by Santiago Zapata, December 2018
Most approaches to defining “What a Roguelike is” focus on coming up with a list of defining gameplay features, either by following a literal interpretation and using the original Rogue as the reference, or by trying to pinpoint a “golden era of roguelikes”, and use the most representative games of that era.
This was ultimately how the term was initially coined in the early 1990’s, and although this approach may be useful for taxonomy and to establish a common language, it carries the issue of being greatly subjective in both the selection of the games as well as in the assessment of the relevance of one feature over the other, given that it relies on a personal (or mutually agreed upon) opinion.
But when we look at the history of rogue and the first games it inspired, we find something all these early developers shared: their passion for Dungeons & Dragons and a vision of how computers could be used to simulate the role of the “Dungeon master” of a role-playing game session.
Is it possible then that we can find useful insights on what a roguelike is, by examining the results of the efforts of these early developers to bring their beloved hobby into the world of computing?
The “Dungeons & Dragons” connection
The roguelike article at Wikipedia currently states that “Most roguelikes are based on a high fantasy narrative, reflecting their influence from tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.“, but we will see how the connection between Roguelikes and D&D goes beyond superficial aspects such as providing a setting or having characters classes and stats, or even dice roll notations and hack-and-slash mechanics.
This more profound connection may not be easy to see nowadays. Having a whole genre of cRPGs (Computer Role-Playing Games) with further subdivisions (with roguelikes often being considered one of these subdivisions), it may be natural to think that all of the games belonging to the genre follow the pattern of using computers as tools to provide a Role-Playing Game experience (with RPGs having D&D as their ancestor).
However, while, most of the aspects commonly associated with roguelikes can be traced back to Dungeons & Dragons, the same cannot be said for most of the games of the cRPG genre; the genre has evolved into a different direction for almost 30 years now, adapting to changing media, developments in technology and demands from different audiences.
But this worked differently for roguelikes; hiding behind their characteristic features, some aspects of the original D&D managed to survive from one roguelike to another, thus making the evolution of roguelikes stay more close to D&D and their successors.
This close relationship becomes evident if we examine Dungeons & Dragons under often agreed-upon lists of features of roguelikes, such as my own interpretation from 2017 for a game to be considered a “Traditional Roguelike”.
1. Permanent Consequences
The outcome of any action you take into the game cannot be rolled back by reloading a saved game (including death).
This encourages both careful tactical play and long-term strategies and planning and increases the excitement of advancing through the procedural content generated by the game.
Naturally, when you are sitting on a table playing with your friends you cannot save and reload the game after an unexpected outcome from your actions. D&D is designed so that players have to face the consequences of their character’s actions.
Additionally, it seems that nothing makes a Dungeon Master happier than seeing player’s fall into his carefully planned, often evil, plots. There is no way to undo them.
The player personifies a single character into the game at a time, this is in contrast to both a.) games where the player doesn’t control person-like characters or vehicles directly (for example puzzles) and b.) “god” style games where the player is an abstract entity creating and controlling multiple discardable “units”.
Being character-centric helps the player establish a strong relationship with the individual characters, increasing the impact of the permanent consequences. It also provides a distinct common base format.
Character-sheets are one of the staples of D&D, and for a player, a role-playing session revolves around the life of this single character.
This actually ties back to the history of D&D, and how it was derived from the Chainmail rules for medieval miniature gaming.
“When Dave Arneson read the Chainmail fantasy rules, he adapted them to a fantasy world of his own creation, Blackmoor – a setting inspired by the Lord of the Rings universe combined with elements of Arneson’s own imagination and various mechanics pulled from other games. The premise was simple: players would portray only a single character (an idea he lifted from a game called Braunstein) and would explore underground dungeons where they would face perils and puzzles. “
3. Procedural content
Increases the replayability of the game by having most or all of the world be generated by the game for every new gameplay session.
In addition to providing an incentive for players to dig into the game, procedural content serves as a tool to prevent the player from being frustrated by the harsh effect of permanent consequences, having to start gameplay session from scratch frequently.
Clearly, the role of the Dungeon Master is to provide this level of variety to his players. That is why they can meet over and over again, and find a new different story every time, although sharing some common elements that provide a similar experience and allow the players to become ever more proficient.
Looking back at history, we can even find tools that helped Dungeon Masters come up with frameworks for their campaigns, such as the Dungeon Master’s Design Kit, an accessory to the game that contained sets of rules to generate settings using dice rolls. (For example, you could add traps to the dungeon by rolling a 1d100, and the result would decide the kind of trap. The book would further describe the trap and its effect, giving the DM a good starting point for his setting)
But procedural content is not relegated to an initial setup, just as a roguelike uses procedural generation techniques to provide responsiveness from the world to the player actions, a good DM must be able to adopt a campaign on the run to the unexpected actions of players.
4. Turn Based
Gameplay is similar to a board game where you can think your actions carefully, having infinite time to reflect on your available options to face the situations that the game presents you with the resources you have at hand.
This is relevant given consequences are permanent, and the intent of the game is not testing how quick the player can take an acceptable decision but rather challenging him to think out the best move he can make in critical scenarios.
This is another heritage from one of D&D’s ancestors: Medieval Miniature games. These games had comprehensive rules to simulate the positioning and interaction between the miniatures. The prowess of the players in these games was thus determined by their abilities to think tactically and strategically without a heavy time pressure.
The other cRPGs
Even when examined outside the context of a roguelike interpretation, these four aspects (along with a couple more aspects detailed below) happen to be defining factors of the experience of playing through a D&D game.
However, while most of the other games in the cRPG genre could be considered to be “Character Centric” (since they allow the player to take on the “Role” of a character), they mostly provide the experience of a single role-playing campaign, often beautifully crafted, which we could compare to the work of a Dungeon Master leading a game from a campaign he carefully designed. He could reuse this design with other players, but it may not make a lot of sense to repeat it with the same group.
In contrast to this, roguelikes allow players to generate a new different role-playing “campaigns” every time, at the expense of it commonly being much less elaborate than what a team of human writers and designers, or an experienced Dungeon Master could come up with.
Also, in almost all cRPGs, we could say that the player’s involvement with the character is weaker than in D&D, since he can always retract from his actions by reloading a saved game. This is an integral part of these games since they require a huge investment of the player’s time, and it would be completely unacceptable to have players start over from the beginning every time as a result of bad choices (since he would have to go over the same story again).
While this doesn’t mean there is not an emotional connection between the player and his characters, the fact that the direction his journey evolves (or ends) isn’t tied strongly to the player’s choices but rather to a mostly predefined story provides a very different gameplay experience.
Imagining a world of Fantasy
One advantage of examining roguelikes from the perspective of D&D is we can look the other way around, and see aspects that are integral parts of its experience, and happen to be present in roguelikes too while absent in contemporary cRPGs.
One of these aspects is relying heavily on the player’s imagination, something that the original roguelikes did by providing symbolic representations of the world, leaving the players with the job of translating it into a full-blown rendering in their heads.
Could we reconsider this aspect of the original roguelikes, often dismissed as a secondary feature, as one of its most important legacies? While it may have been an accident caused by technical constraints of the era, and the developers of Rogue have said more than once they would have used graphics if they could have, the investment a roguelike requires from the player when using a character-based display is very similar to what a DM would ask of the players of a D&D session.
And it doesn’t stop there, symbolic representations of the world also allow for quicker content creation (both hand-crafted and procedural), continuing to add to the aspect of providing a more immersive D&D-like experience.
Another aspect that is integral to D&D is the “social” aspect. One of the duties of the Dungeon Master is to provide the means throughout which the members of the group are able to interact among themselves while advancing on the campaign, strengthening their bonds and building shared memories.
It is very rare to have gameplay sessions with just a DM and a player, yet from examining a roguelike one could get the idea that that anti-natural scenario is the actual one being commonly portrayed.
And yet, while roguelikes have always been perfectly playable played solo, and multiplayer roguelikes have never managed to take off, the original roguelikes included features to provide social interaction from the beginning.
High score tables may have been simplistic, yet they provided a common experience for players of Rogue. Then, “bone files” of increasing complexity on NetHack allowed players to affect future stories taking place on the same server. Most importantly, sharing stories of epic character deaths and very rare successes has been a staple of roguelikes forever.
Still, the “turn-based” nature of roguelikes has always hampered them from strongly replicating this aspect. The duality between the type of control required while exploring the world and advancing on a story, and the one required while in a combat scenario makes it a hard task.
On the other hand, given how complicated it might result to get together a group of friends to play a D&D session, we might consider relegating this aspect to a secondary plane being an actual enhancement the original formula.
So, what about being turn based?
This brings us to a crucial aspect brought every time we try to find out if a game is a roguelike. Is it possible for a roguelike to be “real-time” instead of turn-based?
We know Dungeons & Dragons was a turn-based game, but how important was this for its gameplay experience? was this an artifact of it being logistically impossible for the human Dungeon Master to act as a referee for simultaneous players interactions? or was being able to plan and execute tactical actions carefully when facing conflict a core aspect and the reason why people played?
And this is where we can consider Dungeon & Dragons to be two games in one: part story-telling and part tactical combat (a trait mostly inherited from its wargaming predecessors). It is entirely possible, however, to conduct a Dungeons & Dragons session with no combat at all, only the development of the story of the characters and their interactions with the world.
In this scenario, the quality of being turn-based may acquire less importance as the interactions move away from the representation of a battle scene, where keeping track of the relative positions of the characters is important, to a more abstract, higher level of interactions with a more relaxed control.
Clearly, the developers of the first roguelikes decided to make their games turn-based, as this tactical combat aspect ended up being an important part of their gameplay and of most of the games that followed. Had their focus been the story-telling aspect instead, being turn-based wouldn’t have been as important, but we would be witnessing a very different type of games.
It’s also worth noting that it’s much easier to render the tactical combat aspects of D&D as a computer program than it is to create a smart story-teller, so given the technical limitations of the era (even today it remains a great feat), this was probably the best way to go to provide a complete experience.
Developing a better Dungeon Master
These connections between D&D and the origins of the roguelikes, allows us to perceive the history of roguelikes as the ongoing development of automated “dungeon masters” that are more believable and complete every time, and provide enhancements over the D&D experience while keeping its core aspects.
Starting with Rogue, we can see how it acts as a pretty basic DM that is able to create (simple) new adventures every time, and as a plus takes care of all the roll computations, and is available to play any time you want (no need to coordinate schedules with your friends!) while still keeping a social aspect in the shape of competitive leaderboards
Several key aspects of Rogue’s design allowed it to cope up with both the technical limitations of its platform and the challenges of computerizing the complex role of the Dungeon Master.
For example, the inclusion of “discovery mechanics” (as in changing the effects of the items in every game session, so players had to find often ingenious ways to discover them every time) allowed to both provide a greater variety of content as well as creating a new source for interesting emerging stories.
An extremely punishing, unnatural difficulty spike, along with an ever-present “food timer”, worked as additional devices to increase the involvement of the player with his character, increasing the tension of exploring the world, in the absence of a dramatic dungeon master building up the story.
Finally, its character-based display put the responsibility on the side of the player to fill the gaps in the story and the setting.
Building upon these foundations, Hack, NetHack, and other inspired games would provide more complex means of interaction with the world, while Moria and Angband would expand on the contents of the world and frame the experience on a more immersive setting.
The evolution of the computerized Dungeon Master would continue with Larn, Omega, and ADOM, bringing both more elaborate level layout generation, and expanding away from the dungeon into a complete world, for a greater variety on the setting of the games that could be generated.
Based on this line of evolution, can we consider a Roguelike as a computer program with the capacity of generating dynamic interactive stories around player’s characters, shaped by the permanent consequences of their actions?
If that is the case, will roguelikes one day be able to repeatedly craft and unveil stories as a good game master would?
If you are interested in the history of early roguelikes, these two books are a must read: