Game stages

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Like most games, a player character's progress through NetHack can be broken down into several game stages.

The early game

The first stage is the early game where survival and sometimes securing food is of supreme importance. For many roles, the starting pet is likely more powerful than the character itself. Securing basic armor and weaponry is a top priority; use your pet to test the BUC status of items before you use or wear them. Many new players have trouble finding enough food: when they are weak with hunger they should probably pray for nutrition and save their permafood for when they cannot pray. More experienced players will find they have enough food almost all the time and will want to eat the permafood and conserve their ability to pray. Safe corpses are preferable to both, of course. Above all else, take it slow and be careful! The early game can be the most difficult stage of NetHack.

Early game threats

Ranked roughly in order of danger from most to least.

These monsters require special precautions but are not especially dangerous if handled correctly.

  • The three starting pet types and their stronger forms: u horses, d dogs, and f cats: All of these species are much faster than you and have strong attacks. They can be tamed by throwing food they like at them (they will eat it) or pacified by throwing any other type of food. You might consider saving some tripe (for cats and dogs) and produce (for horses), but even a food ration or tin will make them stop killing you. Eggs, melons, and cream pies will usually be destroyed by throwing them, preventing them from taming or pacifying your target. See diet for details. As usual, they respect Elbereth.
  • e floating eye: Floating eyes are very slow and cannot directly damage you. They are still very dangerous due to their passive attack—should you fight them in melee, you will often be paralyzed for several hundred turns, during which you are a sitting duck. Attack them with ranged weapons or apply a polearm, or simply ignore them. If they leave a corpse, be sure to eat it, as intrinsic telepathy is valuable.
  • m Mimics: the m small mimic, m large mimic, and m giant mimic: Pose as items in shops and kill unsuspecting players. They hit very hard and can grab onto you but move very slowly. Elbereth is very useful against one that grabs you. See the mimic page for more advice.

The midgame

In the middle phase of the game, survival is less of a pressure and the game is about completing an ascension kit. The distinction between early game and midgame isn't clear. Depending on who is defining it, the transition point may be reaching Sokoban and Minetown, collecting the Sokoban prize, or the point at which you no longer fear team a. The floors between the Quest portal and the Castle are almost certainly midgame territory.

Midgame threats

  • L lich and L demilich: These undead monstrosities are likely to be the first truly threatening spellcasting monsters the player encounters. Normal liches are relatively slow, but have a toolbox of spells allowing them to lower your strength, curse your items, destroy your precious armor, even summon nasties, and high level demiliches can even cast touch of death. Demiliches are also faster. Elbereth can prevent them from touching you or using their worst spells on you, and it is therefore highly recommended. Blessed scrolls of genocide are often used on liches, and has the benefit of also annihilating their stronger cousins, master and arch-liches which cast the same set of spells but are more likely to be high enough level to use the monster dangerous ones, summon nasties and touch of death.
  • h mind flayer and h master mind flayer: These flying abominations are not spellcasters, but instead have the ability to suck your brain. This attack drains your intelligence, and can also cause you to forget object identities and level layouts. If they reduce you to below 3 intelligence, you will die instantly and cannot be saved even with an amulet of life saving. Attack them from range whenever possible; if you must fight them in melee, wear a (preferably greased) helmet and use Elbereth religiously. If they are within one turn's movement of you you should engrave Elbereth with a guaranteed one turn source, e.g. a wand of fire or an athame. After they are dead, you can use a unicorn horn to restore your intelligence, but you will not recover lost object identities or level maps. Genocide is also popular here, but beware: if you are a dwarf, blessed-genociding 'h' will instantly kill you.
  • H titan: While normally quite rare, one variant of Medusa's Island contains a guaranteed titan near the up staircase. They are almost always peaceful to lawful characters, but neutral and chaotic characters are out of luck. They are probably the first monster you will encounter capable of casting summon nasties, and worse, they are immune to genocide. They respect Elbereth, but be wary as several of their summoned minions ignore it.
  • ​; Sea monsters: Two sea monsters in particular, the ; giant eel and the ; electric eel, possess a two-move drowning attack that kills you instantly. The move will fail if you wear a greased or oilskin cloak, however. If you lack either, be adjacent to water as little as possible. Electric eels can also destroy your rings with their electrical attacks—including a worn ring of levitation. They are sometimes genocided, but less commonly than the previous two monster types. Eels and sharks are guaranteed around Medusa's island and in the Castle moat. They will appear in swamps as well, but those are rather rare. ; Krakens, A couatls, and S pythons are also capable of drowning you, but krakens are slow and couatls and pythons rarely near water.
  • c chickatrice and c cockatrice: These monsters are possibly the most complex monsters in the game; it is important to understand what will and what will not petrify you. The main article goes into detail, but the gist is that touching a cockatrice, living or dead, in any way, will kill you instantly. If gloves are worn, they can be touched with your hands, but beware of wielding their corpse—should you fall in a pit or down a staircase, you will touch it no matter what you wear. Should you begin to stiffen from their hiss, eat a lizard or acidic corpse, cast stone to flesh at yourself, or quaff a potion of acid posthaste; if no other option is available, pray. With correct precautions, they become less dangerous and more of a powerful weapon. Just beware of leaving them on the floor, in case you walk over it while blinded or have it used against you by an intelligent foe.
  • R rust monster: These monsters can be unbelievably irritating. Both their main attacks and their passive attack will cause metal items to rust, reducing their effectiveness. They will also eat any metal items they find, including good items you may have wanted to obtain. If they are alone, you can simply punch them to death while wearing no metal armor uncovered by a cloak; they can do no physical damage. If not alone, use the almighty E-Word or zap them with wands and spells. A unicorn horn is a good weapon here too.
  • H minotaur: These monsters ignore Elbereth and have very high damage, but they also have no magic resistance. They are generated by the summon nasties spell and can be created inside any maze. They will not normally appear before late game, but the Castle contains a small piece of maze and there can be up to 3 complete maze levels between Medusa's Island and the Castle, giving you plenty of chances to meet them early. A minotaur at the Castle is particularly dangerous because the maze is so small; if it appears there you are usually forced to fight it.
  • Wand of death: Attack wands are always something to be worried about until you get reflection or magic resistance, but once you're past the early game, the danger becomes much more serious: level 8+ intelligent monsters can generate with this wand as an offensive item. If you still don't have reflection and magic resistance after clearing Sokoban and Mine's End, it may be worth going out of your way to get protection from this wand. Possible strategies include:
    • Blessing and using magic lamps and smoky potions, sitting on thrones, and using fountains on early floors for a chance to wish for reflection or magic resistance;
    • Diving down to Medusa's Island for the possible shield of reflection in the statue of Perseus;
    • Diving down to the Castle to get the wand of wishing;
    • Finishing the Quest as soon as possible to get reflection or magic resistance from your quest artifact (varies by role and quest nemesis difficulty);
    • Obtaining polymorph control and a way to polymorph yourself so you can turn into an undead creature to become immune to wands of death.
    • Until you're protected from the wand of death, you may want to take extra care around monsters that are eligible for it: stay out of zapping range until you can attack, get powerful weapons to kill them quickly, and have a means of teleportation, sleep, or paralysis on hand in case you find out a monster has a wand of death (and you are still alive to worry about it). The most common monsters you will encounter at this stage that are eligible for the wand of death include T trolls, O ogres, H giants, @ elves, and members of @ the Yendorian army.

The following information pertains to an upcoming version (NetHack 3.7.0). If this version is now released, please verify that it is still accurate, then update the page to incorporate this information.

Unicorn horns can no longer restore reduced attributes. Alternatives include potions of restore ability, the restore ability spell, prayer, or gain ability.

The late game

In the late game, survival is almost guaranteed (bar those YASDs that an amulet of life saving could have saved you from), and the goal is to get the Amulet of Yendor and resurface. The late game is generally said to start either when you get the wand of wishing from the Castle, or when you begin exploring Gehennom; some players in some roles (e.g., Samurai) usually do the Quest after the Castle.

Late game threats

  • YASD: Most deaths here are either through player error or handling difficult conducts.
    • H minotaur: If something is going to kill you in melee, this is it.
    • h mind flayer and h master mind flayer: Amnesia is still a substantial setback, and a brainless death is still possible. And remember that unlike most of the post-Castle blunders you could make, all the amulets of life saving in the world won't save you from brainlessness.
    • P green slime: Not especially dangerous, but (rarely) being touched by them or (definitely) eating them can start a long delayed instadeath (sliming) curable by fire. Be aware that they exist.
    • & Juiblex: A major demon who inhabits his own swamp, guaranteed to appear in Gehennom. He is easy to kill but will almost surely infect you with a deadly sickness at least once, which you must remember to cure with your unicorn horn.
    • & Demogorgon: Not guaranteed to appear (in vanilla), but can ruin an ascension run if you're not prepared; he's quite nasty. Read his article for tips.
    • c chickatrice and c cockatrice: A monster wielding a cockatrice corpse is one of the few truly frightening things at this point, and the cockatrice itself presents many possible YASDs.
    • L master lich and L arch-lich: These purple Ls will begin appearing frequently in Gehennom. They are stronger than the lich and demilich. They are also covetous, giving them the ability to teleport back and forth between you and the upstairs where they will heal. They have a much higher magic resistance and base level, practically guaranteeing that they can cast their full repertoire of spells.

The ascension run

Finally, on the run your final death is a (slim) possibility again while racing to ascend. Your character is likely fully equipped and very strong, but there are a few things to worry about. This stage of the game begins by recovering the Book of the Dead.

It's worth noting that most players treat "end game" as a synonym for "ascension run", but NetHack itself reserves the title "End Game" for the Elemental Planes and the Astral Plane (though it uses "Elemental Planes" internally for the Astral Plane as well as the other four planes). Most players refer to those as just "the Planes". The terminology is a tad hazy.

Ascension run threats

  • The same warnings about YASDs from the late game apply here, but with a few additional notes.
  • The Riders: & Famine, & Pestilence, & Death: Unique monsters you will meet on the Astral plane. Read up on them.
  • @ Wizard of Yendor: The Wizard will return from the dead an infinite number of times, and will not stop appearing until you reach the Astral plane. Even while dead he will strike out at you.
  • E air elemental: On the Plane of Air, Air Elementals are substantially stronger than in the rest of the game, and can rapidly kill characters with a subpar Armor Class. It can help to have some quick method of defeating or neutralizing them.
  • h mind flayer and h master mind flayer: If you get amnesiaed now you will have to remap the levels you lost with The Wizard of Yendor on your tail.
  • % Cockatrice corpses: These are a common choice on the ascension run, especially on the Astral Plane; as always, be careful with them.
  • The Astral Plane, the last level in the game, is by far the place where most ascension run deaths take place. Move slow and play carefully. Request the help of the players in #nethack if you need it. Player monsters in particular may spawn with Vorpal Blade if it hasn't been generated yet, and can use that to kill you instantly with a 5% chance.