The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 3

You’re not strong enough to fight us on this one. You should go pick on some little guys to train up first.

On the third day of Christmas, some dudes from South Africa who’ve previously fallen prey to cloning gave to me…. Desktop Dungeons.


I’m surprised at myself, for being so determined to include a game that I’m so appallingly bad at in this Advent Calendar. Surely this is for the games we feel we’ve beaten, mastered, fully understood? Perhaps, but it’s precisely because I’m still on the journey to understanding Desktop Dungeons that I’m so fond of it. It’s doing much more to me, exercising my withered brain so much more than any game I simply ‘enjoyed.’

Very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this one. It wears a lopsided cartoon smile, and sidles up to me with a cheerful greeting: “hey, guy, let’s have some fun! Let’s kill some monsters, let’s explore a dungeon, it’ll be a hoot, yeah?” It’s impossible to resist the invitation. But once I’m in the desktop dungeon, it Venusian aikido-chops me on the back of the neck, strips off all my clothes, paints a bell-end on my forehead in Tippex and runs off into the darkness, cackling “come get me, sucker!”

Many times, I’ve been tempted to cry and stumble home instead of trying to chase down and recover my dignity and self-respect, but I always come to my senses in time and remember that Desktop Dungeons is a confident proponent of tough love. I will suffer as I play, but I will learn. Wits will be sharpened. Strategies and a growing archive of knowledge will form and lodge in my mind. I will become, in some nebulous manner, Better.

It took a long time to get Better. I breezed through the game’s early stages, then hit a brick wall still far too soon. After a period of futilely hacking away it, I regrouped and reconsidered. I watched and I read and I agonised, and I fought to quell The Hunger, the RPG mainstay of pursuing bigger and better weapons and powers; that doesn’t help here. Increasingly, I can think about the game in the way it requires, and while my rewards for this remain rare, I’m now certain I will in time be able to attain them.

Those dawning, golden moments of understanding, whether gleaned from the quietly vital optional puzzle challenges or from minute observation of the smaller side-effects of superficially obvious spells and abilities, haven’t been matched by much else this year. For the longest time I thought success in Desktop Dungeons was based mostly on luck, that I just needed the right dungeon seed to bless me with the perfect combination of spells or a raft of powerful loot.

I treated it as turn-based Diablo, basically. Not a bit of it. It’s deadly chess, where every move counts and any moment of impatience or recklessness sows the seeds of your own later doom. I saw someone say on Twitter yesterday that they can tell when someone’s playing Desktop Dungeons badly just by looking at a single screenshot, and that’s no exaggeration. I reckon I could too, even though I’m well aware I’m still very early on in my journey to understand this devilish thing. What their list of abilities is, how many low-level foes they’ve deliberately left alive, how many fog of war squares they’ve uncovered, whether any higher-level foes have been tagged with certain spells, whether I can see anyone turned to stone… This is a game with its own, heavily encrypted language, and I’m proud of myself for every new word I manage to learn.

As my death-strewn journey to Better continues, I’m still being regularly amazed by just how much is underneath DD’s nonchalant hood, how supremely honed its impeccably-oiled clockwork cogs of effect and counter-effect are. While the new meta-map and unlocks are understandably where people have differentiated this commercial Desktop Dungeons from its freeware precursor, the true difference is in the massively heightened complexity and challenge of the core game.

This isn’t like driving a car, it’s like building one. On your own soon-to-be-severed head if you miss out even a single nut or screw.

Back to the calendar!


  1. MuscleHorse says:

    I’m exactly the same Alec. I had left the thing alone in frustration for a few weeks then came back to it this weekend and seemed to have reached a moment of clarity, where I managed to slam through a few more stages. Then I hit the wall again. It’s almost uniquely rewarding when you’re able to defeat a difficult level.
    Not sure if I’ll ever be able to use the Halflings/Gnomes effectively though.

    • vecordae says:

      Gnome are very handy starting points for a sorcerer or wizard. The wizard/gnome combo is nice because it lets you save up a pile of unwanted glyphs and convert them into mana potions to fuel repeated and excessive use of the Burndayraz spell on the dungeon’s final boss. Sorcerer/gnome is also handy as you can recharge HP by casting spells. This suggests a more martial approach, where you start off with a physical attack and follow up with an offensive spell to both damage your opponent and heal yourself.

      Halflings work well as priests. Priests basically heal all the way back to full health with a single health potion, meaning a halfling priest can take a lot of damage over the course of a dungeon. Hope that helps!

  2. Will Tomas says:

    I actually haven’t gone back to it after paying the free version to death a few years ago. It’s great, but I can’t help feeling that there’s been a paucity of good games this year, as this must be the first time a game’s popped up in two RPS advent calendars, even if it’s been heavily revised since… link to

    • philatron says:

      I don’t think it means there’s been a lack of good games this year at all. The previous time DD appeared was as the free/alpha version three years ago – the final version was only released this November so it’s perfectly entitled to appear again. It just shows how good the free version was three years ago that it warranted a place in the 2010 calendar!

  3. Meat Circus says:

    I don’t want to bleat about how great this game is, but it makes me feel like a kid.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      I should have another goat it.

    • Lambchops says:

      I can’t contribute to this punning nonsense but knowing Medusa is an enemy in this game I can confirm she can be placated with her favourite cheese. “What cheese?” I hear you ask.

      Gorgonzola of course!

    • SgtStens says:

      I’m just so baaaaaa-d at this game.

  4. mouton says:

    I hate the puzzles in Desktop Dungeons. They are for spreadsheet fanatics who will calculate all the damage, crunch the numbers and redistribute all the resources with a margin of 2hp.

    Also, some classes are silly. I mean, Monk? I am sure some accountants made a way for him to be useful, but for me he is sooo useless.

    • Themadcow says:

      …aaaand SOLD!

      There’s no fun in gaming unless you can rock out with a spreadsheet from time to time. I blame this on my early gaming experiences that required graph paper to map dungeons tbh.

      • mouton says:

        I like making spreadsheets or maps from time to time, but here it is quite on knife’s edge. You either get the exact right combination out of a dozen variables, or you fail.

        It is limited to puzzle ma[s, though. The “normal” maps offer much more leeway, although they can be quite brutal in their own right.

        • Kitsunin says:

          I hate the puzzle maps…but I’ve been able to ignore them completely without having any problems at all. On the other hand the challenge maps are okay. Don’t like ’em, don’t hate ’em, for the most part. The main thing that I dislike is that they gate equipment.

    • The Random One says:

      I wouldn’t be so dismissive of its fans, but I feel the same way. To me it’s taking a few good concepts and adding so many resource costs on top of them that I can’t afford to have fun. More power to you if you like it, but I don’t.

      • mouton says:

        Wasn’t my intention to be dismissive. Different people, different kicks.

    • Kitsunin says:

      About the monk: weird. His health gives him an edge in combat which is greater than the minus to his damage, and the improved regen means you can explore in the middle of fighting a stronger opponent to heal, giving you a good way to get bonus experience.

  5. Kefren says:

    I’m waiting for this to appear on GOG before I throw my life away on it. As someone who completed the original twice (including the three mission campaign) I picture myself losing months to it. Especially since I have been playing HOMM3 for years and still haven’t done every mission. (It took me a year to complete everything in HOMM2).

    PS The aidiko blow would probably be yokomen uchi.

  6. basilisk says:

    I’m also at the brick wall stage, and feel a bit exhausted. I pretty much mastered the free/alpha version some years ago, but this new iteration really can be much more brutal than that. And to be honest, I find that rather off-putting. (Also, there’s a bit too much reliance on gimmicky dungeons where you are pretty much guaranteed to fail until you figure out/stumble across the special mechanics, which feels a bit cheap from something as exquisitely designed as DD.)

    It’s still a remarkable game, but I really think I preferred the older version. Then again, I basically bought the new one to pay for the “alpha”, so no dissatisfaction there.

  7. Danda says:

    This new version is too hard, too annoyingly unbalanced. And I hate that because it could have been a true classic, a game that I would recommend to just anybody.

    I think the developers made a huge mistake embracing the masochistic hardcore audience. For an average player like me, this game is next to unplayable 60% of the time.

    • qrter says:

      There is a weird clash between how the game presents itself, and what it actually is – it comes across as a relaxing, casual game, but then the actual game is anything but relaxing (more like: exhausting).

      I find myself wishing it was more casual. I’ll spend an hour (or probably more) on figuring out how to clear a dungeon, and I just won’t feel like I achieved something, just feel kind of tired and annoyed.

    • Scurra says:

      I don’t resent them embracing the hardcore audience so much as resent them for not making it clear that this is a hardcore game from the outset. In a sense, the reason Dwarf Fortress needed to be so inaccessible was to scare off people…

      • Kitsunin says:

        What’s weird is that it seems to vary on a person-to-person basis whether you consider it hardcore. I’ve gotten up through the hard dungeons and they’re a staunch challenge, but by no means what I would consider hardcore. It’s weird, because I would have never thought of the game as very hardcore at all if it weren’t for the comments on this article (I spent a little time on their forums too and didn’t notice it there).

  8. Timberwolf says:

    This is the joy of playing Nethack and/or Dwarf Fortress, give or take an obtuse interface. The sense of achievement when you see a new special level in Nethack is incredible, knowing that you had to absorb so much knowledge, instinct and pain just to see a slightly different layout of ASCII characters. Then you get whacked by a monster you’ve never seen before that bashes your presumed impressive tally of hitpoints as if you’re still first level. But you grow, and what was the furthest you’d ever been becomes a routine step on the way to the next challenge, much like surviving the first winter without starving in Dwarf Fortress goes from achievement to formality.

    This leads to the only problem I have with the ultra-hard roguelike genre, that there comes a point where the investment in time getting to the point where you’re challenged becomes too great when you know you’re going to die anyway. Dwarf Fortress at least provides entertaining spirals of emergent behaviour to reward as it punishes, but in the dungeon crawlers it’s galling to end several hours instantly with one silly mistake. How you avoid that without the cerebral, cautious play style degenerating into so much save-enhanced Hotline Miami style recklessness is a thorny question, though.

    • Shieldmaiden says:

      I think Rogue Legacy did a great job of alleviating that pain. Every time you die, you use the gold you’ve accumulated to buy upgrades, making every failure worthwhile.Since your gold gets wiped every time you re-enter the castle and the upgrades get increasingly expensive, you still have to get better and make more progress each time.

      • thecommoncold says:

        That’s actually why Rogue Legacy was such a miss for me.

        In a “proper” roguelike, death should be meaningful because of player growth, provided you learn from your mistakes to do better next time. Legacy shortcuts that by taking the genre and making it into a Kongregate-style upgrade game, which can be fun, but they ain’t roguelikes.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Yeah, I think calling Rogue Legacy a roguelike is a bit dishonest. Not because blah blah Berlin Interpretation blah blah, just because without any form of in-run progression, it’s not really permadeath at all now is it?

          It’s still a great game though, and I still think the is/not roguelike conversation is pointless, I’m just saying Rogue Legacy doesn’t have permadeath.

          • mouton says:

            Well, games like that are called “roguelite” or “roguelike-like” so I suppose we are good.

          • TillEulenspiegel says:

            It is a pointless conversation, I just wish people would stop using the term because it no longer conveys useful information.

            Gameplay doesn’t need to fit into neat little categories, indeed it shouldn’t. Many of the best games are category breakers or category definers. Journalists should describe how it works rather than calling it a thing.

          • Kitsunin says:

            I fail to see how it doesn’t convey useful information. It tells you that the game is procedurally generated and has permadeath (No linear progression between deaths, you may unlock sidegrades). This doesn’t tell you much about how the game plays alone, sure, but saying “roguelike platformer” gives you a ton of information that just “platformer” can’t give you.

            Actually I guess that’s exactly it. Roguelike isn’t useful on its own, but quite useful paired with something else.

          • thecommoncold says:

            I think “roguelike” is a useful term when applied properly. The reason we get cries that it doesn’t mean anything is because it gets thrown around improperly, so the discussion of “what is a roguelike” does have merit in trying to pare the term back to something more meaningful.

            I’m in agreement with Kitsunin on more terms for more detail, like roguelike-platformer, roguelike-spacesim, or in the case of DD, roguelike-puzzler. Something like having a big sub genre of “hyphenated roguelikes?”

          • Philotic Symmetrist says:

            I basically just want to add my support in agreeing with Kitsunin and thecommoncold. Though it shouldn’t even be a big deal to accept terms like roguelike-platformer since if roguelike is a genre then this is just part of how the term works, like action-adventure or strategy RPG.

            And Rogue Legacy is, from my point of view, the biggest offender for improper use of the term Roguelike. Not by the developers since they call it a roguelite (although I don’t really know what they mean by that) but by review sites (including RPS -_-). As Kitsunin said, nothing to do with the Berlin Interpretation, just the fact that it has no in-run progression but does have persistent between-run progression so it really isn’t any sort of permadeath at all.

            One point that I find curious about the Berlin Interpretation is that insisting on strict adherence to the BI leads to a paradox between the High Value Factors and the General Principle that missing some HVFs doesn’t mean a game is not a roguelike. Also the fact that the “genre is represented by its canon” but some games in the canon violate a HVF (specifically, the non-modal HVF). Even if there is a place for having that style of strict definition for the genre the Berlin Interpretation itself doesn’t actually work for that.

  9. Lambchops says:

    Ooh, will need to go back to this,

    Spent an age playing the free one but bounced off the beta of the shiny version as I had an unreliable connection at the time which led to issues with progress not being saved.

    Now that it’s out there I’m keen to give it a go, although I can’t help feeling a bit of trepidation with the fact that people are saying it’s now too hard. The free version was a fun diversion, perfect for an hour’s idle play but I’m not so keen if it’s going to be an endlessly frustrating hour.

    Anyone care to offer a counterpoint to those who are saying it has become to cheap and difficult?

    • basilisk says:

      The free version was a fun diversion, perfect for an hour’s idle play

      You reminded me of another thing I don’t really like about this new version – they sort of broke their own unique selling point here. The game has moved from a “five-minute coffee break dungeon run” to “twenty minutes spent carefully analysing all your options before you inevitably fail”. It’s not just the ramped up difficulty, it’s also that the toolset you have is now so much bigger and more varied. Which sounds like a good thing, but well, I don’t know, really.

      • Danda says:

        “The game has moved from a “five-minute coffee break dungeon run” to “twenty minutes spent carefully analysing all your options before you inevitably fail”.”

        That’s my exact experience. And you get nothing from defeat. Actually, you lose money if you made any preparations so every time you try hard to beat a level and fail you sink further into poverty and you end up with no resources at all. And there isn’t even an evident way to grind your way out of that hole.

        I can take a game that is very hard like FTL, but in this case I can only say that they ruined it.

    • tormos says:

      I enjoy it quite a bit more than the alpha. It activates the same learning systems rewards paths in my brain that something like Crawl does but in 30 minute doses rather than hours long epics. Which also means that the frustration factor is much lower because bad moves don’t lose you that much progress.

  10. Kitsunin says:

    How funny, this very morning I had the random thought that I would be very disappointed if Desktop Dungeons wasn’t on the advent calendar. Glad it is, it is indeed a great game!

  11. Maphis says:

    Does anyone else attempt to ‘play along’ with the RPS Advent Calendar each year?
    When I get home from work tonight I’ll be grabbing Desktop Dungeons and spend most of the evening playing it, then tomorrow I may or may not get to try something else new depending on if the selection is a game I’ve already played.
    Hexcells last night kept me up until 1am but I loved it.

    • TomxJ says:

      I Try to, 2011 was my most successful year :p Don’t starve was a giggle, Hexels i’m yet to try, but i think i have DTD tucked away in my Library, so i might give it ago tonight.

    • DrManhatten says:

      Nope can’t seem to agree on any of the choices in the calendar so far, oh well maybe I am not hardcore enough!

  12. Robmonster says:

    I’m terrible at this game. I cannot defeat the vampire banker levels, they are pretty much after the tutorial stages….