Desktop Dungeons: Race

I’ve seen the use of cliché and even stereotype defended on the basis of efficiency. The idea is that it’s an expositional shortcut, a way of exploiting shared culture to lessen the heavy lifting required of both the author trying to convey ideas and the audience trying to understand them. Genre in games fills a similar function where it’s even more needed. When we choose to play games with wizards and dragons in them, it’s not typically because we’re in love with the idea of wizards and dragons. It’s because wizards and dragons don’t require a lot of explanation. Even when the familiar elements deviate from expectation, the very fact that there is an expectation helps us to grasp that deviation.

Desktop Dungeons exploits this a lot, thank goodness. It’s got so many unfamiliar mechanics that we really need familiar pigeonholes for them. I think the most intriguing example is its treatment of race. You’ve got the standard assortment of dwarves and elves and so forth, albeit with their places in society all mixed up and humorized: elves live in the slums and and are regarded as disreputable, orcs have opulent mansions and talk posh, dwarves have frat houses. It’s in the dungeons, though, that it gets interesting.

In the dungeons, your inventory space is limited, and you can’t drop items or sell them to shops. If you need to free up some room to pick up something new, you have to destroy something — or rather, “convert” it. Converting items adds points to a pool, and every time that pool fills up, you get a boost of some sort. Exactly what that boost is depends on your race. This is the only difference between the player races. If you want racial bonuses, you have to earn them by trashing stuff. It’s weird and it’s subtle and, just like everything else in the game, you have to learn how to use it effectively if you want to beat the Hard dungeons.

Races are unlocked one by one as they join your kingdom in gratitude for rescuing them from dungeons. At the start of the game, all you have is humans. The human conversion reward is a permanent increase to your attack bonus. Then you find elves, which get an increase to their maximum mana as their reward, and dwarves, which get increased health. Attack power, mana, health: these are the three primary stats your character has. They’re the three things that you can find stat boosters for scattered in the dungeon. And they’re assigned to a fairly archetypal set of races — basically, normal, gracile, and robust people. So once you’ve gotten over the weirdness of the conversion system, this arrangement feels fairly elegant, natural, and even necessary.

And then you find the halflings.

The conversion reward for halflings is a healing potion. You’ve become used to the idea of sacrificing objects for enhancements to your intangible characteristics, but now you’re turning objects into other objects. Next come the gnomes, which get mana potions, and at this point maybe it starts to seem systematic again. Health and mana potions, like stat booster objects, are scattered loose in every dungeon, in consistent quantities. It’s just giving you one race for each thing you can consistently find.

But then you get the monster races. Orcs get additional base damage as their reward. How is this different from humans? That’s a little technical. Your base damage is, by default, five times your experience level; your attack bonus is a percentage increase on top of that. So if you have items or spells greatly increase your attack bonus, you can get more out of it by increasing your base attack. Finally, after that, you get goblins, which get experience points from conversion, enabling them to level up quickly without fighting anything. And with that, any sense of pattern is broken. Conversion rewards can be anything the designer thinks up. The whole sequence, from humans to goblins, is like a little story about a weird system that becomes weirder every time you get used to it.

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