What is a Traditional Roguelike

by Slash, priest of the Temple of the Roguelike, 2018. v1.2

This article is based on the conclusions from my talk at the Roguelike Celebration in 2017. Click here for a brief history of the “roguelike” term. 

Many people have tried to define what a “roguelike” is, more so given its recent usage as a term to describe a wide variety of games with different features. While there is no ultimate answer to that question, given the nature of the word and its history, I believe it’s useful to share and spread the notion of a Traditional Roguelike, merely to help people discover newly created games that follow the original format more closely than others, as well as allow this specific branch of roguelikes to continue evolving on its own. My interpretation is inspired by what I call the “Second Age of Roguelike Development”, happening around 1995 to 2005.

While I believe modern roguelike developers should feel free to include as many or as little ingredients as they want from the historical roguelikes into their games in order to make fun and innovative experiences, it should make sense to qualify their games appropriately to distinguish them from these traditional style games. “Action Roguelike” is a perfect example of what I would suggest for games that are not turn based but feature most or all the other ingredients of the roguelike formula.

I believe a traditional roguelike should fill the following criteria:

1. Permanent Consequences

The outcome of any action you take into the game cannot be rolled back by reloading a saved game (including death).

This encourages both careful tactical play and long-term strategies and planning and increases the excitement of advancing through the procedural content generated by the game.

2. Character-centric

The player personifies a single character into the game at a time, this is in contrast to both a.) games where the player doesn’t control person-like characters or vehicles directly (for example puzzles) and b.) “god” style games where the player is an abstract entity creating and controlling multiple discardable “units”.

Being character-centric helps the player establish a strong relationship with the individual characters, increasing the impact of the permanent consequences. It also provides a distinct common base format.

3. Procedural content

Increases the replayability of the game by having most or all of the world be generated by the game for every new gameplay session.

In addition to providing an incentive for players to dig into the game, procedural content serves as a tool to prevent the player from being frustrated by the harsh effect of permanent consequences, having to start gameplay session from scratch frequently.

4. Turn Based

Gameplay is similar to a board game where you can think your actions carefully, having infinite time to reflect on your available options to face the situations that the game presents you with the resources you have at hand.

This is relevant given consequences are permanent, and the intent of the game is not testing how quick the player can take an acceptable decision but rather challenging him to think out the best move he can make in critical scenarios.

Other interpretations

Throughout the years there have been several efforts to interpret What a Roguelike is; while none of them should be used as a definitive guide to classifying a game as a roguelike, they can give an idea of the many features the games of the genre have: