Elbereth

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The name "Elbereth" rendered in three of the writing systems created by J.R.R. Tolkien. From top to bottom: 1. The "tehta mode" of the Tengwar script; 2. The "Mode of Beleriand," another Tengwar script; 3. The "Angerthas Moria" or "runic" script. The degradation patterns seem to imply the Latin alphabet is used for engravings by NetHack characters rather than any of these writing systems.

Parts of this entry were adapted from the NetHack Elbereth FAQ by Kate Nepveu

Elbereth (also called the E-word or sometimes just E) is, in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, the name of a divine being worshipped by elves. Engraving her name on a square prevents most monsters from attacking you while you are on that square. Use of Elbereth is a key survival strategy for new players and/or characters, the difference between death and survival in many games. Therefore, it can be helpful to learn about the mechanics of Elbereth.

Effects

A monster that respects Elbereth will not attack you in melee combat (hand to hand) while you are standing on it and will not cast a directed spell at you while you are standing on it. However, if you are not currently standing on a given Elbereth square, monsters will not be deterred; making scrolls of scare monster more attractive, eg, for protecting a stash.

Additionally, monsters that respect Elbereth will be scared if they believe that they are next to you and that you are standing on Elbereth.[1] This causes them to flee.

Most monsters in the game respect Elbereth; the exceptions are generally human or human-like, and are noted below.

Elbereth engraved onto a headstone will not work.[2] This is to prevent you from naming yourself "Elbereth" and making a permanently engraved Elbereth square when you die.

Take special care to note what Elbereth will not do. It will not protect you from any missile or spell attacks, or anything else that allows a monster to inflict damage from a distance, such as a dragon's breath attack. It will not make monsters peaceful, or protect anything on another square (such as your pet). Hostile monsters will still want to kill you, and will do anything they will ordinarily do to harm you, except attack you hand-to-hand. It will also not work in Gehennom *or* the elemental planes, "The power of the Valar extends only so far"

Partial exceptions when Elbereth will still protect you from non-melee are: No monster already fleeing from you due to Elbereth can use its ranged attacks, absolutely while adjacent and at least with much smaller likelihood if not. Any dragon will choose melee over its breath weapon if it is adjacent to you, and if it cannot engage you because of Elbereth, it will not attack you at all.

Elbereth will not stop working if you attack monsters while standing on it, although your actions may cause the engraving to erode (see below). It is thus popular for missile-wielders and spellcasters to fire away at their opponents while protected by Elbereth. Considering this, a good use of Elbereth, especially when surrounded, is to engrave it on the floor and wait for your HP to increase. Once they're good and high, throw a few attacks about. Once monsters realize that you are no longer protected, engrave it again. This can be very useful for level grinding.

Elbereth is case-insensitive, but engraving "Elbereth" as written, with capital "E", will exercise wisdom, so it is most beneficial to do it this way. You can use Elbereth while engrave-testing wands for this added bonus.

Elbereth stops working when it degrades into a different word, so if you are writing in the dust (E-), you might want to continually check on it. For example, the immediate result of one test was "ElberLth ElbereGh ElVereth Ylbereth Elbeheth Elb;reth Elbereth Elbereth tlbere#h".

Monsters that do not respect Elbereth

Types of monster

No monster represented by an @[3] will respect the word; neither do any capital A,[4] minotaurs[5] or the Riders.[6] Keystone Kops and their officers, while human for many game purposes, will respect Elbereth, but only if you are standing on it.[7] Shapechangers will respect it while they are in a form that otherwise would, and will not respect it while in a form that otherwise would not (such as a werecreature in human form). Certain monsters – shopkeepers, guards, high priests and the Wizard of Yendor – will never respect it,[8] even if they are polymorphed into a form that otherwise would.

Tame monsters

Any tame or peaceful monster will not respect Elbereth.[9] This is obviously not a problem in terms of avoiding attacks, as these monsters generally won't attack you. But this does mean that if you plan on using conflict to dispose of a group of monsters while waiting on an Elbereth square, you may have to endure attacks from any pets you have with you.

Blinded monsters

A blinded monster that can ordinarily see will not respect Elbereth while it is blind. Don't use a camera, for instance, while you are hiding behind the power of Elbereth. Blind monsters can not read the word anymore and will attack you. Note that unseeing monsters, such as gelatinous cubes, which do not have sight in the first place, will respect Elbereth.

Chances of engraving

As with any engraving, you are not guaranteed to engrave perfectly if you are impaired or writing in the dust. If you are writing in the dust (with fingers, a wand, a soft gem, etc.) or are scrawling in blood, your chances of messing up each letter[10] add up to a ((0.96+0.04*2/94)8) or ~72.7% on each attempt, as each of the eight letters in Elbereth must be engraved or "mis"-engraved correctly for the word to have power. It is entirely possible to require three, four, or even more attempts to get a correct "Elbereth" written in the dust, so you must not wait until you are one turn from death to get this done! If you can see, you can inspect your work with the "look" command, ([:]) (this does not take a turn to do unless blind). You will also know it is working if you see the message, "The (monster) turns to flee!"

Speed and quality

Engraving techniques may be classified as fast (fingers, wand, athame) or slow (other weapons, hard gems) (see Engraving#Speed for details). With a fast method, you can engrave up to 9 characters (enough for one Elbereth) immediately; this takes one move, and has immediate effect - affected monsters will not get another attack (if the engrave succeeds). This is almost always the preferred way to use Elbereth.

Alternatively, you can engrave between 10 and 19 characters per game turn with a fast method, or 1 character per game turn with a slow method. This takes the whole turn to finish, and is not effective until the turn is over, so monsters typically get an attack during that time (unless you are on a free turn due to being fast or very fast). And, while doing this, any existing engraving is obscured, so any Elbereths that you have already written are ineffective during this turn.

If you engrave multiple characters with a slow method, or more than 19 characters with a fast method, it takes more than 1 turn. Throughout these turns the engraving offers no protection and you are 'helpless': unlike reading a spellbook or eating a food ration, you won't be interrupted if something attacks you. No monster will respect Elbereth until your entire engraving is finished.

So you usually want to use a fast method to engrave and write a single Elbereth. A fast method, even writing in the dust, is almost always preferable over a slow one.

Engravings may be classified as permanent (will not degrade), semi-permanent (will degrade slowly), or temporary (will degrade very quickly).

For a permanent Elbereth, use a wand of fire or wand of lightning to burn it. The wand of lightning can blind you, but that is an acceptable risk during an emergency. (Note that the blindness takes effect after the engraving is completed--you will not increase your risk of misengraving through blindness.) Otherwise, unless you can easily cure blindness or protect your eyes, avoid any engraving with the wand of lightning. Permanent Elbereths are useful in combat situations, but because they always require a wand charge it is best to save them for difficult situations rather than using them routinely. Permanent Elbereths will not erode from being stood on or walked over, but can be eliminated through techniques such as engraving over them or engraving with a wand of polymorph.

You can engrave a fast semi-permanent Elbereth using a non-cursed athame, a wand of digging or a charged magic marker (consuming four charges). Athames are the best way to engrave Elbereth in routine combat as they engrave semi-permanently and are not reliant on charges. Unfortunately, athames are difficult to find. They are never randomly generated, so you need to pick one up from a master lich's or arch-lich's inventory, get gifted Magicbane from your god or wish for one. Wizards' first sacrifice gift is Magicbane so they have the easiest time getting hold of an athame.

Semi-permanent Elbereths will erode over time as they are walked over or stood upon, but not nearly as quickly as will temporary (finger) engravings. See Engraving#Durability.

You can make a temporary "engraving" (actually just drawing in the dust on the floor, or writing in blood if you are polymorphed into a vampire) with your fingers by responding "-" when asked what to engrave with, or you can use a soft gemstone, or any wand other than fire, lightning, or digging (certain wands may have undesirable effects on the engraving itself, such as polymorphing it). This is fast, but subject to the 1/25 chance of mis-engraving per letter, and any movement, such as fighting or throwing missiles, will damage the engraving. Even standing still on the engraving will eventually degrade it, as no one stands perfectly still. However, one can levitate after engraving to keep the engraving from being eroded (if it is not already).

Slow engraving methods

Hard gemstones, any ring with a hard gemstone set in it, and bladed weapons (other than athames), can be used to engrave semi-permanent Elbereths, but these techniques are slow and will make weapons dull, and is thus generally not recommended.

If you really want to engrave with a slow method, do it one letter at a time as engraving more than one character at a time is dangerous due to being rendered helpless while engraving.

Another drawback of slow engraving is that, if you only have slow ways to do a semi-permanent Elbereth, you have no safe way to repair it once it is eroded. You can't add a fast dust Elbereth over the top; and slow engraving obscures any Elbereth already on the ground, so you can't add more free semi-permanent Elbereths in safety. So you are then forced to use up a charge for a permanent Elbereth, or a wand of digging to update your semi-permanent Elbereth. Hence slow Elbereths are very unsuitable for combat situations.

A funny wrinkle in the engraving rules means that an ordinary +0 weapon will not be able to engrave the entire word "Elbereth" at one go--you will only get as far as "Elberet" before the weapon reaches -3 and is too dull for engraving. It will work, however, if you engrave first "Elb" (for minus one to the weapon), then add "ereth" to the current engraving (for an additional minus two).

Elbereth and levitation

If you levitate over an Elbereth, the word will take longer than normal to degrade as long as you are levitating over the square. Characters who can levitate may want to take advantage of this by engraving Elbereth and then levitating over it while fighting off large numbers of monsters. Note, however, that during an emergency, it is usually preferable to burn a permanent Elbereth using a wand, assuming that you have enough wand charges to spare.

Erosion

Each time a monster flees from Elbereth, there is a chance that 1 character will be eroded on the square with the Elbereth engraving[11]. This applies even for engravings that would otherwise be permanent, such as those burned by a wand of fire or an engraving you are levitating over.

The chance of a character being eroded in this way is 100% for an engraving in dust, 1/26 for a semipermanent engraving, and 1/52 for permanent[12]. This is in addition to the normal chance of erosion for any engraving.

Strategy

A key insight for new players is that Elbereth can be pre-engraved on retreat squares long before the character gets into trouble. Players may pause to engrave a durable form of Elbereth at various choke points in hallways (or just off them), near stairs, etc. Cautious players may leave a breadcrumb trail of Elbereth-engraved squares leading back to staircases so that they're never far from safety. Elbereth should not be viewed as only a last resort when the character is down to 1 HP.

Elbereth will make engulfing monsters expel you. If you can take the hit and do not have a sure-fire method, it is often better to start writing a sequence of several Elbereth in the dust because you will not be allowed to retry once you are inside.

Sometimes, it is a worthwhile idea to prepare a semi-permanent Elbereth square in advance as a means of escape, e. g. some corner in Sokoban for pacifists without a pet.

Encyclopedia entry

... Even as they stepped over the threshold a single clear
voice rose in song.

        A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
        silivren penna miriel
        o menel aglar elenath!
        Na-chaered palan-diriel
        o galadhremmin ennorath,
        Fanuilos, le linnathon
        nef aear, si nef aearon!

Frodo halted for a moment, looking back. Elrond was in his
chair and the fire was on his face like summer-light upon the
trees. Near him sat the Lady Arwen. [...]
He stood still enchanted, while the sweet syllables of the
elvish song fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody.
"It is a song to Elbereth," said Bilbo. "They will sing that,
and other songs of the Blessed Realm, many times tonight.
Come on!"

[ The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien ]

Versioning

Prior to NetHack 3.6.0, the game may be compiled without Elbereth (option name ELBERETH). The #version command will tell whether NetHack was compiled with or without the ELBERETH feature. Since 3.6.0 Elbereth is always included.

Variants

Pre-NetHack 3.6.0

Prior to NetHack 3.6.0, Elbereth was effectual even when you weren't on it so long as there was at least one object on said Elbereth square -- similar to the current behavior of a scroll of scare monster. Because of this, a common technique used in many applications -- commonly to herd monsters -- would be to create a large number of Elbereth squares with a gold piece on them. In addition, if some string of text followed by Elbereth was engraved (eg "EngberethElbereth"), it would still constitute a valid Elbereth square, making engraving Elbereth multiple times and then fighting monsters a valid strategy.

Additionally, prior to NetHack 3.6.0 Elbereth was effectual in Planes or Gehennom.

UnNetHack

In UnNetHack, "Elbereth" can be written in the dust with your fingers with ctrl + e. If you are wielding an athame, that will be used instead. Beware: this shortcut will not automatically switch back to your fingers if you wield a cursed athame.

UnNetHack tracks the number of times Elbereth is engraved in your conducts; specifically, how many engravings of Elbereth were successfully completed by you.

As of version 4.0.0 of UnNetHack, minotaurs now respect Elbereth. However, the following additional monsters will no longer respect Elbereth[13]:

NetHack 4

NetHack 4, like UnNetHack, allows Elbereth to be written in the dust with your fingers with ctrl + e, but doesn't make use of a wielded athame.

NetHack 4 also tracks the number of times Elbereth is engraved, but unlike UnNetHack, only counts the number of times the complete "Elbereth" is attempted, so partial engravings like "Elb", "ere" and "th" aren't caught, nor are completions of parts of "Elbereth" on the floor already.

Elbereth can be disabled entirely in a game of NetHack 4 by setting the 'elbereth' birth option to 'false' before starting a new character.

SLASH'EM

You can burn Elbereth into the floor with a lit lightsaber as if using a wand of fire or lightning.

NetHack brass

Avoid engraving Elbereth with wands in NetHack brass. While vanilla uses 1 wand charge per engraving, NetHack brass can consume extra charges. An engraving with a wand of fire, for example, costs the usual 1 charge engraving with a wand, an extra 1 charge because the wand is a wand of fire, plus 1 charge for each letter engraved. To burn Elbereth successfully, you would need 10 charges in your wand of fire; you probably do not have them.

SporkHack

In SporkHack, Elbereth doesn't always work. On weaker monsters, it works most of the time, but especially against higher-level monsters it's no longer perfect protection. That said, it works often enough that it's almost certainly worth using everywhere that it's worth using in vanilla or SLASH'EM.

AceHack

In AceHack, the word "Elbereth" has no special meaning, but a heptagram is an incredibly similar concept, a shape that can be engraved on the ground that repels monsters. It is identical to an Elbereth in vanilla NetHack, except that it does not exercise wisdom when engraved. Because it is a shape rather than a word, it cannot be engraved directly using the normal methods; instead, after pressing E and choosing an item or fingers to engrave with, a heptagram is drawn by pressing h. Also, a heptagram can be quickly dust-engraved by pressing .; this is the usual way to draw heptagrams in AceHack.

Slash'EM Extended

In Slash'EM Extended, Elbereth doesn't always work (see SporkHack section). Even if it works, the monster may just be "startled for a moment" instead of turning to flee, however there is a small chance that @, A or other non-Elbereth-respecting monsters will be affected. Unique monsters (including Demogorgon and other demon lords/princes), quest nemeses and other very powerful monsters are still immune, though.

Unlike SLASH'EM, a lit lightsaber cannot burn engravings in Slash'EM Extended. It can, however, create hard engravings similar to an athame or wand of digging.

The wand of digging can engrave up to 50 characters, or 6 Elbereths, in a single turn.

dNetHack

dNetHack has phased out Elbereth in favor of wards, which your character learns from spellbooks. Elbereth still works against orcs and Nazgul, however.

References

  1. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 240
  2. sengr_at in engrave.c: Function used to check for Elbereths
  3. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 134
  4. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 136: mtmp->data == &mons[PM_ANGEL] covers angels and is_lminion(mtmp) covers (see mondata.h, line 22) monsters with the M2_MINION flag (is_minion) that are of lawful alignment ((mon)->data->maligntyp >= A_COALIGNED) with possible exception of angel. As in vanilla and variants all angelic being are lawful and have the M2_MINION flag (or are angel), this condition is equivalent to "any capital A" (or mtmp->data->mlet == S_ANGEL).
  5. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 137
  6. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 137
  7. monmove.c, line 899, mondata.h, line 84, monst.c, line 1603
  8. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 134
  9. monmove.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 135
  10. engrave.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 999
  11. src/monmove.c in NetHack 3.6.0, line 309
  12. wipe_engr_at in src/engrave.c in NetHack 3.6.0
  13. src/monmove.c in UnNetHack revision 1406, line 146

See also