Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. Not just another roguelike, and a new project!

 Not so long ago, I wrote a little article about the roguelike RPG genre. In the course of doing a little light research to write that post, there was a roguelike that I hadn't mentioned but kept encountering the name of over and over again. No worries, I could do a second article someday, call it “roguelike roundup” or somesuch and profile a few more. So, with all the mentions of this particular game on Reddit and around the web, I figured it had to be pretty good, might as well try it out. Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup is on its surface a roguelike RPG just like the others. Swords and Sorcery, ASCII graphics that can be replaced with a simple graphical tileset, random dungeon generation, etc. Lurking just beneath the surface of Dungeon Crawl is a game of astonishing complexity that is defined by a set of differences that don't seem to be such a big deal... until you try playing with them. I set aside all other roguelikes, and indeed, most other video games, and wow did I ever get into DCSS, setting aside games I paid for in favor of this free masterpiece.

A.. splash screen? For a roguelike? Yes, this is something different.

The first thing someone loading Dungeon Crawl (current version at time of this article is 0.9) will notice is the unusually high number of different races and classes to choose from when creating a character. There are 24 different species to choose from, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, aptitudes for learning various skills and rate of level advancement. From fantasy staples such as human, elf, dwarf and orc to the more exotic merfolk and kenku, traditionally evil mummy, vampire and demonspawn, each species plays distinctly different. There are 27 different classes, or backgrounds, though it is worth pointing out that 9 of them are different flavors of wizard. Through updates, species and backgrounds are constantly being evaluated to make sure they are different enough in terms of how they play to justify their inclusion, and those that don't make the cut are excised from future version updates. The group that is in the game now are a solid stable of potential combinations for play.

This game is hard. Not hard in a “I can't figure out the controls or options” sort of way like Dwarf Fortress, and not arbitrarily difficult in an unfair way. After the initial few dungeon levels, most character deaths are the fault of a mistake in the player's tactics or strategy. Dungeon Crawl balances choosing equipment and trained skills, managing resources and effectively analyzing which threats are too difficult and escaping them for success. Unlike in other roguelikes, characters don't have to kill everything they encounter on a level. Sometimes, teleporting to a nearby stairwell and skipping a dungeon level is the best way to go. In the quest for the Orb of Zot, there are 27 main levels of the dungeon, and many side-branches and sub-dungeons arranged by theme, picking which of these to explore and how deep to go into them is key to success. By the end, a player will need three runes minimum from the deepest level of the branches to get into the realm of Zot and get the Orb.

Many different skills to train, choosing the right ones is key.

Another key difference between this game and other roguelikes is the existence of online play. Not online multiplayer, mind you, it is strictly a single player game. Playing online allows tracking of your various characters lives and deaths, a scoreboard and other players can observe and comment live, giving advice as you play. In addition to these features, rarely on certain levels of the dungeon, you may encounter the ghost of another player's character who met their end on a particular floor. In a way, even your failed characters live on as foes, providing a passive sort of PvP. “Busting” these player ghosts is an experience that always provides a thrill, because many of the spectres are much harder than a typical enemy. Takedowns of these monsters as well as Unique named monsters mark moments in a character's career that suggest a great story. There may be no default “plot” here, but some of the procedurally-generated drama is still compelling.

Dungeon Crawl has vast databases of knowledge about the creatures, spells and weapons, as well as the many gods available for characters to worship. There are 18 gods in the pantheon, some of which restrict worship to particular races or backgrounds. Each deity has criteria for worship, such as sacrificing corpses of foes or valuable magic items, learning spells or just killing things. There are sins against the gods that will turn them against you, the foremost of which is renouncing your devotion to their service. Gods make their displeasure known to those who cross them, in some brutal and spectacular ways. Advantages to service may include unique equipment, special powers, summonable allies, or in the case of Xom, god of chaos... you might just get messed with. Choosing a god (unless you play the demigod species) is as significant a choice as background and species, though aside from backgrounds that start with religion, the choice is delayed until you find an altar to the deity you wish to pledge yourself to.

A screenshot of my Orc Priest, with a recruited army of loyal followers on a jihad through the Orc Mines.

This game has inspired a small side project, represented by a second blog, Tales of the Cursed - Crawl For the Orb of Zot, that I've put up here. In addition to allowing me to do some writing outside the typical scope and theme of the posts I do here, the other site let me play with the layout and add things I wanted to here, but couldn't without a dramatic redesign. One of these features is a blog roll with popular posts from sites that follow me here and comment, links back to people who have supported what I'm working on here. Bounce over, check it out and add it to your subscriptions if it is something you might read now and again. I won't update that one as often as I publish here for sake of my free time and sanity, and may occasionally say something on this site when something new goes up over there.
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fabio_2007 said...

great review

Alpha said...

'Translocations' sound useful.

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