Thursday, February 16, 2012

Episode 24: Themes and Settings

Welcome to Roguelike Radio episode 24, where we look at Themes and Settings in Roguelikes. Talking this episode are Darren Grey, John Harris, Legend and Nicolas Casalini (aka DarkGod).

The mp3 of the podcast can be downloaded here, played in the embedded player below, or you can follow us on iTunes.

Topics covered this week include:
- The lack of real setting in Rogue (apart from the text in the Epyx manual for Rogue)
- Generic fantasy settings and what can be good or bad about them
- Unexplored settings and genre-mixing
- How to emphasise setting with tiles, colour schemes, music, sound, intro text, etc
- Original setting ideas, from sex roguelikes to orcs in 10-gallon hats
- Various games discussed, including ADOM, ToME4, Broken Bottle, Vicious Orcs, Hellband, SewerJacks, DoomRL, The Slimy Lichmummy, Cardinal Quest, Anquestria (the My Little Pony themed *Band)

Join us in just over a week for a discussion on Permadeath.


  1. Hrm, eejit that I am, when talking about non-violent roguelikes I forgot about one of the most fascinating games ever written - Jeff Lait's Fatherhood.

  2. Nitpick: I've always thought of high fantasy as completely imagined settings (eg. Lord of the Rings), whereas low fantasy is mixing magical elements with our existing world (eg. Harry Potter).

    "Magic" as used in video games isn't so much indicative of a fantasy setting as it a lazy way for designers to justify giving the player their particular heap of cool skills and abilities. You can look at a sci-fi game's "flame gun" as a reskinned "fireball spell" because the later is more prevalent, but with some effort you could fit the same mechanics into almost any setting. The general mechanics of dungeons could make sense within different settings too, with enough thought or backstory. (The monsters eat each other or get their nutrients from roots and soil, of course.)

    I kind of facepalmed when it was suggested that all games were about killing. Lots are, sure, but come on. Sports, city-building, man vs environment exploration, puzzles, so many puzzle genres, dating sims ... On a similar note, it's far from just roleplaying games that have designated baddies that it's okay to enjoy killing. You get the same thing with nazis in FPSs or zombies in an action/horror movie. It's the whole 'us and them' mentality, really, and *most* of the time (especially when relaxing with a video game) people have no desire to think of moral ramifications or backstory beyond 'okay today orcs are the placeholder for my survive-the-hoard challenge'.

    ... RapeLay, the roguelike? O_o I kinda wanna play a bug-themed roguelike though. You're, let's say an ant (huge inventory/carrying capacity: JUSTIFIED) and explore mazes of grass or dive into the twisty passage of enemy hives or honeycomb layers. Eat different crumbs for special effects or throw drops of liquid to damage or hinder foes!

    I say let's take that first person narrative one step further and instead of giving the message that "I scream." you go with "I see an oh GOAAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIEEEEEEAAAAAA [more]" ^_^

    If roguelikes experiment with different settings any more than other game genres, it's probably only because they can get away with putting the least possible effort into creating that setting - once the parts are named they do just tend to whack them together in a procedurally generated tactically delicious slop rather than actually building a world per se.

  3. I disagree with the idea that roguelikes are just whacked together! Many of the games we discussed went to efforts to blend the mechanics with the setting, often with interesting effects. Having an ASCII display does rather help though.

  4. i wish caves of qud got more attention. that games setting totally won me over. SO cool.

  5. For my part, I forgot about another non-violent game that I consider to be substantially (although not classically) roguelike: ToeJam & Earl. The only means of attack in the game come from randomly found tomatoes and slingshots, and the only reward for killing enemies is their removal. You do gain "levels" in that game, but they come from exploring the map and opening random presents.

    1. Someone should go the distance and make a classical roguelike based on toejam & earl

  6. Regarding sex in roguelikes, IVAN has a bit of this theme. There are chastity belts, rabbits who can multiply, mistresses who like to whip each other for fun and follow Nefas, the goddess of forbidden pleasures, and so on. Currently not much special mechanics about that, there could be something interesting in future if IVAN was not abandoned...

    I am a bit sorry that my Hydra Slayer includes runes, trolls and elves, I could choose something more matching a specific theme, which would be a hybrid between Greek mythology and mathematics. The problem is that some of my ideas fit the game, but I don't see anything in the theme which fits... Well, maybe I should think a bit more, and I will find something.

  7. Re: novel perspectives in games. It's kind of saddening that Broken Bottle is maybe one of the only games that uses an interesting first-person perspective rather than the sort of bland omniscient second or third person perspective that most roguelikes seem to fall on. I would love to see a roguelike that acheived something like the interactive fiction game Lost Pig (, where the character of the narration is a huge part of the theme of the game.

    Re: artifacts in games. I totally agree that having artifact items in game like "Klunkdink's staff" make the player wonder who Klunkdink is or was and provides some extra context to the world. However, I'd also argue that it's necessary for the game to actually be able to answer that question somewhere in order for that context to be meaningful. Otherwise, it might as well be an entirely random name.

    Crawl was brought up as a game that does artifacts right, but historically it has really failed at this second criteria. For instance, who is the Octopus King or Wucad Mu or Dyrovepreva? Some Crawl devs like due are working at backfilling this missing context with vaults, but it's somewhat of a recent retcon.

  8. I wish Legerdemain was given more attention. I was more engrossed in that setting than the vast majority of graphical RPGs. It cheated by using fixed maps, of course, but there's probably still a lot that pure roguelikes could learn from it. Small events and descriptions scattered over an area the player's expected to explore does wonders to keep interest up, even if the gameplay difference to just plonking down another depth-appropriate mob and item is minimal.

    I'd imagine the reason most roguelikes go with such bland narration, as it were, is that roguelikes are tactically-focused and "You see a burgledything." is the most effecient way to convey the neccessary information. As well the risk of being distracting, attempting to convey any sort of character onto the PC via any means would be difficult for major roguelikes where the PC could be anything from a dumb fighter to an intelligient, charismatic summoner-wizard.

  9. Good episode! On the topic of set artifacts: Anyone donating to Dweller or helping out with translations will be allowed to create an in-game artifact. The artifacts will be named after the donors so you'll find the "Black Blade of Whetnall" or the "Hannes Magical Dungeon Atlas" and so on. The number of artifacts created so far aren't that many, but the number is increasing and it is a nice way of increasing the number of unique items in the game and at the same time giving something back to the community.

    PS The badger looking Graveling from TSL is more or less a badger. The Swedish word "Grävling" is a Badger.

  10. OneMoreNameless: One could very specifically give characters personalities based on their class or race, and have different feedback in the game log based on that. The barbarian would say "Me hit orc. He dead." The paladin would say "I strike at the fiendish orc, and nobly slay the cur." And so on. Obviously have a random mix of phrases so it's not too boring.

    Text from the PC and NPCs like in Vicious Orcs or Smart Kobold would also be great to add atmosphere and life to a game. Giving speech to creatures adds a lot more personality.

  11. Darren: Yeah okay you could do that, but it would feel rather generic and not add much to the setting unless you also went to the effort of including dynamic NPC reactions or maybe designed each 'class' as a different hero with their own lore and existing place in the world.

    The bigger issue would be that the larger/deeper a roguelike is, the more likely any given set personality would clash with the random situations the player found themselves in - wearing the Steel Braces of Teeth Straightening {+6 AC, -12 CHA} as a previously charming rogue, killing an escort to snag their weapon as a previously holy (but poorly armed) priest ... It would take a *lot* of effort to prevent any flavored feedback from seeming obviously artificial at times. And keep in mind that the more you mix it up to stay interesting or change it match the PC's current status, the more you're slowing down the player who probably just wants to glance up and see how many of his last attacks "missed the whatever."

  12. For the next episode: I would dig it if you guys addressed "instadeath" in addition/relation to permadeath, since it's contentious issue common in many roguelikes. Angband, in particular comes to mind as a problem child in this regard.

  13. Damn right that's getting mentioned! :)

  14. I always figured that the controls + console limitations of classic roguelikes made it difficult to have games with projectile weapons as standard. Concepts like "cover" are also difficult to handle in a RL.

    I'm planning on tackling either a non-combat RL or modern-day RL in the 7DRL contest, but in both cases I can see how the mechanics and commonly held properties of RLs are going to do more to hinder than help me.

  15. Finally got a chance to listen to the David Ploog episode and this episode reminds me of a question I thought it'd be cool to ask him. When is a game developed enough? When is DCSS going to be "finished"

    I think that'd make for an interesting debate with you guys: Why is it a popular part of roguelikes that development is seemingly endless? When should development be done and let the game exist as is? I think it has to do with nethack being "in development" for twenty years etc etc etc.

  16. Kenny, I think that is an excellent and very valid question. I can't ever recall hearing of a roguelike that has been considered "done" by it's developers. I think the nature of roguelikes and them mostly being open source leads to seemingly endless development cycles. There's always someone who has ideas on how to improve or change a roguelike, and since most are open source it becomes easy to pick up and continue development.

  17. Sci-Fi roguelike - GearHead?
    Modern day roguelike - what about Liberal Crime Squad?
    sex in roguelikes - NetHack fooccubi?

    Also, my proposal: Battle Royale the 7DRL.

  18. LCS is just barely a roguelike, awesome and hilarious game though.

  19. I would love to hear a podcast on the 7DRL, or perhaps an episode on creating one's first roguelike. (I'm hoping to tackle both this 7DRL)

  20. When can we expect the next episode? I am looking forward to it.
    Greetings from Germany

  21. We recorded it early, and the delay is entirely my fault. It should hopefully be up shortly.

  22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.