Roguelikes are a genre defined by randomness. It’s the primary thing that sets them apart from other games. Even when they’re not really RPGs at all, a roguelike will have a level that is randomly generated. Or rather, what is called “procedural generation”, because true randomness is like a whole thing involving complicated mathematics that I’m not even gonna get into.
Randomness is something that should be used carefully, though. Especially when it comes to actual gameplay, it’s easy to lean on it too much and end up with a mess of a game. You can’t get away with making absolutely everything random, the chances of getting something that’s even playable are tiny.
Think of a game like Spelunky. It’s a roguelike platformer, where the levels have a different layout every time. But… it is not simply a roll of the dice whether a given square is a platform or not. Rather, the creator, Derek Yu, has made by hand chunks of level, which are then stuck together in a random way, with some allowance for bits added or taken away here and there. You can smash open crates and receive random rewards… that are weighted appropriately, with less valuable rewards being much more common. It’s all very well balanced.
In an RPG, things get even more complicated. The places where you give the player control and where you give them something unpredictable, or somewhat predictable, will affect the players experience on a deep level. Whether they feel in control, if they get frustrated, whether they want to play again after winning or losing, and so on.
Personally, I think randomness should only be deployed in places where it doesn’t affect the core capability of the player character. I will demonstrate what I mean with some examples of games that don’t do this, and it drives me crazy.
First off, Dead Cells. This is a roguelike that is a platformer, but more action-y than Spelunky. You jump around, but the focus is on combat. You fight in real time with many different types of weapons and traps, which you find randomly in chests and shops. At the start of the game, you receive one random weapon and defensive item. These weapons have wildly different behavior, from quick-hitting daggers to slow, unwieldy whips to sandals that let you kick enemies dramatically. You cannot upgrade these directly, but rather you find completely new, randomly generated weapons that are a higher level as you get further in a way.
I can’t stand this system. In an action game, I want to be able to get used to a particular weapon, and then keep using it. The fact that you have absolutely no ability to control what weapon you use not only for a single run but throughout that run is incredibly frustrating. Being able to dabble is fun, but being forced to switch up your main method of attack, which is what you spend most of your time in the game doing is just a real drag.
The other example is more broad, and not even restricted to roguelikes per se. It’s cards. There’s a very popular roguelike out now called Slay the Spire that’s all about using cards to fight battles. I haven’t played it, because I hate games like that. You build a deck from cards you have or gain throughout, and then you draw a hand that determines what sorts of action you can take.
I remember playing Metal Gear AC!D on my PSP back in high school, it had a similar system. You built a deck and drew cards, and then used them to use weapons, move around the map (it was kind of a tactical grid-based thing), take actions, everything. It was all restricted by the cards you’d collected and added to your deck, and the cards you happened to pull from it every turn.
This is even worse than the example of Dead Cells, because it takes over the whole game. If your game has deck-building, that’s basically the only thing it can be about. Because then you’re not just thinking about what you can do with the resources available, the cards in your hand, but how you can subtly influence the hand that you could potentially have later in this playthrough and also in future ones. When you’re making a deck, you make lots of small decisions to affect the probability of being able to take particular actions at the right times, not even knowing what particular challenges you’re going to face, in what order.
It is, in effect, an excess of randomness. It takes away player agency to an unacceptable degree, to me anyway.
Randomness is okay to use for creating the challenge that the player must face, but it should not be used to restrict what they can do. If the basic types of action remain consistent, then the player is able to build up skills using it, and make progress even if they get bad rolls of the dice, so to speak.
In the end, does this come down to personal taste? Are there many different kinds of challenges that are enjoyed by different people?
Yes, of course. Both Slay the Spire and Dead Cells are massively popular, despite my personal distaste for their core mechanics. Honestly, it mostly comes down to the fact that I used to be super into Magic the Gathering in middle and high school, and am absolutely sick of building decks. I don’t find it at all fun or engaging, but I understand why people do
What I take away from this is that it’s important to pay attention to where you are inserting randomness in regards to the agency of the player. What kind of a challenge do you want to build? Is it more about learning and building skills over time, or solving a particular, unique situation? Most roguelikes are going to fall somewhere in between. You are going to run into strange situations if you have any amount of randomness, and players will learn to use all the tools over time even if you randomize the ones you give them.
The essence of crafting a roguelike is figuring out what sort of mixture you want to have, what kind of experience you want to give the player. Personally, I find ones where you have more control over your tools to be more engaging, so that’s what I’m gonna lean towards.
Dice and Magic cards (2019), by me!
Spelunky (2013), developed by Mossmouth.
Dead Cells (2018), developed by Motion Twin.
Slay the Spire (2019), developed by Mega Crit Games.
METAL GEAR AC!D (2005), developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan.