Recently, I’ve been having many conversations about the same subject. People see that we’ve removed various buffs (spells that temporarily improve the player’s stats – Stoneskin, Condensation Shield, Phase Shift), or that we’ve changed others (Ozocubu’s Armour) to be more situational. So they ask, why?

The Problem With Buffs

Dungeon Crawl is a long game. A 3-rune game, on average, takes about six and a half hours to win. (Often longer – very skilled players drag down the average.) An ‘extended’ game, getting all 15 runes, takes twice as long – about 13 hours, on average. And, of course, not all games are won – only one in a hundred! The average unwon game is considerably shorter (about 20 minutes), but weight of numbers will tell – on average, each won game represents a great amount of playtime, thousands of fights and hundreds of thousands of turns.

There’s nothing wrong with a long game, of course, but it does change what makes sense to design. In a shorter game – a sprint, perhaps – a spell that you cast at the start of every fight, or just every 50 turns, isn’t too bad. In Crawl’s main game, though, remembering to refresh your buffs regularly gets tiring very fast! And if you don’t, you’re just reducing your chance to win (passing up free AC, EV, SH…) for no benefit but retaining a tenuous grip on sanity. That’s exactly the sort of choice that Crawl is opposed to; opposing ‘optimal play’ to ‘fun’.

This was the space that many of Crawl’s ‘buff spells’ found themselves in. If you’d memorized and learned to cast Stoneskin, it was totally possible to keep it running at all times, and generally a good idea to do so. But, the work involved wasn’t any fun.

The fact was, Stoneskin and friends were certainly good for a character – they were useful spells! They provided interesting strategic decisions, about skill investment, armour, spell slot use. But, in practice, the annoyance involved over the course of a long game – the choice between ‘good play’ and ‘avoiding tedium’ – made the game less fun. That’s why we cut them!

But Why Didn’t You Just…?

There’s quite a lot of suggestions I’ve seen for what we should have done instead of removing these spells. The simplest is probably to dramatically reduce the duration. If a buff doesn’t stay up for more than a dozen turns, it becomes impractical to keep it running constantly!

The trouble is that this only solves one part of the problem. You’re still left with the choice to cast your buffs at the start of every encounter, and many characters will be well-advised to do so – if you’re waiting for your enemy to close to melee, why not take a turn and a little MP to give yourself some extra defense? Well, because it’s a pain to do that at the start of nearly every encounter in a game with hundreds or thousands of fights… and so we’re back, more or less, where we started.

Another suggestion goes in the opposite direction. So players are keeping these buffs up all the time, or should – why not just automate it for them, and make the spell never expire once cast? That’s how Repel Missiles and Deflect Missiles work these days – they have a chance of expiring when they repel an incoming attack, but stay up forever otherwise.

The problem is that Dungeon Crawl’s spell system is fundamentally built around the assumption that spells are being cast in combat. In combat, the turn spent casting a spell matters – that’s a turn for enemies to act! The MP spent matters – that’s less MP to use for the rest of the fight! And the chance of failure matters – your turn is gone, your MP is gone, and you’re no better off than you were before!

Out of combat, none of those things matter. A turn doesn’t matter, MP doesn’t matter, failure doesn’t matter – you can just rest and try again. This is a problem for buffs in that you don’t need to worry about failure chance very much – get it below, say, 80% failure, and you can just recast until you succeed. What’s more, armour doesn’t matter – normally the choice of body armour is an important strategic choice for spellcasting (something heavy and protective, or something light and easy to cast in?), but for out-of-combat spells, you can just shuck your armour, cast the spell, and put the armour back on. This effectively means that Repel Missiles, for example, is a free, permanent buff for anyone who finds a spellbook containing it – no noticeable skill requirement, just a couple of spell slots. Not too much tactical annoyance, but no strategic decisions, either. It’s no good.

You can try to start patching this problem – what if taking off your body armour took off the spell! (Well, would that also apply to switching in a staff of wizardry, or a couple rings of wizardry?) What if the chance of the spell expiring when it reflected a projectile was based on your current spell failure chance, not spellpower? But when you have to keep suggesting a series of unintuitive mechanics that work like no other spell in the game, in an attempt to make an effect work within Crawl’s spell system, you have to wonder whether it makes sense for that effect to be a spell at all.

There are other variants on the ‘permanent buff’ approach – one suggests making buffs reduce your maximum MP when active, to make it less of a ‘no-brainer’ to keep the spell around all the time. But that doesn’t solve the spell failure issue, and has other undesirable effects – should armour buffs be more useful for melee warriors (who aren’t using much MP otherwise), rather than lightly armoured ‘casters’? Should these buffs become eventually almost ‘free’ later in the game, when MP pools become larger? There aren’t easy answers here.

What Does Work?

We haven’t removed all buffs quite yet. In fact, almost all of them are still around. Why?

Well, let’s look. Something like Swiftness is clearly a buff – you move faster! But the drawback when it wears off, slower movement for a time, means that it’s pretty silly to try to cast it all the time, or even at the start of every fight. It’s situational – useful, but situational. A fine spell to learn, but not one you feel like you should be casting every fight, or every 50 turns!

Other good buffs follow the same pattern. Portal Projectile teleports your shots directly to their target, letting you shoot past intervening enemies – useful, but each shot costs MP, and a miss is totally useless, whereas normal shots could hit another enemy behind your original target. Excruciating Wounds gives your weapon dramatically better killing power (against living enemies, and with investment in Necromancy…), but makes a considerable noise when cast. Invisibility makes you invisible (perhaps unsurprisingly), but the contamination means that you’re not gonna be able to turn invisible again for a while afterward, and haste would be dangerous – which can leave you in some pretty tight spots…

Adding ponderous to Ozocubu’s is an attempt to make it fit that same pattern – useful, but situational. This is an experiment! It may not work out – the drawback may be too weak, or too irrelevant (as for Cheibriados worshippers, perhaps) – or too strong in other cases! We’ll see how it works out.

A Dash Of Context

We don’t want to kill your playstyles, and we won’t. Statue Form has already been buffed to make up for the loss of Stoneskin; other forms will likely have some similar compensation in the near future. Transmuters and other light-armour characters will not stop being viable; trust us on this one.

Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup has a long and storied history of removals. Remember Alter Self, the spell that randomly mutated your character? (Repeat until desired mutations achieved…) Or Divinations, the spell-school entirely made up of out-of-combat spells? Or, perhaps, Mountain Dwarves?

Every removal’s led to some wailing and gnashing of teeth. This one’s far from the worst in that regard, and it certainly won’t be the last – but it is one of the removals with the most history behind it, and which the most thought and design effort has been applied to. It’s my hope that this post is helpful to those who were confused, informative to those who were curious, and, if perhaps not a perfect salve to those who were angry, at least reassuring with regards to the care which has been invested here.

Thanks for reading, and happy crawling!

Many thanks to dpeg for the help with this post.