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

I figured what I should do before writing an article on Dungeon Crawl was sit down and give it a good shot at playing it. It has a tremendous reputation for difficulty, though, so my hopes were not high. So I was as surprised as anyone then, after what I estimate are 30 or so games, that I managed to get to the very deepest level of the game, Level 5 of the Realm of Zot.

I started out, as in most of my games of Dungeon Crawl, as a Hill Dwarf Fighter. I had heard that the more “dedicated” characters in Dungeon Crawl, the ones who are capable of doing one thing but doing it very well, are easier to play than jack-of-all-trades like Humans (no racial bonuses) and Wanderers (the “General Studies” class of the game). Since Hill Dwarves are very good fighters, with excellent Strength, but they don't have annoying drawbacks like Trolls' increased hunger, and Fighters are traditionally straight-forward, whack 'em from up close types who can take a few hits before dying, I fixated upon that combination. It seems like a good match, and this time it took me up to the very threshold of winning.

What follow are my observations on getting so far in a game after so little time. This is a very long installment, even compared to the usual, and I apologize for that. I have tried to distill most of what I've learned in playing this game. Some of this was gleaned from spoilers, and some is just hard-won discovery. Use, or ignore, it as you wish.

Shrek Ain't Too Happy To See Me

All Crawl characters, even the strong, straight-forward ones, have points early in their lives where they have to play carefully to survive. Early exploring is dangerous in Crawl, even more so than ADOM, because the game likes to throw in the occasional tough newbie-killer. Fortunately, fighting the likes of soldier ants and mumaks in Nethack left me well-prepared for this kind of thing.

Of all the newbie-killers, ogres are the worst, who can appear on level four or maybe even earlier, and will kill weak characters without ceremony. Ogres are an interesting monster because, besides their high HP and abnormally huge attack strength, they are otherwise completely average. They can wear no armor, their weapon does lots of damage but is almost never branded (that is, carry a special ability). Most importantly, they have no distance attacks, and are of only normal speed.

crawlogre.gifThus the best tactic to use against ogres is to use the loop technique (described last time), to trade blows with the ogre until he is capable of killing you with one more hit, then run away around a loop until hit points have regenerated enough to continue the fight. The problem with this tactic is that it is vulnerable to interference from other monsters. It relies on being able to infallibly move away from the ogre, so a monster that wanders up from the other direction can force the player to kill it, or move around it, instead of escape from the ogre.

But there are other techniques that can be applied to ultra-strong opponents, and some of them take advantage of those intruders. If a rat is between you and an ogre, it is best to let the rat live, since his attacks will barely dent your armor, and if you escape up the stairs, the rat will follow but the ogre will be stuck on the prior level. These kinds of tactics aid the player in other roguelikes, but Dungeon Crawl makes them essential for survival.

More Early Bullies of the Dungeon

Snakes (not small snakes, but plain snakes) are another problem, since they're probably faster than you at the start so you can't effectively use the loop trick, and they can poison you before you get resistance. The poison will wear off after a short while, but if you get to low hit points before it does it may be worth it to drink unknown potions hoping for healing (which restore pitifully few hit points but always cure poison, sickness and other conditions like that). If you don't know what healing is yet, it is the most common potion early in the dungeon, so try drinking first the potion type you have the most of.

A bit deeper you'll encounter orc priests (run until you're out of sight to lure 'em close then kill from adjacent), centaurs (similar, but you can use other monsters to block their shots) and invisible stalkers, which move like bats but you can't see them, and they do a lot of damage. Stalkers generally require that you run to the nearest corridor then shoot down it. They don't have a lot of HP, but they are hard to hit unless you can narrow down their location.

crawljelly.gifThe last kind of troublesome early monster are jellies, which are usually a bit slower than you, but other than that can be very dangerous monsters. When you attack them, or they attack you, they can corrode weapons and armor, permanently reducing its plus, unless you're wearing a means of protection or the item in question is an artifact. Worse, they feed on items laying on the ground, and if they happen upon such things they not only destroy it but often spawn more jellies in the process! Their slowness makes the loop tactic very effective against them, over time, but be sure to pick a loop that has no litter on the floor or you'll soon be facing a corridor full of capital 'J's. Because of their corrosion attribute, often darts are the best way to handle them for non-magic users: run along the loop until they're a space away, then chuck one back with the 'f' key. It'll take a long time but eventually, if you've picked up enough darts, you'll destroy the obnoxious little sandwich spread. Alternatively you can use a wand charge or two.

Once in a while you'll happen upon one of Crawl's unique monsters, who are usually '@'s with a name. Most of them are not a big threat, but watch out for Sigmund early in the game, for he's a spellcaster who merits using centaur strategy to get out of the range of his deadly magic darts. Also beware of "player ghosts," who have the relative name and power of a prior character who died in the game. They are usually very strong, but can often be taken out the same way as ogres.

Roadmap to Monsterland

Crawl's dungeon structure is special, even among roguelikes, because it's non-demanding nature. See, Angband and Rogue have only a single dungeon branch, Nethack has multiple branches but requires players venture into many of them (especially the Quest and Vlad's Tower) to obtain the items needed to reach the Amulet, and ADOM has a very complex quest that forces players to wander through many different dungeons. Crawl, on the other hand, has lots of branches but leaves it up to the player which he explores.

The entry to the Realm of Zot, the last area of the game, is blocked unless players can find three "runes," found at the end of certain branches. It doesn't matter which runes, of around 16 to be collected, that he finds, but he needs at least three. Each branch poses a different kind of challenge, and different characters, even sometimes those of the same race and class, will find an easier time in some places than others.

One quirk of Crawl's dungeons is that they're often not simply connected: each level usually has multiple up- and down- stairs, each leading to a different staircase on the next level. Sometimes you'll even go down some stairs to find out the area you find doesn't itself have a staircase down! If you get stuck like this, sometimes you can search the walls to find a secret door (again, the 's' key searches the eight spaces around you for traps and doors), but usually the best thing to do is go back up the stairs and find another way down. Later on, you can use a means of teleport or digging to get out of those situations. Note that rock staircases, which you find from time to time, are special; they take you to a random stair on the next level, so going down one then up will effectively take you to a different place.

Tips for Identification, Conservation, Mastication and Eradication

Crawls items are randomly scrambled, like Rogue's and Nethack's, but unlike those games they are generally not too dangerous to discover by testing them out. The worst potions you can find are generally mutation (which can be good or bad), poison or strong poison (cure that with a healing potion), or degeneration (which can drain stats; cure it with potions of restore ability, which are not rare). The worst scroll is usually immolation, but it can be used by the canny to attack monsters if you don't care about losing some hit points. Armor in Crawl is identified simply by putting on, although that exposes you to curses. Basic weapon brands (things like poisoned weapons, draining weapon, etc.) types are revealed by wielding it, but the weapon's plusses require using it for a while to figure them out. Many player hoard lots of armor and weapons, along with scrolls of remove curse, so that they can wear- and wield-ID them all at once.

Crawl definitely takes after Rogue in its food system, which functions as a kind of timer. Bread rations and meat rations are the best common food, and generally you'll find enough, as well as other miscellaneous food, to survive in the early dungeon. This food never spoils, but just chowing down on those can be a bad idea; this kind of good food is typically only generated upon first entering a dungeon level, so if you do a lot of backtracking through levels you might find yourself going hungry. Plus, some of the later dungeon branches have little or no food in them.

The solution is to dissect the corpses of monsters you kill (press Shift-D while standing over one), then eat the resulting chunks, which provide not a lot of nutrition but the idea isn't to live off of them but to have them keep you going, so you can conserve the good food for emergencies or late in the game. Some food is poisonous, and some can even mutate you, plus sometimes it'll just randomly make you sick (use healing potions, again, to cure that), but unlike Nethack and ADOM, no monster corpse will provide you with special permanent abilities just from eating them. Most races won't eat raw chunks, however, unless they're already hungry unless they're wearing an amulet of the gourmand. And never eat food if it's started to spoil. And one more 'and': you can't dissect corpses without a bladed weapon handy, although the game will ask you if you want to switch if you have one available. If you can make it to the Hive you'll can scavenge a large supply of food that doesn't spoil, enough to easily last the rest of the game.

crawlchart.gifSeventh Floor: Housewares, Home Appliances, Customer Service, and Geryon, Gatekeeper of Hell

Sometimes you'll find a yellow staircase. Standing on one will tell you that it leads to a special dungeon branch, and which it goes to. Eventually you'll have to go into some of them to get runes, but it's usually a good idea to look up what they are in a spoiler list (like this one) to get a sense of whether your character can survive there. Summarized, they are:

ECUMENICAL TEMPLE: There are no monsters generated here, but there are lots of altars, one devoted to each of Crawl's gods. By using the 'p' key to pray on one, you can convert to the religion of that god. Each god has certain things he expects of worshipers, and special abilities he provides to faithful followers. Like the dungeon branches, and again, against the popular perception that Crawl doesn't require spoilers to play, the only real way to make a good decision as to which, if any, to follow is to read a spoiler page. This is a good one. My suggestion is to go with Okawaru at first, since he's fairly easy-going. He only really hates it when friendly monsters die, and it's easy to please him by simply praying while killing monsters, and also dissecting them while praying. Eventally he bestows the power to haste one's self, which can come in handy both in combat and escape.

ORCISH MINES: Lots of orcs, who are relatively weak but it is easy to get surrounded by them, there are priests and wizards scattered through them who can attack from a distance, and the level structure makes it difficult to force enemies through bottlenecks in the layout, which help the player by forcing opponents to attack him one at a time. The mines do not contain a rune.

In my game, I found Orcish splint mail of magic resistance there, which became my main armor for the game. It is often better to find artifact armor use that, because it cannot be damaged by monsters, but it also can't be enchanted beyond its starting pluses. They also can have special powers that are difficult to acquire otherwise, especially in the case of randarts, randomly-determined artifacts that are different every game. It is possible to get many necessary resistances taken care of at once with a single randart, if the player is lucky enough to find one, but because they are few equipment guarantees in Crawl it is possible to be undone by a failure to find a good one.

In my game the ultimate cause of death was from fire shots from a pair of Orbs of Fire in a wide-open area, with me only having one level of fire resistance. If I had worn two sources at once their shots would have been much more survivable, and with three they would have been barely a threat at all. But one only has so many equipment slots, and so much that can be carried at once, so one usually has to make hard choices about whether to have one kind of resistance or another at a given moment, or use other equipment like rings of slaying instead. But a single lucky artifact can take the place of several pieces of armor or jewelry, if it is generated and the player manages to have it identified so he'll know it has special powers.

ELVEN HALLS: Lots of magic users here. Players must have one or more sources of magic resistance to have any chance here, but there are many demon summoners on the lowest level, and demons can be strong melee opponents. There is lots of equipment on the lowest level, but no rune.

Magic users in Crawl can be tricky opponents because of the power of magic in that game. The most dire spell around is one that banishes the player to the Abyss, a horrible place filled with demons and difficult to escape from. Fortunately that didn't happen to me in the Elven Halls, although it did later on....

LAIR: This is perhaps the easiest dungeon branch of the game, for almost all the monsters here are ordinary animal-types. Near the bottom strong foes like death yaks may be found, but there are no magic users. The Lair has no rune of its own, but it has three branches itself, two of them having guaranteed runes and the other having a great chance of one. Best of all however, the Lair is a great place to gain experience without much risk.

SNAKE PIT: I got my first rune here. Its primary foes are nagas, which have strong poison attacks, but having just a single level of poison resistance was enough to combat that. Guarding the rune are a small army of nagas, some of them spellcasters, but there is a one-space-width corridor leading from it. A character standing at one end of that can shoot wands of fire, cold or lightning down it to take care of many nagas queued up along it in relative comfort.

SWAMP: I got my second rune from here. It's a series of wide-open levels with lots of water. Falling into deep water can be very dangerous so it is bad to get confused here, and the Swamp Drakes that infest the area have a confusion gas breath attack. Shallow water, while not instantly fatal, slows the player down and makes it difficult to fight back. Poison resistance is also important to have here due to the Swamp Dragons that live in the Swamp's deeper levels. The hydras that live here should be defeated, by the way, with a blunt weapon like a mace, instead of a bladed one like a sword. Just trust me on this.

SLIME PITS: The last branch off from the Lair, and where I eventually got my third rune. It is a very dangerous area for unprepared players. While I took care of the Snake Pit and the Swamp at around level 13-14, I was level 22 when I finally worked up the courage to tackle the Slime Pits. (For comparison's sake, the highest experience level the player can reach is 27.) Equipment damage is frequent unless the player has items to guard against that. I did, yet I still ended up with a couple of plusses taken off my armor while there.

The most annoying thing about getting runes here is that they are random here, not guarenteed, and if they are present they are inside one of four chambers on the deepest level that have undiggable walls, and can only be entered by teleportation. I found not a single source of teleport control through the whole game, and I eventually had to get the rune by wearing a ring of teleport and evoking it many times, until I finally managed to get into a rune-bearing chamber.

HIVE: Another place it is unwise to enter without poison resistance, but once the player has it and is strong enough to take care of multiple bees at once, this is an easy place. There is lots of food here, in the form of honeycombs and royal jellies, so players who can clear this place out and manage their food consumption carefully will be able to worry a lot less about starvation. Unfortunately, there is no rune here.

VAULTS: The first truly challenging area, there's always a rune here but it's in the extremely dangerous last floor, which I was scared to visit. Dungeon levels here are strange: each floor is a wide-open plain with lots of rectangular rooms around it, some of them with doors leading inside and some without. Those doors are essential fixtures, since they are the only bottlenecks to be found there. Combat is often against several foes at once because of that.

CRYPT: Found branching off the Vaults, there is no rune here but I was strong enough by then that I wasn't in much danger, either. Undead are very common there, including the feared skeletal warriors, but they weren't much of a problem for me by that time.

TOMB: A very interesting place branching off from the Crypt. The primary monster here are mummies, which have a very special attribute: if you kill one, they bestow a curse upon you. The curses range from just having stuff cursed (easy to counter with a scroll of remove curse) to rotting for a short while (which removes maximum hit points!) to being sent to the Abyss. The only way to safely handle mummies is to summon or charm other monsters so they take care of them for you, but as a very unmagical dwarf who relied on wands for that kind of thing, this was not easy for me. I left the Tomb after only a few hundred turns, and didn't return.

HALL OF BLADES: A one-level branch from the Vaults, the only monsters here are possessed weapons. Once a weapon is “killed” it falls to the ground and can be used, but while it is “alive” the player will have to face all the effects the weapon possesses. I was banished to the Abyss twice here, once by a morningstar of distortion, and again, once I got back and killed it, by wielding that same weapon. After that, I dropped it in the Abyss and didn't look back.

ABYSS: And what of the Abyss itself? It is effectively its own dungeon branch, but always random. If you leave and return it'll be different, and it doesn't "map out" as you explore it either. The level even wrap around, making it difficult to come up with a good exploration strategy. Attempting to teleport here will just send you to a new area of the Abyss. There is always an exit portal in it somewhere, but meanwhile every kind of demon is trying to kill you, and many of them have strange abilities like intelligence draining, and summoning in still more demons. While there are lots of random walls around to hide behind, it's also easy to get caught in a dead end. It is possible for even low-level characters to get sent there on rare occasions, who die quickly unless they do lots of running, and use teleport scrolls to get out of tight spots. Rarely, runes are found in the Abyss, but going there on purpose to look for them is often unwise.

HELL: Hell has five sections, four of which available by killing Geryon in its entry level and blowing his horn. Each of the other areas has a rune to be found, but a few close calls deeper in convinced me to go look in the Slime Pits for the last one I needed. Mostly, this place is a whole bunch of demons supplying a whole lot of hurt, but at least it's not “instanced” like the Abyss is. One rune is in each of its four branches.

PANDEMONIUM: The third and last of the “underworlds” in Dungeon Crawl, it's like the Abyss in that it's random, tough and hard to escape from (even harder in fact, since most Pandemonium areas only have portals to other areas), and like Hell in that it's mappable. Or at least, so I read. I didn't go there in this game, and I suspect that was a good choice on my part. Several runes can be found randomly here.

REALM OF ZOT: The other branches are, to a degree, optional, but once enough runes are found all players must come here, which is a series of five tough, random areas. My game ended here, on the fifth and last level, just one screen away from the Orb of Zot, goal of the game. I kind of expected it might.

But I know why I died, and next time there, I won't. That's what playing roguelikes is about.

Dungeon Crawl
Old site: Linley's Dungeon Crawl
Current development site: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
Much discussion on the game can be found on the Usenet group (Google Groups link. Client link.)
You can play Dungeon Crawl over telnet using PuTTY, but be sure to set the application keypad setting to Nethack.
Information for the map was obtained from this spoiler page.