Desktop Dungeons contrasted to other Tower of the Sorcerer-likes

Really, Tower of the Sorcerer spawned a mini-genre. In addition to DROD RPG and Desktop Dungeons, there’s DungeonUp, which I haven’t mentioned before — I got it from some bundle a while back and played it blind, and found it a delightful little variation on the now-familiar theme.

I imagine there are other examples of TotS-like out there that I haven’t discovered, and if anyone reading this knows of any, I’d like to hear about them. The defining characteristics of the mini-genre are, to my mind, passive monsters that stay still, possibly blocking passageways, until killed or otherwise acted on, and deterministic combat based on the formula “damage = attack – defense” or something similarly simple.

Beyond that, there are some notable similarities between TotS, DROD RPG, and DungeonUp that Desktop Dungeons is notable for rejecting. All three of what we might call the synoptic TotS-likes feature: Unlimited hit points, with healing potions simply adding to your current total like in Ultima 1; machines that let you purchase upgrades to attack, defense, or health for gold; multiple dungeon levels, with the benefits of health potions and upgrade machines increasing by level; locked doors in multiple colors, with corresponding keys. There’s no notion of experience or character levels, since their purpose is absorbed by health potions and upgrade machines. DROD RPG adds mechanics derived from DROD, including diagonal movement and facing rules. DungeonUp adds randomized dungeon layouts and adventure-gamish “Aha!” puzzles. But there’s so much shared foundation here that the games have fundamentally the same feel and tactics.

Desktop Dungeons, meanwhile, takes just the barest basics of TotS and runs off in its own direction with them. Some of what it does is adding back familiar RPG-isms like character classes and experience levels, but it doesn’t do this in a cowardly clinging to the familiar. It does it because of what they can add to the puzzle. For example, as in a lot of CRPGs, leveling up instantly restores your health and mana to maximum. This can be exploited! One of the game’s most basic tricks is hitting a tough monster a few times, then slaughtering something weaker to level up and get your health back, then resuming your previous fight. You can’t do that in the other TotS-likes, not just because they have no notion of leveling up, but because they don’t let you break away from combat. Once you start hitting something, you just keep on hitting it until one of you dies. There’s no reason for them to let you break away; the rules of those games provide no benefit for killing something halfway. DD provides so many reasons to do it, from healing to renewing your buffs to “I don’t actually want to kill it yet, I just attacked it because my weapon has a knockback effect that pushes it into a wall, and destroying walls pleases my god, and that gives me just enough piety for this boon I’ve been after”.

Desktop Dungeons

I’m several days late now at posting about my initial experiences with the next game on the Stack. I do in fact have experiences to post about, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. Instead, an interlude. 1Literally, something played between I’ve been spending a lot of time this week on Desktop Dungeons, and have a few things to get off my chest before moving on.

DD seems to be most commonly described as a “ten-minute Nethack“, but I disagree on both counts. First of all, I find that my typical session takes about a half an hour. At first I thought that I was taking so long because I was unfamiliar with the game mechanics. But honestly, that’s going to be the case in most sessions here, at least if you play it like I do. Completing a session successfully tends to change the game enough that I have to relearn it, whether by unleashing new monsters or map types that require new tactics, or by unlocking new character classes that also require new tactics. And some of those unlockable classes defy anticipation. Yes, you start off with the D&D-standard four choices (fighter, thief, priest, wizard), but then you get a class that specializes in destroying walls, or one that regains health from the bloodsplots left behind when you kill a monster (something that had been purely cosmetic up to that point). It reminds me a lot of the Final Fantasy V “Jobs” system, in that I’m constantly trying out new character abilities without any sense of prolonged commitment. I find there’s not much point in revisiting a class/map combination that I’ve already completed successfully, so I’m pretty much always playing from a new angle.

Secondly, the Nethack influence is pretty slim. It’s a dungeon crawl with a randomly-generated map which starts off dark and gets filled in as you explore it. This puts it into the same general category of games as Nethack, but that’s a pretty big category — with just those criteria, we probably haven’t even narrowed it down to roguelikes. A couple of stronger influences are mentioned on the game’s download page: Tower of the Sorcer and Oasis.

From Tower of the Sorcerer, we get the stationary monsters and deterministic combat mechanics, also seen in DROD RPG. (Actually, there can be a certain amount of randomness in combat: one of the special abilities of the Rogue class is a random chance of dodging and avoiding a blow completely. But most of the time, it’s deterministic.) This scheme is done in the context of randomized maps rather than authored puzzles here, but it still has the same effect on gameplay: it lets you choose your battles carefully. Also like those other games, the UI provides you with some help: hovering the cursor over a monster gives a report of its stats and what the outcome will be if you hit it — usually “Victory”, “Death”, or “Safe” (which means that neither you nor the monster will die). This is valuable information in special conditions where the math isn’t entirely obvious — for example, when playing a Berserker, you do 30% extra damage when fighting a monster of a nominally greater experience level than your character, but it’s not obvious how that fraction gets rounded, and a single point can make the difference between victory and defeat, so it’s good that the UI confirms this. It would be nice if it went further, though: the hover text only covers the next blow, and doesn’t cover things like the fireballs you plan on throwing in beforehand (and which you don’t want to waste if they’re not going to do enough damage). So I still spent a lot of the game doing mental arithmetic.

Oasis provided some basic overall inspiration for the game: it occupies a similar niche, being the “ten-minute Civilization“. It also clearly inspired the mechanics behind exploring the dungeon. To start with, movement is instantaneous — it’s exploration that takes time. You move to a spot simply by clicking on it, and if you don’t reveal any new territory in the process, no time passes. Mind you, “time” means something different here than in Oasis. Oasis had a limit on the number of turns you could take, and repositioning yourself on the map didn’t take a turn, because it basically didn’t do anything — the whole notion that you occupied a location on the map at all was purely aesthetic, with no effect on gameplay. In DD, your location is sometimes significant: if you use the teleport spell, you can wind up with multiple explored patches, islands in the unrevealed darkness, and you can’t move directly from one such island to another until you’ve explored enough to find a route.

Now, when you add newly-revealed tiles to the map, the time spent lets you (and any wounded monsters) heal and regain mana. This is very similar in feel to the way that exploring new area harvests resources in Oasis, right down to the graphical effects that illustrate the resources floating from the revealed tile to the appropriate bins in the UI. But it’s very different strategically. In Oasis, your only motivation for leaving things unexplored is time contraints. DD has no time limit, but does limit how much health and mana you can have at any given time. You can only reap an unexplored tile’s bounty once, so if you’re already at max, exploring new territory is a waste. Darkness is a resource to be hoarded.

And that’s in tension with the player’s need to explore for upgrades and, more importantly, for information. Getting a spell glyph can be important enough to burn some darkness. On encountering a shop, you want to know if it’s worth spending all your cash immediately or if there’s a better shop somewhere, and the only way to find out is to go and look for another shop. Finding an altar can be of paramount importance, and is probably the single biggest thing behind the early push to explore. Once you find one, you can declare allegiance to its god, who then rewards you with additional power of some sort in exchange for accepting some kind of limitation. For example, there’s a god of magic that increases your mana limit, but forbids you to use melee attacks — which is not a bad tradeoff if you’re playing a primary spellcaster. Typically, the reward for worshiping a god increases with the number of monsters you fight by the god’s rules, while the limitation remains constant. Thus, you ideally want to find an altar before starting to fight monsters at all. But you can waste a lot of darkness looking for one — there are typically about three per dungeon, but they’re selected at random from a larger set, and you don’t always get an opportunity to worship the god you want.

All of which is to say that this is a game that, despite its familiar framework, has interesting rules that create varied gameplay, in which I have to keep learning and figuring things out. It’s so nice to see something like this after what I’ve been playing for the last month and a half.

1 Literally, something played between

DROD RPG: Sort of complete

drod-rpg-slayerI know I just compared DROD RPG to Time Zone, but by the end, it was reminding me more of my experiences with Rhem. As I cleared paths of their obstacles, unlocking gates and killing monsters who stand in the way, the area I was playing in effectively expanded, until I was playing with the whole dungeon rather than just my immediate vicinity. As in Rhem, I spent so much time running madly from place to place to do stuff I wasn’t prepared for the first time through that I pretty much internalized the map, which led to beating the rest of the game in a manic burst rather than take a break and lose my place. When I talk about backtracking, I’m not just talking about going back for special items, although that was part of it, but also for stuff as simple as the monsters who were too tough for me initially, but who could now be easily killed for their money, which I could use to upgrade my stats, enabling me to mug even tougher monsters. At any rate, it’s a real contrast to regular DROD, where you generally leave solved areas behind and don’t look back.

Mind you, when I say that I beat the game, I’m only talking about getting to the end credits. There’s an extra boss in a secret area just off the final exit, and I suppose I won’t be fully satisfied until I do him in. Without him, the final boss is a Slayer, which would be more satisfying if I hadn’t already killed one in the secret level of chapter 1. (In particular, when you first see him, his projected damage is ridiculously astronomical, due to the combat mechanic’s nonlinear response to power differences. It’s a nice “You gotta be kidding me” moment, but you only get one of those per enemy.) But that’s what you get when you play the game out of intended order. The designers were clearly thinking in terms of players completing the game the easy way first and only afterward going back for the secrets. That’s why the new items in the secret level were unexplained; when you encounter them over the normal course of chapter 2, there’s usually a helpful guy 1That’s his name within the game engine. Helpful Guy. It says so when you click on him. nearby to describe them.

I have a pretty clear idea of what I have to do to beat this extra boss, although in order to pull it off, I’ll have to defer getting the Really Big Sword until much later in the game. That’ll make things difficult. Getting the Really Big Sword was a turning point for me, where I suddenly started being able to easily get health significantly faster than I spent it. I suppose I should have taken that as a warning. If it seems easy, you’re doing it wrong. Paradoxical though that is, it could be this game’s motto.

totsA day or two before my final push, I saw a mention on the DROD forum of Tower of the Sorcerer, a freeware game by “Oz and Kenichi” that allegedly used the same combat system as DROD RPG. Well, the similarities don’t end there. Both games are based on managing health and three different colors of keys (one of which is reserved for plot-crucial doors). I think the most striking point of resemblance is the devices for using money to raise your stats, which function nearly identically in both games, offering you a choice of health, attack power or defense power (with attack increases substantially less than defense increases), increasing the price with each use, increasing the gains as you get to remoter instances of the device (thus motivating you to hold off on upgrades until you can reach a more powerful one). Is DROD RPG a rip-off, then? Hardly. It’s based on TotS, and acknowledges this debt in the credits, but it also adds quite a bit of complexity. From what I’ve seen, TotS doesn’t seem to have anything like the percent-based damage from hot tiles and aumtlichs, and it definitely doesn’t have any way of doing stuff like trying to work your way around a goblin in a tight passage without turning your back to it (one of my favorite puzzle-like bits in DROD RPG). And anyway, I think the folks at Caravel Games earned our indulgence on this point through their indulgence of Wonderquest, which is about as direct a DROD imitation as you could hope to find (although it’s also embellished), and has a section of the official DROD forum devoted to it.

Finally, let’s talk plot a little. Chapter 1 is about Tendry’s escape from the Beneath, chapter 2 supposedly about his rescue of his countrymen who had been abducted by the Empire. We don’t actually get to see him do the latter, though, unless there’s something past the secret boss. There’s a distinct non-ending and promise of sequels, and, well, we’ll see how that turns out. On the other hand, the Empire is discussed enough that I think I’m finally starting to grasp the DROD overplot.

As I understand it, the Empire has two major factions, the Archivists and the Patrons, who split on how they approach the pursuit of knowledge. The Archivists are trying to get all the facts, whereas the Patrons are trying to get as many facts as possible. These might sound like similar goals, but they disagree when it comes to things that generate new facts — for example, foreigners. The Patrons like such things, because they’re an endless source of new things to learn, while the Archivists dislike them, because they perpetually render the Archivists’ knowledge incomplete. Thus, the Archivists want to destroy foreigners while the Patrons want to protect them. (Yes, only bad guys are completists.) It’s the Patrons who move the entire population of Tueno underground, which Tendry sees at first only as an enemy action, not realizing that they’re doing it to save them all from the Archivists’ army. The thing that hasn’t been resolved is what the Patrons intend to do with all these people. Fight a decisive battle against the Archivists and return them to their homes? Release them elsewhere, where the Archivists won’t find them immediately? Keep them in cages and study them? Tendry comments at one point about the Patrons “collecting” his people, which makes me think this isn’t supposed to be a temporary condition. The Archivists are evil, but you have to bear in mind that the Patrons are products of the same deranged system. Who knows what they’re capable of? Not me, certainly. The ending of that story has not yet been written.

1 That’s his name within the game engine. Helpful Guy. It says so when you click on him.