Tuesday, January 4, 2011

NetHack: Five Adventurers, Five Fates

Getting killed by a dead foe takes a special kind of talent.

Well, you were all right: NetHack is incredibly fun and addictive. It keeps revealing new facets to me, even on the early levels, every time I start a new character. And the character classes really do matter, unlike Mission: Mainframe or many other CRPGs--roguelike and non-roguelike--of the era. Are their abilities meant to be so mysterious, though? I suspect that resistances and attributes and such vary from class to class, but the guidebook doesn't have much to say about them.

Anyway, I thought I'd embed some of the gameplay features among stories about five adventurers and their experiences in the Dungeons of Doom.

1. Victoria the Vakyrie

Victoria was the brashest member of a brash race--charging through dungeons and actively engaging dangers. She blew through Level 1 so fast that she left her dog behind. In the first room on Level 2, she swiped a scroll from the dungeon floor. If there was a part of her mind--even in the deepest recesses--that exercised caution, she didn't hear it. She boldly read the words on the scroll and was rewarded for her risk with the absolute coolest spell ever--the ability to eliminate any monster from the game [permanently, on all levels, I assume]. She thought briefly about dragons and basilisks before glancing at her sword and noting the scarring and pitting that had been done only moments before by an acid slug [they had reduced it from a +1 to a 0]. With a brief word, the slimy menaces existed no more.

She would soon wish she had said "orcs."

On Level 3, she encountered legions of orcs, but she pushed through their incessant darts and hacked them up one by one. On the other side, she found the most glorious site ever seen in a roguelike game:

A store! If only shopkeepers would identify items, I'd be in heaven.

She was momentarily baffled by the interface: you "pick up" objects to add them to your shopping list and then "pay bill" when you're ready to check out; until then, the shopkeeper blocks the door. You "drop" items to sell them. She was also baffled by the willingness of the owner to purchase corpses of slain orcs, but she wasn't complaining. 

Seriously, what is he going to do with this?

She purchased some food rations and a mysterious brass ring (to go with the Ring of Protection +1 she'd found earlier and identified with a scroll). Among the piles of orc bodies, she had discovered a suit of ring mail +8--not bad for Level 3.

Alas, her brashness was her undoing. Coming across another scroll, she read it aloud and was told by a mysterious voice that she was being punished for misbehavior. She found an iron ball shackled to her leg; she could pick it up but otherwise not get rid of it [seriously: is there any way?].

If the game would let you name the ball "Irene," NetHack would be awfully true to life.

Her despondence grew to annoyance when her stomach started growling for the umpteenth time. Eying her rations--which included pizza and an egg--she decided to save her food and defy the universe with the unthinkable. She stripped the armor and clothing off a slain hobgoblin, roasted it over an open flame, and sank her teeth into its flesh. It did not agree with her. She died clutching her stomach and cursing the names of her Norse gods.

That's putting it mildly.

2. Grey Star the Wizard

Grey Star began with a pile of magic items: spellbooks with create familiar, force bolt, and sleep; scrolls of teleportation, light, and remove curse; a potion of invisiblity; rings of conflict and stealth; and wands of polymorph and "nothing." Only the "Ring of Conflict" and the "Wand of Nothing" were real mysteries. In the first room, he found a second Scroll of Remove Curse and a pile of rocks for throwing. He quickly transcribed the spells in the spellbooks to his memory. Encountering a floating eye upon leaving the room, he tested out force bolt but was told he "goofed up" and then his measly 2 magic points were gone. He had to defeat the floating eye with his dagger like a common warrior. [At least the spell points regenerate fast.] The spell served him well in the next room, though, on a hobgoblin, and he kept using it on other foes until a message warned him that the spell "was starting to look well-used" [do spells run out in this game?] Things were nonetheless looking good for Grey Star until his stomach began to growl and he realized he didn't have any food. In desperation, he ate the corpse of an acid blob, but it just made him sick. Growing weaker by the moment, he fainted in front of a jackal and died at the wild canine's canines.

3. Kurosawa the Ninja

Kurosawa left his distant clan and journeyed thousands of miles to the Dungeons of Doom, which explains why he didn't have any food when he got there [thanks, NetHack--most of my deaths are turning out to be food-related.] He did have a katana, 39 shurikens, leather armor, and a blindfold [??] along with, of course, his dog. On Level 1, he found some magic items that he dared not identify, and a fountain which, upon drinking the waters, dried up and revealed a gem. Unfortunately, an acid slug corroded his katana to the point of near unusability, and on Level 2 he was slain by an orc.

4. Malory the Knight

Sir Malory heard about the deaths of the ninja, valkyrie, and wizard and couldn't help but laugh. Exploring the depths of dungeons was knight's work (and, incidentally, he thought, man's work). Equipped with a spear, long sword, ring mail, helmet, gloves, and shield, he vowed to hack and slash his way through any enemy the dungeon dared throw at him. He bullied his way through Level 1 and on Level 2 found a message written in the dust that read "ad ae?a? um" [seriously: what?]. On Level 3, he encountered narrow passages that his bulk of armor would not allow him to traverse. Not to be defeated by such annoyances, he stripped his armor and left it in a pile so as to wiggle his way through a tight crevice. On the other side, he found a giant ant and, having no protection, was slain.

Is it a cryptogram?

5. Paul the Priest

Paul descended into the Dungeons of Doom convinced that his predecessors had lacked something crucial: faith. Armed with a blessed mace, chain mail, a shield, four vials of holy water, and spells of healing and detect food, he found himself in a dungeon room with an oddity: a kitchen sink. After quite a bit of fumbling about, he couldn't figure out what to do with it and moved on. True to his class, his foray into the dungeons did seem unusually blessed: he found a plethora of food, gold, and gems on the first two levels and defeated most enemies easily, rising quickly to Level 5. On Level 3, he found an armor shop and bought an Elven cloak.
Yea, my god is a merciful god.

Nonetheless, even the priest began to feel the ravages of hunger over time--hunger that was not sated by two of his rations, which turned out to be spoiled. On Level 4, he grew weak and started to faint. Clued by the game manual, he PRAYED and was rewarded by a full stomach! On Level 5, he found the same weird message that Malory had found along with a nymph who kept seducing him and stealing his armor before he finally tracked her down and killed her with some darts he had picked up from dead orcs.

Hello? Fourth Amendment?

Then something utterly weird happened. Paul was running out of inventory room, so he took a chance reading a scroll. It turned out to be a mapping scroll and showed him a room in the upper-right corner of the map that he couldn't reach. Wandering around to try to get to it, he found himself suddenly teleported there from a dead-end passage. The room was full of gold! More than 1,400. Momentarily forgetting his vows, Paul scooped it up greedily. But he couldn't get out of the vault. As he futilely searched for an exit, a guard appeared and claimed that probably all his gold (including the 750 he already had) had been stolen from the vault and he'd best turn it over. Paul dropped the gold and the guard led him out. As he contemplated his empty pockets, he thanked his gods for teaching him a valuable lesson about greed.

This is exactly how Mickey Mouse got into trouble.

But Paul had another lesson to learn. On Level 6, he began to feel the weight of his inventory, so he thought he'd try a few potions and scrolls to lighten the load. One potion "confused" him, and he probably should have stopped messing around until his head cleared. Instead, he read a scroll that turned out to be a "scroll of create monster." Because he was confused, he "mispronounced the words" and found himself surrounded by homunculuses. But when the battle cleared, he had two new rings and a potion, so everything turned out better than expected.

As I head to bed for the night, Paul the Priest is on Level 6, is Level 7 himself, and has a big complement of unidentified magic items. He is doubtless my most successful hero so far. It's going to be painful when I (inevitably) lose him.

I'll have to try to force myself to play a little Le Maitre des Ames tomorrow, or I'll just end up with this all day.


  1. Trying to answer questions without being too much of a spoiler:

    Yes, scrolls of genocide will remove all monsters of that type from the game, on all levels, forever. You can't even summon them later.

    There are multiple ways to remove curses in NetHack, and they will usually deal with the ball & chain.

    Your memorization of a spell can go hazy, if you re-read the spellbook you can re-memorize it.

    "ad ae?a? um" -- you'll find a bunch of different things written on the floor, some of which indicate places in the dungeon where you can do certain things. This is one of them.

    Food: some monster corpses are edible, some are poisonous. Many will have interesting effects on your character when eaten, in addition to satiating hunger. Most monster corpses go bad in short order, so if you're going to eat one you need to be quick about it.

    There are a few uses for blindfolds, either because there are things you don't want to look at, or because your mind can be more clear if you can't see.

    All scrolls do something slightly different if you read them while confused. Sometimes this is really useful.

  2. Have you ever used a cursed item?
    Cursed thing usually give a screwed-up version of their original function,but some of them can be exploited.

    Corpses can be dangerous to eat - and a small number of them can be *very* rewarding if you are willing to take the extremely *large* risk.

    As for that strange room with gold,if you have a certain name and you tell the guard about it,something cool happens.

  3. I'm happy to see you enjoying even such an early release of Nethack. Seems very full-featured!

  4. I'll have to give Nethack another try as it sounds like a lot of fun (with the exception of the food issue). One of the great things about the long running rougelikes are all the little unique details or "specials" that are there to discover.

    I wonder if the programmers of Alternate Reality: The Dungeon were Nethack fans or vice versa as that game had a Lodestone just like the ball and chain you mention and also Homunculus.

    If you are having to force yourself to play Le Maitre des Ames maybe it's time to give it a GIMLET rating?

  5. You do so many posts and play games so densely- do you read every comment? And since you do so many posts, should we even bother commenting on a post even two posts ago? I'd like to comment on mopre, but I'm sort of afraid everything'll fall into a black hole at the pace you work at.

  6. Hey, you've inspired me to install Nethack once again.

    I was wondering if anybody on the forum knew what a system shock is?

    I never saw it and apparently it killed my wizard in one hit, any ideas?

  7. Aw. It's a pity that these comments exist: to my knowledge, there has never been a confirmed case of winning NetHack without any outside knowledge. You could've been the first.

    Of course, this might have posed some practical difficulties.

    One thing to note is that everyone else here is probably familiar with the latest version of NetHack. In-dated advice is going to cause some wacky hijinks before we're done. I don't think that this version even has monsters that pick up and use items. Alas -- the Gnome With the Wand of Death is iconic. (Does this version have cursed items yet? They would probably have come up by now.) One thing I can tell you about early versions is that you're going to want fire resistance. Intensely.

    Get into the habit of eating corpses. You'll learn to avoid the blatantly stupid choices with tolerable losses.

    "System shock" is a D&D term for abusing your body in ways most people would not even come up with. Here it does a lot of damage but should not be automatically fatal. Be careful with that Wand of Polymorph!

  8. Started playing Nethack cos of this (v3.4.3) and have probably died about twenty times today.

    My best attempt was with an archeologist, pick axes are now my favourite tool/weapon.

    Will be interested to see how far you can get!

  9. I'm no Roguelike expert, so maybe this isn't the best advice, but I tend to wait till I've cleared out a level and then try the unidentified items, potions and scrolls that I've picked up before I descend. Partly this is in the belief that I'm less likely to have to deal with monsters, should there be ill-effects, and partly it's in the hope that I'll be toughening myself up for the next level.

    Doesn't always work out, of course...

    I wish there was a Nethack port (or any other decent Roguelike) for Android that worked with a touchscreen, rather than requiring a keyboard. I played the Windows Mobile version a lot, back in the day.

  10. Thanks again for all the tips, particularly Codrus and Laytonia. Maybe I'll find that name for the guard on another play-through.

    Acrin1, you're probably right about Maitre. Some people went through a lot of trouble to help me, so I hate to give up on it, but playing it is a bit of a chore.

    William, I do read every comment--they get e-mailed to me, in fact--even if I don't always respond to every one. Readers frequently comment on postings that are months and months old, and I very much appreciate it and often respond, so don't worry about commenting on "old" postings.

    Alan, I'm finding that using unidentified magic items AT ALL is a bad idea; too many horrible things can go wrong. As much as I don't like to abandon unknown items, I can't take a chance on a potion of poison or a ring of hunger or any other game-ending things.

  11. Safely identifying magic items is one of the key tactics for winning NetHack, and there are a bunch of techniques for doing it. Different classes of item are amenable to different techniques, and once you play it enough to get a sense of what the various subtypes are, you'll find some that are relatively safe for blind experimentation with the proper preparation. Most magic items aren't instadeath when you use them, so if you have the proper countermeasures worked out and lined up ready to go, you can risk the bad effects without destroying the game.

    If you're going to win NetHack without major spoilers, you're going to need to invest a lot of games in experimenting on different ways of doing things. Many of those experiments are going to kill the little @.

  12. "If you're going to win NetHack without major spoilers, you're going to need to invest a lot of games in experimenting on different ways of doing things. Many of those experiments are going to kill the little @. "

    It tickles me how you phrased this. Poor little @s :)

  13. So I'm discovering, Codrus. I think I will content myself with the spoilers that my readers offer and do the best I can with experimentation. I don't need to win the game this first time out; after all, I will be returning to it (version 3) in 1989.

  14. Nethack is the best. My closest to winning run so far is an archeologist that "Escaped the dungeon in celestial disgrace" :)

    Hint on identifying: shopkeepers know what stuff is, even if they don't tell you directly.

  15. If, like me, the concept of NetHack intrigues you more than its actual implementation (frankly, I've never had a character last more than five minutes) then you can watch people who actually KNOW what they are doing by telnetting to nethack.alt.org or using the Java client at http://alt.org/nethack/

    DON'T do this if you want to avoid spoilers. Since I know I'm NEVER going to ascend a NetHack character (sans a desert island scenario) it doesn't bother me.

  16. This makes me want to play Nethack. I've only played Zangband, but I liked that so it may be time to delve into its roots.

    By the way, it's homunculi.

  17. Best LOL! I've had today:

    "If the game would let you name the ball "Irene," NetHack would be awfully true to life."

  18. I thought the message "ad ae?a? um" looked a bit like Latin, so I tried replacing the question marks with a few different letters and was able to figure out what it was supposed to say and determined that it was in fact a clue. Just thought I'd mention that in case you decide to come back to it.

  19. *SPOILERS*

    Kick the kitchen sinks. Sometimes, a succubus will emerge; when you interact with her, you get bonuses. Unless, of course, she turns on you, and then you get troubles.

    Black puddings also come out of the sinks when you kick them. You can also wash your hands at the sinks.

    Every character can pray, and if they are hungry, and their god isn't mad at them, praying can eliminate hunger. You can only pray once every 300 moves or so without your god getting angry at you. If you find an altar, look to see if it's your god's. If not, sacrifice stuff on it until it turns to your god's. Then sacrifice things you killed to please your god.

    Knights, once they reach a certain level (5, I think), can #dip their longsword into fountains, and have the sword turn into Excalibur, which gives a bonus to search, never rusts or corrodes, in addition to the to-hit and damage bonuses.

  20. Cavalier, thanks for the tips. I didn't read past "Spoilers!" for now, but I'll think about looking at these when I get to NH3.

    Keir, your comment intrigues me. The only Latin word I can figure from ae?a?, though, is "aetas," which means "age." I don't think "um" is a Latin word, is it?

  21. Ah yes, I think there must be a question mark missing. It should say "ad ae?a??um".

  22. Ad aerarium? To the money? Does this have something to do with that vault? Or is that a different character? Either way, thanks for the hint.

  23. Regarding Ad aerarium- you just might be on the right track. Try searching a little closer whenever you see that message.

  24. A couple of weeks back I started reading through your posts from the very beginning. I love CRPGs and I love this blog. I'm currently going through all (well, most) of the Might and Magic universe games, which means I'm also playing the HoMM series. I'm on HoMM2 right now. Next up is M&M6

    Anyway, two things I LOVED about this post.

    First, even though I find the racist-sexist-bigot-homophobe-white-male thing to be a tiresome trope/cliche, I laughed really hard at your little comment about Malory thinking that dungeoneering was man's work. It was well-timed and hilarious role-playing. Kudos for treating the topic with the absurdity it deserves and not the after-school-special preachiness. Awesome.

    Second, way to go, Paul! I'm a Christian and training to be a pastor so I suppose I'm biased, but I love how Paul the Priest leans on his faith and has received numerous undeserved blessings. You can't help but root for the guy!

    This was a great read! Thanks so much!

  25. Glad you like the blog, GammaLeak. Sorry that Paul kicked it so quickly in the next posting.

  26. This is your best post to date. Loved it.

    As another poster mentioned, identification techniques are key to ascending in Nethack.

    And not to frighten you, but even if you fully understand potion/item identification techniques, you can still die an untimely death.

    I am very excited to read your continued musings on this game -- playing through Nethack is, as I said in a previous post, my most cherished gaming experience.

    I hope you ascend one day. You deserve it.

  27. just going to necro comment here..that message in the dust, it appears a little messed up because something has trodden on it. The more creatures that pass that square the more garbled the message will get.

  28. Query: Why did you not play Hack for Dos (http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/hack)

    1. Probably didn't have it on his list at the time.

    2. I can't remember precisely. My best recollection is that I couldn't find a copy and moved on, and NetHack came along so quickly afterwards it seemed silly to regress at that point.


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