Your hero looks like this: @
Weapons and armor look like this: | [ )
Monsters look like this: O e k
If your game uses the characters above, there had better be some pretty engaging gameplay to keep the player interested. Welcome to the world of Roguelikes. Where games have evolved focusing on mechanics instead of graphics.
In the early to mid 1970s, Dungeons & Dragons was gaining in popularity. It was just a matter of time before someone tried applying that same formula to the fledgling realm of computer games. Stats and tables could be stored and referenced much faster, and random number generators can do a lot more than dice alone. These early adventure games had random loot, monsters, player stats, experience point systems and there were even some with wireframe first person perspectives. It was in 1980 when many of these elements were combined in the right proportions to create a game that would define a genre.
Rogue is a tactical turn based dungeon crawler with RPG elements. You must guide your hero down the Dungeons of Doom to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. Each level is randomly generated and death is permanent. This gave Rogue an incredible amount of replayability. You start each game without ever knowing what you will encounter, or even if you would make it. This meant an almost infinite amount of gameplay and it all fit on a single floppy disk. Some players began making changes to the weapons, loot tables and probability formulas to create variations of the game. Eventually these changes became entirely new games built from the Rogue code, they were referred to as Roguelikes. Today there are still Roguelikes being made as well as games inspired by the genre. Let's take a closer look at some of the elements of a Roguelike.
The biggest common denominator is the randomization. In the game Rogue, the levels, monsters and loot were generated completely at random. This makes each new game feel fresh as you no longer know the quickest route to the secret door or the exact location of the fire sword. Some Roguelikes will have a persistent "home" level such as a town or overworld. Usually this is to allow the player a familiar starting point that they may return to later. This level will often have shops, item storage and even quest givers. The idea of randomized levels can be found in other games such as the Torchlight or Diablo franchises.
When you find loot in a Roguelike it may not always be something good. One of the classic tropes is undefined items. In these games you will come across a potion and the only description you get is - a blue potion. You have no idea what it does. Well, why would you? Some guy just wandering through a dungeon shouldn't automatically know everything about what's down there. You have three choices of what to do with the blue potion: drink it, drop it or hold it and hope to identify it later. Drinking is the quickest, but most dangerous, option. Some potions may restore health or temporarily increase your attack power, but not all are beneficial. If it poisons, paralyzes or permanently reduces your strength then you know not to drink any more.
Dropping it is safer in the short term, but at some point, you are going to find yourself in dire straights and wish you had some powerful potions to drink. If you search a dungeon long enough you can find an item that can be used to tell you more about the potion, such as a Scroll of Identify. Reading this scroll will give you information about any one item in your inventory. After identifying your blue potion as a Potion of Healing, you automatically identify all blue potions as such. However, this only lasts for the current game and resets when you start a new one. The blue potion may be poison or worse next time. You will find more unknown items than identifying ones, and your inventory space is limited. You may also need to identify new weapons and armor. It does you no good to upgrade from (+1)Leather Armor to Plate Armor if the new set is really (-5)(Cursed)Plate Armor.
Combat is considered turn based, although some could argue that it is more like an active pause system. Whenever you perform an action so will all other creatures in the dungeon. If you are in a room with an enemy they will not move until you do, presumably you are both moving at the same time. Depending on the AI, they may either move toward you, away from you or try to position themselves for a ranged attack. After each step time stops in the game while you decide your next move. Nothing happens unless you are active. Some games have added speed modifiers to movement.
In some cases, it is a character setting that you change from Walk to Run, in others it is an item or spell that can speed up your movement. This works by assigning a unit of time to each action the player takes. All monsters in the game base their movements off of this time. As an example, we will assume a player speed of 1, with each action taking 1 unit of time. If a monster has a speed of 0.5 then the player can move twice as fast. The monster will not move until the player performs two actions. Obversely, if the monster has a speed of 2 then it gets two moves for each one made by the player. Of course there are advantages of moving slower, it maybe be stealthier or allow you to notice traps and hidden doors. When you attack a monster they will attack back. You do get the first strike, so if you can defeat the monster in one blow they will not get a chance to retaliate. Some games allow you to dual wield weapons or carry lighter, faster weapons. In these cases, one attack may actually be comprised of two or more individual strikes before the monster can counter attack.
Graphics in a Roguelike are a major point of contention among fans of the genre. There are many games now that feature graphic tilesets such as Tales of Maj'Eyal, DoomRL and some newer builds of Nethack. The original Rogue had ASCII graphics and there are some who would argue that a game is not truly a Roguelike if it uses actual graphics. This is more than simply being stubborn or old fashioned however, there are actual advantages to using ASCII. Having the alphabet for your source of monsters limits you to a total of 26 different enemies, or 52 if using both upper and lower case.
Many titles have taken advantage of color to create further variations, so a dragon maybe represented by a green D, but a blue D is a frost dragon. This may still sound like a severe limitation, but when was the last time you played a game with more than a dozen unique enemies? The usual cast includes feral dogs/wolves/coyotes, bandits/raiders/thugs and ogres/trolls/super mutants. Mostly these are just reskined clones of each other. Using simple letters let's the Roguelike offer you a variety of enemies that differ in their strength, tactics and overall behavior while also being easily identified. Some of the lower resolution sprites used in games with graphics tiles can make it hard to identify what exactly you are fighting. A Warlock and a Summoner may require two very different strategies, but if they look too much alike it could result in a dangerous misunderstanding.
The lack of graphics can potentially add much more to the player character customization. New weapons and armor can be added or changed without having to remodel or retexture anything. Giving the player extra abilities, such as dual wielding, shield throwing or a pro wrestling DDT is little more than adding them to some tables. In most modern games, these would require new animations and a restructuring of the control scheme. Most developers don't like the idea of spending a lot of time and money creating unique features that most players will never see. This is also apparent when looking at games that let you choose a race for your character.
Races may be taller or have pointed ears and a tail, but they are all bipedal human shaped choices that all use the same animations. What if you had the choice to play as a half human-half horse Centaur? Or a half human-half snake Naga that can wrap an enemy in it's tail and crush them? How about a humanoid with four arms that can wield four weapons at once? These choices could potentially add much more thought and strategy to character selection. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, for example, provides choices such as a cat or an amphibious octopus. Because there is no artwork or animation to worry about, the creators of Roguelikes can easily implement these unique features, which adds to the overall depth of the game.
One concept that seems to be uniquely Roguelike is Perma-Death. There are functions written into the games where exiting the game automatically saves, and loading a saved game also deletes it. This means that when (not if) you die in a Roguelike you cannot reload or go back to your last checkpoint. The only option is to create a new character and try again. For many who have never played these types of games, this seems to be a major negative of the genre. Video games have a long history where Game Over means insert another quarter, use one of your continues or reload last save. For this reason, Roguelikes have developed a reputation of being punishingly difficult for the player. However, to many fans of the genre this is one of the most important features. You can't get through a level by simple trial and error, you actually have to think very carefully about the actions you wish to take. Every decision made in the game becomes permanent, no do overs. Can your level 27 Dwarf Berserker take on a room of 5 Death Knights? Maybe, but do you really want to take that risk?
Anytime the player dies in a Roguelike it is because of a decision they made. Many newer players will find themselves in a no-win scenario and proclaim that the game has unfairly punished them. Such as having their last torch burn out at a deep level of the dungeon and not being able find their way around, when they inadvertently stumble blindly into a nest of trolls. The more experienced player will plan ahead and take various precautions to avoid finding themselves in this situation, such as bringing spare torches or learning spells of light. Within the genre, players have coined the term YASD which stands for Yet Another Stupid Death. This refers to a time when the player goes against their better judgment and dies as a result. These are the very obvious mistakes, and yet everyone makes them. Recently I was playing Angband and was making my way to the surface world.
On Level 2, I found a Wand of Identify which is worth a good deal of money, but my inventory was full. I decided to drop my least expensive item and picked up the wand. Food is cheap and I was so close to the surface I figured I wouldn't need it anyway. Then I got stuck on Level 1. I went round and round searching out secret doors and passages trying to find the stairs to the surface. Every staircase led back down and my character became hungry. Eventually the hunger became starvation and I lost a little bit of health with each step. I used up all my potions of healing trying to find the staircase. I finally was able to get back to the town, then died of starvation about 20 steps from the inn where I could have purchased some food. Even though my mistake was made well before I died, this was very much a YASD. This also illustrates two more common features of Roguelikes, limited inventory and eating.
The need to consume food has scared away a lot of players. It sounds like unnecessary micromanagement and more hassle than fun. Even though I am a long time Roguelike player I would say that this is my least favorite feature of the genre. Food takes up an inventory slot, sometimes more than one, and it acts as a minor money sink. In the original Rogue, the need to find food meant that you didn't waste a lot of time running around a fully explored level, or going back to easier levels hoping to gain experience by fighting easier monsters. In this way hunger does impose a theoretical limit on endlessly grinding a level. It may not always be food that limits you. In Faster Than Light, your ship consumes fuel every time you move from one system to the next within a sector. In Unreal World you constantly need food, water, clothes, animal skin, wood, rocks and pretty much anything you find in the game.
In the early days of PC gaming, there were technical limits on how much information could be stored in the program, this limited the amount of items a player could carry. Those limits still exist today, but they are so great that no game comes close to reaching them. However, limited inventories is such a wide reaching and strategic game mechanic that you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of games which feature a truly unlimited inventory system. In Roguelikes you have a limited number of inventory slots. Some items stack, so having 2 arrows takes up just as much space as 82 arrows. However once you fill your slots you must drop something to pick up any new items. Some games have experimented with this system a bit, such as giving the player type specific inventory slots such as potion slots or weapon slots, or assigning a weight value to items that also limits how much you can carry.
There are some misconception about Roguelike that I would like to dispel. They are not always high fantasy dungeon crawlers. The settings for Roguelike games can be anything, sci-fi, survival horror, zombie apocalypse or even a trade show convention. Some don't have dungeons at all and instead use large open world maps. They are not old titles made for DOS, there are new games being released right now. Just because things in the game are randomly generated does not mean that winning or losing is based on luck. You have no control over what the game gives you, but you have total control over what you do from there. While there are some fairly complex game mechanics in some, most of these games don't have a prohibitively steep learning curve.
If you have never played a Roguelike before there are a lot of great titles out there to start. Many of the commercial games are made to be friendly for new users and most have free demos available. The completely free titles are made by fans and are usually more complex. If you are feeling particularly adventurous you can also try out some of the many 7 Day Roguelikes. A 7DRL is a game made in just seven days. There are regular contests held for 7DRLs so you have plenty to choose from. Because of the short development time these games tend to not be very long or overly complex, however they can be very imaginative and sometimes have new and interesting mechanics. So whether you are new to Roguelikes or have been playing them for years there are some great games waiting for you.
If you would like, here are some of my personal recommendations. For those who have played either Doom or Doom II, I would highly suggest starting out with DoomRL. The latest versions have real graphics instead of ASCII which means that every monster and item are instantly recognizable to Doom veterans. Especially if you are new to Roguelikes, this will give you a familiar setting in which to learn the game mechanics. Plus it is one of my favorite Roguelikes. You may just want to jump right in and start playing a classic. A lot of Roguelike players would suggest Nethack, which is a great game. There have even been several mods for it that update the graphics so new players can choose between the classic ASCII, a graphical tile set or a Diablo-esque 2.5D Isometric experience. While Nethack is very popular, it's not my favorite.
I prefer TOME. Originally an acronym for Troubles Of Middle Earth, the game takes place in the world of JRR Tolkien. It has a static overworld filled with familiar creatures, towns and characters, but the dungeons are all randomly generated. The game has been around for many years and has several versions available, my personal favorite being version 2.3.5. A few years ago the creators were given a Cease & Desist from the Lord of the Rings copywrite holders. In response the game was completely rewritten and released as TOME 4, Tales of Maj'Eyel. The new version is made to appeal to both new and old Roguelike players alike. Some of the new features include detailed graphics and unlockable races and classes. In a very bold, and somewhat controversial move, there is a difficulty setting which allows you to turn off permadeath. I still prefer the older versions due to the higher complexity and deeper mechanics, but TOME 4 is a solid choice for just about anyone.
A CORRECTION FROM STEVEN SMITH:
The creators of TOME were not served with a Cease & Desist for references to Middle Earth. They proactively changed the name of the game to avoid any such repercussions.