Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. Check out previous columns for other entries in this series on breakout Roguelike variant Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.]

One thing new players to Crawl may find dismaying is the sheer size of the dungeon. Rogue, Nethack and ADOM have dungeon levels that fit on a single screen, but Crawl's maps are much larger, many more screens in size both vertically and horizontally. They aren't as large as Angband's, but Angband has transient levels anyway; once you leave a level, it is completely forgotten and cannot be returned to, so in a sense they are disposable.

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup's levels are big enough that they pose challenges of information management for the player. And if a player has a good enough memory to handle them, or a pad and paper for writing things down, that works well, for a while at least. The game did little to help the player to keep track of it all for a while. In fact, the addition of the Travel Patch marks the root of the Crawl code fork that would become Stone Soup. (The Travel Patch and its role in Stone Soup's origins are detailed in a post at its introduction, Crawl has acquired an amazing array of automated play aids, far beyond the call of duty and unique in the roguelike world.

O: Auto-Explore
Let's start with the first one players tend to discover, auto-explore. When this feature is first discovered it feels almost like cheating. You press a key, not evem a shifted one, and the game suddenly begins playing itself....


Between each of the above screenshots, exactly one command was given to the game, to auto-explore. The exploration took more than one turn, of course.

What happens is your character takes stock of the portions of the level not yet explored, finds the reachable unseen tile adjacent to its known area that it takes the fewest turns to reach, then pathfinds to it and tries to walk to that spot. Once he sees the target tile, he picks a new spot and tries to get to it. He continues to do this either until something interesting happens (like a possibly useful item is seen, a monster comes into view, or a trap is found) or he runs out of new territory on the current level.

He will refuse to move through traps if he considers there to be any real danger from them, and also will not cross dangerous ground or the range of particularly dangerous monsters like Oklob plants or hostile statues. Your smart little guy will automatically pick up useful objects along the way, and seems to take their acquisition as a superseding priority. He even ignores items your character cannot use, like equipment a Spriggan cannot wear, eat, or gain benefit from. In this respect, a Crawl character often knows how to play the game better than a newbie player.

Moving through Crawl's huge levels takes long enough hitting a key for every step of the way takes a lot of time, so much that, after you start using auto-explore, it rapidly becomes difficult to see living without it. And it is strange but the nature of the game subtly changes through its use. You no longer have to worry about not spotting a monster and moving too close to it; auto-explore halts the moment so much as a rat enters sight. Running down long tunnels takes less than a second instead of half a minute. It even enters unseen shops automatically so you can note inventory! It turns the game, almost, into a kind of specialized random roguelike situation generator. And yet, if you ever need to manually walk through an area, all the old roguelike methods remain available.

Shift-X: Level Search & Autotravel
If you want to get to a location you've already been quickly, try hitting Ctrl-X. This brings up an interface through which you can cursor to the location you want to go and have the game automatically pathfind to it. The same rules are in place about stopping for monsters and traps as in autoexplore.

Even better, if you hit > or < repeatedly, the game will cycle through all the down- or up-stairs you've seen in the currently-accessible region of the level, in order from closest (in turns needed to reach) to furthermost. Hitting the tab key will even cycle through shops the same way! Note, if you try this and for some reason the game doesn't want to jump to particular stairs or shops, it's probably because you've yet to find a way to that spot without leaving the current level.

Remember, Dungeon Crawl's level structure are sometimes complex, and it isn't rare for all three downstairs from a level to each lead to separate sections of the level below, and sometimes this discontinuity holds through multiple levels. If the game won't go to the spot you want, try going back upstairs and finding another way down first.

crawl5-overview3.pngCtrl-G: Level autotravel
Here is where it gets freaky. What if you've gotten to the bottom of the Lair, and realize you need to jump back to the Hive, found earlier in the game, to replenish your food stores? Crawl's levels being as large and complex as they are, the simple act of moving through all those dungeons levels could be a real chore. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just tell the game, in essence, to go to the hive, and have it take care of all the moving and route finding for you? Yeah, you probably can guess that's what it'll do.

Ctrl-G presents a list of all of the dungeon branches you've found so far in the current game along with a key letter for each. Enter the letter, then the number of the level you want to go to, and the game will start your character on his way without further input from you. It'll even find the fastest way there, and will wind through other levels if need be.

Once in a while when you do this, the game will say it doesn't know how to get there. This usually happens when you fall down a shaft from a higher level and the explored zone you're currently in doesn't yet intersect with that of the destination. Try exploring a bit more, maybe moving a level closer to your goal manually, then trying it again. If you just want to remember where a branch or shop is without travelling there, try Ctrl-O to bring up a helpful dungeon overview.

When a new feature is added to a game and, suddenly, you wonder how you ever did without it? That's a good sign that there was something wrong to begin with that you hadn't recognized. DCSS's travel options are unequaled among almost any game in terms of ease of use. They direct the player away from relatively uninteresting movement chores and focus attention on the items and monsters that make the game fun. It could be argued that some verisimilitude is lost in using them, turning the game into more of a situation generator than an integrated dungeon exploration game, but Crawl is so expansive that it arguably was a bit overdone in that regard.

Ctrl-F: Stash management
In Nethack, did you ever find an item you really wanted, but didn't want to risk going into Burdened or Stressed, so you left it there to find a good stash location for your less essential loot, but then discovered you'd forgotten where the item you wanted to pick up was?

Crawl has a solution to this kind of problem, and to my knowledge it is the only game that offers nearly so complete an item management system. The game remembers the name and location of every item you see throughout the entire game, and allows you to do a text search through them. It will provide you with a list of all the items with names containing the words you specify, and you can pick from any of the hits to begin moving there. You can search for traps, shops and shop contents this way too. With some compilations you can even use regular expressions in your search! Not only is this useful for recalling the location of that object you saw several levels back, but it can even sometimes find objects your character saw but you overlooked.

You can also set a waypoint in the dungeon with Ctrl-W then specifying a number, then travel there by hitting Ctrl-G then that number, great for getting to that stash back in Lair:1 by the most expeditious means possible.

crawl5-inventory.pngOther player helps

In addition to the question-mark help screens that all sane roguelikes provide, there are several other ways Crawl subtly helps the player to learn how to play. It contains a surprisingly helpful tutorial, for instance, not a mean feat in a game as randomly generated as Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. New players may wonder why different items and messages are printed in different colors.

Items that are known to be bad to use (in their primary use, if they have more than one) are colored red, and useless items (like stuff you can't equip, or won't provide useable benefits) are dark gray. Artifacts show up in a brilliant white, whether identified or not; this is actually the easiest way to tell if an item is really special, since sometimes the attached adjective on an artifact is similar to one of Crawl's more-ordinary enchanted or ego adjectives. Messages, too, are color-coded by default, depending on the danger or benefit provided, or depending on their source.

This is the end of Crawlapalooza, although we may end up returning to the game fairly soon.... Next will be a fairly long-awaited article, both for me and apparently for some of you, a review of Atlus and Chun Soft's English release of Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii. See you soon.