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The Caveman Guide to Angband Programming

A novice's primer

Leon Marrick
December 2000

Said of Amelia Earhart, and good code too:
"...for she was straight and simple."


Hacking with the Angband code is among the best ways to learn C I know of. Ben Harrison's code is so lucid and so well commented as to make reading it a pleasure. Starting out with very little C knowledge, you can tinker with simple functions, advance to using pointers, see how data structures operate, learn interface commands in various operating systems, and eventually grapple with some fairly sophisticated algorithms and code engines.

This document is designed to help you, the novice programmer, produce Angband code that really does what you want it to do. It discusses how to turn Angband into a debugger, talks about math from a caveman's point of view, and finally offers some miscellaneous suggestions.

Angband is the Best Debugger

There are few code problems that Angband itself can't help solve. If things are getting confusing, writing some temporary code to display messages and variables is often your best move.

Use messages as debugging notices
Let's start off with a truly basic tip: Use messages. If you don't know when, how often, or even if certain segments of your code are activating, the msg_print() and msg_format() functions are your friends. Is an if-statement always returning FALSE in practice? Is a loop running too much, and bogging things down? Where is the code freezing or crashing? Find out with messages.

In some cases, you must tweak the various options that affect how messages are displayed in order to get useful output, or put messages inside loops to make sure you pay attention to them. Another way to get messages to appear is to use the prt() function with an on-screen start location.

Display your variables on screen
Debuggers keep track of lots of variables. Typically, however, you are interested in only a few, but want to make absolutely certain you know what values they have at a very precise point. Turn to the msg_format() function, or the format() function nested inside a prt() statement.

For example, I still have a copy of "generate.c" that prints out on screen the number of all kinds of rooms as they are built. How many rooms of each type get created, on average, on each level? How often does the build greater vault function fail? After each room is built, what does a map of free and used dungeon blocks look like? The prt() function can tell you, but no debugger can.

Debugging code that affects the screen
Much of the code you write will affect the screen in some way, if only momentarily. First thing to do if such code doesn't seem to work right is to remove any screen refreshes after it dumps its output. You may also make the output more obvious temporarily, or decide to display special characters showing the value of an internal variable at that grid.

For example, many variants of Angband have arc spells that rely on the distance() function. If you freeze the area of effect of such a spell, you will see that this produces some rather ugly results if the arc travels in a direction not divisible by 45 degrees.

Caveman Mathematics

Anyone who wants to code had better know math, but he doesn't necessarily have to know much math. Since a complex equation confuses me as fast as the next man, I'll share some of the simple, "caveman" math that does most of the heavy lifting in my code.

Multiplication versus addition: The equation a * x + b
There are a lot of times in Angband where a variable (say, melee skill) has an initial value and is also affected by a variable (like player level). Key to balancing the game is thinking carefully about how much weight to give the constant part (usually a function of addition) and the variable part (often determined by multiplication). How many monsters should appear on a level? How much of a Ring of Speed's value should depend on its being a Ring of Speed and how much on the actual speed bonus? How much of a spell's damage should be guaranteed, and how much level-dependent? The Angband programmer usually answers these questions by weighing addition versus multiplication until the results work well for all values of the variable.

Division by zero is the programmer's bugaboo. Variables fed into the equation "4 / x" should be checked just beforehand, because this is where failure to control boundaries or syntax errors can have immediate and fatal results.

In Angband, floating-point math is a no-no. Many of the machines the game runs on crash nastily when fed floating-point. Trouble is the division operator in fixed-point math turns the numerator 3 divided by the denominator 2 into 1. As long as we are careful about the limits of bytes and integers, we can inflate the numerator before dividing it until we achieve the level of accuracy we desire. If we want accuracy out to three places, then 100 * 3 / 2 will yield 150.

The mod operator (%)
I've never found anything floating-point math could do in Angband that fixed-point couldn't with a little ingenuity. Along with temporary inflation of values, tables, and plain old-fashioned working around the problem, the mod operator is the fixed-point mathematician's favorite tool. Remember that 5 / 2 = 2 in fixed-point math, despite the remainder of 1. 5 % 2 yields that remainder: 1. All data lost in division can be recovered.

There are other uses of "%". If you code a loop, and want a portion of it to fire only one time in four, you can use the line "if (i % 4 == 0)". If you want a value to wrap around from 31 to 32 to 0, to avoid nasty results at 33, you can code "if (y > 32) y = y % 32". This is very helpful to ensure legal bit operator or table access.

Note: The mod operator causes no speed issues in most situations, but is not fast enough for very low-level functions.

Calling the Random Number Generator (RNG) by name
Key to programming in this game is the evocation of Angband's infamous RNG. You will be calling its name frequently, and need to know the basic binding spells.

The function rand_int() yields a value between 0 and x-1. The function randint() yields a value between 1 and x. Be ready to use either, with a slight preference for rand_int() (randint() is actually rand_int() + 1), depending on the comparison you have to make.

For example, if we want x to have an x percentage chance of success, then "(x > rand_int(100))" is correct, but "(x >= rand_int(100))" or "(x > randint(100))" are not. With any formula of this type, increases in x past the number being randomized yield exactly the same result. 1000 is greater than 100, but so is 101.

You will also often see an equation similar to "if (10 < randint(x))", which means that an x of less than 10 is certain to yield FALSE, and an x of 10 or larger will yield FALSE 10 times out of x. This function is useful for discriminating against low 'x's, like the check for a hit in melee does against poor combat skill.

Unlike in the previous equation, the result is never certain to be TRUE, no matter how high x gets. On the other hand, if x can increase to a large multiple of 10, then we are very likely to get a result of TRUE. This happens in the Angband trap code with a high disarming skill; traps become almost harmless. If you want the function to not approach certainty, but (say) approach a 50% chance of getting a desired result, then use an additional test: "if (rand_int(2) == 0)" in this case.

The damage of many spells is determined by lines similar to "20 + randint(30)". This means that damage done will be between 21 and 50, with each value having an equal chance of happening. If you really meant damage to vary between 20 and 50, type "20 + rand_int(31)" instead. There are many cases where this change might profitably be made.

There are lots of other ways to use rand_int(). Sometimes if complex or multiple calls to the RNG are getting confusing, run the boundary conditions through the equations and pay special attention to how ">", and "<", differ from ">=" and "<=".

Normal distributions the easy way with damroll()
There are many situations where you want controlled variation, biased towards values away from the extremes. Normal distributions are ubiquitous in the real world; they're good things to have in games too. The easiest way to get a close-to-normal distribution is to use damroll().

This function takes two values: number of dice (d), and dice sides (s). The result ranges from d * 1 to d * s. A dagger (1d4) does between one and four points of damage. The average damage is (d + d * s) / 2 - in the case of a dagger, this would be 2.5. For mental calculations, some prefer to use the function: average = d * (s+1) / 2.

The more dice there are, and the fewer sides each die has, the more closely the results, over an infinite number of runs, will cluster around the average. The result of 100d2 will very likely be quite close to 150. At the other extreme, using one die is the same as using randint(): all legal values have the same chance of occurring.

Warning: Using damroll is like using rand_int() once for every die you roll. This is normally not a problem, but be hesitant to use this function where speed is crucial.

General Suggestions

Using Angband to help you debug and getting comfortable with simple math helps a lot. Below are some ideas for getting even better results.

Control boundary cases
Bad code frays around the edges, and breaks starting at extreme values. A good way to look for trouble in your code is to run the following four numbers through your equations:

  1. absolute minimum-the smallest number the code potentially allows to reach your equations,
  2. probable low end-the lowest number that a user may reasonably be expected to feed into your equations in a real game,
  3. probable high end-the highest number that a number may reasonably be expected to feed into your equations in a real game, and
  4. absolute maximum - the largest number the code potentially allows to reach your equations.
By checking numbers 1 and 4, you help stop your code from crashing. By checking 2 and 3, you maintain game balance.

Use a spreadsheet
Most valuable bit of advice in this document: use a spreadsheet to work with non-trivial equations. Doing so allows you to work interactively with math functions, looking at all values for all variables simultaneously, in a way that you cannot after you transfer them to code. Here is how you figure out the values you want, and than play with equations until what you want is what you get. All of a sudden, math starts doing what you want it to do...

Put more information in your code
Code development is iterative - it doesn't happen all at once. You can make life really hard on yourself by adding no comments and scrunching your code into as small a space as possible, or really easy by learning to write commentary early and enthusiastically.

If you're like me, even your best friends could not call you a coding genius. If you know how to write better than you know how to program, consider writing your way to good code.

Learn when and where to worry about execution speed
Some parts of Angband require more attention to speed than others. The less thinking the player has to do to activate the code in question, and the less distracted he is while it runs, the more he will pay attention to speed of execution. Also, the more often code is called, whether by nesting of functions or in loops, the more oportunity it has to eat up time.

The monster AI is a perfect example. Monsters must very quickly decide whether to cast a spell, run, or attack, because: 1) the code to make them plot and plan runs even when the player is not spending time thinking, and 2) it is called very frequently near major concentrations of monsters.

So how do you make the code fast where it matters? Standard Angband code offers many a practical example of optimizing for speed. Some are so sophisticated that they are almost indecipherable by the novice - others, anyone can copy:

And a last word
Angband still plays off floppy. A lot of coders have worked awfully hard to make a game that is a shining example of just have much fun can fit on 1.4 meg of space. Let this tradition be your tradition. Leave it to others to write elephantine code that squeaks; let your code be mousy-small - and roar!

Respectfully yours,
Leon Marrick

Dedicated to:

© 2000 by Leon Marrick [News] [To the Development Page]