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, he reveals exciting new Dungeon Crawl variant Dungeon Sprint.]

You start up a game of Dungeon Crawl without thinking about it too clearly. You pick name, race and class. Afterward you're asked a question about which “map” you want to play. What does it mean by that? Who cares, let's just get started. You pick the first, and begin in a room with one door out, to the right. You go through.

It's Ijyb with a wand of negative energy?! He zaps you and you DIE? What?!

You start a new game, with all the same options. Weirdly, you start in the same room, and through the door is Ijyb again. This doesn't seem very random.... You manage to kill Ijyb (he doesn't seem to have the wand this time), and you get a whole experience level for killing him. But in the next room is an ogre. Smack! You die again.

A few games later you get through Ijyb and, somehow, the ogre as well. At experience level 4 after killing two monsters you feel pretty smug, so naturally Sigmund himself waits beyond the next door.

What probably happened was that you accidentally started your game in a special mode included as part of the newest version. Welcome to Dungeon Sprint, Dungeon Crawl's rather more intense variant, now included as part of the 0.7 release.

Dungeon Sprint is an entire game of Dungeon Crawl condensed into a single level. The level is mostly set; randomness comes into it only slightly, putting the focus on set situations above throwing together challenges. The game doesn't pull punches in difficulty, but you gain 27 times more experience than normal! Countering this, the monsters are very strong relative to your level. The game constantly provides monsters near or at the upper-end of your ability to defeat.

dungeonsprint1.pngThis makes for a much sharper experience; you either lose or win big, constantly, time after time. Actually I wouldn't doubt it if, you graphed character deaths relative to degree of game completion, if the game weren't actually that much harder than standard Dungeon Crawl. You die a lot more often from having your face spiked to the dungeon floor by enemy weapons, but in standard Crawl you die a good portion of the time through plain bad luck. The more time the dice are rolled the more chance they have to come up snake eyes; reducing the length of the game actually works in the player's favor, which balances out the tougher opponents.

On choices: Map, Race and Role

dungeonsprint6.pngDungeon Sprint is played on custom maps supplied with the game. The current distribution comes with two choices. Most of my Sprint experience comes from playing the map “Red Sonja,” which starts out with the Ijyb/ogre/Sigmund combination described in the opening. The game starts you out with potions of speed and berzerk rage and a scroll of blinking, but there are few other guaranteed items. One of the toughest monsters in the early game is Sonja herself, a unique kobold who's fast, can blink, usually wields a sword of distortion, and is armed with curare needles. Even one of these things could prove deadly; all of them at once makes for an obstacle that must be treated seriously every game. Useful tactics I've found are ducking behind walls to force her to approach without getting curare'd to death, and using the guaranteed potions of healing and speed you start with to nullify poisoning if it does happen. Spellcasters could use Confuse and Mephitic Cloud to cause Sonja to stop shooting from a distance, or summoning to put obstructing bodies to fight and shoot through between you and her. Closing to fight with her hand-to-hand is hazardous; she can blink away and resume firing easily, and if a needle hits you get strong-poisoned and slowed, meaning you'll probably get hit again several times before you can close again.

One thing that Dungeon Sprint's ramped-up challenge does do is increase, even more, the importance of picking a good character. On Red Sonja, so far I've gotten fartherest with my “old standby” character, a Spriggan Enchanter, although I usually have to drink the starting potion of berzerk rage to get through Ijyb and the ogre. At level two such a character will gain enough spell levels to learn Ensorcelled Hibernation and start with the stabbing of things. But while in normal Crawl this phase of the game can get the player almost through the whole midgame, Sprint's advanced competition make this tactic less reliable. I've managed to get to around experience level 12 this way, but that was with good luck finding things in shops. A major gimmick of the Red Sonja map is that there's many treasure rooms filled with gold and several completely random shops that you mostly rely upon for items. Spellcasting races who don't find a bookshop are recommended to hook up with one of the game's two main spellbook-providing gods, Sif Muna or Vehumut, to gain access to magic outside their starting book.

dungeonsprint5.pngAnother spellcasting race I've had some success with are Deep Elf Wizards, who begin able to memorize Summon Small Animal out of their starting spellbook. That one spell lasts you surprisingly long; it costs only only one magic point to cast and it doesn't take much skill with it to call multiple animals per casting. All those little teeth chewing away at once can take down the ogre without much trouble; Sigmund likes to go invisible, but once he's opaque again the Rat Army will prevail. The combination hits its first major challenge when it reaches the jelly, which when wounded likes to eat nearly doors to heal revealing monsters rather stronger than you're ready for.

One note: be careful about classes whose main abilities come from teleportation. Means of teleportation other than blinking are disabled in Dungeon Sprint.

dungeonsprint4.pngSprint: Dungeon Crawl intensified

I may actually like Dungeon Sprint a little better than stock Crawl, because you don't end up playing for six hours only to die while trying to get a third Rune. If you're going to die, it's gonna happen fast, and then you can try again. It gets to the good stuff much more rapidly. A more randomized version of Sprint might be quite interesting. The other map included in 0.7, "The Violet Keep of Menkaure," seems to recognize this, but seems rather harder than Red Sonja. Sprint's theme of a game where the player is always pushed to the edge of his ability is harder to balance well with randomly-generated opponents.

The stereotype of the normal role-playing game, a long quest that takes the player through a lengthy story and play a character through many adventures, actually works less well for roguelikes since every minute a game continues effectively increases the stakes a little bit. In this, Dungeon Sprint is one of the most interesting roguelike games I've seen recently. It takes Dungeon Crawl's quick-start philosophy and then removes the somewhat-tedious early-level exploration. It's not a game for beginners, but works well for players who are already familiar with much of the game's strategy and lore. I suggest you give it a try, there is a lot to like.

To save few dozen lives: A guide to the early rooms

What follows is strategy discussion of the early stages of the Red Sonja map. If you want to find everything out for yourself you may want to stop reading now. Dungeon Sprint feels a lot like classic “old school” dungeon crawling, where the surprise is part of the fun, but the dungeon is so hard that you're unlikely to complete it on your first, or even your hundredth, try. You might want to come back to it if you try playing Sprint but get stuck.

This map is of the areas most commonly seen by early characters. The walls are black, the doors are brown, secret doors are purple, yellow represents treasure (usually gold), shops are dark green, random altars light green. Don't confuse either of those, however, for the poison gas area, which contains neither. Some other aesthetic colors are used as well.

As alluded to in the introduction, most of the monsters are contained in their own rooms, and your survival desperately depends on your ability to keep them out of your hair before you're ready for them. This puts an emphasis on stealth, another reason stabbing-type characters have a bit of an advantage. Magic users should be careful not to use loud magic; a lightning bolt is a fine attack spell in many cases, but not when it'll pull in centaurs, Sonja and kobold demonologists all at once.

Here is a description of each marked area:

IN: The entrance. This room is a good place to exercise your starting 25 experience points and memorize a spell if you can. The dark blue spaces are fountains.

IJYB: The first monster in the dungeon is a moderate challenge. Melee types can probably take him but spellcasters might have to use one of their starting potions to kill him. Poison works well against him and the other two starting humanoid opponents.
If you choose Speed you might be able to get through Ijyb, the ogre and Sigmund on one potion if you're lucky, but you'll probably also have to drink a heal wounds potion before it's over. Surer is your potion of bezerk rage, which if drunk while standing by the door to the ogre room can pretty reliably take out both monsters before it wears off; be sure to let it expire and then wait for the slow period to wear before opening the next door!
Ijyb is often generated with a wand or a potion of his own. Stalker-types who manage to one-shot stab him before he wakes up can take this item for themselves.

OGRE: Many games will end here; this ogre isn't any weaker than the ones who frequently kill unwary characters in standard Crawl, there aren't any pillars to dance around with this one, and you're probably only level two to boot. He is well-capable of killing even melee types in a single hit. My suggestion is to drink your potion of berserk rage, and if you're going to do that you might as well have taken Ijyb out with it too. (Sigmund is more dangerous; if he goes invisible you probably won't be able to kill him before the potion wears off.)

SIGMUND: The Soldier Ant of Dungeon Crawl, in the standard game Sigmund is probably the deadliest unique relative to when he appears. By the time you reveal him you're probably at experience level 4. He'll probably turn invisible if he wakes up; if a stalker-type doesn't kill him before then he might have a problem.
A good spell to use on him, if you have it, is Mephitic Cloud, since he can't cast spells if he's confused. Stalker-types often can learn it by now. He can also confuse you though. A tough opponent, know that once you manage to get past him consistently you're well on your way to becoming an advanced Crawler.

AMOEBA: If you're sure of yourself you can try to take this monster out a little earlier than you'd usually and get access to these four random altars.
Unlike the humanoids preceding it, this Giant Amoeba is immune to poison, so you can't Sting it for damage or Cloud it to confuse. This is a much stronger opponent than Sigmund; fortunately it's slow and can't open doors. Some character types might be able to stab or slash it to death; if you can't, take advantage of its slow speed by luring it back into the starting room, running by and closing the door behind you. Even if you come back with many more levels it's possible to get killed if you underestimate this dangerous blob of cytoplasm.

JELLY: If you melee this monster you stand a good chance of having your armor and weapon corroded. It's not marked on the map but there's actually a couple of items in the entrance to this room; if you run from the jelly without picking them up, it will eat them and heal, or even multiply. (It can even do this during a normal move, which seems almost buggy.) This multiplication, however, is one of the few opportunities you'll have to get ahead of the expected experience level. It's not that big a deal in the long run; you're starting to approach the period where experience requirements are great enough you won't be gaining levels as quickly. Note: unlike the amoeba, jellies are not immune to poison.
But also unlike the amoeba, jellies are not hindered by closed doors. There are two random altars in this room, and secret doors to some items. The items are usually gold, but sometimes items appear in the bottom room.
After dispatching the Jelly, most characters will want to kill the Giant Slug to the left.

SLUG: A Giant Slug is a slow but very strong opponent. It will be difficult to confuse, but if you retreat and let it chase you you'll have many chances to use magic on it. Strong melee characters might be able to just smack it to death, but don't try this if you don't have lots of hit points and good healing. In emergencies it can be ditched in one of the starting rooms.
In the room beyond the slug are five altars and what is probably the first shop you've seen. Shops provide options and advantages outside of the “usual” game of Dungeon Sprint, and this map provides you with plenty of funds, so you should closely examine the inventory of every shop you find for useful objects.

SONJA: The map's namesake, she's described in the text above. Be very cautious about opening that door! Its proximity to a potentially door-eating jelly is dangerous.
One way to handle her is invisibility then sneaking up and stabbing, but that tends to be highly dependent on race and role. The Repel Missiles spell is valuable if you have it, although it's not infallible. That potion of healing you begin with cures poisoning. The slowness caused by her curare needles can be negated with one of your starting potions of speed. Summoners might be able to ani-spam her to death. She is usually (but not always) generated with a sword of distortion that allows her to blink away. If you kill her, that sword can be a powerful asset, but remember that unwielding distortion weapons can be dangerous. Finally, you should know that there is a slim chance upon her striking you with it that you might get banished to the Abyss. That might actually be helpful since that means random monsters with experience points outside the set amount contained in the level, but it's possible to get overwhelmed with foes while there. If you do get banished, keep moving, keep your eyes open for exit portals, stay away from monsters, and don't let yourself get trapped.

dungeonsprint2.pngGAS SPORES: It's more than possible for an unlucky character to open the door, for one of the two spores on the other side to get the first move, move adjacent to the player, explode immediately for high damage, and in the process set off the other spore which also immediately explodes. I have had a character die from this, no other actions after opening the door. At the very least you should be at full health before swinging it open. On the other side is a fairly large amount of treasure but no other exits, so it can be safely skipped. Keep in mind that, since the previous articles on Crawl, Gas Spores have learned a new trick: they now sometimes leave behind ballistomycetes when they detonate. You don't get credit for killing a Gas Spore until you've killed all its ballistomycetes.

EYES: This room offers little direct danger, but it can potentially make your character unplayable if not treated with respect. The room contains two Floating Eyes and a few Shining Eyes. Neither can harm the player directly, but the Giant Eyeballs can paralyze you for several turns with a glance, which is often fatal if a monster with a physical attack is around. Giant Eyeballs are one of the few monster types that is not shut down from confusion. The Shining Eyes have a mutation gaze attack. The mutations could be either good or bad, but usually you won't be getting the good ones from their attacks.
Several Shining Eyes gazing at once can quickly turn your character into a mutant freak, and being frozen in place by Giant Eyeballs while it happens is even less fun. Its best to lure these babies back into Sonja's room, or further, and kill them one at a time. Still, some mutation is almost unavoidable unless you manage to one-hit them or have come across a source of mutation-resistance. They can't open doors, so maybe you can trap some in the early rooms. Shining Eyes are worth a lot of experience. There is little direct danger here, so if you're stuck you can pretty easily smack your way through here to the room beyond....

SHOPS: Your reward for making it through the eyes is this room with four random shops. There are no other exits, so you can skip the eyes if you need to. Keep in mind, the hall immediately in front of the eye room contains one shop.

TROLL: On the other side of Sonja's room is this Troll. There is also treasure in this room (which I neglected to depict). By this point a troll may not be all that difficult of a foe, but it can still pack a wallop. At the end of the hallway is a shop. North is a secret door hiding even more treasure.

CENTAURS: At the right-hand side of this room are two Centaur Warriors, quite dangerous foes. Working in your favor is the fact that this room is naturally hazy, often blocking line-of-sight to you from their deadly arrows. Working against you is the shallow water blocking both entrances to this room; if you just step splash into the puddle you'll wake the archers and then you'll probably have a hard time surviving. Repel Missile spells work fairly well. Better would be a way to levitate over the water so you can stab them (provided you're playing a stabby type). Confusion spells are another useful tactic against missile firers.

OKLOB: South of the Centaurs' treasure room is a one-space chamber containing an Oklob plant, one of the most obnoxious monsters in Crawl. Oklobs take huge amounts of punishment and shoot powerful corroding blasts at you while you're in line-of-sight of them. The textbook way of destroying an Oklob is with a disintegration wand, but chances are high you haven't found one by the time you encounter this room. I've yet to look at the passage beyond, even though it's technically possible to get into it without killing the plant by moving diagonally from doorway to doorway.

KOBOLD DEMONOLOGISTS & FLOATING EYE: If you keep going beyond the Amoeba room you find these tricky opponents. Kobolds of whatever level are not very strong, but their being demon summoners puts the odds in their favor. Most tricks like confusion, poisoning, sleeping and the like don't work well against demons and, being summoned creatures, they don't even give you any experience points. If you can kill the kobolds and then run eventually the demons will expire naturally. Keep that in mind.
The kobolds alone would be bad enough, but there's also a Giant Eyeball in here. Unlike the one in the Eye room, this one accompanies monsters who hit for damage, so this is a dangerous room even for high-level characters. It's your choice which is the greater priority: kill the kobolds before they can summon demons so it doesn't matter if the eye paralyzes you (difficult, as there are two summoners), or kill the eye first so it can't freeze you in place while infernal claws cut you to ribbons.

CRAWLERS: This room contains four demonic crawlers to harass you even if you somehow wipe out the kobolds without trouble. They are not actually extremely difficult monsters, but their demon nature gives them a lot of resistances. Frequently when you approach this room the door will already be open, for some reason.

GARGOYLE + POISON GAS: The Gargoyle is actually a Metal Gargoyle. Making it tougher is the poison gas clouds that infest this area. Poison gas can cause confusion, making getting out of the clouds harder than getting in. There are also traps throughout this room.

LINDWURM: A low-level dragon with fire breath. Fortunately it seems relatively easy to sneak up on for stealthy characters.

HOGS: After all of the trouble with the other rooms this room is something of a break. This entire room is filled with hogs, which are fairly ordinary animal monsters. They're not weak, but they don't have resistances, and they're still worth good experience.

This is a good room to end with. If you continue on you'll find hydras and fire giants, divas and Pandemonium Lords. There's gold to find too, and lots of treasure. It's good to use the shops as larders, coming back to them as you get the money for them and cleaning them out of the good stuff. Red Sonja's map packs a lot of Crawl's most interesting special obstacles in close proximity to each other, including multiple types of special gasses, transparent walls and deep water, so stay on your toes.