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

We've covered all of the current big-name roguelikes, at least nominally, at this point, so let's look at one of the older games. Released back around 1986, Larn was one of Hack's chief competitors for the title of successor to Rogue.

Hack was known for killing characters with distressing frequency, and dismaying glee, so Larn was popular for being a much a kinder game, although still not a pushover. It was one of the premier roguelikes on the Amiga side of the PC fence.

While it wasn't the first roguelike to use a town level (that was probably Moria), it was the first to give us multiple dungeons in the same game.

The Taxonomy of Larn

Roguelikes may be categorized into those that take after Hack (like Nethack) and those that take after Moria (like Angband), but Larn borrows from both. Like Moria, it uses menu shops, the character's experience growth is more important than the stuff he's carrying, item generation is weighted by dungeon depth, and there's a surface town that must be returned repeatedly.

But like Hack, levels are persistent, the dungeon itself has a kind of character, there are "features" in the dungeon that can be taken advantage of or cause problems, and there is a strong ethic of powergaming: of trying find ways to use the rules in such a way as to gain an overwhelming advantage.

But in other ways Larn takes most after Rogue, and it has several unique ideas all its own. The most Rogueish thing about it, besides its being a roguelike of course, is the game's hard time limit. Rogue starts the player off with a single food ration, and the player must explore fast enough to find more as he descends into the dungeon or he'll starve to death.

This mechanic constantly pushes him downward to find more food, since the only reliable way of generating more is to explore more levels, and prevents him from hanging out on the upper levels, endlessly killing weak monsters to build experience. Larn doesn't have food other than fortune cookies, which aren't of nutritional value but provide hints to the player. It does, however, have a time limit.

At the start of the game, the player is informed that his character's daughter is ill, and will die of "dianthoritis" in 300 "mobuls" of time. It is rumored that somewhere in the dungeon there is a way to cure it, and that is what the player ultimately searches for.

larn1.png Unlike Rogue, the player may travel freely between dungeon levels, and use his time in different ways. In addition to exploring the dungeons, there's a bank in which deposited gold earns interest over time, and there is a university in the town level in which the player can spend mobuls taking courses in fighting, spellcasting, or "contemporary dance."

The limit isn't as hard as it might seem, as one type of item that can be found or purchased, scrolls of time warp, has as its sole purpose the setting back of the clock a random number of time units. It's never a huge amount, but usually enough to be useful.

The solution to all your monster needs! Easy installment plan: one installment, you pay now.

To get back to Larn and the concept of powergaming.... The tradition of finding ways to game the power curve has its roots in the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, and is an essential aspect of most roguelikes. But Larn takes things to an entertaining extreme. One of the places in the town level is the DND Store, which helpfully sells nearly every object in the game, from clubs to scrolls of pulverization.

Unlike most roguelikes, many items can only be found in the store, including the most powerful equipment items. Among these is stainless steel plate armor, not only the best armor but it's completely rustproof. It's expensive, but not tremendously so, and it provides sufficient protection that most weaker monsters won't be able to even scratch the player.

Stainless steel plate armor is quite valuable, but there are still better items for sale. Foremost among them is the lance of death, quite possibly the most formidable weapon ever to be put into a roguelike game. This thing has incredible power, enough that it is bound to cause the player, the first time he gets one, to question the judgment of the game designer in including it. For the lance of death lives up to its name: any monster the lance strikes, from the lowliest kobold to the princes of demons, dies in one hit. All the power of a cockatrice corpse, but none of the risk.

Of course the lance costs a wheelbarrow of gold pieces. But its availability in the game's store, while seeming injudicious at first, turns out to be remarkably ingenious. The existence of the lance works because of Larn's unusual structure. You see, after starting out in town, most players descend into the game's ten-level main dungeon to collect the game's big sparkly, the Eye of Larn, building experience and collecting equipment and gold pieces along the way in the traditional D&D manner.

larn2.pngYet it turns out, the player doesn't want the Eye because of any powers it grants, any protection it offers, or because the gods will reward the player in exchange for it. He wants it because it can be sold to the bank for over 160,000 gold pieces, and the lance of death costs 165,000! See the connection?

But the Eye is at the bottom of the main dungeon. Why would the player need the lance if he can already defeat the demon guarding it it? It's because there's a second dungeon to explore, which contains the magic potion that can save your daughter.

While it only has three levels, it is far more difficult than the main one, and is chock full of dragons as well as other high-level opponents. An invisible demon prince stands over the potion you're looking for, which is about the only monster which the lance of death doesn't immediately vanquish, just because it's so hard to hit the darn thing.

Larn Gameplay FAQ

If you should decide to play this game, and I greatly recommend it to first-time roguelike players for its relative lack of keyboard-smashing difficulty, here are answers to a few possible questions:

Where do I get it from?

Playing it from Windows is something of a mess, it's probably better to use a Freenix to play the game. The only acceptably-recent version that didn't bomb out at odd times, or randomly freeze up for ten seconds is Larn 12.4 Alpha 1 DOS, from the current Larn maintainer's webpage, played in DOSBox. (EDITOR'S NOTE: site seems to be down as this article is published, but the Larn page on Rogue Life also seems to have Larn 12.4 Alpha 1 listed.)

Even then, the game will complain about tampering upon loading a saved game and disqualify your game for the scoreboard, so try not to save. Fortunately Larn is one of the shorter roguelikes out there, and can be completed in a single session.

After unzipping it and setting up DOSBox, you'll want to edit larn.opt to customize the game. You'll probably want to uncomment the lines with keypad, bold-objects and highlight-objects. Also, if you want a name other than PLAYER you'll have to uncomment and change one of the name lines.

larn4.pngWhat are the basic keys?

The DOS version has an option to use the numberpad instead of vi keys for movement, activate it by editing the configuration file. Typing a question-mark during the game brings up the help screens, which lead off with a list of commands. After that, it's mostly as in Rogue. Here are the basics, refer to help for the others:

Shift-E - enter a location
Comma - pick up an object
Period - wait a turn without doing anything
I - inventory
D - drop
Q - quaff, that is to say, drink
E - eat
R - read
W - wield (a weapon)
Shift-W - wear (armor or shields)
Shift-T - take off (armor or shields)
C - cast a spell
Shift-O - open a door
Shift-C - close a door
> - go downstairs
< - go upstairs
Shift-S - save the game (but see below)
Shift-Q - quit the game

Some of these commands will automatically prompt you if you're standing on the same space as a relevant item if you want to use it.

Note: The only version of Larn I could get to work satisfactorily on Windows XP was a DOS version of Larn 12.4.0. Yet even this version doesn't work perfectly: saved games work, but the game misidentifies them as having been modified and disqualifies them for the scoreboard.

I started a game and now I'm in a field with a bunch of numbers. What does this mean?

You're in the town level. The numbers are the locations of the various services available here. They are:
1- The player's home
2- The DND Store
3- The trading post
4- LRS Office (Larn Revenue Service)
5- The bank
6- The college
8- The main dungeon
9- The volcanic shaft

While the town is mostly safe, monsters can be generated here, and the clock does advance while walking around town.

How do I enter a store/the dungeon/the bank/whatever?

Press shift-E. While Larn's keypresses mostly take after Rogue, including using < for upstairs and > for downstairs, shift-E must be pressed to enter most numbered locations. The exception to this is 9, which must be entered with >, but you probably don't want to go there just yet.

The messages at the bottom of the screen seem not to make any sense, is there something wrong with them?

It's a weirdness of the game. There's five lines at the bottom of the screen reserved for messages to the player, but they don't scroll. Instead, the game reuses the lines over and over, replacing old messages with new ones in a cyclical manner. When the messages reach the bottom, the next one starts at the top again. There is always a blank line after the most recent message. It's not hard to get used to once you know what's happening.

larn5.pngWhy does my inventory consists of five "a magic scroll"s and four "a magic potion"s?

Larn uses a typical roguelike ID system, but it's implemented a little differently than in most games. Items types are distinct from each other before identification, but the player isn't given any way to tell them apart until then. If you have eight magic potions they could all be the same type, or all different types, or a mixture.

If after drinking one it turns out to be healing, looking at your inventory afterward you might find that some of the other potions are now marked as "magic potion of healing." It's the same system as Rogue, but you don't get item descriptions like "bubbly potion" or "scroll labeled THANX MAUD." The upshot is, you don't have the information of how many of each unknown type of potion you have, a minor but important difference.

I went up/down a circular staircase, but when I came out the other side I wasn't at the stairs from the previous level! How come?

It's weird how many different roguelikes handle staircases in different ways:

- Rogue (and Shiren too for that matter) has only one staircase per level, which goes both up and down, but when you come out the other side you're actually put at a random location on the next level, which could be in the same room as the stairs but probably won't be.
- Nethack and Angband will always put you on a staircase back to the level you came from. Nethack has persistent dungeon levels, and so the staircases lend a kinda-sorta consistency across the levels.
- Larn mixes the two approaches. It has persistent levels, but still puts the player in a random location on the next floor when taking the stairs. Further, each level has separate up and down staircases for going to the next floor.

I've found all these rings and things, but I can't find any way to put them on! Help!

This is one of the nicer idiosyncrasies of Larn. You're already wearing them! You get their effects just by carrying them around in your inventory.

This works well because there are no scrambled ring types in Larn, and generally no "bad" equipment items. All rings are known the moment they are found, none of them will mess you up, and you can wear as many as you can find. The tradeoff is that you can only carry so many items at once in Larn, fewer than even Rogue, so the more rings and such you're holding, the less treasure you can bring back on each trip, and thus the more trips necessary, and thus the more mobuls you end up using.

There are some other items in the game with special functions, like belts of striking, and they also work just by carrying them around. Generally, the only items you have to explicitly equip for use are weapons (command w for wield), and armor and shields (both shift-w for wear).

(Quick trivia: Larn's system of no bad equipment, but unidentified potions and scrolls, is exactly the opposite of the system used in most of Shiren the Wanderer, in which one-shot magic items are known but magic equipment is unknown.)

What are these statues, thrones, mirrors and altars good for?

Various things actually. Gems can be pried off of thrones with a key command (shift-R) and sat in with (s), and one can (p)ray to donate money at altars. Walking over an altar without giving up a proper donation, in fact, often results in summoning a monster. There are other risks involved with altars I'll leave it to you to discover, as well as with looting thrones. Statues can also provide the player with some material benefits, but utilizing them is not as straight-forward in this case. As for mirrors... well, I actually don't know about those. Any ideas?

What is this rectangular region with the door on one edge?

That's a room, a small area typically filled with monsters and treasures. Actually there are normal rooms later on in the dungeon, but it's common to find monster lairs even in the early going. You can open a door by pressing shift-O, which also works on chests. Both doors and chests are often trapped, and some of the traps are quite damaging (near the end level drain traps are common), so care should be taken when opening these.

What do I do with the books and chests?

You (r)ead them or (O)pen them. Books provide spells, and chests spill forth loot. Both disappear when used, and the effects of both vary in awesomeness according to the dungeon level they were found on. Chests are probably trapped. Both can be sold to the trading post unused for large amounts of gold, also varying according to the level they were found at.

How do spells work?

When you read a book you get a three-letter code for a spell. You should probably write this down, as to cast it you'll have to enter it from the spell prompt (shift-C). The prompt provides no indication of which letters you've typed by the way, like a password, so be careful in entering it. If you get the letters wrong, or on a random chance, the spell won't work. Most players will need some kind of distance attack spell to succeed (popular example: fireball), and some of the spells available later on in Larn are extremely powerful. The codes don't change from game to game, but they won't work unless you've gotten them from a book during the current game.

Some versions of the game will print a list of currently-known spells and codes if you press shift-D at the spellcasting prompt.

A scroll of gem perfection? What does that do?

In increases the value of all gems you're carrying when it's read. This is another of Larn's clever bits: exploring while your inventory is full means you can't pick up the stuff that's lying around, but is good if you find a scroll of gem perfection to make all the jewels you've found much more valuable, or if you find a scroll of identify, which affects your whole inventory in Larn.

I've been teleported, but now the dungeon level is listed as "?", what gives?

Pits and teleport traps can send you to different levels of the dungeon. The question-mark represents the uncertainty of your character of which level he might be on. This seems like it's an attempt to replicate that D&D-brand Horror from falling down a shaft and not knowing how bad the monsters around you are.

I've made it to level 10 of the dungeon but I'm being attacked for major damage by something I can't see!

That's the demon who guards the Eye of Larn. He's invisible! You should stockpile as much healing as you can for this fight.

larn6.pngIf I'm just going after it for money to buy the lance of death, do I really have to get the Eye of Larn?

Actually, no.

You need the lance of death to survive in the volcano; if you thought single dragons were bad in the main dungeon, wait until you face an entire densely-packed floor of them. But it's possible to raise the money in other ways. As detailed at Master Gorgon's wonderful site The Larn Blog, there is a good alternate strategy for raising the cash.

Books and chests from the deep levels, if you can do without their contents, sell for huge sums at the trading post, some of them well over 10,000 gold. Even those from the early dungeon are worth surprising amounts of lucre. And money left in the bank accrues interest over time. It is completely possible to get the lance by building up funds this way, then jump straight into the volcano. Whether this is wise or not is left for you to decide, but gaining experience is easy with a lance of death.

Any other tips?

Some of these things may be seen as spoilers....

- There are purposes for many of the things found in the dungeon, but some may require some equipment to make use of.
- Don't step on a Holy Altar, if you can help it, unless you intend on paying some cash as a donation. The gods tend to get irate if their altars are crossed but ignored. Paying enough money can score you a long-lived protection spell.
- Be careful with traps late in the volcano, some pits may be bottomless.
- Potions of healing and fast healing can increase your maximum hit points, as in Rogue, when quaffed while uninjured.
- The game also uses Rogue's stat maximum system, where some monsters can drain stats but they can be instantly restored to maximum status with the right potion, and other potions increase maximums if drunk when that stat is at maximum.
- As is common in roguelikes, the game will let you wield nearly anything in your hands, including items that have little worth in battle. But in Larn, if you read a scroll of enchant weapon when holding such an item, you can increase its plus! In this manner you can raise the plus on rings and miscellaneous items, and armor too, even though there exist scrolls of enchant armor.
- Get the stainless steel plate armor as soon as you can, as rust monsters are common in the middle levels.
- Scrolls of pulverization can destroy a wall, but they can also damage monsters.
- There is a scroll of annihilation in the game that cannot be bought in the DND store.

Hey, I just won, but on the next game I didn't start with any equipment, and I got a message about taxes! What the heck?

Perhaps the most interesting of Larn's features is that, unlike most roguelikes, it has a dynamic difficulty level. There are ten levels of difficulty in the game, and the current game's challenge level is felt in various ways. For example, players at any difficulty greater than 0, the lowest level, don't begin with any equipment, and must make due as they can before they can raise the funds to buy the basic stuff from the store.

The default difficulty of the game starts at 0 on a new installation (or user, on a multiuser machine), but when the player wins, the next game will be one level harder. If you want to explicitly play a given difficulty, you can by invoking the game with the -H command line switch and the digit of the level you want to play, as in, "larn -H9".

In addition, after a player wins the game, the Larn Revenue Service will begin to take notice of him. In subsequent games, the player will be required to pay a tax relative to the money he had upon winning. On Unix systems, the game will even send local email to the user's account informing him of the gold pieces due....

[Some gameplay information taken from The Larn Blog.]