So a little under a year ago I posted This Piece that discussed something called the ‘Clockwork Setpiece’. This is a convenient catch-all terms used to describe things like time loops and other resetting challenges. I’m incredibly proud of that piece. I would say it’s one of my best.
I’ve recently re-explored the concept in one of my campaigns and have found I have more yet to say on the topic. This is because in that last piece I didn’t discuss or explore one of the most common forms of the Clockwork Setpiece: The Roguelike.
What Is A Roguelike?
Look, I’m really hoping I don’t have to spent too much time defining this. In simplest terms, a Roguelike is a kind of video game where dying and replaying the game in some form constitutes the core gameplay loop. Usually the game’s content is somewhat randomised to make it so that each ‘run’ is unique.
The challenge is to make it as far as you can before you die, and eventually make it far enough into a run that you can reach and beat the end-game challenge (usually a bossfight).
If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about go and play something like ‘Hades’, ‘The Binding of Isaac’, ‘Slay the Spire’, or fuck it go and play the original ‘Rogue’ that gives the genre its name.
Why They’re A Bad Idea In D&D
Put simply, combat is one of the most fun parts of D&D (5e has committed almost all of its design towards supporting the combat pillar of the ‘3 pillars’ model). Everyone loves rolling dice, killing monsters and experiencing the thrill of a close victory.
In spite of this, doing the exact same combat over and over is decidedly not fun. A Roguelike, by its very nature, requires that the party complete the exact same fights multiple times. Even though the exact layout of the ‘Roguelike Challenge’ is randomised you as the DM still need to deliver a balanced experience, which in turn means there are only a certain few encounters you can feasibly run. You are even further restricted if there is some binding theme (such as fighting through hell and therefore only facing Devils in combat).
Now we covered this issue in the last piece, albeit in a different context. Our solution there to what was dubbed ‘The Combat Issue’ was to introduce ways combats could be truncated or circumvented so as to maintain the momentum of the overall Clockwork Setpiece. The example we gave was fighting through a mad inventor’s lair and learning of a killswitch on his automatons that could be activated with a high enough check.
But this doesn’t work as well in a Roguelike because by definition combat is the core of a Roguelike’s gameplay loop. Circumventing it defeats the purpose of a Roguelike.
Making It Work Anyway
So here’s the thing, at the heart of making a Roguelike structure work in a D&D game is the need for combat to be as interesting and dynamic as possible. Here there is an applicable lesson from the last piece on this subject. Between ‘Runs’ the party must, above all else, gain knowledge. Eventually overcoming a Clockwork Setpiece is about gaining knowledge about how the setpiece works and learning ways to overcome the challenges within it. Learning about that automaton killswitch is an example of this.
So how do we apply that to Roguelikes?
Well that’s why we need dynamic combats. Let’s say one of the possible combats is against a Shambling Mound surrounded by 3 Will-o-Wisps. The Will-o Wisps on their turns each attack the Shambling Mound, dealing lightning damage to it and thus healing it. The first time the party does this encounter they will probably figure out what’s going on with this interaction part-way through the fight. The next time they do this encounter they’re going to know what’s going on from the get-go. As soon as initiative is rolled their strategic approach will already be different than the first time they did this fight. As a result the fight will be easier in a highly satisfying way.
I hate to say it but here you’re going to be wrestling with 5e a little. That isn’t to say combat isn’t as fun in 5e, it’s just that 5e’s creature design leaves little room for these kinds of ‘puzzle combats’ where learning about and understanding aspects of the creature’s abilities has a large impact on the party’s efficacy against it.
But we don’t actually have to rely solely on creature design to create the necessary ‘knowledge space’ we need for the Roguelike structure to work. We can instead focus on encounterdesign. If your potential encounters for each ‘run’ include environmental challenges that are in place during combats then the party can, between runs, be gaining knowledge of how to overcome these environmental challenges.
A good example of this would be a room where every time a damaging spell is cast, that damage type is ‘dampened’ and only deals half-damage on subsequent rounds until a different damage type is used. The first time the party does the fight this extra mechanic will catch them out, but on the second time around they can intentionally plan around it and as a result be more efficient and effective in the fight.
Everything we’ve talked about so far comes under the loose umbrella of meta-progression, which is a term that describes the way things change for the players between runs. Certainly the runs themselves will be the same (albeit randomised to some extent), so meta-progression is where the sense of accomplishment must come from. It is also what we’re relying on to keep the repetitive nature of a Roguelike from becoming boring.
Knowledge is the most important piece of meta-progression we can give the players (as we’ve already discussed), but it’s far from the only one.
The party might, after beating certain sub-bosses, be able to ‘unlock’ items that will make said bosses easier to fight on subsequent runs (or rather, make it possible to beat them without expending as many resources and thus allowing their runs to go further). They may gain special abilities like being able to count as having a long rest in the middle of a run at a time of their choosing.
But what we are providing the players here aren’t just button-push tools to make things easier (like that automaton killswitch), what we are providing them are dynamic resources that they must manage the expenditure of. At the core of D&D’s combat philosophy is the idea of managing resources. Spellcasters must meter out their slots, Fighters must decide when to use their Action Surge, Monks must choose when to spend and when to conserve Ki points, etcetera.
And all the way through everyone is slowly being drained of their most important resource: Hit Points.
If our non-knowledge-based meta-progression expands the breadth of resources at the party’s disposal then it extends the potential progression of each ‘run’ in a way that avoids having the repeated combats become boring. If our players get rolled by werewolves in one run, then unlocking a bunch of silvered weapons will leave them absolutely jonesing to get into a fight against werewolves a second time.
Laying Out The Setpiece
Look, I can’t really go into all the different ways you could implement a Roguelike setpiece in your game. Really you just need some justification for it to be happening. In the one I most recently ran the players were trying to clear a dungeon set in a kind of ‘dreamspace’ and couldn’t safely wake up until the dungeon was cleared. I won’t go into too many specifics of how I set this up since it would involve massive spoilers for the campaign and I know my players read these sometimes…
But for your Roguelike you really just need some loose justification for two main things:
1 – The party needs to respawn at the ‘start’ each time they die.
2 – The enemies also need to respawn and be randomised.
A great example would be a Roguelike Setpiece set in the Nine Hells. The party all die, and a group of powerful Celestials see an opportunity. If the party can travel deep into the Nine Hells and capture a particular high-ranking Devil on behalf of these Celestials then they will be returned to life.
The players have to battle their way through each layer of hell, defeating a ‘miniboss’ at the end of a given layer, until they finally get to the end of the last one and have to sufficiently weaken the ‘Boss Devil’ in order for it to be captured.
Why does the party respawn at the start each time they die? Because Celestials blessed them. Why do the enemies respawn? Because it’s Hell and there’s an effectively infinite supply of Devils.
As long as those two questions are robustly answered, you have yourself a setpiece.
I don’t want to say too much here out of fear of being too prescriptive. You don’t have to run a Roguelike Setpiece with consideration for its narrative implications. Maybe you just want to do a 5-session mini campaign that’s all hack-and-slash from start to finish.
But if you’re anything like me you want to really milk your prep time for all it’s worth. I briefly mentioned earlier how Roguelike Setpieces engage almost exclusively with the combat pillar of D&D, but that doesn’t mean Roleplay and Exploration need be neglected. Well, maybe Exploration does, but Roleplay can be engaged with a whole ton before, during and after your Roguelike Setpiece.
For one thing, what does dying over and over do to a character’s psyche? Usually a single character death in a campaign is a big deal, even if they get brought back to life. Perhaps for the first few deaths the characters are shaken, but are able to focus on the task at hand. Then after a few more it’s become commonplace and the characters are desensitised to it. But then maybe even further after that the constant deaths have permanently changed the characters’ outlooks for the worse. They view mortality as frustrating, they view life as burdensome, they long for a true ‘complete’ death, they view resurrection as an unwanted intrusion on a soul’s rest. Experiencing a Roguelike Setpiece could be a corrupting influence on the party’s views.
Or perhaps the opposite happens. The constant cycle of death and resurrection leaves them more sympathetic to the fact that most live only one life. They next time they shut down bandits troubling a town, instead of slaughtering them they seek to rehabilitate them knowing now that killing those who won’t come back is a unique kind of cruelty.
Those are two prescriptive examples but I hope they illustrate my point here. As much as we as DMs don’t exactly control how players choose to have their characters evolve and change in response to events we can encourage them to explore the unique changes they might undergo in response to this particular event. All it takes is for them to tell an NPC about the crazy ‘kept getting resurrected’ dungeon they just beat and have the NPC respond with “I can’t imagine what that would be like, dying over and over.”.
Or perhaps your players don’t need that sort of prompting and will, upon being faced with this particular breed of challenge, immediately begin considering how it might impact their character in the short, medium and long term.
Either way, if you’re going to run a Roguelike Setpiece then I encourage you to explore its narrative implications for your characters and even the setting at large.
I will say this, creating one of these is a lot of work in 5e. Like I said earlier, the creature design doesn’t leave a whole lot of space for the meta-progression we require to keep things interesting and engaging. There’s enough though, and the payoff is you get to run something incredibly cool that’s a bit different to what your players might be used to in TTRPGs. For the record, I ran mine in Pathfinder 2e.
A well-designed Roguelike Setpiece can easily make for 4+ sessions-worth of content if done right, so as much as you’re putting in extra work to get the thing ready, once it’s done you don’t have to prep anything new from session to session for a wee while. That can in itself be a big plus for many DMs.
However, it’s easy to get this sort of thing wrong, and often due to the narrative set-up for the Setpiece if you realise part-way through that it isn’t working it might be difficult to back out or change things up without the ‘hand of god’ becoming too visible.
So if you are going to try this I would recommend you start small. Maybe go for the 5-room-dungeon-sized Roguelike like I did before you commit fully to the epic Nine Hell journey.
Man, it really was fun to revisit the Clockwork Setpiece. After the last piece on it I really thought I’d covered everything, but when I cracked the Roguelike formula in my own games I realised a Roguelike is a form of Clockwork Setpiece and now here we are.
As much as creating one comes with certain challenges, our previous learnings on running Clockwork Setpieces can come in handy here, and the payoff is several sessions-worth of a truly unique experience.
I hope you found this useful, and as always thanks for reading!