Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Furt Digs Into Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King

Despite my anxiety toward OSR RPGs and my recent tendency to wilt in the face of choices with meaningful consequences in video games, I am no stranger to the genre which is about as close as you can get to a midpoint between those two: roguelikes.

Sparse in visuals, slow in pace, and startlingly sudden in killing your characters, these semi-randomized permadeath dungeon crawlers have been around for over forty years now. There are plenty of variations on the formula by now, but they generally share a few things in common: you wander through procedurally-generated dungeons in search of an important something on the bottom floor, and when you die you lose nearly everything.

I'd become at least dimly aware of their existence in the early 2000s thanks to video game pop-cultural osmosis, but I stayed far away from them because it all felt too obtuse and cumbersome for me. Also, I might have been turned off by my completely mistaken impression that the original Rogue was a semi-hard science fiction game.

It wasn't until I was beginning high school that I became interested in giving one a shot. Somehow, I completely stumbled past Rogue, Angband, Nethack, ADOM, and pretty much every other big-name roguelike on the internet with little more than a glance, and wound up picking a fairly obscure title as my first foray into the genre.

The bane of my mid teen years. And my eyeballs.

Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King, released in 2007, is unique among roguelikes for how heavily it is inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Of course most roguelikes ever since the first have been inspired by D&D and other high fantasy sources to some degree, but (to my knowledge) only Incursion rips mechanics right out of the d20 3rd Edition ruleset.

You pick a species and class combination, choose feats, distribute skill points, and rely upon a whole bunch of simulated die rolls which use the six classic ability scores, plus the addition of a seventh Luck stat. This makes the game a bit more complex than the average roguelike, and even gives you an illusion of control- if you can survive the early levels long enough, you can start to get your own personal character build online.

Since 90% of my experience with D&D has been through building characters to fit concepts, I find that last part very enticing.

The importance of building one's character can lead to the same wonky imbalance as in D&D 3E, of course. Mundane and half-casting classes begin with survivability or some neat tricks, but quickly fall behind with the exception of rogues, who can get by on magic items and backstabs alone. While the game does a surprising job of mitigating the power of wizards, druids are mighty on such a terrifying scale that some guy even wrote a guide on doing literally anything with them and soloing the game handily.

Once inside of the miniature megadungeon, you're faced with many of the classic challenges: monsters, traps, hunger, and your fellow sapient adventurers, who may be friendly, hostile, or completely indifferent to your presence. An unseen town above the dungeon offers you a bit of respite, including an inn to rest at and a store to buy equipment from. You can even choose to retire a character to it permanently, in case you ever decide "screw it" and quit while you're ahead.

The caves are pitch black, and characters without dark or infravision will need a whole lot of torches or other light sources to see what they're doing. Health doesn't regenerate naturally, and sleeping in the dungeon eats through your food while leaving you open to ambush. Stealthy or invisible enemies are common, and it isn't unusual for something out-of-depth to get the jump on you very early in a run. Other than a scattering of eight potions in the first room of the first floor--five healing and three short-range teleports--nothing is guaranteed for you, and anything can be taken away by a successful disarm or sunder check.

Combining these aspects together gives Incursion a surprisingly foreboding, oppressive atmosphere for a game made entirely out of ASCII visuals. When you enter that first room, a text box describes to you the bloody remains of your fellow adventurers strewn about the floor, and you can rest assured that you will join them before long.

But until that time comes, you have the damp, cold solitude of the dungeon halls in which to contemplate how you'll handle your next messy, hectic clash with the dungeon's denizens. Detailed descriptions pop up with each new chamber you discover, giving glimpses into what this ancient mega-structure was once used for.

As with a lot of roguelikes, the plot is pretty bare-bones: you are one of many adventurers who has come to an out-of-the-way cave complex after hearing about an army amassing deep below ground. Your job is to descend to the lowest level of the dungeon and kill the eponymous Goblin King.

No, not that one.

Incursion makes up for this by having the beginnings of rich setting lore. Most of it is front-loaded in the descriptions of races and deities during character creation. The entries can be pieced together to illustrate the fantasy world of Theyra, which has already seen a lot of trouble, but is on the cusp of yet another nasty prophesy coming true. I really like a couple of the snippets of lore provided this way.

One of the gods of Theyra is a being known as Kysul, the Watcher Beneath the Waves. It is an unfathomably vast, tentacled consciousness from a doomed world, capable of shattering sanity with a glimpse of its true form and spawning countless aberrations upon the material plane by mere incident of its existence.

It is unknowable. It is terrifying. It is Lawful Good.

Kysul is a being of limitless, if alien, compassion, and it wants to protect the world which it has adopted as its own. It knows that its appearance is dreadful, and so it conceals itself to mortals, even its own clandestine clergy, which operates with all the trappings of a stereotypical cult but puts the utmost emphasis on ethical conduct, both with regards to doing its work, and with initiating its new members into Kysul's mysteries.

All of the tropes of cosmic, eldritch horror are neatly subverted in this big, slimy teddy bear of a god that just wants to make sure its home world's fate isn't shared by others. Theyra's backstory references some mages starting a war when they made pacts with horrors from beyond the pale. Perhaps Kysul has known their ilk before.

It's still thoroughly alien to the natural order of the game world, however, and both angels and demons count Kysul among their enemies. Lizardfolk, who have their own alien mindset in this world, regard it with some measure of respect and have been known to work alongside Kysul. It also appears to be fond of speaking in antiquated, flowery language, if its cleric intro is anything to go by.

"Seek now thine antediluvian progenitors that in sunken cities for eons have lain."

Another neat couple of details are about the playable orcs, because of course I had to insert my agenda into this article somehow.

The orcs of Theyra are peoples who are just throwing off the yoke of generic, villainous minionhood. They've been bred as stupid, burly slaves for centuries by demons and unscrupulous humans. But they recently initiated a slave revolt in Mohandi, an empire whose lands included the entrance to the goblin caves. The orc rebels freed all of the slaves in Mohandi, "good" races included, and now play a large role in the economy and politics of the formerly expansionist empire from within a number of anarchist communes. They've also developed their own gunpowder weapons, which is an accomplishment not even the technologically advanced but extremely hidebound dwarves of the setting can boast of.

The patron goddess of the orcs is Khasrach, who is also venerated by goblinoids goblin-speaking peoples. She is the Goddess of the Blood, and for good reason. She is fiercely protective of her children, as well as violent and demanding of blood sacrifice. Centuries of her peoples' debasement has twisted her into a vengeful and sometimes savage goddess. The bark she gives at the beginning of the game when you choose to play as one of her faithful pretty well illustrates her general mood:

"Smite now your slave-chains with the primal fire of my wrath!"

Khasrach is basically what you'd get if every orcish mother goddess dumped their chauvinist husband and then decided to help her people seize the means of production.

Presumably after hiring a couple of babysitters.

She isn't locked into this savagery, however. Her profile leaves open the question of whether or not enough change in the outlook of her people could transform her and bring her back to the more levelheaded, spiritual state of being she enjoyed in ancient times.

Recreation of the goddess is one aspect of an orcish cultural movement which seeks to rediscover the primeval society and values of their people, pure and free of influence from fiends or other species. This neo-tribal movement is currently vying for political dominance with the more cosmopolitan city orcs and stereotypical/traditionalist marauding orc hordes, and only time will tell who winds up on top and what that means for their people.

Or, actually, time won't tell. The game is actually sort of dead.

Surprise! This was actually a Things I Wish They Did More With post this whole time!

Development of Incursion slowed to a halt a few years after its first unfinished release, and it languished for a while until the creator finally admitted that they were doing other stuff and wouldn't be continuing the project. Fortunately they released the source code for the game, and someone else picked it up long enough in 2014 to patch some bugs up and convert the game to use libtcod instead of an outdated version of Allegro.

I have no idea what those last few words mean, but they feel important.

No one has stepped up to continue proper development of Incursion, though. The game's site has gone down and requires use of the Wayback Machine to access, the wiki is only partly filled out, and the Google Group used by its community hasn't seen any significant activity in the past two years as of this writing. The TVTropes page on the game, of all places, is the best source for information and download links today.

Incursion is effectively dead, and its envisioned full version, Return of the Forsaken, will likely never see realization.

Even so, I reinstalled the game a few days ago to take a couple of unsuccessful stabs at it. Being frozen in time with no end doesn't discourage me from playing as much as it would another game. It was a neat, odd idea that was executed with a lot of hiccups, and that's enough for me to appreciate. I can romp through and die every once in a while without too much worry.

I do wish the game could get a graphical tileset, though.

That little chump wrecked me, by the way.

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