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When you die, there is a chance that the level as you left it is saved, to be reloaded in a later game. Such levels are known as bones levels, bones files or simply bones. There can only be one bones file per dungeon level, and each bones file only has a 1/3 chance[1] of being selected as a bones level when entered for the first time. A bones level can, however, have more than one ghost if a second adventurer is killed there.


How to tell if a level is a bones level:

  • Large concentration of different monsters.
  • Wounded monsters (can be identified with a stethoscope) (might also be caused by traps).
  • Broken doors (can be identified with far look).
  • Holes in walls (may also be caused by a digging monster, especially if there are tunnels containing rocks nearby).
  • Empty or partly empty throne rooms, zoos, leprechaun halls, or any other special rooms.
  • Engraved messages other than those randomly placed by NetHack.
  • Few to no items lying on the floor.
  • Suspicious or unusual items around the level. For example, disarmed beartraps are never generated randomly.
  • Containers with contents unlike those randomly generated.
  • Piles of items related to specific monsters. A collection of quarterstaffs or suits of leather armor, or even a noticeable number of elven, dwarvish, or orcish items can indicate that some combat has occurred on the level before you arrived.
  • A named ghost, in a room other than a graveyard. A named mummy, wraith, vampire or green slime is also possible.
  • Named monsters, which are usually not generated for that particular level (for example, an archon on DL4).
  • Presence of corpses, which are never randomly generated (except in the Valley of the Dead, which can also have bones) (might also be caused by traps).
  • Presence of fruit (slime mold) with a different name from the one you set (this is a dead giveaway).
  • A saddled monster

What to do with bones

A bones level will contain some remnant of the player whose bones are laying about. Typically this is a ghost bearing the name of the player, usually stationed over the bones pile (ghosts move slowly). If the deceased player was killed by a vampire, the ghost will be replaced with a vampire bearing the name. Similarly with mummies, wraiths, and green slimes. If the player was petrified or killed by a footrice, there is a statue of the player instead.

Killing or luring the ghost or vampire away gives the player access to the bones. Bones piles contain the entire inventory of the player, randomly cursed. It's usually a bad idea to quaff, Put on, read, wield, or Wear anything from a bones pile until it has been properly BUC identified, as each object has an 80% chance of being cursed outright when left in bones.

Beware! The original killer is still lurking about the level, probably not too far from the site of the bones. If you discover a bones pile with very advanced items, be very careful about running into whatever managed to kill your predecessor! The pile of leftover goodies is generated on top of a grave, with a gravestone. This means that you can't engrave Elbereth on that square to keep monsters from attacking you while you sort through it. If you need to fight, step into another square. Alternatively, stand on top of a scroll of scare monster. (The dead player might even have dropped a scroll of scare monster.)

On the other hand, you want to get at the wands of fire or lightning many players carry before monsters can use them against you. Luckily, the ghost is usually generated asleep on top.


Item identification

Objects that the deceased player has #named will be reset to whatever description that object has in the current player's game. In other words, if the deceased had a yellow potion named "this burns when thrown" (meaning it was acid), but acid in the current player's game is a purple potion, the potion will show up as purple, without a name. The exception to this rule is fruit, which retains its name in bones piles. Thus, naming your fruit "Look out for the master mind flayer!" is a clever dying action to inform the next player about your demise. Engraving is a more restrictive method of issuing such warnings, as you can only engrave a maximum of eight characters per turn, which limits your final vocabulary to phrases like "purple h", "GWTWOD", "polytrap" or "Archon".

Assuming that the game is being played on a public server such as NAO, the less scrupulous may look up the death dump file to see what items were carried. As these logs include an ASCII image of the game map at time of death, determining which of the logs belongs to the body you found is simple, if time consuming. This is metagaming, though, and some players frown upon it.

Item identification via the class of the deceased

When encountering a bones level, it can be advantageous to know some details of the deceased, or at least his or her class. For example, if you find a grave with a quarterstaff, a randomly named cloak, two spellbooks, and a magic marker, you can be fairly certain the corpse is that of an early wizard, from which you can deduce that the cloak is a cloak of magic resistance. This method comes with no guarantees, but the more "indicator items" you find, the more certain you can be.

Class is indicated by
Archeologist bullwhip, fedora, tinning kit
Barbarian two-handed sword, battle-axe
Caveman large number of rocks and/or flint stones
Healer scalpel, stethoscope
Knight lance, many apples and carrots, saddle (possibly on a horse)
Monk many apples and oranges, a robe
Priest 4 potions of water, both of: mace and robe
Ranger two large stacks of arrows
Rogue large stack of daggers, sack, lock pick
Samurai large stack of ya (bamboo arrows), katana and short sword
Tourist Hawaiian shirt, expensive camera, credit card, stack of 4 scrolls
Valkyrie long sword, small shield, dagger
Wizard quarterstaff, randomly named cloak, two spellbooks, many other magical items

Rogues and Valkyries are hard to identify, since they both start with items common to other classes, or commonly generated. A +3 small shield almost certainly used to belong to a Valkyrie, but to determine the enchantment, you need to either identify or try on the shield.


The following items will be substituted upon a save:

Died with Saved with
Amulet of Yendor cursed cheap plastic imitation of the Amulet of Yendor
Candelabrum of Invocation cursed, used, unlit wax candle
Bell of Opening cursed bell
Book of the Dead cursed spellbook of blank paper

Upon loading, the following artifacts are changed to their base type:

  • Your quest artifact
  • Any artifact that was already created in your game

Note that the alignment of any quest artifact is not affected by the alignment of the deceased: if the Mitre of Holiness is found in bones, you will be unable to grasp it unless you are lawful, even if it was retrieved from Nalzok by a chaotic priest.

Additionally, certain monsters will never be saved in bones:[2]

However, their statues (bug C342-54) and corpses are unaffected.

Tame monsters will turn hostile.[3]

Ineligible bones levels

These levels cannot leave bones.[4]

'Special' levels may be loaded as bones at a different level than they were saved at, sometimes breaking other ad hoc rules like 'no polymorph traps before DL8'. In fact, due to bones, any Mines level below Minetown is at risk of containing a polytrap.

If you die in an eligible level, there is an additional 1 in (1+(depth/4)) chance that you will not leave a bones file. This means that the chance of leaving bones at DL 4-7 is 50%, DL 8-11 is 66%, DL 12-14 is 75%, DL 15-17 is 80%, etc. (Only this makes levels 1-3 ineligible to leave bones.)


Using bones items in a normal game is perfectly fine. Bones can often make a difficult game much easier by providing items that the current player has not "earned" yet. If you are going for some record, especially a speed run, the ascension is likely more impressive if not using bones items at all.

From a game design point of view, bones are potentially unbalancing, and a few players object to using bones items for this reason. Finding one's own bones is an even more difficult position. Luckily on a public server there are enough players that this is unlikely to happen too frequently.

If the deceased player's dumplog is available, it can be used to identify items in the bones pile. This could be considered cheating. Many players do it, but endless debates rage on RGRN about the value of such wins. Please disclose dumplog usage.

Bones files locations

On the Windows port (at least), the data for a bones file is stored in the playground directory. As the filename contains clues to where the player died, it is trivial to identify potential bones levels. The file is created when a player dies on a bones-capable level and is deleted when a bones level is reached and incorporated in to an active game. If the player later dies on a bones-capable level, the file may be re-created with the appropriate filename.

Thus, if the player observes the files within the playground, they can notice when a suitable level is coming up, and notice if the file is deleted, and thus know that they are on a bones level.

The file naming format that is used is "bon<branch><role>.<level>", for example "bonM0.T" is the bones file for Minetown.

Within the filename, <branch> is one of:

And <role>:

And <level> is one of:

The file is not designed to be human-readable. The characters corresponding to each level and branch are defined in dungeon.def.

Wizard mode

In Wizard mode, you will be prompted when you reach a bones level with the message "Get bones? [yn] (n)", allowing you to selectively retrieve the bones file for that level.

When you die on a bones-suitable level, you will be presented with the opportunity to "Save bones? [yn] (n)", again allowing you to selectively save bones files. If there was already a bones file for that level (i.e. you said no to getting bones when entering a level) you will also be prompted with "Bones file already exists. Replace? [yn] (n)", allowing you to selectively overwrite the bones file for that level.

The side effect of this is that you may encounter bones files on very low levels with a full ascension kit or impossible items (+127 Grayswandir), and if the level is loaded as a bones level later on, can storm through the game with score fully counted. This is definitely cheating if the sole purpose of the Wizard mode game was to create such a setup.


  1. bones.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 385: "only once in three times do we find bones"
  2. bones.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 226
  3. bones.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 299
  4. no_bones_level in bones.c
  5. files.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 617

A user has suggested improving this page or section as follows:

"Add information about changes introduced in variants (for example UnNetHack)"

See also

This page may need to be updated for NetHack 3.6.0.

It may contain text specific to NetHack 3.4.3. Information on this page may be out of date.

Editors: After reviewing this page and making necessary edits, please change the {{nethack-343}} tag to {{nethack-360}} or {{noversion}} as appropriate.