Wednesday, 28 March 2012


I was first introduced to roguelikes through Angband.  About three years ago, a friend lent me an old laptop on a long-term basis that eventually became a donation.  (It was a really old machine.)  I found Angband hidden on the hard drive, and started playing it; it wasn't long before I was hooked.

In my previous roguelike post, I discussed Rogue itself and the clones and imitators it spawned.  One of those clones was Moria.  For those who don't remember, Moria was what had become of the once-proud city of Khazad-dum in Tolkein's Middle Earth.  The citizens had, famously, "dug too deep" and awakened a Balrog.  The game took this as inspiration, replacing Rogue's setting with Moria and setting a new quest: descend to the bottom of Moria, dungeon level 50, and there kill the Balrog.  The game introduced a town level at the top of the dungeon, where adventurers could return to buy food, lights and other minor items, and rest in relative safety.  Along with Hack, it was one of the two main roguelikes of the eighties and spawned one of the two major families of games.

However, while the Hack family of games are called Hacklikes, Moria's descendents are known as *bands.  Angband is, along with NetHack, one of the two best-known roguelikes; and its modular and well-commented source code lead to more variants being based on it that on Moria itself.  Angband first arose at Warwick University in the early nineties; the first public variant is the oddly-numbered version 2.4.Frog-Knows, released in April of 1993.  Almost twenty years later, the game remains in active development; the most recent stable version being 3.3.2, while I currently play 3.2.0, mostly because I haven't bothered to update.

Angband follows Moria in taking its theme from Tolkein; in this case, it is named after the dungeons in which Morgoth, the Satan-figure and ultimate evil of the Silmarillion, resided during the First Age.  Morgoth is the final boss; his first lieutenant, the better-known Sauron, is the only other enemy it is required to defeat.  But the flavour is only a loose backdrop, and those who are familiar with the Silmarillion will find many discrepancies.  Most obviously, in the books Morgoth was defeated at the end of the First Age and cast into the void; and yet many items and characters from the Third Age can be found, such as the Rings of Power, Anduril (Aragorn's sword) or Grima Wormtongue.

Angband's long period of development has given it an excellent user interface, at least by the standards of roguelikes.  It helps that *bands have relatively simple item uses and interactions than Hacklikes, as I will discuss in more detail when I discuss those games.  But the fact that in Angband and most of its derivatives you can inspect items and find out what they do is already enough to make it better (in my opinion) than NetHack.  A lot of this is due to the long development history of the game, and recent additions include simple but convenient options like automatically prompting you with a list of suitable items from your inventory.

A game of Angband begins with character creation.  You have several races to choose from, and six classes: Warrior, Mage, Priest, Rogue, Ranger and Paladin.  The different classes are well distinguished, with even the two pure spellcasting classes playing radically differently.
One noteworthy thing is that Angband has mostly moved to letting you choose your attributes (within limits), while most Hacklikes continue to generate them randomly.
You start in the town level at the top of the dungeon, rather less justified here than it was in Moria, but it is such an essential part of the game that most variants keep it.  The town contains a number of shops that sell low level items, a Black Market that sells potentially quite good items but at high prices, and a home where the player can store gear.  This is important, as will be clear in a moment.
(The brown squares are buildings, and the numbers are the doors and tell you which shop is which. Notice that there's no way out of the town, except into the dungeon...)

Once you have made any initial purchases to add to your starting gear, you are ready to enter the dungeon.  Each dungeon level is transient; once you leave it, you will never be able to return.  This is sometimes justified with the idea that the actual dungeons are much, much larger than the area you explore, and the paths between levels so complicated that you quickly get lost.  The resetting of dungeon levels has a significant effect on the gameplay.  One important factor is that you can only permanently keep stuff that you carry, or that you leave at home.  Inventory management is then a major factor in the game.  Another consequence is that you can repeatedly reload a level, looking for good items or trying to avoid the more dangerous monsters.

It's worth noting that all the gear you find in the dungeon you have to identify.  This can be done by using it, selling it (for a pittance) or through magical means.  Some items, like potions, wands or mushrooms, come in various types, labelled in some way; red mushrooms or copper wands, for example.  Once you've identified one red mushroom, perhaps by eating it, you know what all red mushrooms are.  Equipment you wear---weapons and armour---are slightly different, having a range of magical bonuses (or penalties) and abilities.  These must be deduced on an item-by-item basis.

This lack of knowledge is most relevant early in the game, when you won't have access to reliable magic identification.  Later on, even the Warrior---who has no innate spell casting---can use items to identify everything.  This is one area where Angband has become notably easier of late, as the designers are encouraging identifying items by using them.  This means a lot of the nastier items have been removed; no more Potions of Death or Morgul Blades, and very few items that are cursed so you can't remove them.  However, while this has made the game easier, it's also made the early game much less tedious, so I think it's a good thing.  (And there are plans to return some difficulty, mostly by looking for interesting cursed items.)

Angband has a sharp equipment curve.  The weapon you start the game with is obsolete by dungeon level 10, and while a beginning warrior might deal twenty damage a turn, a winner will hit for five hundred and up. Finding and choosing the right gear is a significant part of the fun in the later stages of the game.  Once you are past level 50 or so, you'll be finding lots of items with good abilities, and a few really great ones.  Artefacts, unique items of (generally) very high power, are also fun.  Figuring out how you can use what you find to best effect is an enjoyable mind twister.  The main problem I have with this is that there are a lot of non-unique items that would be tempting at these late stages, except that by the time I'm finding items of Gondolin or Lordliness, I have uniques that fit better.

Given that you can reload levels repeatedly, how can the game be difficult?  Be assured that the game is hard, even if it is easier now than in earlier versions.  Difficulty comes from being unforgiving; as you get deeper into the dungeons, there are many foes that can kill you in one turn if you are unprotected.  Paralysing attacks are pretty much instant death if you don't resist, plenty of dragons will have breath attacks that can kill you if you lack resistances, confusion can leave you helpless, draining attacks can leave you unable to move or cast spells... sure, with correct play you should be able to deal with all these dangers, but one mistake is often fatal.

There are two ways to deal with this.  One is to be sure to find protective gear to defend against these threats.  Repeatedly search the same level looking for better gear, and don't advance unless you have the right resistances.  The problem is that there will always be monsters that show up earlier than usual, and it can be hard to find all the gear you are looking for.  Eventually, you'll slip up, and then...

The other approach, and the one I prefer, is to be more aggressive in diving deeper into the dungeon.  It's easier to find better gear deeper, and if you have access to detection spells you can avoid a lot of the threats you can't handle.  If you keep teleportation spells handy, you can run away from the rest.  I have two winners this way, but you'll also die a lot in the earlier levels.

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