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An engraving is any form of text written on the ground. Such text can be written ("engraved") with the command shift + e. This includes carving or burning characters into the dungeon floor, writing on the floor with a writing instrument, and drawing in the dust with fingers, wands, etc. This can ostensibly be done by a player to record messages to themselves, and there are also random engravings left in the dungeon; however, the most common use of engraving is to write the name Elbereth.


Engraving techniques may be classed as fast (fingers, wand, non-cursed athame[1]) or slow (other edged weapons,[2] hard gems,[3] gemstone rings[4]). A fast engraving method takes 1 game turn per 10 characters engraved, and is instantaneous if you engrave fewer than 10 characters by a fast method (which is explained in detail below) - otherwise, it takes 1 game turn to write 10–19 characters, 2 game turns to write 20–29 characters, and so forth; a slow method takes 1 game turn per character.

A non-instantaneous engraving isn't done until after the turn(s) have passed. This is a concern for two reasons: first, while players reading a spellbook or eating a food ration will stop when approached by hostile monsters, characters busy engraving will continue even when under attack; second, if you are trying to engrave Elbereth, you are only protected once it is complete. So you can be killed while doing a non-instantaneous engraving (you will be described as "helpless" in the death reason). Until the new engraving is finished, the floor is considered completely blank—even if part of the message could be completed sooner, and even if there was an existing engraving on the floor before you started. So doing a non-instantaneous engraving obscures any existing engraving of Elbereth until the turns are complete.

There is therefore a lot of danger in doing a non-instantaneous engraving, so you almost never want to do a non-instantaneous engraving lasting more than 1 turn.

Furthermore, if you are very fast and you know that you will get two turns in a row, you might be able to safely do a non-instantaneous 1-turn engrave: 1 character slowly or up to 19 characters quickly.

Instantaneous engraving is much simpler and safer. It uses only one player turn (so you may get multiple instantaneous engraves per game turn, if fast or very fast, via the usual speed system). Your engraving takes immediate effect, like most other simple player commands; in other words, an instantaneous Elbereth is on the ground before the monsters take their next move. You aren't helpless, and any existing engraving on the ground is not obscured while you engrave.

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.

Engraving is now an occupation and can be interrupted, for example, if you're attacked, you teleport away or the stylus is lost. The text is no longer written all at once; a partial engraving will remain if the process is interrupted.


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

Permanent engravings are burned into the floor with a wand of fire or wand of lightning. The wand of lightning can blind you if your eyes are not protected. (The blindness takes effect after the engraving is completed—you will not increase your risk of misengraving through blindness.) Permanent engravings will not erode from being stood on or walked over, but can be eliminated through techniques such as overwriting them with another wand of fire or lightning, erasing the engraving with a wand of cold, or changing the engraving with a wand of polymorph.

Semi-permanent engravings are written with a charged magic marker or carved into the floor with an edged weapon, a hard gemstone, a ring containing a hard gemstone, or a wand of digging. Using a magic marker consumes one charge for every two characters written. Engraving with any weapon other than a non-cursed athame will make the weapon dull (reduce enchantment) to a minimum of −3, at which point the weapon is too dull to engrave any more. (If it is not cursed, an athame will engrave forever without dulling. This, and its speed, make it highly prized as an engraving tool.) The weapon ordinarily suffers a −1 degradation for every second letter engraved, but a loophole in how this calculation is done can allow you to write longer messages by breaking the engraving job up into smaller parts: engraving three letters is still only a −1 penalty, so it is possible to use a +0 weapon to engrave three letters, then add three more, and then another three, for a total of nine characters before the weapon is useless, rather than only seven if you had attempted to engrave all at once. This is especially important when engraving the eight-character word Elbereth. Semi-permanent engravings can erode over time as they are walked over or stood upon, but not nearly as quickly as will temporary (finger) engravings.

Temporary "engravings" are made by drawing in the dust on the floor with your fingers by responding "-" when asked what to engrave with, or you can use another object such as 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 a 125 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. Temporary engravings can also be erased with a towel. Attempting to write in the dust while polymorphed into a demon or vampire will instead scrawl in blood, which shares the same properties as writings in the dust.

Success probability

You are not guaranteed to engrave perfectly if you are impaired or writing in the dust. For each letter, you have a (cumulative) chance of messing up if you are blind (111), confused (17), stunned (14), or hallucinating (12). If you are writing in the dust (with fingers, a wand, a soft gem, etc.) or scrawling in blood, you have a 125 chance of messing up each letter.[5] (When this happens, the letter is replaced by one chosen randomly from among the 94 printable non-space ASCII characters. Thus, there's a 194 chance that the letter will be replaced by itself, and another 194 chance that it will only change from lowercase to uppercase or vice versa.)

This is not usually much of a concern unless you are engraving "Elbereth", since an error there renders the word powerless. Attempting to write "Elbereth" in the dust only works about 72.65% of the time. If you can see, you can inspect your work with the "look" command, :.


Temporary engravings are eroded by a number of actions. Upon each action, a specified number of characters is picked randomly and corrupted (possibly the same character multiple times). For instance, moving off of a square corrupts between 1 and 5 characters (but not jumping off or onto a square, or moving on to a square). The other actions which affect engravings are: melee combat (3 characters corrupted), throwing or firing (2), kicking (2), applying an axe to the ground (3), zapping a wand of striking or casting force bolt at the ground (2d4), and casting stone to flesh downwards (only affects engraving in stone). Normal spellcasting and wands do not erode engravings.

In addition to these actions, every turn, there is a small (1 in (40 + 3 × Dexterity)) chance of eroding between 1 and 3 characters on the player's square.[6] Monsters (including pets and steeds), unless sleeping or paralyzed, will erode 1 character in their square per turn. When riding, it is thus impossible to successfully write "Elbereth" in the dust if your steed is faster than you, and you should only rely on permanent engravings which your steed cannot trample.

Semi-permanent engravings only have at most one character corrupted per action. This means that at most two (one for the action, and the small chance each turn) characters will be corrupted per turn. The chance of combat or movement corrupting a character is about 113. More precisely, there's 1 chance in (1 + 50/(n + 1))[7] (where n is the number of characters that would have been corrupted, if the engraving were temporary) that a character will be corrupted, and the following table shows the resulting probability for various cases.

In certain cases associated with magic, even permanent engravings may be eroded; in these cases, there's a 50% chance of no erosion, and a 50% chance that the formula for semi-permanent engravings will be used to corrupt 0 or 1 characters.[8] The magical cases are shown in bold in the table below.


(characters corrupted)


(chance of corrupting 1 character)

Fraction Percent
1 126 3.85%
  • any monster spending a turn on an engraving, unless asleep or paralyzed[9]
2 117 5.88%
3 113 7.69%
  • melee combat[13]
  • digging down with an ax, unless digging on beartrap or land mine[14]
d2 43884 4.86%
d3 771326 5.81%
  • standing on an engraving, chance of (1 in (40 + 3 × Dexterity)) each turn[16]
d5 16463218790 7.52%
  • attempting to move off an engraving (whether successful or not, e.g. overloaded)[17]
2d4 215299119603584 10.98%
  • zapping force bolt/striking downward at any engraving[18]
  • zapping stone to flesh downward at engraved (not burned) engraving[19]
    (This is magical, but it doesn't matter since it will never happen to permanent engravings; possibly a bug.)

Preexisting engravings

Engravings are occasionally generated when a level is created. These fall into several categories:

Additional notes

  • Tiny or handless monsters cannot engrave.[20]
  • The epitaphs on gravestones share these properties, for obvious reasons. They are permanent, but can be changed or extended with a hard gem or bladed weapon. This will summon a ghoul. Elbereth on gravestones is ignored to avoid abusing this, or naming yourself Elbereth to get a permanent Elbereth.
  • Using a magic marker to engrave graffiti on the floor is generally seen as a waste of the magic marker, but is also the most common type of writing used for engravings that are randomly generated in the dungeon.
  • "Burning" with a wand of fire or lightning into ice will instead melt letters into the ice, which is like a semi-permanent engraving.
  • Engraving may also be used to identify wands.
  • When you name an item, it is possible to get a message such as "While engraving your hand slips." The mechanics of engraving[21] and naming[22] are separate and quite different; the message is part of an internal mechanism to preserve the unique naming of artifacts. This is certainly a special kind of engraving, because it is absolutely permanent and requires no tool at all! It also doesn't break the illiterate conduct.
  • Flammable items on the square are not damaged by burning with a wand of fire or lightning.
  • Canceling the engrave prompt when using a charged wand will use up a turn and a charge. Canceling the prompt in any other situation, including an uncharged wand, will not use up a turn.



In xNetHack, engravings are marked on the dungeon map as ~, with the glyph's color depending on the type of engraving. It can be changed with the S_engraving option.

See also


This page may need to be updated for the current version of NetHack.

It may contain text specific to NetHack 3.6.0. Information on this page may be out of date.

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