Wednesday, 1 February 2012

On a Roguelike: Diaries of Dredmor

Back in murky yesteryear of 2011 a little game called Dungeons of Dredmor, one of a gradual new wave of accessible and mainstream - or at least widely talked about - roguelikes and roguelike influenced games (roguelikelikes if you will), was released to moderate acclaim. The hallmark of the genre is the procedurally generated environments in which your adventures take place and the unpredictable and often amusing consequences that the player's freedom of interaction with these varied environments results in. Dredmor manages the near heroic feat of presenting a friendly, funny and familiar gaming experience, while compromising little of the distinctive, emergent experience that all good roguelikes have at their core. Let no grumpy, nerdy, I-played-nethack-before-you-were-born forum dweller convince you that Dredmor is dumbed down or has little to offer beyond a role as some "my first roguelike" gateway drug.

That said, as a nerdy, grumpy veteran of more traditional roguelikes such as ToME and Zangband, I had been finding Dredmor a little on the easy side since picking up it and its DLC Realm of the Diggle Gods in the Steam sale. Playing on the medium difficulty, with a sensible build and taking things fairly cautiously, after twelve hours in game I've only died and irreversibly lost my character and progress on a single occasion, which to be quite honest isn't nearly enough. "Wait!" I don't actually hear you say at all as I use a lazy literary device, "died and irreversibly lost your character and progress?"

Yes, for the uninitiated, the other roguelike hallmark is that death is permanent. Get your character killed and it's back to the start with you; no quickloads or checkpoints. All you've gained is the knowledge you accrued during play and a character dump to mock your pitiful failure. This, clearly, is not for everyone, and Dredmor wears its accessible heart on its bloodstained sleeve by having an option to turn off permadeath. I'd suggest not taking the easy way out by using this option, however, as the best way to experience this kind of thing is with everything at stake and potential failure lurking around every trap filled corner. It adds the mounting tension and the pride and investment in your character that really make these kind of games what they are.

Back to my problem: with progress quite easy, tension was getting low and pride and investment falling. I certainly liked the game, but I needed some increased difficultly to really stick with it. Enter Diaries of Dredmor.

The Rules

Diaries of Dredmor is the story of my lives and deaths in what I hope will be the punishing hard mode of Dungeons of Dredmor. I will be playing on "Going Rogue", the hardest difficulty, with permadeath on and the Realm of the Diggle God content enabled. More importantly, I will be generating my characters randomly: Normally at character creation you pick seven complimentary skill paths to create a formidable and powerful hero who will develop along a well thought out path, but there's an option to randomly generate your skills and create something a little more Tyrion Lannister than Eddard Stark. Still (spoiler!) we know which of that pair survives longer, so don't write my stunted creations off completely.

I will be engaging in some light-hearted role-play based on whatever skills the Gods of chance throw at me, partly as an excuse to act stupidly and get my character killed. Finally, my heroes' names and genders (which make no difference to play) will be as procedurally generated as the dungeon they're in. In this case, rather than clever coding, the procedures are mashing the keyboard with my fists and tossing a coin. On that note, wish me luck.

Sudbgoja the Werediggle

The first mighty champion to enter Dredmor's dungeon for this grand experiment is the surprisingly pronounceable Sudbgoja. While he - the coin came up heads for he - is blessed with an impressive three vowels in the abomination he uses as a name, its his skills that will determined whether a survival measured in hours rather than seconds is on the procedurally dealt cards. The Gods give Sudbgoja an inauspicious start with both Shield Bearer and Duel Wielding, which seem entirely incompatible. Things improve - slightly - with the sinister sounding Fleshsmithing and the more practical crafting skill Alchemy. Then come the wild-cards: Sudbgoja is a Big Game Hunter, a Demonologist and a Werediggle. I have no idea what these skills do.

Suds, as he will henceforth be known, enters a quiet corner of the dungeon with some crafting gubbins, bits of shoddy armour and a fresh steak to his name. Donning a nearby helm that improves defence at the cost of magic proficiency, Suds is as ready as he'll ever be to face the horrors of the dungeon.

After a room containing only a sword, some lock-picks and a kind of lever and rune contraption that deeply confuses our hero, but also does him no harm whatsoever, Suds is confronted by his first enemy. Diggles of various types are one of Dredmor's common enemies: a cross between a bird, a mole and a drill made of rubber, they're honestly one of the more sane and normal things you'll come across in the game. Suds is understandably disturbed to find one in front of him though, and he frantically looks to his skills for something that could give him the edge in this clash of the titans. The first ability granted by Fleshsmithing is a defensive buff called Meatshield, and with this cast our hero has little difficulty besting his foe.

The epic loot Suds claims as his prize is a neatly arranged set of nine pieces of Lutefisk. In Dredmor, food helps you restore health faster; the better the food, the greater the number of turns it increases your health regeneration for. Lutefisk increases your health regeneration for a entire one turn. Also, the game describes the item as "the world's largest chunk of phlegm". Suds is a whole lot less than impressed, but he figures that every great hero has to start somewhere, and soldiers bravely on.

Things improve with an area containing nine piles of gold and a drinks machine that Suds has little use for, but which thankfully shows no sign of open hostility, before: more diggles. It's while eviscerating the last of these specimens that Suds realises with a jolt what he's doing. He's a werediggle himself, a brother to these poor creatures, kin to those he's senselessly murdering. These are his own people! What sort of monster is - oh, gosh, and the Big Game Hunter Skill has a passive "Butchery" ability, which has caused the diggles to drop offal from their murdered carcasses. And it gets worse: the diggles have little nests. With eggs in.

Sudbgoja the werediggle makes a solemn vow: he will carry the offal as a tribute to his murdered brothers - well, cousins perhaps - and he will take with him the eggs until they hatch into beautiful diggle children, which he will raise as his own. Most importantly, no more innocent diggles will he kill!

Dangerous battles against a variety of evil non-diggle foes follow these tragic events, but Suds kills, explores, loots, quaffs his steak and - eugh - lutefisk and feels a little more like a true hero, at least until he opens the door on another diggle family. Suds tries to make it clear that he means no harm, but the furious diggles peck at his face. They will not kill one of their own, reasons Suds, as he uses his uses his werediggle ability to transform into his birdlike wereshape, while the creatures lunge mercilessly at his midriff. Give them time to calm down, he thinks, waiting patiently while they drill at his shins. Balls, he realises, it's me or them.

Now low on health from the failed attempt at pacifism, it's a very close battle, not helped by the guilt and emotional anguish Suds feels at attacking his own kind. And unintentionally butchering them for offal and steak. Suds survives with four hitpoints, so it's time to rest up with some kind of food. Except all Suds has left is diggle meat. And eggs. And a randomly spawned evil magic potato is advancing towards him, with loathing in its many, many eyes.

A ranged attack takes poor Suds to within two hitpoints of death.

"Why?" He cries, "why does it have to be this way?"

Perhaps the evil potato is a demon? Nope, the demonology skill does minimal damage and the potato advances.

"Anything. Anything but this."

No ranged weapons. Can't craft anything yet. No useful skills.

A scream of "Noooooooooo!" becomes muffled as Sudbgoja the Werediggle stuffs his face with offal and runs in the opposite direction to the murderous vegetable. The eggs are eaten too, and the steak, which allows the levitating root veg to catch up as he pauses to ingest his former kindred and their unborn children.

By this time Suds has regained enough health to slay the sinister food stuff, but something has changed inside him. Suds knows he is a monster, a worse creature than Dredmor himself, a murderer and a werecannibal. He entered the dungeon with dreams of fame and heroics but finds himself already a broken soul.

Suds goes through the motions: battling, looting, levelling up, but he knows it's in vain. When he opens the gates to the monster zoo on level two, enemies wash over him as he makes only a half-hearted attempt to back off to where he can fight them one at a time. It's almost a relief as he feels his hp slowly chipped down to zero.

A high-score table will record that Sudbgoja died on level two of Dredmor's dungeon, but Suds knows that he, even more so than all the other wannabe heroes, was dead from the moment he killed his first diggle.

(tune in next time for more characters, in Diaries of Dredmor part 2)

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