Monday, February 15, 2010

Rogue: Story and Gameplay

There are many versions of Rogue floating about. The original was published in 1980; the one I ended up playing was a 1985 DOS-based re-release (I'm playing in order of original release, not in order of the particular edition I find). The instruction manual sets up the story: you are a rogue, plunging in to the Dungeon of Doom to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor, stolen in some distant times past from surface folk by the Dungeon Lord. I admit to a certain weakness for little stories like this at the beginning of instruction manuals. Always, in the beginning days of CRPGs, the written story in the manual promised drama, variety, and actual role-playing that the gameplay didn't really deliver.

There is no character creation per se. You give your rogue a name, and you find yourself in a randomly-generated Level 1 of the Dungeon of Doom, with the same statistics and equipment every time.

Entering the appropriately-named Dungeons of Doom.

The game has a top-down perspective. Your character is represented by a little smiley face, treasures and items by various characters, and monsters by capital letters corresponding to their names--"V" for vampire, "H" for hobgoblin, and so on. There are some weird ones: what are (K)estrels and (E)mus doing in a dungeon, and why are they attacking me? There are also a few found, as far as I can tell, only in Rogue, like (A)quators (those armor-destroying sons of bitches) and (U)r-viles.

You interact with the world through simple keyboard commands: "t" to throw a weapon, "w" to wield a weapon, but "W" to wear armor, and so on. The goal is to navigate your way around, finding treasure (and especially food) until you find the stairs to the next level of the dungeon. As you descend, the monsters get progressively harder--while, oddly, the treasures don't seem to get much better; you can just as easily find a suit of plate mail on Level 1 as you can on Level 25. (This, incidentally, turns out to be the only real way to win the game.)

The simplicity of the commands and the turn-based nature of Rogue is what I think make it so addictive. It's a game that you can easily play for 10 or 15 minutes at a time while waiting for some code to compile or someone to show up for a meeting. There's even a "supervisor" key that changes the screen to what looks like a DOS prompt (although having a DOS window open at all would be suspicious now days!). The game isn't even designed as if you're expected to win. Instead, the purpose seems to be to get the highest score possible when you either win or die. The game records your score (defined by your level and gold pieces) every time you sleep the Big Sleep. One can easily envision a time when there were thousands of Rogue players each boasting their new high score.

I wanted to win, though, and so every time I bit the dust, I howled my frustration to the walls of my study and started over again at Level 1. I lost track of how many characters--many of them maddeningly close to the Amulet of Yendor--died on me, but it must have been 50 at least.

Gold, which in early games I was delighted to see accumulating so quickly, has no value except for points. Well in to my first week of Rogue, I kept thinking I'd find a merchant somewhere who would sell me better equipment or identify my items. No such luck. What you find is dependent upon what the map randomly generates. Sometimes you might find a two-handed sword +1 on the first level; other times, you'll find three poison potions and a cursed dagger.

Our hero takes a chance on an unidentified wand and ends up polymorphing a bat into one of the most difficult monsters in the game. Time to try again...

The luck of the draw turned out to be my salvation. On my umpteenth try, my character found both a ring and an ID scroll on Level 1. The ring turned out to be a Ring of Slow Digestion, which greatly decreased the need for constant food. With this need out of the way, I could linger on levels, slay more easy monsters, and increase my level (and hit points) faster. I could also afford to take the time to search for traps and secret doors where before my life had been a constant race to find the next bit of food. I was also extremely lucky on the next few levels finding Potions of Gain Strength, Scrolls of Increase Armor, and Scrolls of Increase Weapon which significantly boosted my stats. I learned to take off my armor at the first sight of an aquator, lest it destroy it, and I learned to throw anything I had (the game lets you throw swords and maces along with arrows and daggers) at rattlesnakes before they could bite me. But the Ring of Slow Digestion was the real winner: if I knew four months ago what I knew now, I would keep replaying Level 1 until I found one.

Once I found the Amulet of Yendor (on level 29), the game was embarrassingly easy. Once you find the amulet, you have to head back up the stairs on each level to get back to Level 1. Instead of exploring levels, you can just head up the moment you find the nearest stairs (and I had saved several Scrolls of Mapping just for that purpose). I figured the monsters would continue to be difficult all the way to the exit. But they actually decrease in difficulty as you ascend. In short order, I was in the teens and there was no real threat to me. By the time I actually got to Level 1 and there was only a snake standing between the exit and my 16th-level rogue with +4 plate mail and a +5 two-handed sword, I actually felt sorry for the poor bastard.

Never stand between a rogue with the Amulet of Yendor and the exit


The end game, I must admit, was a bit disappointing after four months of play. Would some kind of CGI cut-scene voiced by Ian McKellen have been so hard?

Insult to injury: my rogue is admitted to the fighter's guild


The good news: I've been exposed to a whole new type of CRPG. And no Bioware or SSI game--not even the dreadful Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor will ever seem long or repetitive again. On now to the Temple of Apshai Trilogy.

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Posts on Rogue: One | Two

Further reading: My experience with roguelikes grows with postings on Moria, Omega, early NetHack, and NetHack 3.0.

28 comments:

  1. Saw your post on reddit. Yes we're out here and are reading!!!!!

    I've bookmarked your blog and will check back regularly. Good luck with this - we'll relive these with you, if only vicariously.

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  2. I just wanted to note that the aMulet of Yendor is always on level 26 (26 letters of the alphabet for monsters - symmetry), it's just that it's hard to find it sometimes (in those maze/passageways). Also, I played rogue as a kid, and never beat it without copying a saved version. I also never considered hanging around to accumulate 250000 hit points...yeesh. I usually win with around 50000 (of course, I have to run away a lot...stupid griffins)

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  3. Ur-Viles are from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a series of fantasy novels by Steven R Donaldson. They are blind, seem to sense entirely by smell and touch, and are masters of acid-based dark magic.

    Not sure how much of that made it into Rogue, though. I am a real fan of the whole Roguelike genre that Rogue inspired, like Angband, ADOM, Crawl, etc (and some of them are really, really good) but I've never tried the original.

    Permadeath is a signature feature of all of them, though, and many people will play a single one for years without winning. Like me. So I play a lot of other CRPGs as well, just so I can occasionally win, which I've never managed to do with a Roguelike game.

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  4. I'm not sure I'm masochistic enough to play many "roguelike" games, and since most of them are noncommercial, I guess I won't have to.

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  5. All this talk of roguelikes and no one has mentioned nethack yet? I recall seeing on wikipedia's list, so I can't wait for you to reach it.

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  6. It's funny, this must be the only game to have ur-viles in it, and shortly before I read about them in Rogue I started reading book 7 of the Thomas Covenant Chronicles...which btw are some pretty lame books, but a friend gave me the first one as a recommendation and I dutifully read the first two trilogies. Then when I was glad to be done with it my Mom saw I had the first 6 and over the next two xmases bought me 7 and 8. Theyve been sitting on my 'to read' shelf for a few years now and coincidentally I chose now to slog through them.

    Granted I haven't beaten the game yet, but food has rarely been an issue for me. I think I'd much rather get an early 2handed sword, a leather armor for the Aquator levels, a platemail for after, and a ring of stealth for the late game than get a ring of slow digestion....even though my current strategy involves two of them, heh.

    So this is where I am now, I'll post again when I beat this addictive game in a few months!

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  7. Jonesy, people keep telling me that the Chronicles get better after the first book, but I couldn't get past the first few chapters of teh first book. I thought the writing was awful and the plot absurd.

    Good luck with Rogue. It is oddly rewarding to beat it fair-and-square, even though the final screen shot isn't much to look at.

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  8. Reluctant heroes drive me nuts, and the guy routinely takes 10 pages to describe what should have taken 1, but I'm a finisher.

    Rogue may be hard, but it's always fun.

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  9. So.... apparently I broke the game. After countless hours grinding exp I got lazy, almost died, quaffed a potion, and then crumbled my scare monster scroll. So I decided to finally go down a level only to find that almost all the monsters dont attack, after a few levels, none even spawn, and I can't pick up anything including the amulet of yendor. Maybe I'll go see if theres a level 100 some day, but this kinda sucks, heh.

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  10. It doesn't sound like YOU broke the game. It sounds like you just encountered a serious bug.

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  11. OMG!!! I finally beat this game, almost 4 months and another bug later (I started walking through walls and coordinates would flash up on the corner of the screen before it finally just crashed, erased all my scores, and gave me a single score of '12881 gold pieces. Tiu weirded out on level 13.'

    Hot damn it feels good to finally beat this thing, some 10,000 games later. So how'd I beat it? An early two handed sword. Restore Strength quaffed on level 14 followed shortly thereafer by 6 gain str potions. +1/+4 on the sword between lvls 10 and 20. A ring of slow digestion around level 15 that let me wear my +2 damage ring I was holding all game long. And two slow monster staves. Man after I got the amulet of yendor I fell through trapdoors 10-15 times. That really sucked. I almost lost around level 18 when I got stuck in the middle of a room confused by a medusa and then a griffin showed up. Down to <10 hp a few times, 5 heal potions, and my last slow monster charge on the griffin later, I get lucky on 2 successive confused moves to move away from the griffin, lose confusion, and hit/walk away it to death.

    So stressful, so happy to finally beat this damn thing, I feel like I'm now a Rogue expert I know this game way too damn well.

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  12. Thanks for reporting, Jonesy. It sounds like we had pretty much the same experience with this game.

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  13. Wow, you really went the extra mile with this game. With such difficult and frustrating gameplay, I would've bailed on this game inside of a week no matter how much I'd like to experience/explore the beginnings of PC RPGs.

    BTW, great blog you've got here. I came across a link to it on Joystiq and I have to say the idea behind it is not only exciting, it's also a bit bonkers; in the good sense of the word, of course. :)

    Being interested in the history of gaming (particularly 'western' RPGs) and knowing that I'll probably never get around to playing some of these really old/obscure and, let's face it, in many cases really difficult games... let's just say your blog is a bit of a windfall for me.

    It's great to see that you're in your 3rd year of this mighty quest and still going strong and I for one am sure to go through all the articles you've written, starting with the beginning as you can see.

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    1. Glad you joined us, Giuseppe. There have been a few moments when I faltered, but I feel like I've been going strong lately.

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  14. Just found your blog through a pretty fantastic article in Pelit-magazine, and it seems like I'm in it for the long run. Thought I'd make my first comment somewhat early on though. =)

    The final screen may feel like a bit of a let down, but it raises one question: If retrieving the amulet from the Dungeons of Doom is the requirement for getting into the Fighters Guild (or at least an example of the level of heroic deed needed to gain admittance), can you imagine what a bunch of complete and utter badasses the guild is comprised of?

    Makes the fighters guilds of TES games and frankly pretty much every other RPG I've played as well seem like a bunch on nancy boys. =)

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    1. That's what I was thinking! What does the NEXT quest look like?

      The Companions in Skyrim ought to adopt this strict a requirement. I got in by just hitting a guy twice with a rusty mace.

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  15. best game ever
    i still remember like it was yesterday the first time i saw the Amulet of Yendor.... and that time i died on level 21 finding myself closed in a corridor by two Griffins ;D

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  16. Lone Wolf, eh? You a fan of the books by Joe Dever?

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    1. The Choose Your Own Adventures? I've heard of them, even owned some, but never played any. I liked the few Fool Wolfe stories I read, which probably had no relation. On the other hand, I was a certain age, and I may have just liked them due to the sex in them.

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    2. I do remember enjoying them, yes. We just had a big discussion about gamebooks in relation to Tunnels & Trolls (1990), and this series came up. Part of me wants to buy it online and try it again, but another part would rather just preserve the fond memories I have rather than ruin them.

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    3. Probably just as well. The rules are draconian by today's standards. You practically have to cheat to make it very far. If you would like to play them again, you can at no cost at www.projectaon.org. Joe Dever gave permission to allow all this Lone Wolf, Grey Star, New Order, and Freeway series to be reproduced online as long as no one profits from it.

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    4. Check our Joe Dever's Lone Wolf HD Remastered (http://store.steampowered.com/app/279440/)

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  17. I see on your master list that you're planning to play two of the roguelike Big Three, NetHack and Angband. What about the third, ADoM? Of the three, a victory takes a character much longer than the rest, but it has much more story, and it's open world and multiple dungeons makes it much more forgiving.

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    1. Ancient Domains Of Myster (ADOM) is on the list for 1994.

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  18. If you enjoyed rogue, try Brogue (https://sites.google.com/site/broguegame/) it's not an old game, and not nearly as lore-rich as some of the other rogue-likes - but I looooved it and it was always fun to reach a new level and learn new ways of things.

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    1. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesSeptember 5, 2016 at 8:55 PM

      I recommend The Binding of Isaac, a mix of Rogue, Zelda and Super Meat Boy. It is as random as Rogue, as challenging and weird as Zelda and as grim as Super meat Boy.

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