Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NetHack: Playing, Dying, Screaming, Restarting

Damned thing lived up to its name. You have to give it that.

Things have been tough on the little @.

Paul the Priest, who I reported in my last posting on NetHack, was "doubtless my most successful hero so far," lived about five more steps after I made that posting. He stumbled into a nest of killer bees and died instantly at a poisonous stinger.

In my first posting on Rogue, I wrote: "Most of the time it takes to win Rogue involves playing, dying, screaming, and restarting at Level 1." This has not changed in NetHack. My adventures follow a reasonably predictable pattern. Two or three characters barely make it out of the gate, but then one starts to develop legs. She's going places. I get her up to character level 5 and maybe dungeon level 5 or 6. She's got some good equipment, spells. The future's bright.

I almost always see it coming before it happens. A couple of killer bees float down the hallway. My status changes to "weak" with no food in sight. The word "poison" appears in some context. A trio of orcs surrounds me when I have 10/40 hit points. I start mumbling the Litany Against Death: "No. No. No, no, no, no, nononononono...F&$%!" DYWYPI?

The obscenities that follow get creative. Shocking suggestions for the game's mother. The Christian messiah on an eclectic variety of conveyances. I think I used "God-sucking" at one point. Then a sigh. A brief contemplation of Phantasie III. And I restart.

NetHack is a better game than Rogue, but it's no less frustrating, no less punishing, no less fundamentally masochistic--and no less addictive.

Some things since my last outing:

  • Food is a tremendous pain in the neck. I'd hoped with the corpses and the occasional monster dropping food, I wouldn't starve as easily as in Rogue. Nothing doing. I seem to have the worst luck with eating food that turns out to be spoiled or rotten, or corpses that turn out to drain my strength or poison me.
  • Missile weapons strike me as effectively useless, although I need to play a little more to be sure. I don't notice many monsters until they're right on top of me.
  • I notice that just when I most need to cast spells--when I'm hungry, for instance--the game tells me I'm too weak.
  • I keep finding things that provide light, but I've yet to encounter a place where I'd need them.
  • The game seems to save information about previous characters that have died. I encountered the "Ghost of Victoria"--my valkyrie--on Level 6, along with all of her stuff. I picked it up greedily but it turned out to be cursed.

Thankfully, the game doesn't have you encounter ghosts of ALL your previous adventurers, or the dungeons would be choked with them.

  • I've noticed that some things can only be hit with magic weapons, including "fog clouds" and ghosts. Not all of my characters have magic weapons, even by Level 5 or 6, but fortunately the valkyrie starts with one.
  • One level featured Larry, Curly, and Moe. Really? This is just the sort of non-sequitur I was talking about yesterday. They kept following me and engaging in slapstick. Unfortunately for them, they decided to bother me when I was playing a barbarian, and I had no qualms about bashing them to pulp.


  • Praying only works once every few levels. Otherwise the gods get mad and give you a good wallopping.
  • Although I have some favorite classes--barbarian, valkyrie, and wizard--I've been letting the game pick for me at the beginning of each session. It keeps it interesting. I'm not a fan of the tourist.
  • The lowest level I've reached so far is Level 8, and I've made it here a couple of times. I've been noticing that Levels 5 and 6 start throwing some really hard stuff at you. My last outing, Level 6 seemed to be on mushrooms--none of the objects were represented by their standard icons, monsters kept changing, and I was ultimately killed by a "hallucinogen-distorted centaur."

I think this was actually all one creature.

  • One of the times I reached Level 8, I got hit by a "quantum mechanic" which teleported me into the middle of a throne room full of orcs. Naturally, I didn't last long.

"Hi! No, don't get up!"

  • I've encountered stores of three different types: general stores, armor stores, and a book (scroll) store. I'm sure there are more.
  • On one level, a leprechaun stole half my gold and teleported away. I chased the little bugger around from room to room until I finally killed him and got my gold back (wasting almost all of my food in the process). Then I spitefully ate his corpse. Soon I found myself inflicted with a condition whereby I would randomly teleport to another part of the level every 50 turns or so. Does this go away? It actually wasn't as detrimental as it sounds.
  • The fountains are too dangerous to drink from. One spawned five or six pools of water in which I drowned; another released a water demon that killed me.
  • I'm developing a long list of monsters I hate: acid blobs (for ruining your weapons), cockatrices (turn you to stone), leprechauns (steal your gold), nymphs (seduce you and steal your things), giant ants (damage your strength), floating eyes (freeze you so other monsters can pummel you). I can't wait to see how much worse they get on lower levels.

NetHack, I find, does not reward long play sessions--at least not for me. In a long playing session in which I started and lost 35 characters, I recorded at which dungeon level they died. The trendline definitely decreases over time as I get more and more frustrated and stop taking care with my characters.

I think I'm going to start tracking the classes, too, and see which ones I'm most successful with. Something about NetHack makes me think it requires analysis.

From the comments, I'm finding that most of you know a lot more about NetHack than I do. While it must be mildly amusing to watch a n00b blunder his way through the game, there are so many other sources for NetHack information on the Internet that my own blog is likely redundant. I think I'll get started with Phantasie III and return to NetHack occasionally for the next couple of weeks, letting you know if anything new happens.


  1. This is something of a non sequitur given the premise of your blog, but there's a wonderful indie roguelike called Brogue (cross-platform, so it'll play on your PC ; ) that deals with a lot of the annoyances you're facing... and then it spices up the scenery with the best ASCII art I've ever seen. You should give it a try some day - it's my favorite, and I stand by it as the easiest roguelike to get into and as one of the most unique that I've played.

  2. Oh, but in true roguelike fashion, it is punishing. I still haven't beaten it, though its forums do have some very fun stories of people who have done so:

    When I'm playing Brogue, I often find myself constructing a story for various events... especially when I free multiple captive monsters and parade around the dungeons watching my new allies wreak havoc on my behalf.

    There are no races or classes, but you craft a character type based on the items you choose to enchant with your precious scrolls of enchantment. Missile weapons, wands, and staves are actually useful... especially to take care of those acid blobs. ; )

  3. In the interests of intermediating between you and the spoilers, are there any hints you want regarding corpses and food, and ways to deal with floating eyes? Also, there is an elvish word that can come in handy.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, 'Bat. I've added it to a growing list of freeware and shareware RPGs I want to try. Perhaps I'll take a break at the end of the decade and dig into them.

    Brian, I'm a little torn as to your question. I guess I'd MOSTLY like to figure it out for myself, but if there's a way to provide a hint without actually providing a spoiler, that would be best.

    As to the Elvish word, someone mentioned it in another of my postings. I'm not really sure how to "use" it, but is this something that I encounter in the game? If so, I should learn it from the game.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Observations: your pet is a fantastic sensing device. There's more than one way to interact with the floating eye. Look for tolkien's elvish in the dust, there may have been a reason it's there.

    On a more practical note, keep a log of how you died. Try to be as specific as possible to the root cause. Intrinsic properties are *not* randomized across games for purposes of monsters and corpses.

  7. Helm, can you remove your direct reference to the elvish. It *is* possible to find it in the dust if you know what you're looking for and you look hard enough over enough turns.

  8. Helm, thanks. To be fair though, finding the word and then figuring out what it does ... how can we hint at that? Cause it's a really really really important thing.

    1. Actually what we discovered during Nethack 3.0 is that Elbereth is in the manual. We also discovered I'm the only one to read the manual.

  9. Feel free to ignore all this talk of elvish. It's not necessary, and some consider it tantamount to cheating.

  10. It should be no spoiler to say that teleportitis doesn't stop. There are ways to affect it. I quite like the intrinsic when I'm playing a martial class, though I haven't starved to death in ages. I also don't play with a pet. There's one major caveat, which will become blatantly obvious to you three seconds too late.

    This is not mildly amusing. This is highly amusing and fairly interesting. I lost a lot of perspective on the game when I learned enough about it to talk like a textbook.

  11. So are you done with Le Maitre des Ames? Will there be a GIMLET rating?

  12. I think it may be a very educational experience to read the possession listing after dying. It often reveals a few items that would have saved the hero if used in time. In danger it is easy to forget NetHack is turn based: checking the inventory doesn't cost a turn, but not checking may cost a game. I think the names of the items can also be a valuable source of knowledge to an unspoiled player.

    Despite the randomization, almost every NetHack game (at least in the recent versions) is winnable; some people on have won more than 20 games in a row, although I suppose one has to be addicted to NetHack to reach the state allowing such feats ;-)

  13. Hehe, you picked the only version of NetHack that has the three Stooges. :-)

  14. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that, as I understand it, the Tourist is harder than most other classes and takes a really variant playstyle.

  15. I don't know how I'd advance in this game without your hints, so thanks, everyone. Still confused about the "elvish word," but I'll get there. I'll try to make better use of the dog instead of just ditching him on Level 1. I appreciate the teleportitis information; I assume controlling it has something to do with the "Ring of Teleportation Control" which has shown up in my identified items, after death, more than once. You all rock.

  16. Tom, is that you? Good grief, how many of my friends read this blog?

  17. @Addict consider *all* the affordances of *everything* in the game. That will help to answer the uses of the elvish word and the implications of the floating eye.

  18. One general hint with roguelikes is that you think you're likely to die in the next turn or two, and you have unidentified items, you can try them to see if you get a lucky save. I've extended games of Moria and Angband by drinking a potion of healing or slow poison right before death. If the experiment goes bad, well, you were pretty sure you were going to die anyway.

  19. Not sure how much of a help this is, but:
    "I don't notice many monsters until they're right on top of me."
    "I keep finding things that provide light, but I've yet to encounter a place where I'd need them."
    would seem to me to be related.

  20. Good point, Eric. Choosing to identify your items when you die is often a humbling experience.

    Reiko...Christ, I feel like a moron.

  21. Grahhhh curse you CRPGaddict, curse you. I read your post on nethack and the next time I know I have found my old instal on a usb key, written a new version of the dungeon map as my windows 7 computerr uses a difrent codepage than the XP computer and lost most of 2 days on it when I have nultiple projects and a midterm coming up. *sighhhh* I hope that my analytical group members come through and I don't have to do the majority of the project myself or I am in big trouble.

    On the plus side I seem to be a lot better at the game then I used to be, I am now regularly getting to Minetown or the oracle. on the other hand I have had good luck with finding lots of alters and useful shoppes.

    Another point: Once you reach a version with Minetown and a lighting shop staffed by a shopkeeper who's name starts with I din't kill him. The programmer who wrote the shopkeeper code died suddenly so they named that shopkeeper after him, and everyone tries not to kill him out of respect. No idea what version this shows up in.

    Sorry for the lack of spelling/grammer editing: i wrote this on my phone.

  22. Thanks for the tips, 'geek. I think most of the things you mention don't show up until the next version. I'll try to remember to go back through all my NetHack postings and comments when I get there.

  23. Reiko's helpful "seem to be related" post above almost woke up my wife. Well. My laughing did.

    Someone's comment above in regards to tracking how you die is important. But really, you should be tracking everything. For example, how did you get teleportitis? Make note of that, because as I think you already expect, it might be useful to intentionally get it.

    It's been years since I played Nethack (though I may get back into it soon) but if I remember correctly I would intentionally strand my pet on level 1 to reduce risk of it dying, since a pet can be very useful. Though it's important to keep it loyal...

  24. I've written quite a lot about Nethack. I should mention a couple of things, regarding the point at which you were playing the game here:

    - Over successive versions, Nethack generally gets easier. 2.3e is as hard as Rogue, maybe harder in some ways (although PC Rogue is probably harder still).
    - There is no other game in the world like Nethack's later versions for requiring you to build up a huge store of knowledge of the game in order to do well.
    - Praying for help, by the way, is not just for priests. You can pray when you have less than 1/7 (or 5, whichever is greater) of your max hit points to get healed, or when you're weak from hunger to be fed. There are limits to this though -- don't pray too often.
    - Nethack, in its later incarnations, is basically a game ABOUT spoilers. It is theoretically possible to win without looking up spoilers, but we're probably talking a process of years. And even heavily spoiled players find the game challenging. (Although the best Nethack players, it should be said, can win almost every time; there's players on the public Nethack server at who had winning streaks of over 20 games.)
    - Some of the advice offered by players above is for later versions of the game, which have somewhat over-shadowed the rather-ancient-seeming version you were playing here.

  25. Thanks for the tips. I'm glad it gets a little easier. I just promised an interviewer for a Canadian gaming website that I wouldn't stop playing v.3 until I ascended.

  26. ...That was a bad idea. A very bad idea. Now, I don't have the insane focus that you do, but I've never ascended in the latest version. I recommend spoilers and lots of them if you ever want to see the next game on the list!

    Also what Canadian gaming publication? I wasn't aware we had any (left).

  27. We'll see when I get there. It's most of 1989 away.

    The site was I don't know when it will be published.

  28. You will find that edible corpses are far less likely to result in negative effects after Nethack 3.0.

    Before 3.0, even edible corpses had a decent probability of a negative effect. Probably not many current Nethack players are aware of this.

    Valkyries, Knights are easy classes with which to learn. But I still consider Barbarians the easiest class with which to learn because they begin the game with a resistance to the CRPG element of which you have most consistently acknowledged the danger.

  29. I have not found nethack enjoyable. To me its Rogue + a bunch of unnecessary crap and keystrokes. For example in Rogue you'd see a gold ring on the ground, maybe next to a trap, meanwhile in nethack, it goes like this:

    you see a box
    its closed
    its locked
    its unlocked (maybe set off trap)
    its closed
    its open
    do you want to put stuff in or take stuff out
    wtf, i want to take stuff out of course
    a-gold ring
    you get a gold ring

    Thank you for making me go through tons of crap and keystrokes for little to no gameplay effect. Similary sinks:

    nothing here
    oh nevermind theres a sink i didnt mention before
    a succubus comes out
    shes hot
    shes gonna have sex with you
    do you want to take off your gloves?
    wtf, i dont care
    you have sex
    you're really good at it
    youre fully healed!
    still a sink hre btw
    brown pudding
    its dead
    gold ring
    take it
    you got a gold ring.

    Really? Is all that crap necessary? just let me walk over and auto pickup a gold ring which may or may not have traps or monsters near it.

    Much prefer rogue over this unnecessary, forced 'complexity' and 'larger game world.'

    1. Eventually you can have too many shiny things to carry about all the time, and thus putting them inside a box is useful (slightly safer than leaving stuff on the floor). As for the sink, you didn't -have- to keep kicking it, it was your choice to in the hopes of getting something that might not have ever been there.

  30. "Really? Is all that crap necessary? just let me walk over and auto pickup a gold ring which may or may not have traps or monsters near it."

    i dont know if its necessary or not, but it was hilarious to read. thnks for making me laugh

  31. Found a fountain at level 1. Released a water demon that granted me a wish. Wished for the Amulet of Yendor. Left the dungeon to find out I got a plastic imitation ^^

    Guess most of you know that but I'm playing without a guide and I found that very funny. Time for another game!

  32. NetHack is a game I reviled as a child. I didn't 'get' it. I understood the basic premise - strategically throw yourself at a dungeon until you won - but the odds seemed ever out of my favor.

    Then I realized the hidden social component of the game. You're downright EXPECTED to learn from the mistakes of others and read guides and playthroughs! Even then, due to the random and lethal nature of this game, success is not guaranteed.

    Want to succeed without checking every FAQ? Start as a Chaotic Elf Wizard (Female). Ensure you have at least 18 INT and, in your inventory, a Spellbook of Identify. If you don't have these, scrap your character and start over.

    Why Wizard? You get quick access to Magicbane, one of the strongest daggers in the game (technically an athame) by sacrificing a monster corpse to a god, but ONLY at a Chaotically-aligned altar (that is, one devoted to Anhur). You also start with a cloak of Magic Cancellation, which nullifies most magics. Far later in the game, there's a class-specific quest with a class-specific reward. Guess which class gets the best reward.

    Why Elf? You get Infravision, or the ability to see heat signatures in the dark. You get a bonus to your starting INT. (Additionally, you get a nonmagical random musical instrument if you start as an Elf Wizard. This helps in getting past the Castle Moat, and perhaps for other reasons.)

    Why female? You can lay eggs in certain Polymorphed forms if female, but not if male.

    In short, NetHack is like trying to climb Mount Everest. Unprepared, it's pretty much impossible. If prepared, that goes down to 'pretty dark difficult.'

    1. You realize that what you're advocating is known to hardcore Hackers as "start-scumming", right?

    2. I mean this part of it:

      "Ensure you have at least 18 INT and, in your inventory, a Spellbook of Identify. If you don't have these, scrap your character and start over."


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