Hidden Depth in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup

In the modern era of gaming, we’re fortunate to be able to indulge ourselves in immersive worlds with stunning, realistic visuals and surround sound.  Even with this opportunity, however, many people can still be found playing games cut from a simpler cloth.  Old games with high replay value may grow and flourish alongside their newer, prettier peers.  One such game is Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, often abbreviated to “DCSS” or shortened to “Crawl”; A game whose old-fashioned pixel graphics mask a remarkable depth and complexity underneath.

dcss 1

Revealed in 2006, DCSS is an open source roguelike adventure which branched off from the 1997 roguelike game Linley’s Dungeon Crawl.  It fits the roguelike genre in the traditional sense, containing turn-based gameplay, movement on a tile grid, procedurally-generated maps, and permanent character death.  Players take on the role of an adventurer seeking to obtain the “Orb of Zot”, a task whose difficulty is evidenced by the corpses of previous adventurers littering the dungeon (more on that below).  They are allowed to progress to the Orb once they’ve collected 3 “Runes of Zot” but there are a total of 15 for those looking for a longer adventure.  The player’s journey will take them through, on the shortest run of 3 runes, over 25 unique dungeon layouts with themes varying from underworld prisons to ocean shoals.

Customization and player choice are primary components of DCSS.  When beginning their adventure, players may choose from dozens of races and classes which affect their stats, starting equipment, affinity for various skills, and relationships with monsters in the dungeons.  For example, a Merfolk Gladiator has high evasion, a trident and fishing nets, may swim in water indefinitely, and is immune to some monster effects in the Shoals.  Before the player levels up, they may allocate which attributes they which to increase using their experience, with little restriction.  In addition the player may choose a god to follow from the game’s pantheon, giving them extra abilities and attributes, when they stumble across one or more altars.  This large degree of flexibility allows for the character to start with one play style, and evolve into another as the game progresses.  A character beginning the game by stabbing from the shadows may turn into a formidable spellcaster, while a brute who clobbers enemies with a club may become a summoner who calls other monsters to do their bidding.

dcss 2

The wide array of options in DCSS translates to the game’s control scheme as well.  At first, playing may be daunting to a new explorer. Movement is the simplest task, with either the arrow keys or the number pad controlling the direction of the character.  The number pad is universally recommended because it allows for diagonal movement, letting the player move between walls that touch at the corners and escape faster across large spaces.  The second simplest command is attacking with a melee weapon, which only requires that the player move “into” the space that an enemy sprite occupies.  Other commands are spread across the keyboard and must be memorized.  For example, ‘e’ is the command to eat food, which keeps the player alive.  The ‘<‘ and ‘>’ keys move a player up and down staircases, respectively.  Virtually every key on the keyboard has a purpose, and it will take many games to learn them all by heart.  Once mastered, it gives a feeling of complete control second only to real life tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

With the turn-based nature of DCSS, survival is not a matter of reflexes or speed.  The game at its core is a strategy game.  New players will die often in unexpected ways, but it is rarely unfair.  Death is the fault of inexperience with common situations.  Fighting many enemies in a wide space is a poor idea.  Projectiles can be dodged or reflected.  Different monsters are immune to different sorts of spells.  Overconfidence is a killer.  As the player learns these lessons, they can adapt and change their play style over time.  Some players will become extremely cautious in nature, while others will use their knowledge of enemies’ weaknesses to develop extreme bravado.  Emergent strategy is common and changes from person to person.

dcss 3

Ignoring arbitrary subjective experiences, balance is achieved effectively in DCSS.  The player is forced through 10-15 floors of a linear dungeon before being allowed to branch off and explore new areas, ensuring that they learn the ropes of all regular occurrences and become decently strong before the difficulty really ramps up.  Many monster types are grouped in tiers with the lowest tiers appearing in early game areas and higher tiers populating the later dungeon branches.  Optional areas have the hardest foes of all.  The balancing of DCSS not only ensures that the player fights at a difficulty level fair for their character, but also punishes the player for attempting to game the system.  If one decides to wait around in the early dungeons to farm small creatures over and over again for experience, the game will start spawning out-of-depth high tier monsters to chase them out by force.

The situation described above also highlights the wild nature of DCSS.  Its high replay value exists largely because of the sheer number of strange and unusual things that can happen in the game.  Ten years of inspiration and community effort have been poured into the Stone Soup.  This combined with player choice creates an infinite amount of unique experiences.  Even if one plays the same race and class every time, each game will be significantly different due to the different dungeon layouts and creatures that spawn therein.  Sometimes a huge cult of religious orcs will attack the player.  Other times the player may evade a hydra by weaving through a swarm of butterflies, or kill it by trapping a sheep in a net and exploding the sheep.  The mischievous god Xom may decide to confuse the player character and teleport them into a room full of exploding traps and frightened wildlife.  Perhaps the player will stumble upon an entrance to the netherworld sitting innocently in a peaceful forest cove.  Previous players’ ghosts can stick around and attack the current player, and they are very dangerous!  All of the random elements of DCSS are a catalyst for excitement and often, fun.

dcss 4

Despite this writer’s praise for the creative roguelike, there is room for improvement.  Chiefly, DCSS is missing a tutorial.  An optional first time user experience designed for guiding a player through a premade map and explaining all the simple actions could go a long way in bringing skeptical new players into the game.  On the other end of the experience spectrum, seasoned players may become bored once they’ve seen all the dungeon areas, so new map content would be welcome.  A batch of new monsters and items could further increase the depth of DCSS as well.

All in all, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is a solid single player experience.  There’s good reason for it to be consistently ranked in the top three classic roguelikes.  DCSS draws players in with fascinating customization and the appeal of old school dungeon crawling.  It keeps players interested with depth of control, an extremely wide variety of content, satisfying difficulty, and long game length.  Though its visual appeal is dated, it can be quite enjoyable if this attribute is looked past.  If the community continues to shape the game in better and better ways, it will undoubtedly stay popular among fans of dungeon crawlers and turn-based strategy for many years to come.


Play Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup here!  (or watch others play)