Published on December 20th, 2013 | by Nich Maragos


NetHack: By Any Means Necessary

You hit the Woodland-elf! The Woodland-elf hurls a brilliant blue potion! The flask crashes on your head and breaks into shards. You feel rather tired. The Woodland-elf thrusts her elven spear. The Woodland-elf hits! The killer bee stings! The killer bee’s sting was poisoned! Valkryrie, your life force is running out. You die…

Do you want your possessions identified?

nethack-tombstoneSpending your time playing games with player-friendly design can unfortunately lead you to some bad habits. Final Fantasy games turned me into an item hoarder who went into the end boss fight with a full stack of dusty Elixirs. I completed Mega Man’s regular stages using only the basic peashooter, because there’s nothing challenging enough to be worth expending the weapon energy. And Dragon Quest, the ultimate in mass-market-focused design, makes sure death is never more than a momentary inconvenience on a never-wavering road of steadily increasing power, a design ethos that’s seeped into modern AAA design.

The sad paradox is that these games let you brute force your way to the end without understanding them, when just a small amount of exploration can result in a vastly deeper, more rewarding experience. Final Fantasy games are easier and more fun if you don’t rely on regular attacks to do all your damage. Mega Man stages are littered with enemy placement meant to coax you into using those special weapons, with frequent weapon energy refills so you won’t be penalized for your experimentation. And Dragon Quest games can always be completed more quickly by playing smart instead of blindly bashing your head against each new barrier.

So where can you learn how to maximize your options in every situation? Where do you go to break the bad habits of friendly game design? To an unfriendly game, of course. To NetHack.

If you’ve got the same bad habits I do, most of your first several dozen NetHack games will go the same way. You’ll figure out the rudiments of how your class works—spells if you’re a Wizard, melee skills if you’re a Knight or Valkyrie, and hiding behind your pet if you’re anything else—and descend to the second, maybe third level of the Dungeons of Doom. There, you’ll find something your play style can’t handle. Maybe you’ll run into something with magic resistance. Maybe a nymph will steal that fine weapon and armor. Maybe your pet will trigger a trap and be killed or stranded.

nethack-excaliburIt’s a bit like if Mega Man suddenly lost his standard Mega Buster, leaving him with only his special weapons to make it through the stages. Such a situation would require new strategies and new tactics, but since you always can fall back on the Buster, you never have to seriously think about how you’d manage it. But in NetHack, you can count on the randomly-generated dungeon putting you behind the eight ball sooner or later, and you need to learn how to deal with that when the time comes.

The primary challenge players face is the sheer breadth of possibility available in most circumstances. When your range of actions is so wide, it can be hard to recall the one or two most useful solutions to any given problem. Moreso because very few of these solutions are at all intuitive. I began playing NetHack when I realized how much esoteric knowledge I’d soaked up about Minecraft, and figured it couldn’t be that hard to learn another game as thoroughly. What both games have in common is that they’re best played with the Wiki kept open; it’s better to think of this as the game’s manual rather than “spoilers.”

Even then, it’s been a slow process of learning the game for myself, full of death and failure. The key is to take the failures in stride and focus on the learning. Every death, no matter how apparently random or pointless, has a lesson in it. Fell into a spiked pit trap and died of poison? Look up what floor those traps begin to appear on, and learn not to move around there without searching–at least until you have poison resistance. Crashed into a floating eye and found yourself paralyzed while a lowly newt nibbles you to death? Bone up on the less hazardous movement commands. Blasted by an irate shopkeeper after kicking down his door? When the floor has shop signs, kick a bit more carefully.

nethack-minesWhile NetHack can be a stern and unforgiving teacher, it makes up for that by being an ultimately very fair game. As frustrating as it may be to die in a seemingly innocuous situation, it’s equally possible to survive something very deadly indeed, so long as you keep your wits about you and exploit every advantage the game offers. Case in point: my recent encounter with an arch-lich in Minetown.

Minetown is one of the dungeon’s earlier floors, whereas an arch-lich is one of the hardest non-unique enemies in the game. So when I found one—and, miraculously, survived—my first step was to stop and figure out exactly how it had gotten here. A friend and the wiki both told me that arch-liches simply don’t randomly spawn on such an early floor, so we wondered if it could have been created by a hostile creature using a wand or scroll of create monster. The message log told us that wasn’t the case, so we decided it must be a chameleon doing an extremely unfortunate impersonation.

The game plan from there was to figure out a way to survive one or two turns, at which point the chameleon would change form again. Engraving “Elbereth” on the floor would cause the arch-lich to flee, but the first step before that was to pray to Tyr, my Lawful Valkyrie’s god. Doing so restored my health to full and prevented the arch-lich from attacking during that turn. Once that was taken care of, I searched my inventory. I had several unidentified potions, none of which would likely be useful even if I knew what they did, and three unidentified scrolls, which might be—but all three were cursed, and not safe to read blindly. I also had a few wands, but none that I had identified as being helpful in this situation. Writing Elbereth in the dust with my fingers took a hairy couple of turns, during which the arch-lich summoned an ettin to make things even worse. But at last I finished engraving the holy word, both monsters turned to flee, and the “arch-lich” finally turned into a more manageable form. I handily slew the chameleon in the next turn, blasted the ettin a couple times with my wand of magic missile, and ran the hell out of Minetown while the getting was good.

It was the perfect example of a situation that my Valkyrie’s standard tools, her body armor and Excalibur, couldn’t help me survive. The faux arch-lich hit hard enough and moved fast enough that either running away or engaging itwould have left me a smear on the Minetown pavement. It was only careful consideration and exploitation of all my available options that got me out of the jam alive. Had I tried to bull my way through the encounter the way friendlier games had taught me I could, I’d never have made it.

nethack-kittyIt’s important to note that freely engraving Elbereth to send dangerous enemies packing may seem like cheating, but it isn’t. Neither is using the #name command to identify objects or creatures, killing priests and taking back your donations, or directing your pets to steal from shops. All of these actions are part of the game as written, rather than exploitative bugs or cowardly savescumming. One of the most important things NetHack teaches a player with bad habits is how to play to win.

I haven’t ascended a character in NetHack yet, but I’ll get there. Maybe it’ll be this very run, which developed quite promisingly after the disastrous Minetown incident. Or maybe, drunk on great gear and abilities, I’ll get overconfident again and revert to my old bad habits—which NetHack will be sure to punish swiftly. Whichever it may be, I’m confident that by the time I do make it to that final altar, Amulet in hand, I’ll be a better player of not just NetHack, but of games in general. The lessons it teaches in assessing problems and identifying solutions is applicable to any title with a broad enough range of actions. So do yourself a favor, download NetHack, and get an education in making the most of the tools at hand. Tell the cockatrices I sent you.

Image credit: Zodar

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used to do it for the money, but now does it for the love.

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