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I always assumed that a roguelike was a nethack-esque game with ascii graphics, but apparently there is more to it than that. Note that I never actually played nethack and all I know about it is that is an rpg.

So what makes a game a roguelike?

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The two core components that define a roguelike tend to be random generation and a special style of turn-based action. There's a lot of other attributes common between a lot of roguelikes, such as one-way dungeons where there are no stairs to go back up, but these aren't required to be a proper roguelike. Even one of the most common aspects, "final death" where death deletes your save, is not present in all roguelikes.

Random Generation in roguelikes is a completely different scale than most other games. Entire dungeons are randomly generated. Some roguelikes feature specific dungeons that might have the same layout, but the majority of the game's dungeons will be randomly created. Some times these have persistence, where revisiting the same floor will have the same layout. Other times, there is no persistence and even returning backwards yields completely new floors.

A common extension is that items are randomly generated, and randomly attributed. Instead of seeing a staff and knowing that it's a staff of lightning bolt, you might see it as an oak staff before identification. But when you start a new save, an oak staff might be for healing hands while the staff of lightning bolt is now a cherry staff.

The end result is that past experience in the game will help you in forming strategies in roguelikes, but it will be difficult to play through with the same strategies since you can't rely on everything being the same.

Turn-based Action is the other main component. When you take a turn, all other entities will also take their turn. Until you take your turn, nothing will change. It gives a lot of time for people to plan their strategies. The methods in which turns advance will very greatly between many roguelikes: ADOM has a complex speed/energy system for getting your next turn while POWDER has a simple 5-tier turn system for different variations of speed. But you'll always be able to breathe when it is your turn.

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  • Grace, please review my addition. Can't believe perma death wasn't mentioned! – badp Sep 12 '10 at 21:32
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    @badp Did you skip the first paragraph? 'Even one of the most common aspects, "final death" where death deletes your save, is not present in all roguelikes.' There are so many roguelikes where your save isn't deleted - some resolve to just destroy your inventory and/or your levels. And some actually leave you with everything identified and you can run back to where you died. – Grace Note Sep 13 '10 at 11:08
  • Reverted. – badp Sep 13 '10 at 11:12
  • @badp Would you consider doing the roguelikes tag wiki perhaps? I wanted to keep my answer here to what attributes truly make a roguelike, but the wiki is an excellent place to also feature the more common aspects such as permadeath, unforgiving difficulty, and extreme item resourcefulness. – Grace Note Sep 13 '10 at 13:30
  • on it. – badp Sep 13 '10 at 14:45
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According to its Wikipedia article, a roguelike is characterised by replayability by randomization, permanent death and turn-based movement.

The fact most roguelikes have ASCII graphics is because the game Rogue was, and if it's not age, it's still a novelty thing mostly.

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A notable definition is a so-called "Berlin interpretation". While a genre definition develops with time and is under a heavy debate (because roguelikes are IMPORTANT!), it's a good starting point to understand the foundations of the genre.

Now, quoting the RogueBasin wiki:

Preamble

This definition of "Roguelike" was created at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008 and is the product of a discussion between all who attended. The definition at http://www.roguetemple.com/roguelike-definition/ was used as the starting point for the discussions. Most factors are newly phrased, new factors have been added, some factors have been removed.

General Principles

"Roguelike" refers to a genre, not merely "like-Rogue". The genre is represented by its canon. The canon for Roguelikes is ADOM, Angband, Crawl, Nethack, and Rogue.

This list can be used to determine how roguelike a game is. Missing some points does not mean the game is not a roguelike. Likewise, possessing some points does not mean the game is a roguelike.

The purpose of the definition is for the roguelike community to better understand what the community is studying. It is not to place constraints on developers or games.

High value factors

Random environment generation

The game world is randomly generated in a way that increases replayability. Appearance and placement of items is random. Appearance of monsters is fixed, their placement is random. Fixed content (plots or puzzles or vaults) removes randomness.

Permadeath

You are not expected to win the game with your first character. You start over from the first level when you die. (It is possible to save games but the savefile is deleted upon loading.) The random environment makes this enjoyable rather than punishing.

Turn-based

Each command corresponds to a single action/movement. The game is not sensitive to time, you can take your time to choose your action.

Grid-based

The world is represented by a uniform grid of tiles. Monsters (and the player) take up one tile, regardless of size.

Non-modal

Movement, battle and other actions take place in the same mode. Every action should be available at any point of the game. Violations to this are ADOM's overworld or Angband's and Crawl's shops.

Complexity

The game has enough complexity to allow several solutions to common goals. This is obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions and is strongly connected to having just one mode.

Resource management

You have to manage your limited resources (e.g. food, healing potions) and find uses for the resources you receive.

Hack'n'slash

Even though there can be much more to the game, killing lots of monsters is a very important part of a roguelike. The game is player-vs-world: there are no monster/monster relations (like enmities, or diplomacy).

Exploration and discovery

The game requires careful exploration of the dungeon levels and discovery of the usage of unidentified items. This has to be done anew every time the player starts a new game.

Low value factors

Single player character

The player controls a single character. The game is player-centric, the world is viewed through that one character and that character's death is the end of the game.

Monsters are similar to players

Rules that apply to the player apply to monsters as well. They have inventories, equipment, use items, cast spells etc.

Tactical challenge

You have to learn about the tactics before you can make any significant progress. This process repeats itself, i.e. early game knowledge is not enough to beat the late game. (Due to random environments and permanent death, roguelikes are challenging to new players.) The game's focus is on providing tactical challenges (as opposed to strategically working on the big picture, or solving puzzles).

ASCII display

The traditional display for roguelikes is to represent the tiled world by ASCII characters.

Dungeons

Roguelikes contain dungeons, such as levels composed of rooms and corridors.

Numbers

The numbers used to describe the character (hit points, attributes etc.) are deliberately shown.

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Generally, it's an overhead, turn-based, dungeon crawler, with randomly generated rooms.

For more information, see

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roguelike

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