Lessons from Roguelikes: Prologue

In the beginning...

The year was 1980. Deep within the bowls of a computer lab at UC Santa Cruz, three intrepid programmers toiled away at a UNIX mainframe on a project that would forever change the face of how roleplaying games and computers interacted with one another. Kinda.

It's like a family tree, but with cockatrices
Rogue was a computer RPG built for UNIX terminals that was designed to recreate the tabletop experience of exploring a dungeon which would grow ever more hostile and dangerous as one delved deeper, in order to acquire treasure and glory -- or at the least, treasure (the game is called Rogue after all). Though cryptic and unforgiving, the game captured the essence of what these gentlemen thought Tabletop Gaming was all about, and did so well enough that it spawned a very vibrant (if small) cult community that has thrived and grown these 30 years later. Today dozens (if not hundreds) of games exist which all bear the mark of this hero of ludic myth -- the roguelikes.

Since it's debut three decades ago, a bevy of better-known games like NetHack, Moria, ADOM, and Dungeon Crawl (a personal favorite) have taken up this mantle, iterating on and refining the core principles of their forefather while at the same time remaining strikingly true to its original intent. While it's true that some apples have fallen a little further from the tree than others (you might have heard of a small indie title called Diablo) the truth is that roguelikes as a genre reflect a view on what roleplaying and computer gaming experiences should be like that is almost completely unique. And they got it straight from D&D.

An Elegant Game from a Less Civilized Age

At the time of its creation, Rogue was intended by its creators to serve as a sort of endless dungeon, where players could continuously throw adventurers into a pit of almost certain despair in an attempt to test their mettle. This was role-playing in the oldest-school, Tomb of Horrors sense -- deadly and unpredictable, where discretion was almost always the better part of valor. Of course, anyone can create a game that is arbitrary and difficult. What Rogue did, however, was put the player in a difficult situation (limited food, limited light, able to fight but quickly outnumbered) with a pretty open-ended set of tools for interacting with the world. It's true that the dungeons were generally just simple boxes connected by corridors filled with monsters and occasional loot, but the flexibility and core ideas for hardcore, old-school gaming have persisted.

Unlike contemporary RPGs, roguelikes focus on a few key principles: completely random dungeon generation, filled with monsters that could as likely be cannon fodder as hopeless threats one must avoid or flee from, magic items that exist for their own sake and not simply because it fits exactly what the player wants (leading to a necessity for adaptiveness), an open ruleset for interacting with the world that encourages creative problem solving rather than "designed" solutions, and -- most importantly of all -- that death should be a very real and very permanent threat. Roguelikes are deadly and unpredictable, but the god of random numbers could be your salvation or damnation at every turn -- provided you know how to play the odds right. It's a design totally at odds with the expansive narratives, balanced encounters, and high fidelity renderings of modern computer RPGs that it at the same time feels anachronistic and fresh by comparison. In a way, roguelikes are the Fourthcore of the computer-RPG world.

What's Old is New Again

And so that's the thing -- with all the revived interest old-school RPGs and fantastic efforts like Fourthcore, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Adventurer Conquerer King, and so on, I think it's worth revisiting how the strain of gaming that Rogue seems to have captured in a bottle has matured and fermented over the years, and what (if any) lessons the roguelike genre can teach us about making games more challenging, unpredictable, open-ended, and yet still keeping a coherent sense of fun about them.

So over the next week or so I hope to put up a few small articles discussing individual elements that tabletop DMs and players can keep in mind when planning their own adventures. Stay tuned!

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