Monday, 7 July 2008

Zangband, ToME, and the Roguelikes

A week or so ago, a meme about gaming influences was floating around. I cited five straight off the bat without really thinking too long; it's clear I was being an idiot because I completely left out Zangband, my favourite Angband variant and also my favourite ever computer game. (It's about the only game I've never become bored with, in fact - I first started playing it at about 14 and haven't stopped since.) Zangband is now no longer being developed, but it has evolved into Tales of Middle Earth (ToME), which is just as good, anyway. If you've never played any of these games, I truly envy you. As with people who've never read Viriconium, or who've never seen The Insider, I'm incredibly jealous that you have the chance to come to the games fresh and discover the wonders contained therein, whereas for a jaded old hand like me they no longer hold any surprises.

What are Zangband and ToME? Well, they're Roguelikes: Games in which you take on the role of a character traveling around dungeons killing things and taking treasure. What distinguishes them from just about any other genre of computer game is a kind of beautiful simplicity which masks great complexity. Picture an @ sign (that's you) moving around a randomly-generated dungeon killing 'o's (orcs) 'T's (Trolls) and 'd's (dragons) and you'll be able to get a rough idea of what game play involves. But what you won't appreciate until you actually play is just how much is going on, and how realistic and powerful the game engine is. (Get hit by a fireball, and your scrolls and spell books might be destroyed by the fire; eat the wrong kind of mushroom and you'll see hallucinations; throw a potion of sleep at a gang of orcs and it will act like a sleep-causing grenade).

The best thing about Zangband is its 'everything including the kitchen sink' approach. There's no purity of vision involved, unless "let's put in whatever the hell we want" counts as such. In this respect it's very much like older versions of D&D. The central theme is based around Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, but the game incorporates elements from everything from H. P. Lovecraft to the computer game Doom: It's a game where high-level characters at the lower depths of the dungeon can expect to be challenged by Colours from Outer Space, Star-Spawn of Cthulu, Warriors of the Dawn and rocket-firing Cyberdemons, and where you might end up clearing a room of Uruk-hai one moment before having to kill a pack of Sheriff Lobos the next. It's a game where one of the deadliest enemies in the upper echelons of the dungeon is called The Disembodied Hand That Strangled People; a game where you'll have to kill Calvin and Hobbes to get lower than dungeon level 10, and a game where an Ancient Red Dragon is scary, but Barney the Dinosaur is scarier still.

I didn't used to appreciate this kind of cross-genre weirdness outside of computer games. Role playing was always a serious business for me, whether I was playing AD&D, Shadowrun, Werewolf: The Apocalypse or Traveler. To a large extent, it still is. But nowadays I'm more willing to entertain the idea that the 'everything including the kitchen sink' approach can add a new level of creativity, interest and fun to a game. In a way it's a big part of the influence on my OzCthulu game - where I'm mixing stone-age gaming with Call of Cthulu. In another it's at the root of the attraction I hold for Risus, which allows genre-mixing like no other game. But I suppose its main effect is in the sheer, riotous enjoyment that it brings across in its reckless, mad creativity. The desire to put in everything that the designers liked, regardless of whether it would 'fit', is infectious. I definitely plan to start mixing up my genres with my D&D games sometime soon.


  1. I played Zangband for the first time quite a few years ago (I think at your insistence) and loved it, but it never struck me as truly weird until I started playing it in it's Tome incarnation. I have no explanation for why: I just accepted point blank the surreality of going from fighting orcs and goblins one moment to Bill Gates and computer bugs the next...

    And I still haven't seen The Insider. Or read Viriconium.

  2. Well you should see/read them right away.

    Yeah, those Software Bugs are a pain in the arse. The worst are the Random Number Generators in ToME, though. Capital 'I' who breed explosively and cause confusion.

  3. I've always played it with a tile set so that things appear like little creatures, not as coloured ASCII things...

    I think I'll fire up ToME on my laptop once the corrections for my thesis are done and I'm just waiting for my examiners to get back to me.