A new Roguelike interpretation

by Slash, priest of the Temple of the Roguelike

“What is a roguelike?” is a long standing question with no single answer; there are many perspectives you could apply to understand what “roguelike” refers to, starting from strictly historical ascendance, passing through aesthetics or even focusing on a single feature such as procedural content or permanent death.

For a long time, I have refrained from providing a single definition, and went instead for a way to evaluate the “roguelikeness” of a game. This I did to encourage experimentation outside the bounds of the classics, but the world has changed.

Over the years there has been a resurgence of the term “roguelike”, where it has been applied to games that differ so much from the originals that the term is losing its meaning every time. Rogue-Legacy-Full-Game-2 Having that in mind, I have decided to share my own interpretation of what I call a Classic Roguelike, with the sole intention of preserving the original nature and identity of the genre; this doesn’t mean roguetemple is only intended to cover the development of classic roguelikes; we are equally interested in games that utilize some of the mechanics from roguelikes and complement them with other genres.

The most important perspective for me when considering if a game is a roguelike are its game design features. Note however that my interpretation is not limited to the features of the original “Rogue”, nor am I listing all of its features to be required; this list is derived from my experience over the years on what makes a roguelike, i.e. which features from the good old roguelikes are critical to conserve the spirit of the genre.

So, for a game to be considered a Classic Roguelike by this interpretation, it should comply with ALL of the following features:

  • Turn based: The player interacts in turns; for every turn the player gets to decide what action to take. After he decides the game simulates the turns for the rest of the entities in the game world and them prompts the player back for action. The player can pass its turn but it’s done manually as an explicit action.
  • Grid based: (Which could be implied from being “Turn based”) There is an underlying orthogonal or hexagonal grid where the entities of the world are placed. Movement occurs from one cell to another close cell.
  • Permanent Failure: Encouraging the player to take responsibility for the risks he takes. Games can be persisted to support interrupted play sessions but players cannot reload a game for the sake of experimenting or to “retry” a fight or seek a better outcome on a random event.
  • Procedural environments: Most of the game world is generated by the game for every new gameplay session. This is meant to encourage replayability and complements permanent failure.
  • Random conflict outcomes: The main conflict action between entities in the game (commonly, attacking an enemy or casting a spell) has a random outcome. For example, for most of times you can’t know for certain in advance how many hitpoints your attack will reduce from the enemy (Although the player has a reference range and variability that should allow him to make tactical choices).
  • Inventory: There are items the player can pick up and use and inventory space is limited, the player should decide strategically what items are best to keep to survive and win the game.
  • Single Character: The player is represented by a single character inside the game world.

Use this interpretation at your own risk. Some games could be considered roguelikes and don’t have all these features. You might also want to check other roguelike definitions attempts:

13 thoughts on “A new Roguelike interpretation

  1. FTL fits this definition very nicely.
    Turn based: this is the exception. Since weapons fire on timers and you can pause at any time, it you can simulate the spirit of this definition.
    Grid based: The world is a directed graph and could be simplified to a grid. You go from cell to cell to face each encounter. You could argue that this is where the turn-based action really happens.
    Permanent Failure: nothing to add.
    Procedural environments: nothing to add.
    Random conflict outcomes: nothing to add.
    Inventory: You have limited space for weapons, systems, drones and crew.


  2. For FTL
    – You can pause at any time, that doesn’t make it a turn based game, would you say Doom is a turn based game just because you can pause any time?
    – The world *could be* simplified to a grid, but it is not.


  3. FTL does Rogue-ish time much better than many roguelikes do. The whole point of turn-based roguelikes is that you can control the pace of the game. Go fast when things are easy, go slow when you need to make a tough decision. This is very different from the likes of Civilisation where taking a quick turn becomes impossible, or other turn-based games where every turn always feels like it takes the same amount of time. There is no control of the pace. Turn-based also allows for solid tactical decision making, especially when married with grid-based (or node-based would work just as well).

    Many complex roguelikes have forgotten how important turns are to the genre. In Nethack, ADOM and ToME you can have absurd levels of adjustments to how long a turn lasts. The link between turns and grids is lost, obscuring the tactical depth of the game. More recently Sil and Brogue have gone back to the roots and restored a more meaningful turn system, with only a few “speeds” possible.

    In FTL because you can pause and issue orders at any time the tactical depth is restored. The combat is still not twitch or execution based, it’s entirely down to tactical skill. There are other elements that make FTL less traditional as a roguelike, but the time element should be seen as a welcome twist. Personally I think pause-at-will is far more in the spirit of Rogue than the bastardised time systems of 90s roguelikes.

    If we want to look on any innovations as not fitting with the genre then we should be willing to go look at the changed instigated by the traditional games too. Nethack has done a lot of harm to this genre, and we shouldn’t blindly insist that it is right and modern game are wrong!

    Also, go play Hoplite and tell me you need items or random combat to make a roguelike 😛


  4. Hoplite is a great game, it’s also not a classic roguelike, but most of a puzzle game with some roguelike elements.

    Also, I never really liked NetHack 🙂


  5. Slash does a good job of laying out the classic features of a the roguelike genre. The conventions. The confusion comes because ‘roguelike’ is both a genre convention and a design goal. 2 different things with the same name.

    The design goal of a roguelike, essentially, is to utilize the interplay between permadeath and procedural generation in order to create a highly replayable, learn to advance type of game system. Winning requires lots of repetition but game play is not repetitive.

    It’s tough to achieve the goal and it doesn’t require grids and single player and what not. Though I must say it’s usually done best by games that fit the classic genre mold, games like FTL and Binding and Spelunky have certainly used the design principals well using other genre conventions (namely simulation, arena shooter and platformer).

    And this is why I consider Dwarf Fortress to be a roguelike (in the city sim genre). Not because of the Ascii, the Ascii is just a symptom of needing tons of variety and having one developer. The huge variety is needed to achieve the permadeath/procedural generation interplay. Lol, having adventure mode means it also follows the genre conventions, but for me fortress mode is a roguelike design in the Simcity genre.

    I probably just confused the issue to no end.


  6. From above comments we should get some tiers of roguelikeness:

    – Orthodox Roguelike – OR (the thing post describes)
    – deviations:
    — OR/-TB – Orthodox minus Turn Based element

    This way FTL will be “OR/-TB-GB”

    Lets get list of most common features, that has some meaning from roguelike game perspective and define what is included in Orthodox version and we are done.


  7. I have to rebut this. My WazHack is more roguelike than half the likelikelikes I see these days. Grid based is only a requirement for Minecraftlikes.


  8. I 100% agree with Darren’s post re: FTL. Also, I don’t think pausing in Doom etc is comparable – in FTL you pause to take an action, in other games the only “value” to pausing is to let you look at whatever part of the game world isn’t obscured by the pausing menu.

    I would also, actually, propose that FTL is, in essence, a turn-based game, though many do not realize this. I’m not a top FTL player, but I’ve had many-win streaks on Hard mode using almost every ship, and what I increasingly realize is that the #1 method for maximizing your win-rate is to pause after literally every action, and during tense moments – manipulating boarders, powering up/down shield/other systems to meet waves of attacks, etc – you will be pausing so often that there isn’t really any other meaningful action that could have been inserted between those pauses. At this point, you’re pausing at every “unit” of time in FTL. You aren’t pausing at every frame, but you are pausing at every point there is some change in the game state that is at all meaningful to your success/failure. At this point I’d suggest that (albeit in a slightly abstract way) FTL is, effectively, turn-based.


  9. Maybe put “Classic” in your title if your trying to define *that* as a new term. I don’t think it promotes roguelikes to dilute the term by putting the vast majority of good roguelikes (eg. Hack, NetHack, Moria, DCSS, ADOM, etc.) under a new subclassification of “classic” roguelikes, leaving the unqualified term to mean just about anything, including Pacman (grid based, permadeath, single player, but not Classic due to missing a few checkboxes).

    Berlin interpretation is fine.


  10. When you have an RPG you know what that means…character building. There are also genre conventions (hack and slash fantasy, no twitch). But you can have an RPG in a different genre entirely and have it still be an rpg, like a shooter RPG.

    People mistake the genre conventions or mechanics with the goal of the design.

    If you are building a character, it’s an RPG. Doesn’t matter the game mechanics exactly.

    If you are creating a procedural permadeath ‘beat the system’ game, it’s a roguelike even if it doesn’t have the genre conventions of bumping and ascii and grids, etc…


  11. I agree with Jo, the main element that keeps you playing roguelikes is progression – increasing the capabilities of your character/team.

    Id add exploration, which itself is another form of progression (knowledge=power=more capability) and also strategy/tactical combat, although in some games thats pretty weak.

    In those games, combat is simply there to measure your progression.

    So progression, exploration and strategy/tactics.

    Permadeath reinforces progression – if you can save the game and come back then your progression is assured. No risk greatly dilutes the value of your decisions.


  12. If FTL fits the definition, then the definition does not capture what a “Classic Roguelike” is.

    A big part of the issue is that some of the loudest voices on this matter are basically promoters and to a lesser extent commentators. Naturally, they want a broad definition that includes popular new games so that more people will be attracted to their media products.

    On the other hand, the world of “classic roguelike development” (or perhaps what many would call “real roguelike development”) is very slow moving. Most projects never go anywhere and few ever grow to be reasonable alternatives to the classics and their modern descendents. A new contender’s arc of development is often measured in decades. This situation does not lend itself to the pace expected by the readers, viewers, and listeners of bloggers, podcasters, etc.

    The current identity crisis in the roguelike genre is driven by professional promotion — game companies and associated agents loudly claiming their games are roguelikes or something like a roguelike — and its impact on amateur promotion and commentary, the dynamic outlined above. (Of course, it goes back farther than that, but these are the dominant factors right now.)

    The feeling I see among hardcore fans and developers is that the professional promotion aspect is fundamentally inauthentic and illegitimate. By extension, so is the non-professional commentary and promotion it influences.

    The way forward is unclear, as the confusion is compounded by a history of definitions that, for example, rigidly adhere to turn based, single character conventions, while allowing any kind of grid (hexagonal?), graphics, etc. These are arbitrary deviations lacking good motivating examples and ignoring the most obvious feature of classic roguelikes: the use of the console.

    The genre is in danger of being coopted by commercial interests — and indeed, prominent commentators welcome our new indie overlords. Even among hobbyist developers, the emphasis has shifted to slapping graphics suitable for an iPhone on old, stripped-down designs. The idea that less graphics free the developer to explore ideas and reach depths not possible in graphical games seems lost, except to the developers of Dwarf Fortress (which, ironically, isn’t a roguelike).

    All this is to say: I am disheartened by Slash’s definition of a “classic roguelike.” This is even more of a step backwards than his previous definition because it attempts to impose essentially the same formulation on what should be a narrower range of games, while giving up on the idea that people who play and develop games like nethack, angband, crawl, and so forth have a claim to what it means to be roguelike.


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