Road to the IGF: Cavanagh, Houston, & Dobbe's Dicey Dungeons

Dicey Dungeons is roguelike RPG that places your fate in the roll of a die. However, with each class and ability, you can attempt to shape what happens with each roll.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Dicey Dungeons is roguelike RPG that places your fate in the roll of a die. However, with each class and ability, you can attempt to shape what happens with each roll.

Gamasutra sat down with Terry Cavanagh, Marlowe Dobbe, and Niamh Houston, some of the development team behind the Excellence in Design-nominated title, to talk about how they brought strategy to the chaotic luck of a die roll, and how '90s game shows helped influence the look of the game.

Dice rollers

Cavanagh: Hey, I'm Terry Cavanagh, and I'm the designer. I'm also one of the game's programmers (along with Justo Delgado Baudí).

I've been an indie dev for about 10 years! I made VVVVVV and Super Hexagon, and also lots of random freeware things.

Dobbe: I'm Marlowe Dobbe and I'm the Artist and Animator! 

I've been working as an artist in games for about 2 years now! Mostly web games, game jams, and unreleased projects. Before that, I was doing all sorts of odd-job freelance illustration work. My involvement with my local Portland gamedev scene through Portland Indie Game Squad (a non-profit of which I am now an organizer) was a big push for me to go from doing freelance illustration to videogames full time.

Houston: I’m Niamh Houston, aka Chipzel, and I work on everything audio-related in the game. I’ve been focused primarily on composing music for video games for the past 6-7 years.

Taking deckbuilders in a new direction

Cavanagh: Dicey Dungeons started as a jam game for last year's 7 Day Roguelike. I was really inspired by having recently gotten back into Dream Quest, which is one of my favorite games, and I just really wanted to try making my own deckbuilder for 7DRL. Using dice was initially just a dumb idea I had to try to take that basic premise off in a new direction.

But that's the great thing that sometimes happens with game jams - occasionally, if you're very lucky, you just hit on something that ends up being way more than you expected. As I worked on the game more and more, it became clear that this combination of deckbuilding and dice assignment had way, way more depth to than I initially realized. I've been kinda obsessed with the idea ever since.

Choosing how to make the best of RNG

Cavanagh: The core mechanics of Dicey Dungeons are: you explore a dungeon, find equipment, and fight monsters. In combat, you assign dice that you roll to your equipment, and it does different things depending on what you roll. A really simple example is the basic sword, which can take any dice, and does that much damage - 2hp on a 2, 6hp on a 6, or whatever. 

But then you get equipment that does different things on odd or even rolls, or equipment that splits your dice into two dice, or equipment which can only take a four but does something really powerful with it. Start adding all these combinations together, and cool stuff starts happening.

What's really exciting about the core design of the game to me is that it's sorta like an inversion of RPG combat mechanics - instead of making moves and waiting to see what the RNG does, you get the RNG up front, and you get to decide how to make the best of it. I find that basic twist really, really compelling, and I think it's what makes the game so much fun to play.

On the tools used to create Dicey Dungeons

Dobbe: I use both Adobe Photoshop and After Effects!

Houston: All the music was written in LSDJ with a Nintendo Gameboy. Most of the sound effects were made using my Eurorack system and various different synthesisers.

Cavanagh: I'm using Haxe, with OpenFL and Starling! I love working in Haxe, and I think more people should check it out.

How focusing on die rolls changes deck-building design 

Cavanagh: Yeah, it's not really a 1-1 map with standard deck-building mechanics. One of the big challenges has been equipment layouts. In Dicey Dungeons, unlike most other deck builders, you don't draw cards from a pool - instead, you have a static layout that you can change between battles. I found early on that the combination of both playing random cards and rolling random dice led to the game just feeling way too chaotic, so I decided to focus instead on static layouts - with the exception of one character, the Jester, who's explicitly exploring that variation. 

Figuring out that balance between strategy and chaos has been the hardest thing to get right!

Designing characters that add to the dice-rolling mechanics

Cavanagh: Mechanically, they all came about from trying to figure out different answers to the same question: how do you introduce uncertainty into each run, to keep the plays you make from round to round interesting? So, the Warrior gets to reroll dice, the Thief uses a lockpick which splits dice randomly and steals enemy equipment, the Robot has a push-your-luck blackjack style mechanic for getting more dice, and so on.

Dobbe: Visually, a lot of how the characters ended up had to do with making them look as distinct from one another as possible. All the characters are D6 of course, so the challenge was to find the right visual archetypes, facial features, outfits, and colors to set them apart from one another despite having the same base body.

On the game's playful visual style

Dobbe: The art style itself is very emblematic of my own style as an artist. For Dicey Dungeons, it felt like such a fresh fit - particularly because it's not a style you would probably associate with a roguelike. 

When I started on the project, all the settings and monsters were very generically fantasy themed, but Terry had expressed wanting to get away from that. Through some back and forth, I was able to redesign all the enemies based on their pre-existing move sets, and we made this wildly varied, Alice in Wonderland type of world where you might fight a vampire, but you might also fight a vacuum, a space marine, or a thief that uses sticky hands to steal your money!

Reminiscent of cheesy 90's game shows

Cavanagh: In general, I'm really interested in doing something different from the dark and serious tone that a lot of roguelikes have. When Marlowe and Niamh joined the project, and we started talking about the story side of things seriously, Niamh suggested the game show setting, and I loved it. For me, I think it makes a lot of things fall into place - the high stakes of what you're doing, a good antagonist that makes sense, motivations for the characters that work - and best of all, it feels light and playful, and doesn't overwhelm the game or feel too crucial.

For our next update, we're planning to add a lot of light story elements to the game in various places. I was a bit worried about this initially, but seeing how it's coming together, I'm really excited for people to see it. Our story is lightweight, sure, but it's earnest and funny and makes everything in the game fall into place.

Houston: In the early stages of the game, when we were starting to pull the art, music, and gameplay together, I kept getting reminded of '90s game shows every time I played through. There was the luck of the draw, the cute visuals, colors, and ruthlessness that are so akin to that over the top cheese we all adore from that era. 

From there, things really started to come together - I was able to have a theme to work from, especially when it came to making the sound effects. I had a lot of fun there - game shows are hectic and so it's almost like an audio overload. And from there, you add banging chiptune because this is a Terry Cavanagh game.

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