Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time, a look at the roguelike Incursion with a side trip into Vancian Magic.]

This column has been requested in comments several times now. While not one of the better-known in its genre, the freeware roguelike Incursion seems to have a fairly rabid community, and examination shows it to have some rather addictive play, a good attention to detail, and one of the most "realistic" dungeons yet seen in the genre..

incurtitle.png (To clarify something I see as important.... In this column I refer to the game as "Incursion," because it seems to me to be the best thing to call it. It is projected, however, that this game is actually a prototype for an even-more-ambitious roguelike, which will be called "Incursion: Return of the Forsaken.")

For starters, Incursion is the only roguelike of which I'm aware which follows D&D 3rd Edition rules. Well technically that's "Open Gaming License" rules, the format by which Wizards of the Coast, custodians of the D&D brand, made them available for others to build their own products off of.

Of course, most roguelike games have always been based off of Dungeons & Dragons, though usually a much simpler, older version and not "officially." 3rd ed. D&D does have its interesting aspects that lend interest to such a game, and there is nothing in the third edition rules that prevents it from being used in an old-school, roguelike dungeon-crawling context.

incurdie.pngThe basic premise itself is fairly ordinary, go-to-this-level and defeat-this-monster. The fun comes from the journey. The random dungeon is perhaps the most complex yet seen in a roguelike; nearly every room is special in some way, and the game even prints descriptions the first time a type is encountered.

There are non-rectangular rooms, caverns, partitioned rooms, complexes of rooms, summoning rooms, polytheistic temples, flooded rooms, frozen-over rooms, and lots of other types too. Roguelike dungeons tend to be interesting mostly for the shapes of the terrain they produce more than the actual places; the plethora of special types is a great innovation, and does a lot to flesh out the game's sense of place.

Another thing about it is that Incursion's dungeon, unlike the dungeon in every other roguelike I'm aware of, is spatially-consistent in its levels. If you go downstairs, travel 30 spaces north-east to an upstairs, then climb them, you'll be back on the previous level 30 spaces north-east of the original downstairs. This may seem like a minor thing, but it's almost unheard-of in this field, and can be surprisingly difficult to implement when dungeon levels are generated on demand instead of all at once.

(Think about this: what would happen if the player found a way to explore the levels out of order, and after going down from 1 to 3 then returning to two, two sets of stairs needed to be generated on the same space?) Chasms, too, may extend through multiple levels, so falling into a crevasse on level three could send the player deeper than level 4, in a realistic way.

incurdesc.pngInexpensive Timeshares Now Available in the Caves of Carnage

The game uses a unique, for roguelikes at least, expedition paradigm for trips into the caves. Lots of roguelikes treat the entering of the dungeon as something that must be done only once for a character. Hack, Nethack and Crawl all call the adventure completely over when the player goes upstairs from level one. (Players who escape with one of Nethack's "plastic imitations of the Amulet of Yendor" rue this feature.)

Original D&D, the version of that game that roguelikes take the most after, allowed for trips to town to rest up and restock provisions. The three games listed are all designed around not allowing for such trips, which is further proof that roguelikes are not necessarily mere D&D recreations.

But the other major roguelikes that do allow leaving the dungeon without ceasing play (Angband, town level; ADOM, overworld) do it by effectively making those areas also part of its "dungeon." They're not safe havens at all. ADOM's overworld in particular is often more dangerous than the early dungeon levels. In Incursion, the player can leave the dungeon and rest up in town, tackling the caverns afresh after a stay in the inn. This gives low-level players the ability to use the level one upstair as a base of operations, an interesting dynamic for one of these games.

Missing Fingers Surprisingly Reluctant to Grow Back

The regaining of hit points are handled differently from roguelike norm as well. Healing in roguelikes has always been kind of iffy, from a realism standpoint, a way to keep up the pace of the game. Even Conan couldn't go from almost dead to unhurt in the space of what amounts to a couple of hours, but most roguelike players do it regularly. But then, the only major game that doesn't, ADOM, goes maybe too far in the other direction.

incurmap1.pngIncursion's hit system takes after traditional D&D, and it works fairly well. No hit points are regained just from passing turns, but the player can regain them all by using a rest command ("z"). Resting restores all the player's hits and magic. It is balanced by it using a lot of food (about half of a full stomach) and because resting in the dungeon provides a chance to get attacked by wandering monsters, giving them free hits at the player at his most vulnerable.

The ability to leave the dungeon to rest, and the presence of safe zones further down, pulls the balance back into a reasonable zone. This means that food limits provide more of a barrier to resting than turn count. Resting in the Inn does cost food; they provide room but not board, it seems.

Not Exactly a DM's Guide Put Through a Compiler....

While the game covers the spirit, and often the letter, of D&D Third Edition rules fairly well, it knows when it's best to depart from them. The need to identify stuff, dating to D&D's earliest days, is close but not quite the system used in Rogue. In this, Incursion follows D&D in item generation probabilities but Rogue in its general magic stuff, which is to say that magic items are related according to their descriptions. (Stock D&D purposely includes bad items that exactly resemble good items.) I haven't noticed any particularly bad items in my playing, but there do seem to be a good variety of things.

Another place where the game leans away from 3rd Edition is in eschewing Vancian magic, the memorize-cast-forget cycle spellcasters in D&D have long used. This isn't meant to imply that this couldn't work in a roguelike game, at least if that game had spells that mirrored their use in the fantasy novels they were inspired by (Jack Vance's Dying Earth), but it might require more of a rethinking of roguelike concepts than one might expect. (More on this matter is left, for interested readers, for the end of this column.)

Treasure finds tend to follow the traditional D&D model. In roguelikes, items are something that randomly appears on the floor. Incursion has some of those, but most good treasure seems to be found in chests, in the possession of monsters (who know how to use them), or, later, in vaults.

The result is that the player must typically defeat a monster to gain loot instead of just happen upon it, a change that could be called slightly more realistic, if trapising your enchanted elf around throwing fireballs at cave pelicans isn't realistic enough for you. (Yes, cave pelicans, their feathers black as night, their floppy bills filled and dripping with the blood of the innocent.)

incurmap2.png15 Minutes to Roll Up, 5 Minute Life Expectancy

One of the biggest... well, let's not call it faults but annoyances, is how excruciatingly long character creation can be. This is the place where adherence to 3rd edition D&D harms Incursion the most; while characters are lots faster to roll up than 2nd edition AD&D, maybe even 1st edition, the options do take many minutes simply to sift through, while Rogue, Nethack and Crawl characters are running seconds after they are invoked.

It should be said, however, that Incursion offers a way around this start-up time, by offering the chance to start over from scratch with the last character generated. (This could be abused mind; a player beginning with unusually good character stats could potentially keep them forever with this system.)

The game includes an autoroller that attempts to find good stats for your character, but stats are determined after race and class, and the autoroller appears not to take either into account when rolling. This sometimes results, for instance, in choosing to play a mage but then having to go with a score of 15 for Intelligence.

Neither is character creation easy to abort at this point. The game's solution is to offer the opportunity to switch to a point-buying system, which can be found annoying for its own reasons. These problems are far from a deal-breaker with Incursion, but they are a little head-scratching.

Another bizarre aspect of character generation in this game: it doesn't allow the player to decide on his name. I don't consider this to be a great drawback (I'd probably just name him "Rodney" again), but some people might be taken aback by this. Anyway, it's another strange decision. Of course, many computer RPGs don't allow players to name their characters at all, but among roguelike, which are among the most simulationist of all fantasy games, it's highly unusual.

incurplay1.png"The key does not fit that horse!"

One of the most frustrating things about it is that the interface has been changed just enough from roguelike standards to bring the learning curve back to old-hand roguelikers. It may first seem a positive thing that the game doesn't rely on a bunch of shifted, ctrl-ed, even alt-ed key combinations to access commands, but the solution arrived upon takes a bit of getting used to.

The worst example I encountered: the 'm' command to cast magic makes it easy for a Paladin to find the "Mount" spell to begin riding, but dismounting requires first pressing the 'y' key, then finding which one of the 63 options provided will do the trick. Some other class abilities are hidden under another menu brought up by the 'u' key. Some commands, such as buying things in a shop, are harder to abort than they should be. (The standard is to always allow Esc to return from a menu selection at any time.) And the equipment and container management functions take more than a little getting used to.

As the game stands, there are still a good number of unimplemented abilities that are present in the game but don't actually do anything. The game does mention some of these in the ability descriptions when characters are created, but they aren't marked as useless on the selection screen itself, and it's disheartening to see some wonderful power listed only to be told, effectively, "never mind" when it's highlighted.

"Congratulations, mortal! You have won thBRRGG^^&#-GENERAL PROTECTION FAULT AT $0CFF3E"

The worst thing though, which should thankfully be temporary. is that the game is still alpha software and has lots of bugs. A list of these (some with workarounds) can be found here, and is essential reading.

Unfortunately, Incursion's development pace has slowed considerably in recent months. The game autosaves often but the save code itself is a bit buggy, and an autosave crash killed my first decent game. The game does keep a backup of the previous save, thankfully.

The game's balance could also use a little work. As an example, here's how that first decent game ended. The furtherest I've ever gotten is a dwarf paladin who got to experience level three. He was bopping along okay when he encounters a hostile human priest. After smacking him about a bit, he began to flee. Okay by me, I smack him again and am told, in purple letters, "You feel guilty!"

Evidently this is a result of either being a paladin or lawful good alignment, but the guy had already summoned a water elementals so it seemed a good idea to take care of him now. (Previously, I had spared monsters when asked "Attack fleeing opponent?", with the result that, the next trip into the dungeon, they once again tried to take a piece out of me. A lizardman chieftain went through this cycle four times by the time I offed him before he began to flee.)

incurshop.pngIn any case, the attack doesn't kill the human priest, but something weird happened in the fight that I missed in the flurry of messages. (Incursion does love to throw messages at the player.) As a result, several turns afterwards, my used items started disintegrating, with no explanation as to why. Ring of Good Fortune +2? Poof. Eventually my weapon crumbled as well, and Incursion has a horrible mis-feature that, if you aren't wielding a weapon, you will be told every turn, in a red-bordered box that must be dismissed, "You are empty-handed!" Over and over again, until you wield something.

I switched to my backup weapon... and it disintegrated a few turns after. Nothing left to wield, I was faced with a long trek through the caverns looking for something to hold in my hand in order to stop the box from appearing, which would probably itself disintegrate a few turns afterwards. I quit the game soon after.

As roguelike games get more ambitious, they get longer. As they get longer, the sense of loss when the player dies increases. As that happens, the player gets more likely to quit forever out of frustration. Designers, seeing this, make the game easier, which removes the challenge, the whole reason for playing a roguelike game in the first place.

To Incursion's credit, it seems to recognize this. While its premise as a D&D 3rd Edition roguelike imposes an unavoidable complexity to startup time, the ability to use "reincarnated" characters cuts down on this drastically. The dungeon is unusually atmospheric for a roguelike, and the array of treasure and opponents seems to be above average. While there are problems to be found, some serious, we have every reason to think they will eventually be fixed. Incursion, and its expanded sequel should that ever see our hard drives, are unquestionably games to keep an eye on.

Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King homepage
The game has a wiki here.
On the wiki is an HTML version of the game's manual. On there is a section of tips for players of other roguelikes, which may offer some useful tips to @Play readers.
Additionally, the FAQ page on the Wiki makes for interesting reading. For example: apparently, many of the skills the player can learn have special applications. The Climb skill, it turns out, can be used to scale crevasses and cross lakes and lava by crawling along ceilings!


Supplemental: What is Vancian Magic, and how does it apply to Dungeons & Dragons and/or roguelikes?

Gary Gygax was widely read in the literature of fantasy, especially pulp fantasy such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and Dungeons & Dragons drew from an astonishing array of sources. Lots of people have remarked that the games borrowed heavily from Tolkien, but it should be noted that most of those borrowings were superficial. The game borrows some items and races, the Ranger class is pretty much a direct carry-over, and there are a few other things.

But the mood of the game is antithetical both to Tolkien's world and worldview. Dungeons & Dragons characters (and roguelike characters too), in their original form, are all adventuring rogues. The thief class wasn't introduced until the first supplement of the original books, probably because it hadn't occurred to Gygax and Arneson to codify that role into a character class. Why? Because all characters were thieves! They're venturing into dark tombs in order to take treasure away from those who currently own it. What else could they be?

incurmap3.pngAnother strange thing about the old days of D&D is the way that wizards used their magic. Few wizards in fantasy literature are able to call upon their powers without limit. Even Gandalf became fatigued if he sent out too many fireballs.

The simplest way to simulate a limited resource is to assign a number to it, one that goes down when expended, and refilled when refreshed. Hit points are the most obvious example of this, an abstraction of damage that makes little realistic sense, but has become so pervasive that few people question it. (Aside: popular fantasy game Dwarf Fortress does question it, and its developer Tarn Adams has some quite pointed things to say on the subject.)

Most RPGs, roguelikes included, also use a straight number to simulate access to reserves of magic power, presenting them as either "MP" or "PP." But this is innovation; Dungeons & Dragons did not use such a concept. Instead, it took the opportunity to add in yet another flavorful borrowing from fantasy literature, a magic system inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth books, and thus most-often called Vancian Magic.

It is a decision that has caused many gamers who have not read those books to scratch their heads; it seems like such a complicated way to do things. What a player would most like to do is allow his wizard to draw upon a fireball spell whenever he wants, to the limit of his store of power.

Instead, what he must do is decide, at the beginning of each day, what spells he wants to carry around with him and memorize those. He can memorize multiple copies of a spell, but if he hasn't memorized it, even if he has the spell written down in his personal spellbook, he can't make use of it. And when a spell is cast, that copy vanishes from memory.

The result is, if a player gets poisoned but the mage hasn't memorized Slow Poison, then it's as if the spell was never known in the first place. A D&D party may end up encountering all manner of strange things in a dungeon. A wizard must be able to anticipate what kinds of dangers he will encounter that day if he's to make a good choice on which spells to take with him, and sometimes he just won't have the right thing handy.

The spell Feather Fall is great if the player falls into a deep pit, but who, waking up in the morning, says to himself, "I think I'll plummet into a hole today. Better take that one along!" It doesn't help that low-level characters have a pitifully small number of spells to choose from; unless he receives a bonus from somewhere, a first-level magic user can only remember one spell at a time! Bonus spells, thus, are highly sought-after by players of novice wizards.

Compounding this is the fact that, by a good margin, wizards are physically the weakest characters in D&D. The least likely to have good constitution scores, the type most restricted in armor and the least proficient in weapons. The most hit points a wizard can start with, assuming no Con bonus, is 4. 25% of the time, they'll have just one. Magic is their trick, the whole reason to play a wizard. So to be useful in combat, that most common activity of adventuring parties, a first-level wizard can't take any of those utility spells that only might come in handy; it'll probably be good ol' Magic Missile, once again.

incurweapon.pngLots of players, over the years, have wondered what kind of bizarre design point Gygax was trying to make with this. Mages do become the most powerful characters in D&D at high levels, but at low levels keeping them alive was extremely difficult, although keep in mind, no character had a great chance of survival in the early days. There was a strong sense that a powerful wizard was the reward for a player that had "paid his dues," surviving with such a weakling for so long.

The answer snaps into focus, however, once one reads The Dying Earth. Gygax must have been entranced by this vision of magic. But Vance's magicians are anything but weaklings: they are potent individuals, some with formidable physical skills. Your choice of class in D&D, unless you multiclassed which carried its own drawbacks and didn't exist until AD&D 1st edition, precludes having many hit points or the use of protective equipment. Vance's creations would not be so restricted.

In the original D&D books, the only real restriction on wizards in combat is having to go without armor. They receive the same hit points as the other classes (d6), and are capable is wielding weapons just like any other character, and all weapons do d6 damage anyway. Even if they were restricted in choice of arms they'd be just as effective in straight battle as a Fighting Man. Only the lack of armor restricts them from participating directly in fights, and in D&D armor reduces the chance of being hit, not the damage done, so most characters will probably die from damage unless they take great pains to avoid it anyway.

incurdocs.pngSo what does this have to do with roguelikes? They present a generalized dungeon, randomly created. A roguelike adventurer has little chance to determine the nature of the areas he'll enter in a day, and just as little control.

A Vancian magic-user would be forced to make due only with general-purpose spells. (If the game is larger than a single dungeon, maybe with branches or an overworld, then this is less onerous.) Also, a physically fragile character (such as most roguelike wizards are) will have to make up for his weakness with combat magic to have a hope of surviving; as noted above, if the character can do things other than just magic then this is much less of a problem.

But in the case of a hypothetical, default roguelike, as monsters get stronger, wizard combat ability wouldn't keep pace, so combat magic would be the overridingly most-memorized spell. Most other magic would simply lie unused.

For these reasons, it's probably for the best that Incursion goes with a point system rather than Vancian magic. But it's difficult to read through They Dying Earth and not feel, like Gygax must have, that this is a system that would be marvelous to play in a game. If it's to be a roguelike game, however, then great care must be taken as to its implications.

I am indebted to Jeff's Gameblog for his remarks on D&D's Vancian magic system, and for cluing me in to the Dying Earth books.