingenuity than the influence of marketing people and executives, so it's not unexpected to find that the most interesting design work done in CRPGs is by independents. When I paid my $20, I wasn't sure it would be a good game, but I was pretty confident it would be different.

Tricorder Readings Indicate an ASCII Planet with Static Areas, Captain

legerdemain1.pngI've now been playing it sporadically for about a month. It's surprisingly large; I've only found two towns so far. (You should probably take this into account while reading my comments.) I should point out that it's not a true roguelike, by the usual standards of this column. The term means different things to different people, of course. The spectrum of opinion runs from anything with that overhead-view, grid-and-turn-based, tactical play, to any game that could surprise its creator, a definition given by Glenn Wichmann, who, being one of Rogue's creators, should know. Usually I consider the important characteristics to be randomness and item identification.

Legerdemain's areas are not random. All the maps are pre-set into the game, and transitory things about them like monsters or items on the ground remembered between visits. Dropping an item in an area and leaving, in most cases, means it is lost forever. However, according to the game's creator, there are things that can be done to some regions that are remembered. An example he gave is that a certain city in the game can be flooded by the player. This permanently changes the city's state, so that if the player comes back to it later it will remain flooded, for better or worse. The static nature of most areas may seem like it would harm replayability, and it is true that on subsequent playthroughs the game probably loses much of its mystery, but different starting magic (which is decided based on an Ultima-like series of questions before play begins) can potentially make a big difference in early play style, so that helps the game retain its challenge upon beginning anew.

legerdemain2.pngLegerdemain has somewhat randomly-generated loot, a mix of hard-coded stuff and miscellaneous things. The set things seem to be awarded on the first time a given spot is examined (more on that in a bit), but random things are spawned each time an area is entered, as well as sometimes upon defeating opponents. Both sources of equipment are probably important. I know in the time I've spent with the game, I've had to heavily rely upon food found lying around, and purchased with money dropped by dead monsters, to keep myself fed.

At least at the beginning, food is a major concern for new characters. Play begins with the player's character two levels below the surface with unknown upstairs to find in order to reach the overworld. Once the surface is reached then the player can hunt for food (assuming he's selected at least one rank of the Outdoors skill at level-up), which is game-time-consuming but at least can bring in some sustenance, and further it's not uncommon to find random rations or mushrooms in the above-ground areas. But that's only once he finds the way out of the starting caverns. This tends to lend an aspect of panic to these beginning explorations; survival depends on exiting the starting caverns as soon as possible.

Live On Stage: The Magic Style of Jack Vance

legerdemain6.pngMagic is a particular interesting aspect of the game, and hews closely to original Dungeons & Dragons' Vancian spell system. (Trivia: It's called "Vancian" because Gary Gygax got the idea from Jack Vance's classic fantasy novel The Dying Earth. Lots of classic D&D comes directly from fantasy literature.) Instead of using magic points, the player must memorize rituals, which are what spells are called here, and are forgotten upon use. But unlike that system, just having skill ranks in a type of magic is enough to be able to memorize its spells; there is no spellbook that the player fills out during the game. And ritual memorization is lengthy; with one rank in a school of magic, it takes around 400 turns to memorize one use's worth of a basic spell, making food consumption even more of a concern. And although the player's character can be customized somewhat at the start of the game by going through an Ultima IV/Ogre Battle-style personality quiz, it seems that all characters are magic users to some extent.

Magic in a given school (of five) cannot be used without the right brush. After the personality quiz you'll be assigned one of the five magic schools as a specialty, automatically be given a couple of skill ranks in that school, and a brush for using that magic. At any level up, you can select any two skills you wish (more at higher levels) to gain ability in, but even if you choose to gain ability in one of the other magic schools, the skill will be useless until you gain a brush of the matching type. With some searching, one of the early towns turns up a store that sells brushes, so it need not necessarily be long before the skill can be used, but it's worth keeping this fact in mind since the right skill gains can make the early game much easier.

legerdemain4.pngI should mention that "school of magic" is jargon, relating to the 2nd-edition Dungeons & Dragons term for the same kind of thing, a dividing of the spells into categories that a player can specialize in. The game calls them "philosophies." Each school of magic in Legerdemain has a focus: Logos, for instance, is information-oriented, and its rituals can inform the player of monsters outside of the range of vision, a very useful spell out in the field. Chaos is the offense-related school. I haven't had the chance to try the others yet, but one of them's Bios, and it likely has some healing in it.

Jesus Saves, But He Doesn't Savescum

The game's save system is not roguelike-standard, which may be a good thing for a non-random game of this length. The game supports both "real" saves that can be reloaded indefinitely, like in nearly all other RPGs, and what I call "bookmark" saves that can only be loaded once, which are the roguelike standard. The way to make a real save is to simply save the game in your room in an inn, which you seem to get automatically. So far in my explorations I've only found one inn, but Nathan Jerpe assures me that there are more. If the player saves the game in an inn, then again in a cave, upon death he'll be returned to the inn. This essentially makes for a checkpoint system, where the player is encouraged to use towns as a base of operations, since the further a player explores from an inn, the greater the risk that he'll lose everything found on that trip if he doesn't make it back or to another inn.

There is something like item identification in the game; many magic items, and even some food items, are unknown at the beginning. They are not random though, every time a new game is started they'll have the same functions, which grants a big advantage to people who have played before. The game's UI doesn't seem to "name" identified things after their functions either, which means the player will have to take notes on their function.

leg-hintbook.jpgThat hint book that comes with the deluxe package, "Canticle of the Onslaught," deserves further description. It is surprisingly thick, over 300 pages of good paper, and is written as a journal of a trip through the game. It looks like it took a lot of time to write, and is a fairly interesting read for its own sake, filled with imaginative writing that helps to fill in the spaces between the ASCII characters on the game screen. It is recommended that the player don't read it straight through however, since it is absolutely loaded with clues. Unfortunately, it has no table of contents or index, so players wishing to go it alone (raising hand) have to read it carefully to avoid being spoiled.

Despite its depth, the hintbook is entirely optional. Even if not purchased, the game provides plenty of hints of its own. One of the game's nicer features is the question-mark spaces scattered throughout the maps. Standing on one presents a paragraph of text describing the player's surroundings, and sometimes a little extra loot to collect. It is here that the game describes the putty-like bodies of the player's initial opponents, and their sleeping quarters, which is just a bit put that they pour themselves into. The player can also converse with NPCs in a keyword-based conversation system that again brings Ultima to mind. These conversations are an important source of both quests and other, weirder information. (That "weirder" information makes for some of the better moments of the game.)

legerdemain5.pngIn a game in which exploration is such a focus, where the player has to discover the layout of the world for himself, there are different ways to encourage the player to do that exploring. The standard roguelike technique is to litter the dungeon with random loot, some of it very useful, so the more space he explores the more loot he gains. Another typical roguelike approach is to give the player a limited food supply and only generate more food in unexplored areas, nearly literally leading him on with a carrot on a stick. One thing roguelikes tend to be bad at, however, is installing a sense of wonder; being generated randomly, whimsical touches like the shapes of buildings in a certain town, which may not even exist in a given game, are hard to include. Legerdemain points the way to a reconciling of this kind of thing, exploration to see a well-realized world for its own sake instead of just to collect loot, with basic roguelike concepts. It is an interesting experiment, and so far in my own travels through Phenomedom, a successful one.

Overall, Legerdemain plays a lot like a marriage between an Angbandish roguelike and an old-school home computer RPG, again, like Ultimas IV-VI. Although surprisingly difficult (it's easy to get overwhelmed while out in the field and get sent back to an inn), it seems like an engaging, well-realized world, and the desire to see what's in the next screen is strong. Direction is light and exploration is largely non-linear, but this, again, is in the tradition of Ultima. This is a game that wears its Ziploc bag like a badge of honor.

Additional pictures from DragonCon:
Please forgive the lighting, blurriness, and other suckinesses of the pictures, I wasn't using the best camera. They weren't taken by the best photographer either. As always, click on a picture for a better look.

Nathan Jerpe:
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Better looks at the game maps that adorned the booth:
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