Readers unfamiliar with roguelikes (or should I say deathcrawls?) may wish to read my introduction to the genre first. I’ve also posted about Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup a lot, so you might want to read those posts too, but keep in mind that the game is continually updating so the older posts may not reflect the current state of the game. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

In my last real post (no, I’m not counting the obvious filler) I wrote about my first, clumsy attempts to seriously play a magic caster in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. I was even gently mocked for my ignorance over at the official forums. I don’t blame them; it’s kind of ridiculous that I’ve played the game for so long without ever learning the art of spellcasting.

To be fair, however, there is a lot to learn. And once I finally started to learn it, I was drawn into the game more strongly than I’ve been for a long time. I kept playing new Conjurers instead of finishing the other games I’ve been meaning to write about. So I decided to write about the things I’ve learned about magic in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, and the story of my latest Conjurer, who came painfully close to winning the game.

This post will have spoilers (although not as many as Urist Redbeard’s epic saga), so players who are new to the game and wish to learn about magic themselves should probably skip this one.

First, I want to explain why I’ve avoided magic-focused characters for so long. Part of it, as I implied in my last post, is that the last time I tried one was many versions ago when they were much harder to play in the early game. But a more important reason is that the added complexity of spellcasting is simply daunting. To illustrate this I will have to give some detailed descriptions of how skills work.

While characters in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup will gain levels as they defeat enemies — in tried and true role-playing game fashion — the main use for all those tasty experience points is to boost skills. There are a whole bunch of skills in the game, governing characters’ effectiveness with different weapons, magic, stealth, and many other things. In early versions of the game, these skills simply increased with use, so if a character wanted to be good with a certain type of weapon, she had to use that type of weapon often. But, given the complex nature of some skills, they could be annoying to train. For example, the Fighting skill governs melee combat in general but also provides a boost to health. So a magic user may still want some fighting skill for some extra defense, but the only way to boost the skill was to stop casting spells and instead try to ineptly fight things with melee weapons.

To address this, the developers added some more control to the skill system. Skills can be turned off if one does not wish to practice them, but can also be “focused” in order to direct a greater amount of experience towards training them versus other skills. Nominally, the actual distribution of experience going towards raising skills still depends on which skills the character is actively using, but focused skills will rise even if they are not being actively used. So a magic user could focus the Fighting skill to gain some extra health, even while still avoiding melee combat.

That’s great, but it poses a lot of questions about long-term strategy. Raising skills to high levels takes a long time — maxing out a skill won’t happen until one nears the end of the game — and it’s quite possible to choose the wrong skills to train, ending up with a character who simply can’t handle the dangers of the Dungeon later on. For beginning players this is especially daunting, because the early parts of the game don’t provide much experience, so it seems that skills take ages to rise. And if one doesn’t know exactly where to focus, one will surely fail. It turns out this is not true; later in the game new skills can be learned quickly, and characters can become quite versatile. But when one is only just learning to play and having trouble surviving past the first few floors of the Dungeon, managing lots of skills seems an impossible task.

That’s why fighters are easiest to learn. They only need a few skills: a weapon type, the Fighting skill (for extra health as well as for melee combat), the Armour skill, and Shields skill if one plans to use shields. Add in Invocations skill if one worships certain gods who offer invocations, and Evocations skill if one plans to use wands or other powerful magical devices to help out, and that’s it. Turn those on and go, maybe focusing Invocations or Evocations at certain points to make god-given abilities easier to use and boost damage from wands. For a magic user, things are… more complicated. Although a lot of that comes down to how spells work. Let me explain.

Casting spells in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup involves a lot of interconnected mechanics:

MP: The old role-playing game standby, MP usually stands for magic points or mana points. It measures how much energy a character has for casting spells. Different spells cost a different number of MP to cast, and when MP falls too low, no more spells can be cast until it regenerates. The amount of MP a character has depends on the Spellcasting skill and the character’s experience level. MP is critical, because without it a caster is essentially powerless in the face of enemies, unable to use any offensive or defensive tools that are needed for survival. Most of my Conjurers died when I got too excited and forgot to keep track of my MP, and then ran out at a bad time. Something that’s surprisingly easy to do, given all the other things spellcasters have to think about, such as…

Spell Hunger: Casting spells makes characters more hungry. More powerful spells cause more hunger, so casting many powerful spells in a row can quickly leave a caster starving. When starving, no spells can be cast, which is dangerous in the middle of a fight as wolfing down food takes some time. Spell hunger can be reduced by raising one’s Spellcasting skill and Intelligence stat. Although it is not obvious to new players, at higher levels spell hunger can be eliminated for most spells, but in the early stages it can be a big concern.

Spell Levels: To cast spells, characters must first memorize them, and they may only have a certain number memorized at one time. This is shown as a number of spell levels available. A level one spell only takes up one spell level slot, but will be much weaker than a level 6 spell, which takes up 6 spell level slots. The number of spell levels that can be memorized at any given time is determined by a character’s experience level and Spellcasting skill. It’s possible to forget spells in order to free up space to memorize new ones, but the only way to do this is by reading a scroll of amnesia (forgetting one spell per scroll) or special powers granted by the god Sif Muna. Incidentally, a spell’s level determines how much MP it costs to cast: one MP per level of the spell. Also, a character cannot memorize a spell unless her experience level is at least as high as the spell’s level.

Spell Success Rate: Having a spell memorized doesn’t mean one can cast it reliably. Every spell has a chance to fail, with more powerful spells being harder to cast successfully. Success rate depends slightly on one’s Spellcasting skill, but more strongly on one’s skill with the associated magical school. There are twelve schools of magic in the game, each with its own skill. To make matters worse, some spells belong to more than one school (as many as three), making them even harder to cast successfully, and wearing armor or shields will interfere with casting as well. Plus, miscasting a spell can have a variety of negative effects, ranging from magical contamination (which can build up and cause mutations or other bad effects), to alerting nearby monsters, to directly damaging the caster, to “harmlessly” wasting the caster’s MP.

Spell Power: Even when one has enough skill to cast spells reliably, that doesn’t mean they’ll be as powerful as they could be. Spells will grow in power as characters gain experience, and can be further boosted with certain “enhancer” items, although any given spell will eventually get maxed out. Spell power can affect many things, from the damage dealt by an direct attack spell, to the success chance of more subtle spells (like spells that have a chance to confuse or paralyze enemies), to spell duration or even range. Spell power depends on the Spellcasting skill, the appropriate magical school skill(s), one’s Intelligence stat, and which enhancer items one is using.

Which Spells To Use: Spellcasting characters will start the game with a book of spells they can memorize, but to get far they’ll need to find more powerful spells before too long. There are a ton of spells in the game, scattered across different spell books that characters will stumble upon, and players need to know which spells will be most useful to memorize in order to survive. Certain gods can help with finding useful spells too. Oh, right:

Which God To Worship: I’ve written before about how much I love the religion system in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Each god has different desires and rewards, and can alter one’s strategy significantly. There are several gods that suit magic users, so one must consider which to follow, and how that will affect all of the things listed above.

That’s a lot of things to worry about. Just in terms of skills, players will need to decide how much to spend on Spellcasting for more MP and lower hunger costs versus the twelve different magical schools to boost spell success rates. Plus they will probably want some defense in the form of Dodging, and probably some Fighting so they can increase their health a bit. When to turn these on and off? What to focus, and when? Which spells to memorize, and when? These are all tough questions to answer when one is still learning how things work.

When I first tried spellcasters long ago (earlier than v0.9, maybe even as far back as v0.6?), I wasn’t particularly good at the game, and the starting spellbooks weren’t as interesting. I typically had a few simple single-target ranged attack spells, and I might do OK early on but would eventually be overwhelmed. My spells weren’t powerful enough for tougher enemies, or maybe I hadn’t trained properly to keep my spell power up. In the early stages it seemed I had to specialize on one school of magic, because I simply wasn’t gaining enough experience to train a second school, so most of the spellbooks I found contained spells I couldn’t use. I got a few spellcasters past the early Dungeon and into the Lair of Beasts, but they didn’t last long.

So I focused on fighters while I learned the game, and eventually managed to win a couple games with characters focused on melee combat. Whenever I grew bored of a melee fighter, I decided I’d try to ease my way into learning magic by trying some hybrid fighter-caster characters, like Draconian Transmuters, or Merfolk Skald. It turns out this is a mistake. Handling magic and fighting at the same time means spreading one’s focus across even more skills, and the species suitable for such characters tend to have lower aptitudes for magical skills, making it even harder to get their magical abilities trained up. No, it’s much better to learn magic with a character solely focused on casting spells.

Fortunately, learning to play a spellcaster now is a lot more fun. As I wrote last time, spells have been changed and new ones added since my first attempts, and the starting spellbooks give a much better taste of the variety and power of spells to come. I soon learned that, while all the aspects to magic that I discussed above are complex, they’re not nearly as complex as they seemed, and with some correct strategies in the early parts of the game, casters can become very powerful and versatile. And tons of fun.

First, another small rant about Conjurations. I’m repeating myself again, but it’s really bizarre that this is the name of the magic school associated with attack magic. I’m not sure how that was originally decided. I supposed that when one hurls a bolt of fire, or a magical icicle, or a lightning bolt, one is technically conjuring these things up, so they could all fall under the purview of Conjurations. In each case they would also belong to an elemental school, such as Ice Magic, Fire Magic, or Air Magic, but they all involve conjuring up some magical blasts, so Conjurations would cover them all. But a conjuration could be anything. For example, the spell Ozocubu’s Armour creates armor made from ice around the caster. Surely this involves conjuring up the ice in question? But no, that spell belongs to the Charms and Ice Magic schools. Why? Well, the answer is because Conjurations really is only for attack magic, whereas Charms governs any spell that positively boosts the caster’s abilities or defenses. So Conjurations is not a particularly apt name, but it’s an extremely important skill to learn, because with enough Conjurations skill, a caster can dish out some incredible magical destruction.

I did use a (spoiler-filled!) guide from the wiki to help me get started playing Conjurers, but what I learned from it was pretty simple: in the early game, I needed to focus on being able to cast Iskendrun’s Battlesphere as soon as possible, which meant putting all my experience into the Conjurations skill and memorizing the spell as soon as I was able. Then, to get to the stage where I could cast it reliably, I added in Charms (Iskendrun’s Battlesphere belongs to the Charms and Conjurations schools). Once I could reliably cast it, I started to keep it on all the time, re-casting whenever it ran out of juice. It’s extremely useful for much of the game, as it blasts any enemy I do, which meant I could use cheap, reliable spells like Magic Dart and still dish out a lot of damage from my Battlesphere. It gave me enough breathing room to search for more useful spells to add to my repertoire.

Once I had my battlesphere going I could branch out into the Spellcasting and Dodging skills, plus a few levels of Fighting. My casters would blast most enemies from range, so melee monsters like hydras were much less of a threat, but ranged attackers could be very dangerous since my defenses were low. This is why it’s good to have some skill with Charms too; it let me cast defensive spells like Repel Missiles which help a lot (and, conveniently, don’t need to be constantly re-cast, they just have a chance to expire every time a missile is repelled).

For gods, I went with Vehumet, the god of destructive magic. As I gained piety with him by killing things, he would offer Conjurations spells, one at a time, of increasing power as I gained divine favor. My plan was to memorize the first one from the Fire Magic school so I could start training Fire Magic, with the eventual goal of learning Fire Storm, one of the most powerful attack spells in the game. In the meantime, Vehumet offers other advantages: killing enemies restores some of my MP, letting me continue my magical rampages for longer, and the range of my attack spells is increased as well, letting me blast enemies as soon as they come into view. Overall, a great choice for someone who simply wants to rain magical destruction on everything.

What I soon learned was that, with enough Conjurations and Spellcasting skill, I could cast all sorts of spells, even if they weren’t Fire Magic spells. For example, my last Conjurer, Paula, memorized the spell Ignite Poison early on because it let her start training Fire Magic (it’s a Fire Magic and Poison Magic spell). Then, in both Vehumet’s offerings and the spellbooks she found, she kept finding more Poison Magic spells. So, even though she was specializing in Fire Magic, she found herself relying on a variety of Poison Magic spells combined with Ignite Poison to take out her enemies. She trained a few levels of the Poison Magic skill so she could reliably cast Olgreb’s Toxic Radiance, a pure Poison Magic spell that poisons all enemies in view (including the caster!) and then follow up with Ignite Poison to burn everyone in sight from within. Recent changes to how Ignite Poison works meant this was an effective combo, although slightly less efficient than my other characters who learned straight attack spells like Bolt of Fire and Fireball sooner.

Paula soon added Venom Bolt and Poisonous Cloud to her repertoire, letting her deal higher poison damage to enemies and create poisonous clouds and then ignite them, burning anyone caught in the area. But eventually, as she encountered more poison resistant enemies, it became clear that she’d need some other spells to compensate. She started training a little Earth Magic so she could use some irresistable single-target spells like Iron Shot. Eventually she got enough favor with Vehumet that she earned his final gift: three extremely powerful spells that would be available for memorization for as long as she worshipped Vehumet. Unfortunately, Fire Storm wasn’t among them. Instead, Vehumet offered Glaciate and Tornado, which required Ice Magic and Air Magic, respectively, to cast reliably. Unlike the more mundane spells Paula was using, these high-level spells really did need investment in their magic schools to use, and she had focused on Fire Magic instead. But Vehument’s third offering was Lehudib’s Crystal Spear, a Conjurations / Earth Magic spell that is the most powerful single-target damage spell in the game. Since Paula already had some Earth Magic skill, she grabbed that, and looked elsewhere for fiery attack spells.

While she didn’t have Fire Storm, Paula had learned a lot of useful utility spells. These were all relatively low level, so she could cast them easily even though she didn’t have any skill in their magical schools. Regeneration helped her recover health more quickly after a fight, and Sublimation of Blood provided a means to convert health into MP in an emergency. She could cast Blink to randomly teleport a short distance (hopefully out of danger), and Summon Butterflies to call forth a crowd of butterflies to block of passages and soak up damage while she made an escape. All that was needed was enough Spellcasting and a high Intelligence stat and she could use these at will even though she didn’t know any Necromancy, Translocations or Summoning. All those magical schools that seemed so daunting at the beginning were revealed to be less important than they seemed; focusing on one school matters at the beginning, but later one can easily learn lower level spells from any school. Only the most powerful spells, like Fire Storm, require significant investment in their particular school, and with the all-purpose Conjurations skill covering all attack magic, it’s easy to learn a variety of elemental attacks to keep all bases covered.

Paula eventually found Bolt of Fire (she forgot Venom Bolt to make room for it) and Fireball, allowing her to blow away tougher enemies easily. But it took a long time to find Fire Storm. In retrospect, this was probably a good thing, because it taught me to be cautious and avoid overextending myself and running out of MP in the middle of a tough battle — something that had killed many of my earlier Conjuerers. Paula managed to clear the Swamp, the Snake Pit, the Orcish Mines and Elven Halls, and even the Crypt with only these spells to call upon, learning when to press her advantage and when to retreat to recover her MP. When she finally did find the Book of Annihilations, which contains Fire Storm, she had already mastered the Conjurations skill and found she could already cast it with only a 1% fail rate and zero hunger cost. Excellent.

Paula was already my most successful Conjurer when she found Fire Storm, and she was the first to ever cast it. And let me tell you: it is awesome. It blasts a huge area with fire, dealing massive damage and lingering for a while so any enemies who were not instantly killed will continue to burn. It even does decent damage to enemies who resist fire, though they often won’t be killed outright. And when worshipping Vehumet, it’s even better; cast it on a group of enemies, and it will often kill a bunch of them outright, each kill restoring some MP until the cost of the spell is nearly refunded. Repeat until everyone in sight has been destroyed.

With Fire Storm, I finally had Paula tackle the bottom level of the Vaults (I’d been avoiding it until I found the spell), and she brought forth fiery destruction on the armies of guards down there. It was awesome. She was tearing through enemies far more effectively than my fighters ever had, and I began to realize why some players weren’t satisfied with merely winning the game with their spellcasters, instead trying to secure all fifteen Runes of Zot (you only need three to win). That means heading to places like Hell and Pandemonium that are even more dangerous than the end of the game. I found myself tempted to try my hand at some of these, but tried to control the urge, and concentrate simply on winning with my first spellcaster. Still, I couldn’t resist dipping into Hell to see if I could tackle Geryon. Urist had done it, after all.

This turned out to be a bad idea. Paula was quickly surrounded and was taking a lot of damage. I wanted to retreat back out of Hell, but this would let adjacent enemies get a free attack, and they would likely kill Paula. I was kicking myself for my hubris at entering this place, but then stepped back and thought carefully about whether I could escape. Amazingly, I could: Paula had a ton of consumable items that she hadn’t really needed, so I used them now. A scroll of Blinking let her make a controlled teleport away from the pack of enemies, and a potion of haste let her take more actions before enemies could respond. From a safe distance, she rained some Fire Storms down on the demons, thinning their ranks somewhat. Eventually they started to convene on her new position, leaving the exit unguarded. Another scroll of blinking let her teleport back to the exit and escape safely.

With a huge sigh of relief, I ignored Hell and decided to just get on with winning the game. Paula had no trouble descending through the Depths at the bottom of the Dungeon, or the Realm of Zot itself, at the bottom of the Depths. At one point she took down a unique enemy I’d never seen before. I was confused by the special item this enemy dropped, so I looked it up on the wiki page, and learned that this particular unique enemy is considered one of the most dangerous in the game. Paula hadn’t had any trouble killing it. She was a badass, certainly powerful enough to win the game, unless I screwed up.

Naturally, I screwed up. I got her all the way to the final floor of the Realm of Zot, where the fabled Orb of Zot lies, and was feeling confident. But I knew I had to keep avenues of escape open, so I wanted to find where each of the three staircases were on the level. So I climbed back up to the penultimate floor to go down the other staircases in turn. As Paula descended the third and final staircase, returning to the final floor, she found herself surrounded by enemies I was unfamiliar with. Paula really doesn’t like being within melee range of enemies, preferring to blast them from afar, and she definitely doesn’t like being surrounded by enemies on a largely unexplored floor. So my first instinct was to climb back up, where I could safely dispatch the enemies that followed me.

This was stupid. What’s obvious in retrospect is that I should have simply teleported a short distance away (at this point Paula knew the Controlled Blink spell and had raised her Translocations skill high enough to cast it reliably) and then blasted them all with Fire Storms. Just like I did when escaping Hell. But I wasn’t thinking. Paula tried to climb the stairs but the enemies attacked her and caused confusion. Unfortunately, Paula hadn’t found a source of Clarity to proect from confusion, and once confused, she was unable to continue climbing the stairs. I had her quaff a potion of curing to clear the confusion. But then, instead of realizing my error and teleporting away, I foolishly tried to climb the stairs again. The enemies inflicted confusion on Paula once more, and by this point a moth of wrath had been attracted by the commotion and forced Paula to go berserk. Confused and berserk, there really wasn’t anything she could do except ineptly try to attack the enemies as they chipped away at her health. Which they did. She died.

I was almost literally kicking myself when I realized, afterwards, just how stupid I’d been. The situation was easily survivable. A simple teleport followed by some Fire Storms and it would have been over. I even had TWO chances to try this. But I was still thinking like a fighter, who would be cutting off any avenue of escape if she teleported away from the stairs. Since fighters can usually only attack one enemy at a time, carving a path back towards the stairs (or another set of stairs) would have been difficult. But Paula could destroy packs of enemies easily with her powerful magic; I should have realized it was far more important to simply get her away from the enemies, in any direction. It is not a mistake I will make again.

I had really hoped to have a new win to celebrate with this post, but even after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, I’m still excited about trying out more spellcasters. Paula was tons of fun to play, and I’m confident that I’ll be able to win with a new spellcaster as I learn to adapt my strategies. It was also cool to see the changes that have been wrought to the later areas in the game in recent updates, as it’s been a long time since I’ve had a character survive long enough to reach them. While I’d like to tackle them again, for now I’m going to take a break from Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup and finally finish those other games I’ve been meaning to play (and write about!). I’m sure I’ll be back to Dungeon Crawl soon enough, however, and if I manage to win with a spellcaster you can be sure I’ll write something about it here.

In the meantine, if you haven’t tried Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup yet, by all means check it out. It’s free, after all, plus it’s updated regularly with new stuff and changes to the rules, and you can even play in your browser and chat with other players if you like. You may find your trips to the Dungeon are more rewarding than you expected.