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

Following Part 1 and Part 2, we are continuing our discussion of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, the popular variant of Linley's Dungeon Crawl that has swept the roguelike world by storm.

One special feature of the game is that nearly every one of the game's many races can also play all of the classes in the game, and vice versa, and do so in a reasonably consistent way that exposes interesting gameplay options. Unlike other games, Dungeon Crawl has found a way to keep classes differentiated, requiring different play styles, even into the late game, without actually preventing classes from doing anything. It is possible for a fighter type to learn magic and vice versa, but is it wise to put in the effort in doing this? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

This column looks at some of the many interesting combinations of race and role in Crawl, and their available paths (or lack thereof) to success. The specific combinations looked at are: Spriggan Enchanter, Deep Dwarf Paladin, Hill Orc Priest, Human Wanderer and Minotaur Chaos Knight of Xom. (I'm sure some of you may have your own favorites, and I'm looking forward to seeing your suggestions in the comments for this one.)

crawl4-5.pngSome words about engines and recommended classes

At the race and class selection screen, you may notice that some of the entries are displayed in light gray and some in dark gray. This is an indication of the Crawl Stone Soup developers’ confidence on the survivability of these play options. Depending on which race you pick different classes will be grayed out; if you pick class first, then different races will be grayed out. Regardless of which race you select, Thief and Wanderer are always gray. Even though they’re “grayed out,” you can still pick any combination of the two; the only actual limits are those where picking a certain class implies following a god that is forbidden to that race. Those classes that are not grayed out are often those that have a good engine available.

What is an engine? It is one term for the mechanism a character uses to survive the dungeon. In most roguelikes this is a matter of walking up and hitting things, with occasional recourse to magic. In Crawl, the greater dangerousness of the dungeon makes this a bad idea for many characters. An engine is a gimmick, a special trick, a clever way around it that you end up relying upon. For example, Wizards beginning with the flame or frost spellbooks soon gain access to the spell Mephitic Cloud, which is applicable to many early-game situations and confuses many types of monsters. It can be used to easily neutralize enemy spellcasters and hordes, sometimes even causing them to kill themselves accidentally. Confused monsters take more damage in melee, due to the stabbing rules. And if a monster is still too tough to beat, you can choose to just run away. An early game wizard’s attack spells aren’t that great, but Mephitic Cloud can keep them going to the point where they can be relied upon, and even some ways after that.

Mephitic Cloud is useful enough that it seems game breaking, and in a lesser game it might actually be. But all of the engines (that I know of at least; Crawl characters have many options available) have limits to their usefulness. Mephitic Cloud doesn’t work against monsters that resist poison, or those that can’t be confused. If you try to win the game with just Mephitic Cloud, you’ll eventually reach a point where the engine stalls. At that point, you’ll have to either improvise with whatever other resources you’ve found or die. Canny players will have used some of the experience income from those easy kills to have given their characters more options to use, but this, too, can be dangerous. A character with level 3 in everything is at a disadvantage compared to one who is level 10 in a couple of skills. Being able to intelligently determine which skills to focus on and which to ignore or turn off, this is the beginning of Dungeon Crawl wisdom.

Here are a few interesting race/class combinations. Due to the way Crawl's characters are diversified, some of these tricks apply to other classes of the same race, or other races of the same class. I leave most of those examples for you to find.

crawl4-1.pngSpriggan Enchanter
“Sweet li’l wee faerie lethal assassin deadly death”

Spriggans are one of the more unusual races in Crawl, possessing a combination of very good and very bad attributes that would break the game if they weren’t balanced against each other. In total I’d say they are balanced a little on the easier side, but they must still be played carefully enough that they require a little more skill than a novice is likely to have.

Spriggans are little fairy-like beings. They are unable to fly, but are still very very fast characters. They are already so fast that some sources of hasting don’t work on them! Unlike centaurs, another race that gets its advantage from speed but pays for it with a greatly increased hunger rate, Spriggans actually have the lowest basic hunger rate in the game. The trade-off comes from what they can eat. They begin with three levels of the “herbivore” mutation, meaning, they cannot eat meat at all.

There are several kinds of food that can be found in the dungeon. Usually the best type of food is meat rations, but Spriggans cannot even try to eat them, nor sausages or beef jerky. They also cannot eat “chunks,” the bite-size fragments left over from butchering corpses. Chunks are emergency rations for most characters, an important fall-back food in the event the level generator is stingy with the meal service. Even if the generator makes what would normally be sufficient food, Spriggans are still out of luck if it turns out to be meat. Once in while this produces a game where no suitable food can be found for five or six whole levels. Spriggans’ super-low metabolism means they might go up to three levels without having to eat, they always begin with a potion of porridge that provides lots of nutrition, and they get extra nutrition out of those food sources they can eat. Despite these things, it can still be a harrowing early game until that first bread ration turns up.

This isn’t even the worst thing about them. They are also completely unable to use most armor! Their bodies are just too dang small to wear armor other than robes (or, strangely, troll leather or dragon armor), and neither can they wear boots, gloves or hats heavier than a cap. This dooms them to having an extremely low AC for most of the game. Low AC means having to play a lot more carefully than otherwise. Some workarounds are dragon armor (which hinders spellcasting), transformations and the right kinds of mutations.

Furthermore, Spriggans get fewer hit points per level than other classes, and can start with the lowest starting strength score in the game. If playing as a magic-using class, it is possible for a Spriggan to begin with a strength score as low as 2! Dungeon Crawl does not protect players from having stats too low for survival, from whatever cause. If a Spriggan’s strength dips below 1 it dies immediately, even if only from carelessly wearing equipment that provides a minus to strength. And in many areas they don’t even have good magic skills to make up for it; Spriggans are awful at Conjurations, Summonings and Necromancy, the most directly-useful types of combat magic, and their elemental magic skills are not that great either.

But as I said before, Spriggans still seem a little on the easy side, and the reason for that comes down, mostly, to their amazing speed. Faster-than-normal movement speed is an incredible advantage in a roguelike. Most other classes reach a moment of reckoning when they encounter ogres; Spriggans are one of the few classes that can handle them pretty safely, just by keeping their distance, loop dancing and chucking darts behind them along the way. Only a very few monsters can keep up with an unencumbered Spriggan. Being faster than opponents means being able to turn melee range into missile range almost at will, means being able to escape nearly any foe so long as they can get to a staircase in time, means faster exploration, means getting out of enemy sight range and then losing them at an intersection, and means being able to wade lithely through a horde of attackers and getting to a corridor before being surrounded.

Of the magic skills Spriggans are good at, they are amazing. They have extremely good Enchantments, Translocations and Transmutations learn rates, and excellent Divinations as well. In a combat situation, Enchantments is often their greatest ally. It contains the low-level spell Ensorcelled Hibernation, which other games might call Sleep. This spell puts a chosen monster to sleep so long as it doesn’t resist the spell. The way Crawl’s sleep rules work, if the monster is asleep a character with even low Stabbing and weapon skill can do insane damage in one hit. And for some reason, the one melee weapon skill Spriggans are good at, Short Blades, is the one that does the most Stabbing damage. Spriggans are also naturally stealthy, gain Stealth skill quickly for becoming even more stealthy, can’t wear hardly any heavy armor so don’t wake monsters up that way, and are super fast so they can close the gap between the edge of detection range and melee faster than any other race, so they might not even need to put a monster to sleep to stab it to death; they can often do this with monsters who are just taking a nap.

What this means is that Spriggans are what you might call nature’s assassins. Even if you don’t purposely try gaining Stabbing skill, you’ll probably end up getting it accidently anyway unless you go out of your way to wake monsters up before hitting them. And if you don’t start with Stealth, unless you manage to find one of the few Spriggan-wearable types of heavy armor fast, you’ll be getting that skill too. And Spriggans may be the only race that can make it pay off.

Whatever class you pick for a Spriggan, you’ll be wanting to rely on their missile skills and the magic skills they excel at, so you might as well get a head start in those areas by playing a Hunter or an Enchanter. Enchanter, in particular, is a great choice since your starting spell begins with Ensorcelled Hibernation, which makes 95% of monsters you encounter in the early Dungeon, the Orcish Mines, the Lair and the Hive a piece of cake. With care and diligent training you can one-shot hydras this way with minimal danger.

The biggest challenge to playing a Spriggan, besides the food problem, is their fragility. You don’t want to get into melee with strong monsters if you can help it. The nature of the game is that sometimes you end up in melee range of a monster without warning, and a small percentage of those occasions you won’t be able to back away out of trouble. Slowly improving your fighting skill and training Short Blades helps out a bit there, but the best solution is probably to teleport or blink. It is good that Spriggans also have an excellent Translocations aptitude.

All character builds have weaknesses, and Spriggan Enchanters have the most trouble with monsters who are even faster than they (there aren’t many but they exist), with cold-resistant monsters who can’t be put to sleep with Ensorcelled Hibernation, with monsters that don’t sleep to begin with like demons, and with those few monsters who are entirely immune to Enchantments. Fortunately, most of these guys appear late enough that you will probably have found alternate means for handling them by that time, such as attack wands, or a hard-built Conjurations skill.

Good gods for Spriggans include Vehumet (who can help make up for their natural lack in Conjurations and Summoning), Sif Muna (who eventually will provide every spell in the game, good for making up for deficiencies) and, perhaps strangely, Nemelex Xobeh the gambler god, since he appreciates sacrifices of items and Spriggans can’t use so much stuff they never lack for things to offer.

crawl4-3.pngDeep Dwarf Paladin
“As unchanging as the mountains, and with the same capacity for healing”

Deep Dwarves are another special race type in Dungeon Crawl. Their gimmick is that, whenever struck for any amount of damage, they “shrug off” a number of points of it. This ability increases as they rise in level, and against basic opponents they frequently take no damage at all. It is much like the D&D attribute called “damage reduction.”

The trade off, however, is huge. Deep Dwarves do not regenerate hit points naturally. The passing of time does nothing to lessen their wounds! And equipment, items or spells that work by increasing regeneration don’t work either. All of the hit points that Deep Dwarves regain must come from magical or divine healing, and it happens that both are fairly rare in Crawl. The game simply has no analogue for D&D’s Cure Wounds series of spells. (It seems the spells may technically be in the game, but their matching book never generates.) Potions of Healing and Heal Wounds are effective and common, but when they are a major source of healing you’ll always find yourself wanting more.

A Wand of Healing, which can be zapped at yourself, can be recharged and takes up less weight than a equivalent stack of many potions, is one of the best solutions and Deep Dwarves always begin with one. They also can recharge wands as a special ability, although it costs them a maximum magic point to do it. Crawl’s Max MP gaining rules are such that the lower your Max MP, the greater the chance you’ll get more on a level increase or other source of gain, so this isn’t quite as bad as it seems; the lower score may subtly increases the chances of gaining more at higher levels. But it’s still pretty harsh; scrolls of recharging should probably be devoted towards refilling that wand.

Divine sources of healing are another way of getting hit points back. Mahkleb will sometimes heal you a point or two whenever you kill a monster once you get enough piety with him. The Shining One, who you conveniently begin the game with if you choose to play a Paladin, will sometimes heal you for several points of damage when you kill an “evil being.” In the early game this includes zombies and imps, but also applies to orc mages and priests. One can also play as a Healer, which begin worshipping Elyvilon, and using the self-heal ability in a pinch. That carries a piety cost however. Classes not starting with a god can pick one up once they reach the Ecumenical Temple.

Even with damage reduction there are still plenty of monsters who can overpower that kind of advantage easily, and you’ll probably be cannibalizing your Max MP to recharge your Wand of Healing, so it is probably best to abandon spellcasting and put on the hardest armor you can find. Don’t forget though, increasing Spellcasting skill can also provide you with the occasional extra Max MP, so it can be worth it to wait until you have experience pool to spare before reading identify scrolls.

In the long run, probably the hardest thing about Deep Dwarves is their healing limit. You only have so many potions, recharging scrolls and maximum MP for charging that wand. It isn't hard at all to reach a point in the mid game where your character is powerful and ready to kick ass, but is down to 17 hit points with no means for regaining them.

dc3-1.pngHill Orc Priest
“The center of the SWARM”

Hill Orc Priest is one of the most entertaining race/role combinations in Dungeon Crawl. It is nothing to do with the Hill Orc race directly, who are generally unremarkable as far as that goes. It has to do with Beogh, God of the Orcs, who is only available to orcs to worship, and who Hill Orc Priests have the opportunity to start out with. It is certainly an experience.

Consider, for a moment, the plight of the orc. Unloved, unappealing, and the go-to-guys for evil wizards looking for muscle to help them take over the world. They do not have the most graceful manners, and they usually either look like pig-men or are green with tusks, depending on which artist is depicting them. That can’t help their self-image any.

In the Book of Orc, the holy text of sacred (as far as that goes with an orc god) Beogh, it is told that one day a Chosen One will emerge to lead the Orcs up from their lowly position in the world. Orc priests tend to labor under the impression that they may be that chosen one. As a player race, they have a decent shot at it.

Playing a Hill Orc Priest basically means taking up the sandals of Orc Jesus. Followers of Beogh, fairly early in their career, pick up a very nice little ability. When they catch sight of a particular orc for the first time the game makes a die roll, influenced, I assume, by your piety level. If it’s successful, the orc there and then greets you in a friendly manner and joins your team. There is no limit to the number of orcs you can have on your side, all flavors of orc may do this including uniques (the stronger ones may have to get beat down a bit first), and as individual orcs accumulate kills they gain power and can even promote into stronger forms, or gain magic or priest abilities. A friendly Orc Knight that has lasted a few dungeon levels is indeed a great friend, and allied Orc High Priests and Sorcerers, if you are lucky enough to score them, spam-summon friendly demons to aid your cause. While casualities are frequent, as many Crawl players discover early, there are a lot or orcs in the dungeon, so losses are easy to replace. It is that simple, and it is that awesome.

Nethack’s pets can be useful to have, but you rarely get the opportunity to have more than two or three at a time due to the difficulty of getting them to the next dungeon level. Dungeon Crawl allows any allies who are visible, can reach your position and within three spaces of you the chance to come along to the next level. That’s up to 48 per trip! You even get an ability later on that lets you summon your henchmen to your side in an instant.

Playing as a Hill Orc Priest feels an awful lot like turning the tables on the dungeon, letting you field your own horde against the monstrous opposition, and does it ever feel good. Using the CTRL-T command you can order your followers to scavenge the best items they find on the dungeon floor, which is a good way to make use of all those artifacts that tend to get generated that your skills are poorly matched for, or that plate mail +3 of magic resistance you can’t make use of because your current plate mail of magic resistance is already +4. A well equipped swarm of high-level orc knights, priests and sorcerers roaming the dungeon is amazing to behold, and recommended to every roguelike player at least once. The funny messages your orcs supply as you traipse throughout the dungeons are icing on the cake. (Those of you who are wary of memes take heed of my warning: these particular orcs are quite loyal. They are known to inform you from time to time how they’re never gonna give you up, and that they’re never gonna let you down.)

The biggest drawback to leading your horde around is just the unwieldiness of commanding an army. It is very easy to leave orcs behind on a level, even with the Recall Followers ability, and if you accidently hit one with an attack there is a chance both of him turning hostile and of Beogh giving you a smack for good measure. (Although the game is very good about warning you about that ahead of time.) If you abandon Beogh, your whole army will immediately turn hostile. So don’t abandon Beogh, okay?

crawl4-4.pngHuman Wanderer
“Mr. Average”

Humans, as in many RPGs, are the utterly average race in Dungeon Crawl. All of their aptitudes are straight-average 100 except for Invocatons and Evocations at 75 (which require having a god or magic item respectively and so their average is low to represent that outside aid) and Spellcasting at 130 (which is over 100 for everyone except Elves and Spriggans). Higher aptitude values mean the skill is harder for that class to learn.

Humans are the most flexible of all classes, and have no explicit disadvantages in play. No class is restricted from them except Priest of Beogh (which, as already mentioned, is unique to Hill Orcs). This is actually a great drawback for human characters, since the game is balanced around the idea that characters will have some above-average ability to help them through the dungeon.

That is bad enough. Add to that the Wanderer character class, which starts the character out with basic equipment and random skills. It is quite possible to start out with a weapon the character has no skill with, and it’s very likely that he’ll have skill in some school of magic but no skill in Spellcasting, making them useless until he’s read enough scrolls to get Spellcasting to level 1. (Correction: It seems that it is possible to memorize and use some spells of a class without a level in Spellcasting. Thanks jarpiain!)

On the race and class selection screen, there are combinations which are recommended, which are displayed in light gray, and combinations which are not recommended, showing up in dark gray. The game does not actually prevent picking any combination of race and class so long as isn’t logically inconsistent, such as when trying to create a Demigod in a race that begins worshipping a deity.

Very few are forbidden, but lots are considered bad ideas depending on the intersection of race and role. But there are two classes that are considered “challenge classes,” which are not recommended for any race. Thief is one of them, since thief skills are under-represented in Crawl and Assassins get most of their advantages and then some. The other, in case you haven’t come to suspect it, is Wanderer.

It is possible to luck out with a Wanderer. They never start with high skill in anything, but they can more reliably quickly specialize on the first attack-branded weapon they find and have a relatively easy time of the first levels of the dungeon, if they can survive that long.

crawl4-6.pngMinotaur Chaos Knight of Xom
“Hail Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!”

So we come to Chaos Knights of Xom, which are almost the mascot of Dungeon Crawl.

Chaos Knight is a class that, like Priest, starts you out already following one of Crawl's deities. The class has a bit of melee emphasis thrown in to help out. When you’re following Xom, every little bit counts.

Xom is unlike the other gods in that he doesn’t just give you new abilities as you gain piety and follow the god’s precepts and generally be a good member of the flock. Xom doesn’t actually care what you do, so long as it’s entertaining. Entertaining for him, not you.

Every so often, Xom will either do something for you, or to you. It could be something good or bad; Xom does have a persistent mood that carries forward through the game, but every time he acts there is a 1-in-5 chance of it getting set to a random value, meaning he can go instantly from absolutely loving you to trying to smash you beneath his shoe, and as quickly back. There is not a lot you can do to affect this, although you can tell generally how he feels by checking the ^ screen; if the message calls you a “plaything” then Xom’s next action will probably be bad, if it calls you a “toy” then his next action will probably be good. There is no guarantee in either case though.

Some good things: get given a (sometimes) good item, summon demon pets, get granted good mutations, polymorph a nearby monster, have a spell cast on your behalf. Some bad things: random miscast effects, summoning hostile demons, get inflicted with bad mutations, polymorph a nearby monster (yes it’s in both lists), get sent to the Abyss. Some of those bad things are very bad, although they are balanced (a bit) away towards being overwhelmingly deadly.

One instance in which this system doesn’t apply is when Xom is bored, that is, you haven’t done anything interesting lately. You get warned when this occurs. While bored Xom only does bad things to you. Just fighting monsters who are reasonably strong compared to you often counts as an interesting thing, but hanging around resting does not.

The key to understanding Xom is in realizing he not just a system for intensifying Crawl’s already-chaotic random number generator. You can use equipment and magic, as well as the better part of valor, to help alleviate the bad things and keep the good items and mutations, so in the long run--provided you can live that long--you should come out ahead. There is a greater variety of bad things he can do to you than good though, and you should still be prepared to hoof it in a tight spot.

There are some other minor influences on Xom’s behavior. He never does something directly lethal to you unless he’s bored or he’s attacking you for abandoning him. At those times, if an action would do so much damage that it would take you to zero or below hit points, then instead he won’t do it. And his chances of doing something good goes up a little when you’re in a fight with dangerous monsters, and down slightly if no foes are in sight.

We’re getting near the end of the series, but there’s still a bit more Crawl to come. Next column focuses on one of the most unexpected, and most awesome, of all of Crawl’s features: its extensive facilities for game automation, which sometimes defy belief! Until next time….