Priority CRPG 2: Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom (1980)

From CRPG Adventures

In the history of gaming, there are plenty of games that are important milestones.  Games that changed the direction of the medium, or set a benchmark for their genre going forward.  There are only a handful of games, however, that are so significant and set such a precedent that an entire genre will be named after them.  They’re not necessarily the most famous games out there, but they are the ones that defined their play-style so much that their genre can’t be separated from them afterwards. I’ve played a couple of those for the blog already: Adventure and MUD1 gave their names to the adventure game genre and MUDs, respectively.  Now I come to the third such milestone: Rogue.
I have an ambivalent history with roguelikes.  The first one that I remember playing for any significant length of time was Diablo, which is only tangentially related to the genre.  I bounced off it hard in the late 90s, when everyone was raving about it.  Why would I want to play a game with random dungeons when I could play something crafted by a human?  The random dungeons were just one aspect of a game that was – at the time – everything I didn’t want CRPGs to become.
I played Rogue a time or two in the years after that, when I was making an effort to go back to a bunch of classics I’d missed.  I bounced off of Rogue in much the same way that I did with Diablo: random dungeons and a lack of story didn’t appeal to me, and I really didn’t get the permadeath thing.  I also kind of hated its dumb monsters.  Kestrels and ostriches?  No thanks.  (I was playing the  commercial DOS port, which excised a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons flavour of the original for legal purposes, even though a bazillion games had already nicked it without any repercussions.)
The commercial version of Rogue for DOS.  I’d mock the presence of
an emu, but those things are no joke.
It wasn’t until around the  early 2010s that I was able to come to grips with it, mostly due to getting a smartphone.  I was looking for games to play on it, and I stumbled across an Android port of Rogue.  That’s when the game clicked for me, as it’s great for mobile devices.  Got ten minutes to waste standing in line?  That’s the perfect time to knock out a few levels of Rogue.  Playing it on the go put me in a different head-space, where I wasn’t looking for a substantial gaming experience, or settling in to explore a virtual world for hours on end.  I was looking for a challenge that I could kill time with in bite-sized chunks, and with Rogue I’d found it.  Sure, the touchscreen interface sucked, but for a turn-based game that didn’t matter so much.
I never finished it on Android, and eventually I switched phones and couldn’t find it for download any more.  The best I ever did was to make it to level 22, where I was probably killed by an Umber Hulk or something.  What can I say, it’s a hard game.  I’ve played a few genuine roguelikes here and there since, but the only one I ever knuckled down with and beat was Pixel Dungeon.
Since then I started the blog, and have beaten a number of games that I’d consider proto-roguelikes: The Dungeon, The Game of Dungeons (versions 5.4 and 8), Orthanc and Beneath Apple Manor all share elements that define the genre: random dungeon layouts, a quest to retrieve an item from deep within the dungeon, and permadeath.  None of those put all three elements together, although Beneath Apple Manor comes the closest.
It’s odd that, of the three genres I mentioned at the start of the post, roguelikes seem to be thriving more now than at any other point in their history.  Adventure games peaked in the 80s and 90s, and haven’t really returned to the prominence they had.  MUDs were big amongst a niche crowd in the 80s and 90s, but I suppose their turf got taken over by MMOs.  Roguelikes, on the other hand, seem to have only gotten big in the last decade.  I wonder if my experience is indicative of the trend, and if perhaps the rise of mobile gaming has anything to do with that?  Hard to say, but I’d love for someone with a stronger grasp of the genre’s history to chime in with their opinion.
I’m not really here to write about the genre as a whole however, but the game that started it.  The history of Rogue began in the late 1970s, with two students at the University of California in Santa Cruz: Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman.  Toy had had some opportunities to play the mainframe-based Star Trek game in his youth, and became fascinated with computer games.  While at college he discovered Colossal Cave Adventure, which impressed him enough that he started writing his own.  Wichman had spent some time playing Dungeons & Dragons, and enrolled in UCSC to learn game design and become a board game developer.  The two became close friends, and started writing adventure games to challenge each other, but soon they realised that the genre provided little in the way of replayability.
Around 1980, with UNIX starting to take over as the primary operating system at UCSC, Toy and Wichman discovered a program called curses, written by Ken Arnold.  Curses allowed for the positioning of characters at any point on a terminal, and using that crude graphics could be developed.  That was the final inspiration that Toy and Wichman needed, and together they came up with a D&D-based game that would satisfy their desire for replayability.
I’m not sure when exactly Rogue was first playable; 1980 is the usual date given so I’ll go with that.  By 1982, Michael Toy was so wrapped up in the game’s development that he was kicked out of UCSC for poor grades.  He took the code with him and continued working on it; Wichman tried to keep up, but found it unworkable, and turned development fully over to Toy.  Toy eventually got in touch with Ken Arnold, intending to get some insight into how curses worked, and the two of them improved the interface, display, and procedural generation of the game.
Around 1984, Rogue was turned into a commercial product distributed by Epyx, but I won’t be dealing with that version of the game just yet.  For now I’m playing a DOS port of version 3.6, which is based on the UNIX code as it existed in 1981.  No doubt it’s inauthentic in some way, but as far as I’m aware it’s the closest approximation out there to the game in its original form.
The backstory of Rogue has you playing as a student of the local fighter’s guild.  As a kind of final entry exam, the guildmasters have tasked you with entering the Dungeons of Doom and coming back alive with the Amulet of Yendor.  (I’ve always assumed that this was supposed to be “Rodney” backwards, and intended to represent one of the creators in much the same manner that Werdna and Trebor represented the creators of Wizardry; today I’ve discovered that nobody who created Rogue had that name, so my theory is shot down.)  Outfitted with elf-made armour and an enchanted sword, you journey to the ancient ruins that mark the entrance to the Dungeons of Doom, and your quest begins.  (There’s a bit of a disconnect between the backstory and the game here, as you actually start with an enchanted mace and a bow.)
The amulet is said to be somewhere below level 20.  In all the games of Rogue that I’ve ever played, I’ve never seen it.  As I said above, the lowest level I’ve ever reached is level 22, and I probably only hit level 20 a handful of other times.  A Rogue expert I ain’t, but I intend to become one.  My intention is to beat this game legitimately, without save-scumming.  It’s going to take a while, but thankfully I have a small leg-up in that I don’t have to learn things from scratch.  I know some of the tactics already.  And you know, I beat The Game of Dungeons v8.  I beat Moria.  I can beat Rogue too.
Beginning a game of Rogue.  This time I’ll win for sure.
So the goal of the game is to ascend through at least 20 dungeon levels, find the Amulet of Yendor, and get back to the surface.  Those levels are procedurally generated, and drawn using ASCII characters, but they’re not completely random.  Each one has around nine rooms, laid out in a 3×3 grid, with passages connecting them.  Sometimes rooms are hidden, and can only be uncovered by searching for secret doors, but the 3×3 layout makes it pretty easy to figure out where those doors might be.
The player (represented by an @ symbol, to let you know “where you’re at”) is moved around using the number pad, so you can move in eight directions.  I think the original UNIX version used a cluster of letters for movement, but thankfully whoever converted it to DOS made this concession to user-friendliness.  The rest of the commands are executed via keyboard: t for throw, q to quaff a potion, r to read a scroll, that sort of thing.  The most confusing thing is that some commands use the same key in upper and lower case.  For example, lower case t is for throw, but upper case T is for taking off your armour.  Lower case w is to wield a weapon, and upper case W is to wear armour.  When I first started playing I needed a text file with all of the commands listed open at all times, but now that I’ve got a dozen games or so under my belt it’s become second nature, and I hardly need to refer to it at all.
The player has very little in the way of stats: there’s a Strength score, starting at 16, which I gather determines how much damage you do in combat.  Hit points work like they always do, and you always begin with 12 (which in D&D terms would be the equivalent of a 1st level fighter with maximum hit points and a decent Constitution score).  Armour Class determines how hard you are to hit, with a lower score being better as it was in old-school D&D.  You earn experience points by killing monsters, and gain levels that increase your hit points.  It’s all very standard CRPG stuff.  You can customise your game slightly, by using the options command: this lets you rename your character and set their favourite fruit.  The latter merely changes the name of some items you can find, and has no real bearing on mechanics.  It’s set on “slime-mold” as a default, but I usually change it to mushroom,which is a little more palatable but also something that could conceivably grow in a dungeon.  (If I change it to “amulet of yendor” can I get an easy win?)
The monsters are represented with upper case ASCII characters, and are very much drawn from the D&D Monster Manual.  On the first few levels you fight Snakes, Bats, Kobolds and Hobgoblins, but they get stronger as you descend: Zombies, Centaurs, Trolls, Invisible Stalkers, and even the incredibly D&D-specific Xorn.  I recall that on the deepest levels there were Umber Hulks, Vampires and Dragons, but I haven’t managed to make it that far yet.
Traps are also a danger, although a minor one.  There are arrows that shoot from the wall, and poison darts that can reduce your Strength.  The most troublesome are those that dump you on the next lower dungeon level, as sometimes that can mean you have to fight some monsters that you’re not quite ready for.  On my first game I had an irritating placement of a teleport trap, which was situated right in front of the door to the room where the stairs down were located.  There was nothing I could do except keep running into it until it put me where I needed to go.  It was just a quirk of the random generation, and not a fatal one, but it sure was annoying.
I need to get into the room in the upper left, but
that teleport trap won’t let me.
There’s plenty of gold to be found, but it’s a little pointless: you can’t buy anything, and it’s really just there as a kind of scoring system.  Also scattered around the dungeon are weapons, armour, potions, scrolls, rings, and magic staves/wands.  The weapons and armour are sometimes magical, granting a bonus to combat or defense, but they can also be cursed.  Cursed items can’t be removed until you find a scroll of remove curse, but there’s often no way of knowing how good an item is until you start using it (unless you find a scroll of identify).  Putting on an item without identifying it first is always a gamble.
The potions, scrolls, rings and staves/wands are uniquely identified, but those identifiers change for every game.  For example, potions are differentiated by colour.  In one game a potion of healing might be red, but in the next game it might be silver. Rings and staves/wands are differentiated by the material they are made out of, and the scrolls use gibberish words.  Some items are identified once you use them; if you use a scroll of identify, the next such scroll you find will be clearly marked.  Some items don’t identify, though, so it can be a good idea to take notes unless you have a good memory.  Just don’t expect those notes to be helpful on your next game.
Food is also a factor.  You begin with one meal, but there is food to be found throughout the dungeon if you’re lucky.  If you don’t eat, you’ll eventually grow hungry, and then weak.  Once you’re weak, eventually you’ll start falling unconscious every few moves.  I don’t know if you can genuinely starve to death, but once you start passing out the monsters will probably make short work of you.  Hunger is the main reason that you can’t linger on the easier levels and grind for experience: you need to keep descending, as that’s the only way to find food.
At this point, I should probably address permadeath.  Rogue has it, and is infamous for it.  You can save your game, but the file will be deleted as soon as you reload, so you can’t just save your game and keep trying from the same point over and over again.  I used to think that was unfair bullshit, but now I recognise it as a completely valid element for this kind of game.  A complete game doesn’t take all that long, and the progress you make isn’t by getting further through the game but by learning its systems.  I like the phrase that Toy and Wichman used to describe it: “consequence permanence”.
So far I’ve played thirteen games, with varying levels of success, and some genuinely heart-breaking moments.  I’ll quickly run through my experiences below:

  • Nobody (the default character name) was my first character, and made it all the way to dungeon level 16.  I was pretty heartened by this, and started to entertain the delusion that I could beat Rogue on my first shot.  Alas, I got cornered between a Rust Monster and an Invisible Stalker, the latter of which made short work of me.
  • Nobody II got down to level 8, but had a pretty low hit point total.  He got killed in his first fight with a Centaur.
  • Gideon made it down to level 16, but got killed by an Invisible Stalker.  I find that for a lot of characters who make it past the initial stages, Invisible Stalkers are among the most common stumbling blocks.
  • Mideon died on level 8.  My run of bad luck started when I accidentally threw my mace at a kobold.  Throwing items at foes when they are far away is a standard tactic to avoid melee, but if you throw a weapon and hit with it, that weapon disappears.  I lost my mace this way, and had to fight with my bare hands. It didn’t matter all that much, until I tried to fight a floating Eye, which paralysed me.  A Centaur rolled up while I was paralysed and killed me.
  • Jonn Greywood made it to level 11, but lost his mace along the way by throwing it at a floating Eye.  Then he put on cursed plate armor, which got further reduced in effectiveness by a Rust Monster (which have the ability to worsen your AC by 1 with every hit if you’re wearing metallic armour).  I couldn’t remove the cursed armour, and ended up fighting a Centaur with no weapon and an AC of 9.  It didn’t end well.
  • Saskar got into a fight with a Wraith on dungeon level 16.  Wraiths drain your experience points, and I dropped from level 9 to level 7.  I escaped by using a teleport scroll, only to land right next to a Troll which killed me with one blow.
  • Nobody III put on a cursed ring that occasionally made him teleport to a random location in the dungeon, which was pretty distracting.  I threw my mace away, and eventually got killed by a Hobgoblin (which is pretty uncommon for a character that deep in the dungeon; I must have been softened up by something else first).
  • Myrio Immyrio Velaasa was my most promising character.  She had a strength of 18, a two-handed sword, and numerous healing potions.  The two-handed sword is really the key item to doing well at Rogue, it makes killing monsters much more efficient.  Unfortunately, it all went wrong when I found a staff of lightning bolts.  The lightning bolts that it casts bounce around the walls until they hit something.  I tried to hit a Wraith with one, but the bolt ended up bouncing around the room in an endless loop that I couldn’t break out of.  I sat there holding the spacebar through a whole episode of The Goodies, but it was still stuck in that loop by the end.  I had to abandon Myrio, who I think actually had a good shot at descending past level 20.
  • Nobody IV got killed by a Bat on level 1.  This is the most embarrassing way to die in Rogue, because Bats don’t even target you, they just sort of move about at random and occasionally attack if you’re next to them.  Nobody IV, I disavow you.
  • Sir Gareth did really well, making it all the way down to level 17 before getting cornered by a Xorn with no way out.  You don’t want to engage a Xorn in straight up combat unless you’re incredibly hard, but I had no other choice.
  • Krago got killed by a Snake on level 1.  It’s not quite as bad as being killed by a Bat, but it’s not far off.
  • Artis got killed on level 1 by a Hobgoblin.  Hobgoblins are the biggest danger to starting characters, until they gain some extra hit points.
  • Nobody V had a really bad run of luck with some giant Ants, which can drain your Strength with their stings.  I got my Strength drained all the way down to 3, and it would have gone lower if that was possible.  (Strength ranges between 3 and 18, another of this game’s many D&Disms.) I got cornered between an Ant and an Orc, and couldn’t do enough damage to beat  either of them.
Myrio got stuck in a loop, and I forgot to screenshot one of the Nobodies,
but this is an otherwise comprehensive graveyard.
So that’s my tale of woe and ignominy.  But I’m building up my knowledge of the game, how the various monsters behave, and how to counter them.  I’ve learned to take off my armour when I see a Rust Monster, or to try to find some magic leather armour.  I’ve learned to keep a potion of restore strength in reserve, to use around level 10 when the giant Ants stop appearing.  I’ve learned not to read scrolls until I have an item worth identifying, like a ring or a two-handed sword.  Even with that knowledge, a lot of Rogue is down to luck: if you don’t find the right items, or enough food, you’re not going to survive.  For the moment I’m having fun in the attempt, and struggling to avoid playing “just one more game” before bed.

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