Desktop Dungeons Contrasted with its Past Self

So, I haven’t been posting a lot lately. What have I been playing? Mostly I’ve gotten on a Desktop Dungeons kick. This is something that’s happened every several months for the past several years. Each time, I start over from the beginning, and each time, I make a little more progress than the last time. This time I’ve actually managed to unlock the final boss’s dungeon, although I don’t yet feel confident in assaulting it.

I’ve written about Desktop Dungeons before, but that was about the alpha version. The long-anticipated release version is quite significantly changed. Oh, it keeps the basics: self-contained randomly-generated dungeons that take about a half an hour to play, Tower of the Sorcerer-like deterministic combat against stationary monsters, healing and mana regeneration resulting from exploring new territory. But it’s got a campaign now. It’s the story of a new kingdom using the proceeds from dungeon expeditions to fund buildings that unlock new classes or provide other benefits. This kingdom is ringed with various territories containing dungeons with different tilesets, monster types, and other properties — for example, the lands to the south are jungles, which largely replace the dungeon walls with hostile plants that you can hack through if you’re willing to suffer the consequences.

Within the dungeons, the main change is how much more rich and complex the mechanics have become. For example, I mentioned before that if you find the appropriate altar in the dungeon, you can pledge yourself to the god of magic, greatly increasing spell damage in exchange for binding yourself to never making melee attacks. That kind of absolutism is out the window. Instead, there’s a system of “piety”, a resource that increases and decreases as you do things your god likes or doesn’t like. Accumulate enough piety and you can spend it on boons, the details of which vary by the god. But sometimes violating your god’s commandments in pursuit of your goals can be worth it.

Or consider spells. Many spells have side effects now. Casting the spell that destroys a wall tile also gives you a layer of “stoneskin”, a temporary defensive bonus — I imagine this as the result of all the rock particles from the demolition settling on you. Sometimes you destroy walls just for the stoneskin. The spell that gives you First Strike also grants a stacking dodge bonus — giving you a motivation to cast it even when First Strike is irrelevant. Even the fireball spell, the simplest and most direct of combat spells, has subtleties now. In addition to doing damage, it gives its target a stacking effect called “burning”. When you do your next melee attack, every layer of burning pops off and does a point of damage. If you track the burn carefully, sometimes you can kill a monster by attacking something else, exposing yourself to one less counterattack in total. But also, burning monsters heal slowly. So if you’re going to do strike-and-retreat style play, whittling a monster down by repeatedly attacking it and then exploring to heal, it’s vitally important to do your fireball after your melee attack, not before.

You can ignore these details at first, mind. I remember some comment thread complaint about how the game was basically trivial because all you have to do is look for monsters and kill them in order from weakest to strongest. That works for the Easy dungeons, and maybe for the Medium-rated ones if you’re playing as a Fighter. But for anything else, the inevitable result is that you eventually reach a point where the weakest monsters remaining are too strong for you. In order to keep pace, you need to pursue XP bonuses, and the easiest XP bonus to get is the one that comes from killing a monster that’s higher-level than you — the greater the level difference, the greater the bonus. Pulling this off means exploiting tricks, and the more of the fiddly points about the rules you’ve mastered, the easier it is to think of a trick you can exploit.

And that is the fundamental character of the game. It’s all about mastering all the tricks. The greatest satisfaction it affords is when you think you’re not going to be able to beat the dungeon boss, and you’re about to give up, but then you think of something clever and just barely pull it off.

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