Typical graphics and gameplay of roguelikes.

"The RNG giveth, and the RNG taketh away..."
Common saying in roguelike circles

Roguelikes (also known by the unencumbered but less popular name of Procedural Death Labyrinths or PDL) are a subgenre of Role Playing Games, so named for being like Rogue, a very early computer game.

Rogue was a dungeon simulator originally played on text terminals in the early 1980s, which used ASCII characters to abstractly represent a tile-based game world. For example, your character is an @, walls are represented by lines of | and , ! is a potion, and the various letters of the alphabet represent different monsters (H is a hobgoblin, while D is a dragon). You're effectively looking at an overhead view of a dungeon composed of text characters.

Every game, the dungeon would be arranged differently, with different items to find, and the various monsters would appear in different places. All of this meant that the game was never the same twice, giving it unprecedented replay value. The game was turn-based, with everything in the world moving only when your character did, meaning that no quick decisions were required - you could play it like chess, thinking carefully about your options when you needed to. You could also save the game's state at any time and return to it days, weeks, or months later.

Adding to the addictive nature of the game was the thrill of permadeath - the fact that the death of your character would end the game, forcing you to start again from the beginning no matter how far into the dungeon you got. This ensured that players were very attached to their characters, and would play with tactical caution, weighing up their options whenever things became dangerous.

This combination of random generation, turn-based combat, and permadeath is the defining characteristic of Rogue. Players relished the risky, rewarding challenge offered by the game, and it wasn't long before copycat games began to follow, thus giving birth to a genre which came to be known as the Roguelike, in honor of Rogue.

One factor that almost certainly contributed to the rise of roguelikes was the fact that they have no graphical requirements. Any coder can create one without having to worry about graphical or audio resources — the only requirement of a roguelike is the ability to manipulate a grid of text characters, which any computer system can do trivially — especially the terminal-based systems in common use during the 1980s, when the first roguelikes began to appear.

Because of the lack of reliance on graphics, roguelikes tend to focus far more on game mechanics instead, with the result that they are often extremely intricate, and allow for complex strategies and interactions.

Today, a truly enormous family of roguelikes exists. Many are written as labors of love, or as experiments to try out new and interesting game mechanics. (The 'experimental roguelike' is practically a genre in itself.)

The most traditional roguelikes have the following characteristics:

  • Roguelikes are centered around Dungeon Crawling through randomly-generated environments randomly stocked from a list of monsters and items. Some (such as ADOM) also have a static overworld and/or special levels, but even those games rely on random content in other places. This means that memorization is not enough to win a roguelike, and walkthroughs as such cannot be made for them, but they have high replay value. On the downside, this means it is possible to lose in a roguelike purely by bad luck, although most roguelike designers attempt to avoid outright unfair situations.
  • Roguelikes take Final Death to the extreme. When your character dies, that's it - they're dead for good, with no chance of recovery, no matter how far they may have gotten or what fabulous treasures they may have accrued. Saving the game is often possible, but it is only used for having a pause from playing, and when your character dies, the save file is deleted. Save Scumming is thus flatly disallowed (even if it may be possible through outside means). The result of this is that roguelike players are very invested in their characters, and are forced to learn the essential skills for survival.
  • Roguelikes typically have only a single controllable character, with a turn-based engine in which everything moves at the same time. Some allow you to have allies or pets, but they can't be directly controlled, only given general orders.
  • Roguelikes generally feature an enormous menagerie of monsters and enemies, which will have various abilities, resistances, weaknesses, and defenses. Part of the game strategy will be learning the best ways to fight particular monsters, and how to protect yourself from them.
  • Roguelikes generally have a 'food clock' — characters will hunger over time and have to eat, which means they cannot stay in one place forever — they have to push on to get food at the very least. This forces them to confront the increasingly difficult parts of the game. This is usually a measure to attempt to prevent the player from level grinding. The original Rogue, for example, required you to eat food every so often or starve to death, and it was nearly impossible to find more food on a dungeon level once you'd cleaned it out — but going down to the next dungeon level meant fighting tougher monsters.
  • Most roguelikes have randomized appearances for items that do not persist from one playthrough to the next. In one playthrough, for example, 'a green potion' might be a potion of healing, but in the next, it might be a potion of poison. Because of this, identification is often a key aspect of gameplay, and there are many different techniques a player can use to learn the identities of objects they have acquired: identification spells, careful observation (for example, seeing a monster drink a potion and noting what happens), elimination, or even just blindly using them and seeing what happens. It's typical, after dying, to be revealed that you had an item which could've saved you, but was unidentified at the time. Roguelikes might also make use of Randomly Generated Loot.
  • Roguelikes, especially the well-known or popular ones, have often been under continual development for many years (sometimes a few decades), making them extraordinarily large and complex. Many have to use both capital and lowercase letters to have enough inputs for their commands, and some go even further. Interactions between gameplay elements are also often very intricate, so much so that roguelike players have a saying: The Dev Team Thinks of Everything. (This catchphrase originated in the NetHack community, but has seen wider use since then, and also named the trope.)
  • Roguelikes are notoriously difficult. This is generally by design. Death is expected to be fairly frequent, enough so that the community has developed the acronym "YASD," for Yet Another Stupid Death. It is easily possible to play some roguelikes for years without even coming close to victory.
  • Most roguelikes have little more than an Excuse Plot, and are designed to be started and restarted quickly.
  • Many roguelikes are incredible time sinks, which is only exacerbated by the fact that most of them are entirely free.

Roguelikes can be roughly classified into a few different Subgenres that occasionally overlap:
  • Hacklikes: influenced mostly by NetHack (a direct descendant of Rogue). They mostly focus on Dungeon Crawling, with an aggressive food clock and limited resources.
  • *bands: influenced by Angband. *bands usually feature a non-permanent dungeon, infinite resources and very tough bosses, so the games are focused on taking levels in badass until the player is ready to punch dragons to death.
  • Coffeebreak roguelikes: simple roguelikes with few controls that are designed to be easy to pick up and play (although they may still be just as difficult as a traditional roguelike). Sometimes these are deliberately short, rather than the sprawling affairs that traditional roguelikes tend to be, and often have a strong Macrogame to compensate for this. These are also known as Roguelites.
  • Experimental roguelikes: these often overlap with Coffeebreak roguelikes. They are generally more like proofs of concepts, and as such can feature extremely strange gameplay mechanics. They may be unbalanced to play, possibly by design.
  • Rogue-lites: A catch-all category that refers to games that, while not being full Roguelikes themselves, have similar elements, usually permadeath and randomly generated levels. Apart from that, many are not RPGs with level systems (Spelunky, the first successful rogue-lite, is a Platform Game, for example).

In the west, roguelikes are mostly a niche thing, but their influence can be widely seen in indie games of the late 2000s/early 2010s. Many games, especially open sandbox style games, are turning to random procedural generation as a way of increasing their replay value. Minecraft developer Notch has admitted to being a huge roguelike fan, which is the reason that Minecraft has a Hardcore difficulty mode (to reproduce the roguelike ideal of permadeath).

There are a few true roguelikes that have managed to creep into the Western mainstream, however. The best known is probably Diablo, which was inspired by NetHack. The genre is much less niche in Japan, and there are quite a few Eastern roguelikes; the most well-known in the West is probably Pokémon Mystery Dungeon.

Indie games which make use of roguelike gameplay traits are sometimes jokingly referred to as 'roguelike-likes'. Space adventure game FTL, and platform game Spelunky often receive the 'roguelike-like' label. Sometimes, this coyness is dropped and people will simply refer to them as roguelikes. 'Roguelike' is not a well-defined term and there is no consensus upon what constitutes one, although attempts have been made to arrive at an acceptable definition: the 'Berlin Interpretation' is the most well known effort.

See also Multi-User Dungeon for a related genre of RPG with its roots in Text Adventure games.

Roguelike games

Alternative Title(s): Roguelikes