Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time around - a relatively unknown official D&D license in the genre is explored in-depth.]

Roguelike games have been around for a good while, and from the very start many of them have cribbed system rules out of the Dungeons & Dragons books. Many of Rogue's items (especially equipment) come from that game, and Nethack goes so far as to retain the idea that armor class counts down, possibly the last game still in development to retain this convention; D&D dropped that back in its third edition.

dhtitle.pngBut there is one roguelike, or close to it, that adheres to the Dungeons & Dragons rules out of necessity, because it is actually an official Second Edition AD&D computer game product! Dungeon Hack was created in 1993 by Dreamforge Intertainment, a company that developed several other official D&D games for TSR back in the days when SSI still held the license.

I mentioned way back in some of the earliest columns that Rogue's inspiration was likely the hack-and-slash play of old-school D&D mixed with the thinking (if not the actual geomorphs) behind the random dungeon generation tables in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide.

Perhaps partly due to these roots, Dungeon Hack is actually a fairly good game. It's not nearly as complex as Nethack, but that fact works in the game's favor as much as argue against it. However, some superficial aspects of the game may cause one to conclude that it does not deserve to be called by the term "roguelike."

"It is strong magic that can point to maps!"

The object of Dungeon Hack (explained in a pretty cool, for a DOS game, animated opening cutscene) is to obtain a mystic orb from the bottom of a large dungeon. Along the way are many monsters, traps, magic items (some of them cursed), tunnels to explore and map, and puzzles to solve. All of this is per roguelike normal. We'll come back to those shortly.

dhtitle2.pngThe first major departure from roguelike tradition a player will probably notice is the graphics. Not only does it have an opening cutscene and fancy title, but the game actually runs on the Eye Of The Beholder 3 game engine. The play takes place in a Wizardry-style, discrete movement, first-person perspective maze. The game automatically maps out visible corridors for the player. A small version of the map is visible a the bottom of the screen, and it can be clicked on to reveal everything seen thus far.

Monsters roam the halls step-by-step, much like in the later classic Might & Magic games, although in this game they do so in real-time. So long as the player has seen a square of the dungeon himself, any monsters it contains will appear on the automap as a red dot, a feature which makes both exploring and avoiding trouble much easier.

Even though the main view window is a directional, 1st person perspective, and combat relies on the player's facing, the useful automap, the turn-based (though still real-time) movement, the fact that combat does not take place in its own mode but in the same as exploration, and the variety of actions possible during that combat, helps to keep the game's roguelikeness intact.

dhcharcreate.pngBefore the game even begins, however, a character must be selected. Roguelikes tend to favor quick starts, so as to allow players to get back into the game quickly after yet another death, but the AD&D rules encouraged lengthy, detailed character creation.

Dungeon Hack solves the problem nicely. It allows players to select from an extensive roster of pre-made characters that cover all the fantasy archetypes and then some. It also lets the player make a character using a well-developed creation interface, allowing for extensive rerolling and locking aspects like stats, class, race and alignment, When one of these things is locked, other items gray out to show incompatible options.

While Dungeon Hack doesn't support the entire, absurdly complicated extent of 2E AD&D character creation (probably the most involved character creation system the game has ever had), giving short-shrift to things like non-weapon proficiencies, it does let the player create multi-classed characters in the old-school style, available to non-human races only.

How do you want your maze of twisty passages all alike?

After character generation comes dungeon generation, which is even more detailed than character. Take a look at this!

dhduncreation.png

If this looks daunting to you, keep in mind this screen only appears if the player choses "custom" on a difficulty selection screen. Setting Easy either there or here automatically puts all the sliders to their easiest settings. Setting Medium puts them all in the middle, and Hard puts them all at maximum pain levels. Notice some of the setting names. "Water level" means a flooded dungeon level that may appear midway through the dungeon. On it, the player takes a small amount of damage each turn unless he has some means of water breathing, either by potion, Ioun stone or spell.

Magical zones are special regions of the dungeon that have unusual properties, such as anti-magic. Magical traps means things like statues that periodically emit a burst of magic missiles, which must be evaded through good timing. Through this screen, many game features a player finds personally annoying can be disabled without changing the rest of the play experience.

Note the dungeon seed readout at the bottom. In this number is encoded both the complete set of options chosen by the player, and a random number seed that can be used to recreate a dungeon at a later time. This system, combined with the permanent death option (which erases saves when the player's character dies), would actually make tournament play feasible.

The special powers of many roguelike monsters can be traced back to similar powers found in the D&D Monster Manuals, and some of them retain those powers in Dungeon Hack. One monster that has caused a lot of consternation among players is the Living Muck, a pudding-like beast that consumes weapons used against it. And level-draining undead monsters are so dangerous in this game that a special dungeon generation option exists to disable them. These powers are what make facing roguelike monsters more than simple bags of statistics, and their inclusion here, in a style of game where monsters are expected to have sharper teeth than in a traditional CRPG, is welcome.

dhbattle.pngUnfortunately however, memory considerations greatly limit the number of different monsters that can appear on a floor. The most I've ever seen is three, two normal monsters that appear everywhere and one boss. A Living Muck's weapon destroying feature is an interesting challenge when you have to get through one of them, but when half the monsters on a floor know that odious trick it is an entirely different matter.

The 2nd Edition D&D Class Reunion

There are ways around that problem, yes, but many of them rely on the player being a specific character class. The differences between character classes is actually a good thing overall. You won't confuse a mage for a fighter in this game, they each have completely different gameplay options available to them, and they must rely upon them to succeed. But it is true that, since the fighter's advantage is mostly hits hard with lots of health, that they have problems in the more complicated dungeons.

Fighters must make use of magic items to get through all environmental obstacles, either that or just eat the damage. They can demolish most low-level monsters with a single hit, though, so it makes sense as a trade-off. I have yet to try to get one through a water level however; it is possible that the class becomes unplayable at that point.

dhcorridor.pngOf the basic classes, the Fighter gets by with much better physical attack abilities and hit points, but the trade-off is that they have to rely on random magic items to get by obstacles and special monsters. Thieves are like fighters except they don't even get the physical attack abilities and hit points. They are able to use the Thieves' Picks they begin with on some of the door locks and thus explore levels with less backtracking, letting them get to more treasure on a level with less fighting.

They may also have a backstabbing ability, but I am not sure. They are a challenging class to play. As per the RPG archetype, mages are physically weak and have very few hit points, but have magic spells with a wide array of combat and utility applications. Being a more-or-less by-the-book classic Dungeons & Dragons game, the magic system used in Dungeon Hack is strictly Vancian, that is, you set up camp, decide which spells to memorize, then click rest and they are regained.

dhmap.pngNone of these classes heal naturally as they roam the dungeon, which is the a primary function of the Cleric class. To regain hit points they must either pay at a healing altar (those weird orb-like devices set into some of the walls; drag a silver coin over one to regain all hit points, or a gold coin to gain hit points and heal conditions like poison), use a magical means like a potion, or, most commonly, resting until hit points are refilled.

Under the standard 2nd Edition D&D system, hit points regained through rest were quite low, requiring many days to heal a seriously wounded character. Dungeon Hack uses this system, and it is startling to see the game report "130 hours" as a typical time to get back to maximum health. But as a nod to playability, so long as the player doesn't rest too close to a presently-active monster he will almost certainly be able to rest as long as he needs to heal.

Since monsters are not a credible limit on healing through rest, the game instead uses the traditional roguelike check on health regaining: a food requirement. New adventurers begin with two rations, and more are found in the dungeon. Food actually doesn't seem to decrease much (if at all) through mere exploration; it is almost entirely a check on spell replenishment and healing. Because of the food consumption needed to regain hit points the normal way, a popular creation choice is to multiclass Cleric.

The Environmental Persecution Agency

The environment is, truthfully, the most interesting thing about Dungeon Hack. The game's dungeon builder is one of the most interesting I've seen in any game, including more famous roguelikes. It doesn't just create a matrix of passages and rooms to explore, but it puts in key-and-door puzzles too, while ensuring that they are always solvable. Now done wrong that could definitely be considered to be a minus, a superficial way to force the player to wander around levels back and forth repeatedly, and there is an aspect of that in the game. But locks can be picked by the Thief class, or other classes if they have found Gloves of Dexterity, and there is also a magic item that can open those doors.

dhniche.pngThe algorithm by which locked doors always have keys available is, probably, one that works by digging outward from the entry stairs, placing locked doors along the way then depositing its key among one of the already-dug areas. It is possible that this concept has implications for roguelike development far beyond simply making sure doors have keys.

There are some other interesting thing to find in the dungeons. Most items are found laying on the ground, and are visible as tiny blue dots in the automap, but a few items are actually found in niches in walls, and those don't show on the map. Illusion walls are just that, sections of wall that can actually be walked through. While it is possible for those to cause a long period of having to feel along walls, it is just as likely that your character will notice them himself and say something in the message window indicating their presence. There are traps in the game that activate from stepping on them, but there are also objects on some of the walls that periodically emit a spell, and that require timing to get by without harm. And there are a surprising number of little bits of "dungeon dressing" to be found that have no purpose except to add a bit of color to the surroundings.

Dudgeons & Drag-ons

There are a few weirdnesses that should be addressed. It is possible to outrun your own thrown items simply by running rapidly down a corridor, and thus get hurt by them. It sucks to accidentally do this with a thrown potion with a damaging effect. (Hint: nearly anything can be thrown by dragging it to the view window.) Many magic items must be used by putting them in your hand and then clicking on the hand, which seems needlessly obtuse even though it does help to keep cursed items, which make it impossible to empty a hand, appropriately troublesome. (So you know: the Scrying Mirror item, which identifies objects, is used by putting it in one hand, the item you want to identify in the other, then clicking on the hand with the mirror. Spells are cast by making sure that your spellbook is the only thing held-- it works like a two-handed weapon --then the spell you want to use. And yet, thieves' picks are used by dragging them over the lock you want to pick.)

And the keypad controls make it easy to get mixed up a bit in the heat of a hurried escape, turning your character around when you mean to side-step or vice-versa. Movement and some actions can be performed easily with the keyboard, but attacks, equipping and item use require the use of the mouse, causing a bit of manual confusion that can be frustrating for a game that isn't actually trying to be an action game.

One thing that could be regarded as a problem to modern players more than older ones has to do, simply, with the nature of old-school D&D's experience system. Which is to say, it is harsh. Most characters begin at around level 4. On the easiest monster difficulty level, killing one of the weakest monsters is worth just three experience points. Even at the hardest monster difficulty, they're only worth 24 XP each. For comparison's sake, earning even the earliest levels requires several thousand experience points. In short, this is not a game about fulfilling a player's empowerment fantasies. I tend to be in favor of slow character growth when it fits the game, and classic D&D tends to be a better game at low levels anyway. But still, if you decide to play Dungeon Hack, you should be aware of this.

To Be Continued....

dhcutscene.pngBut even so, I have to say that I enjoyed Dungeon Hack quite a lot, even more now, in fact, than when I played back after its original release. (What, you think I'd play this if I didn't own a copy of it?) It is challenging, and different enough from the traditional roguelike that it feels fresh. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking it strange that the game were mentioned here, as from a cursory glance it doesn't seem very roguelike at all.

Does Dungeon Hack deserve to be called roguelike? We will have a look at that question soon, when we cover one of the most useful tools for defining roguelike games there is: the Berlin Interpretation. Next time.