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ZangbandTK: Confessions of a Dungeon Hack

[This has been on my blog for a while, but never reposted on RPS. I thought worth moving over her. Originally written for PC Gamer back in the day, and tweaked from my original unproofed version for publication. Oh - and you can get ZanbandTK most easily here]

Valarina was my first. She was a barbarian warrior. Plain, though no-one would ever say that to her face for fear of her tearing off their arm and using it as a particularly bloody stole. But she was confident. Hey - with 18/50 strength you would be too. I had her walk into town, confusedly haggle for a pair of leather gloves then hit the bar, demanding a quest. They gave her one. Danger level 25. Hmmm... Is that bad? I didn't know. So I marched her in and before she even had a chance to look around, Valarina was slaughtered in a single combat round by a Vorpal Bunny. Oh my.

Like the infinite coils of a fractal design, this smallest part of ZangbandTK contained its entirety. That is, discovery leading to overconfidence leading to death. Or, perhaps more accurately, death by stupidity.

Valarina died stupidly. This grated. I would have my revenge.

In the beginning there was Rogue. First released on UNIX systems in the 1970s, it proved a revelation and birthed a family of descendants. Rogue was an ASCII based dungeon-hack game, with all the features in the dungeon represented by a text symbol. For example, orcs being the letter "o". Clearly this was necessary of the time, but it still freed resources up for what was important in the game - a plethora of monsters and treasure, as well as randomly generated dungeons.

To say the least, it was inspirational. Commercially speaking, the apogee of the Rogue-inspired game came in Blizzard's Diablo, which in its virtually plotless repetition and gradual character improvement proved hugely popular. However, underground, a more direct line from Rogue was forming. Rogue inspired Moria, a Tolkein styled dungeon hack in the eighties. In 1990, Angband was born, which upped the Tolkein ante in including all manner of characters from the books. Angband proved popular, and eventually the variant known as Zangband - short for "Zelazny Angband" - came into being, improving on the original in ways deeper than the simple addition of characters from Roger Zelazny's Amber series of books (For those unfamiliar: Political multiverse fiction about a warring family of aristocratic utter bastards).

The problem with all of these games was that they're about as accessible as reading Anglo-Saxon sagas in old English. Putting aside even the graphical limitations, a baroque sequence of keys were required for any tasks, often with capital letters causing different actions. For example, press "r" will read an item, while "R" would instead rest. While perfectly playable, it requires a degree of effort that alienates all too many.

At the turn of the millennium, one Tom Baker took Zangband and gave it a menu interface and some slightly less obscure graphics: ZangbandTK. It was rediscovered in my corner of the net early in 2004, lead to a rapidly multiplying craze, my staying up until six in the morning on a few occasions and this article in a desperate attempt to explain it all to an uncaring world.

Travis came next. And Travis was a contender. Taking things simple, he was a human warrior. I realised that this was going to be harder than I expected, so wanted to have the least to worry about as possible. Being a straight human and a single-class character, he went up levels quickly, and being a fighter he was capable of taking most things on directly. He found his rhythm - getting enough items from the dungeon, teleporting to the surface with a recall scroll and then back down to continue. He'd even illicitly discovered the joys of "farming" monsters: creatures like mice, once disturbed, started to replicate at an incredible rate. However, by making sure the area of the dungeon they were in was a sealed with closed doors, a cunning warrior could stand in a narrow corridor and take them on one at a time as they came. As long as he hadn't missed a leak, he could happily bounce up levels until the experience gained from each became insignificant. By the time he was 350ft down, he was level 12 and getting somewhat confident. And then... water.

I'd never seen water before. The simple blue shapes promised a whole new world... and implied that I was getting there. I was making progress. Happily Travis splashed his way into the shallows. A barracuda emerged, which speed beside him and in a couple of combat rounds tore him to pieces.

It's important to note that this is only one root of the family tree leading down from Rogue. There's an entirely different pathway you'd follow which leads from Hack to the occasionally-mentioned often-mocked-by-idiots Nethack. While superficially similar games, there's profound differences between the pair. Aficionados will hotly argue which is the greater - its the lo-fi RPG-nut version of the old-skool Quake 3/Unreal Tournament argument, basically. If you were to generalise, so seeking to offend both fans as efficiently as possible, Nethack tends to lean on esoteric puzzles while Zangband concentrates on fun-for-all-the-family monster hacking.

Direct comparisons, however, are misleading. Things are fuzzier than "Zangband over here and Nethack over there - three falls and no submissions". Both are open-source games, meaning that anyone can download files, have a nose and work on their own variants. For example, take that Angband to Zangband progression mentioned earlier. That was just one of the projects continuing from Angband. And once Zangband was out there, people were taking its code and making variants of that. A quick scan of the net reveals variants which add everything from Cyberpunk to Anime to Steampunk to... well, anything which inspires fandom.

It's here which the Rogue-like games gain their strength. Since the code-base is open, people have been developing, fiddling and adding sections to the games for years. With no need to worry about graphics, they just add functionality - new things to see and new things to do. They're games about variety and surprise, meaning that every time you start with a new character class it can be a completely different game. Trying to survive as a Halfling rogue whose high stealth rating means stumble across most monsters asleep is a completely different to a Half-orc Warrior who is knee-deep in monsters the second he enters a level. And both are worlds away from playing as a vampire or a Chaos Warrior or a High Mage.

The variety is necessary because given the slightest provocation ZangbandTK will kill you dead, dead, dead.

And you'll have to start all over again.

Stumpy, Dwarf Paladin, was caught by a mob of Crypt Fiends, who proceeded to summon the greatest array of Undead monsters the world had ever seen. I thought a simple small-distance Phase Door would get him away. In fact, it just teleported him further in. He was surrounded, poisoned and ate alive. He had time enough for a recall spell to jerk him out, assuming I'd had set it off when a smart person would have instead of meanly trying to save it. Stupid. Dead.

Cassius Clay, the Golem Ranger had retreated to a staircase to read an unknown scroll, in case it turned out to be one of Monster Summoning or similar. If the results were too frightening, he'd simply head up to escape, I thought. However, it summoned the Death Sword which, while immobile, delivers dozens of incredibly fast attacks against anyone stupid enough to stand beside it. Like Cassius Clay. Stupid. Dead.

Jude Lawful, Half-Titan Paladin, perished on the blade of Orfax, Son Of Boldor. Stupid. Dead.

Harbull the level 12 Hobbit Rogue, met a horned beast called Zog. It's fast and fearsome and Harbull is looking increasingly worse for wear. I try my random-magic Wand of Wonder. Sadly, it hastes the Zog, increasing the rate of Harbull's demise. Things are looking bad and, wary, I use a phase door spell and teleport Harbull to safety. I'm panicked, and - Zog out of sight - hold down the key to run away as fast as I can. Got to get away! As quickly as I can and... Zog tears around the corner and rends Harbull limb from limb. Zangband is turn based. Holding down a key makes no difference to the speed you move. I had panicked. Stupid. Dead.

Alecina Fear, Barbarian Chaos-Warrior, wise from Stumpy's fate, activated her Recall scroll the second the Crypt Fiends appeared. However, being a smarter fighter all round than Stumpy, she'd virtually annihilated their forces, Rotting Corpses and all, by the time she was brought back to the surface. She relaxed. She was safe. I was safe. We were safe. I started walking towards a shop, to sell whatever loot and... dead. She'd been poisoned by a Rotting Corpse and I hadn't noticed. I hadn't been paying attention. Very stupid. Dead.

Saffy XIII was... I'm sorry. I can't. Not yet.

Unless you cheat, once a character perishes, they're gone forever. Of course, cheating is easy enough to do. The open-source nature of the game prevents the developers making anything that forces you to play by its rules. There's even cheat-options you can turn on in the menu, for example, to make the game easier for you. And harder too, of course, for those truly brave (i.e. truly dead) few.

But, among ZangbandTk players, you tend to look down on such people. The risk is the entire point. The dungeons are randomly generated, so theres no narrative to lose. When you start again, you'll be playing something entirely new. And the variety is enough to make you want to play it again.

But mostly, the risk of life makes the game has worth. Any successes are your successes. Any failures are your failures. This isn't a game in the modern sense which holds you hand and meekly leads you from cut-scene to cut-scene, trying to bolster your confidence, the equivalent of a doting parent telling their kid that finger-painting of a dog is the best thing they've ever seen, ever, and aren't they a clever little mummy's boy.

If you're rubbish, ZanbandTK will kill you. It's merciless... but it's also brutally fair. The fact you - you! Clever old you! - were killed seems unbelievable. How could you have been tricked into failure by a game which appears to be so simple? So you play again. And you die again.

And it's your fault.

It was getting ridiculous. I'd wasted days on this game, and I needed a place to make a break. While it was clear I'd never complete ZangbandTK by dethroning Oberon and slaying the Chaos Serpent, five-thousand feet below the surface, if I could create a level 20 character - the point my circle had decided was worthy of the title "hero" - I could move away from it and get on with life. With this in mind, Saffy XIII was born.

An Amberite Ranger. Her bloodline gave her ridiculously high stats and the ability to regenerate wounds. Her training mixed fighting prowess with considerable nature magic. And I had a graveyard full of dead warriors' experience inside me, all calling out for revenge.

She rent the dungeon asunder. She hunted down and slaughtered the once trouble-some Robin Hood. Dragon-blood coated her blade. The Crypt Fiends were crushed under foot. Then, 250 experience points short of the target of level 20, she opens a door.

Into the gap steps a gazer. A bloody gazer. A weak, puny, pathetic thing. Normally splits with a single arrow. However, it gets an attack first. It paralyses Saffy. Bad - but not too bad. She normally recovers pretty fast. However, after a few immobile turns, it becomes clear that she's not going to recover. While the gazer is mostly missing, it's hitting enough to keep the effect going. This would be disastrous but for the fact that its actual attack is so pitifully weak that Saffy's natural regeneration closes her wounds faster than it can inflict them. She just can't move. There's other monsters behind the gazer, but they can't get to Saffy because of the floating eye is blocking the doorway. It's a stalemate. I hold down the forward keys, hoping that the odds eventually turn up a chance where Saffy resists long enough to get a single blow on the beast.

It never does.

Saffy XIII stands in the doorway for days of in-game time until she finally starves to death.

I'm speechless. I just opened a door. I didn't even have time to perform a single action.

This wasn't fair. This wasn't my fault. I give up.

Fuck you, ZangbandTK, I'm off to play Far Cry.

Okay, that was a lie. It's not always fair. In a game with as much variety and interlocking rules created by different people in as ZangbandTK, there's always the possibility that something may actually turn a little unfair at any moment. But it's a question of degrees - did you know the risk when you were getting into it? For example, being dropped down a trapdoor into a lower level that your character probably can't survive. Is that unfair? Well, maybe... but what were you doing walking around without a Recall spell or some find staircase variant? Or just being very careful indeed?

The areas where it's actively unfair are mostly well marked out. For example, the effect of Chaos in the game. If you play a Beastman, you have a chance of gaining another unpredictable mutation every time you increase a level. It's even worse for those who choose to play a Chaos Warrior, which puts you firmly in the capricious hands of a Chaos God who delivers "gifts" - and those are the most ironic quotation marks in human history - upon increasing a rank. Mostly, they're extremely beneficial. Huge statistic increases, chaos-weapons of ridiculous potency and even being transformed into a superman, complete with heat-ray vision and steel-skin. A sizeable fraction, however, are not. Physical curses, experience losses and summoning hordes of monsters to attack you are common. Changing your race is another gift that can kill you as good as outright, when your Titan warrior turns into a pathetic Mindflayer with the attendant lack of physical prowess.

Even when they're being generous, you can never under-estimate the Gods' sense of irony. Take the tale of the Chaos Warrior who was gifted a permanent aura of sunlight. For almost everyone, a useful boon when exploring the depths. Unless you happen - for example - to be a vampire.

But while random and unfair, this is random and unfair you've specifically asked for. You've traded character security for random power, and pretty much forfeit your right to complain. Successful Chaos Warriors have to start playing the odds, being careful to watch their experience scores to make sure they cross boundaries when in relatively safe areas instead of in an unsure fight that can be turned into death by an intervention.

A week later, It'd changed my mind. Yes, it was brutally hard... but it wasn't unfair.

I knew things that paralyzation existed - on the character sheet there was a list of things you could be immune to, and it was plainly listed. The problem was that I was overconfident in thinking I wouldn't need any resistance yet. There were shops aplenty and I hadn't gone looking for items to protect me. It was my fault. It was a particularly brutal my-fault, but it was still my error.

With this in mind, I created human Warrior-Mage Lauren Laverne. She died upon reaching level 11, when 50ft below the surface, heading back to town, I decided to try an unknown potion to clear a slot in her inventory. It turned out to make Lauren vomit, reducing her food level to zero. And I'd eaten all my supplies already. I rushed her upwards, quaffing healing potions to try and avoid her health failing from starvation. It wasn't enough. Lauren expired crawling up to the gates of town, all the ripe smells of the inn tormenting her.

But it was fine. It was all my fault.

And that's how I stopped worrying and learned to love ZangbandTK.

I've given up trying to persuade the majority of my peers to see the joy in Nethack over the years, simply shrugging my shoulders when someone asked why you just don't play Doom on map-mode instead. The argument is simple - the more time people spend working on the graphical allure, the less time they have to work on content. If to create a new form of dragon involves a modeller working for six months to create the 100,000 polygon form, you're clearly not going to have a great many of them. But if it's a tiny sprite - or even just a letter - and just the raw functionality of the code, you can have dozens, hundreds, thousands.

Some have made the argument that having such simple graphics allow you to imprint your imagination on the scene. I'm not sure I concur - I don't find myself imagining the scene much, but more rather concentrating on the stripped down mechanics of it all. There are no distractions - just you and the game, alone against the dungeon.

ZangbandTK, while not as primitive as Nethack graphically, is a fair halfway house. Its menus mean that anyone should be able to play. While, due to its developer stopping work in 2001, misses the developments of the latest "pure" Zangband releases, it's still as rich a gaming environment as you'll encounter. The hardest of the hardcore may want to turn their attention to other variants - try Tales of Middle Earth, for example. But - whisper it - I don't think many of us are that hard.

Antony: The one who made it. He was a Klackon warrior, a race of unintelligent speedy ant-people acid-spitting who can't be confused. That's one vulnerability off the list. His Halberd "Heavy-Metal" ((3d5) (+12,+13) [+9] (+3), weapon stat addicts) added fear-resistance to that, among a host of other minor ones. At the first opportunity, I sold another magic vampiric sword to raise the six-thousand gold required to purchase the ring of free-motion, preventing paralysis. That left blindness, though his variety of rods of teleport, allowed him to dodge anything out if he suffered loss of sight.

And he did. He reached level 27. He descended to 1250ft into the dungeon, only returning to the surface when a meeting with Alberich the Nibelung King ended with the dark-dwarf-lord summoning a small army of replicating creatures which over-ran the locale.

Back on the surface, I marched him to the Thieves Guild and, on a whim, took a quest. Danger Level 25. Why not? Antony had proved his worth and I was confident in his abilities to at least survive anything.

The dungeon was perfectly still. For a second I thought I should have picked up his monster-detecting kit to work out what he had to do, but - well - too late now. He opened a door, and was bombarded with magic spells. Crawling to cover, I attempted to work out what was going on. Door Mimics, it seemed. Which summon monsters, I discovered, as an Umber hulk bashed through the wall before me. Hurt, Antony drinks a potion of restore Life Levels which he inopportunely discovers isn't actually a healing potion at all. Why didn't I actually test that again? His Pattern blade flashes, despatching the beast, but the array of sentient doors continue their bombardment. Time to run for the door... except a horde of Light Dogs materialise around him. No escape for Antony.

"Oh no, not again!" the game's message log informs me. I think back to Valarina. I laugh.

Antony the Klackon had died stupidly. This grated.

I would have my revenge.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.