A ranged attack is an attack that can hit a target who is more than one square away. Ranged attacks will not trigger many of the passive attacks that are triggered by melee, even if the target is within melee range.
Some examples of ranged attacks are:
- Anything that is thrown, especially missile weapons (darts, arrows, etc.)
- Attack wands, notably striking, cold, fire, and lightning
- Most attack spells, such as force bolt
- Monster breath, such as a dragon's
- Pounding with a polearm
Some players (especially when playing rangers and rogues) use it as a strategy throughout the entire game, using it preferentially over melee combat. This is a relatively unpopular strategy (because it requires more effort to play, not necessarily because it's weaker); however, even characters who more commonly use melee combat will often want to use a ranged attack on occasion.
When characters who rely on melee may want to use a ranged attack
There are a few situations in which melee attacks work badly, and ranged attacks tend to be the most easily obtainable alternative solution:
- Several monsters have passive attacks, dealing damage only to enemies that attack them in melee. Often, melee characters will choose simply to endure the damage of these attacks, but in some cases (such as when attacking blue jellies without cold resistance, or floating eyes without reflection), this can be incredibly dangerous. One common solution to such monsters is to throw an easily obtainable missile weapon that does not require a launcher, such as orcish daggers, or perhaps darts or even rocks. (In the case of floating eyes encountered early in the game, one potential solution is to throw orcish daggers at them, then use Elbereth to persuade them to move off the square, pick up the daggers, and repeat; this is time-consuming, but likely to succeed.) Wizards may wish to use their starting spell of force bolt to deal with such monsters, even when using a melee strategy (which although uncommon for wizards, is feasible).
- Some enemies are slow but dangerous, such as mumakil. Potential solutions to such monsters include Elbereth, and abusing the speed system by attacking them and retreating before they get a turn (known as the hit and run technique), but a safer solution for an inexperienced or inattentive player is to do the same thing at range (known as "kiting"). The idea is that you stay 2 to 3 squares away from the monster and repeatedly blast it with ranged attacks; when it approaches, simply run away and repeat. In the absence of other monsters in the area, this is guaranteed to succeed unless you run out of ammo first, and requires much less concentration than the melee method. (This strategy would also work well against mimics, except for the fact that they are often generated in shops, where using a missile weapon would result in the shopkeeper claiming the weapon for themselves, and with spells and magical items you need to be careful not to accidentally destroy the shop's stock or hit the shopkeeper.)
- Sometimes an enemy cannot easily be engaged in melee, or you may wish to not allow them into melee range. Examples include fighting a monster on the opposite side of a boulder in Sokoban (or in confined spaces elsewhere, but in Sokoban you need to kill the monster to be able to continue), when approaching the Castle through its back entrance (in which case there will be trap doors between you and the enemy monsters), or when fighting Croesus (he has no ranged attack and you can destroy the entrance door to Fort Ludios to allow you to attack him at range, allowing you to kill him without fear of reprisal). In such cases, you either have to, or want to, use ranged attacks, to avoid closing into melee range. In general, the best attacks to use here are ones which do not run out of ammunition or energy quickly; rocks can be a good choice (especially in Sokoban, where they are readily available either from boulders destroyed earlier due to mistakes, or by destroying statues on the Oracle level), and where visibility and range allow, polearms (although a melee character would not generally carry a polearm habitually, they might pick one up to prepare for such a situation they know will happen soon).
- Against powerful melee-only enemies that can outrun you, such as minotaurs, it helps to deal ranged damage to them to "soften them up" before they close into melee range, where you can melee them to death. This is only really necessary or useful if you would have difficulty dealing with them in one-on-one combat, so it generally only applies in the few areas of the game where you encounter enemies that you would struggle to beat one-on-one in melee (most commonly, just above the Castle, and sometimes in the Gnomish Mines (especially on levels which contain polymorph traps); this range can be considerably larger in conduct games, though). What weapon you use will depend on the situation; in an emergency, you would generally use an attack wand or similarly powerful ranged attack.
- Against monsters with very dangerous special attacks which can do something to you that can't be entirely prevented by armor, high hitpoints or intrinsic resistances such as gremlins at night (steal intrinsics) and especially mind flayers (amnesia). Further cockatrices and related hazards (petrification), nymphs (theft), the Riders, and anything wielding Vorpal Blade. Note that even if the mind flayers' intelligence-drain becomes pointless due to an unicorn horn, there is no way to restore amnesia, so even a single successful hit can become your doom (think of writing scrolls) or at least be very annoying.
Using ranged combat as a strategy for the entire game
An interesting strategy, and one that can produce good results, is to focus a character build almost entirely on ranged combat. Good classes for this include the Ranger and Rogue; the strategy is also possible, past the early game, for most other character classes (many players choose to play Wizards like this eventually), but starting characters of other classes will generally run out of ammunition, energy or even nutrition early if they attempt it exclusively (for instance, a common beginner mistake with Wizards is to attempt to cast spells at everything, which fails in the early game due to energy and nutrition constraints; even with hungerless casting, a Wizard will have to spend too much time waiting for their energy to recover).
Early in the game, pretty much any character who tries this strategy will want to accumulate daggers, no matter what they plan to use as their primary ranged weapon later. (The reason is that daggers do not get destroyed upon being thrown, meaning that the same daggers can be used repetitively without a fear of running out of resources. In the early game, there are no issues with moats and similar terrain features to lose the daggers in.) Because dagger skill is trained both by throwing and wielding daggers, typically such a character would also wield a dagger, or a weapon using the same skill such as an athame, for use as a melee weapon (and use it mostly on monsters that pose a minimal threat, such as lichens and grid bugs; using ranged combat is overkill in such a circumstance). (If available, Magicbane makes a good choice, due to giving magic resistance when wielded and allowing quick engraving of Elbereth.) Orcish daggers are the most readily available sort in the early game; later on, regular daggers are easier to accumulate (and besides, more effective). While trying to accumulate a stock of daggers, use whatever cheaply available ammunition is available, such as darts (obtainable by untrapping dart traps), or a Ranger's starting stock of arrows; even rocks can be used in a pinch. (When using arrows, remember to wield your bow; the game will let you throw them by hand with the same keystrokes for shooting them from a bow, with no indication that you are doing this, but they will be much less effective.)
Later on, you will want to choose your main and secondary forms of ranged combat, and attempt to make them as effective as possible. In general, you will want to keep your daggers handy as a secondary ranged strategy for emergencies (such as running out of ammunition or energy), unless you use them as your primary strategy. Here are some viable main ranged combat strategies, and ways to improve them:
- Using thrown daggers as your main combat strategy is known as daggerstorming, and can be a very effective strategy in the late game (although it requires more micromanagement than several others, due to needing to repeatedly reclaim the daggers). You will definitely want to raise your dagger skill as high as possible (often good advice whatever your strategy), as unlike many other skills, it benefits greatly from being at expert level, increasing your multishot capabilities (upon which the entire strategy relies). For multishot to work correctly, you will want to rely on a single large stack of daggers as your main ammo source (although the strategy is viable with as few as seven or eight, having a larger stack makes it much easier); enchanting them to +7 will help increase your damage output considerably, and blessing them is cheap and will help slightly; rustproofing them helps more than it would using a melee strategy, because daggers with different erosion states will not stack, limiting your ability to multishot. The best sort of dagger to use for the strategy is the silver dagger, but these are rare and almost impossible to get in large quantities, so players generally use the elven dagger or ordinary dagger instead. (Rogues get an extra pair of bonuses with this strategy, making them likely the optimal class for it; if they cause enemies to flee using Elbereth or by weakening them to low hitpoints, they can backstab enemies even with thrown daggers, dealing massive damage.)
- Upon accumulating a large number of arrows, often by means of the Longbow of Diana (easily the best wielded weapon to use with this strategy, as it requires a bow), it's possible to use arrows as a major combat strategy. For this to work, it's almost imperative to bless the arrows you use (if generating them via the Longbow of Diana, you can bless it to cause it to generate blessed arrows), and to gain maximum luck (with a noncursed luckstone to maintain it at that level), as this reduces the rate at which the arrows break upon being fired, helping to conserve ammunition. Generally speaking, you would enchant arrows in batches, accumulating a large number of +0 arrows before enchanting them all simultaneously up to +6 or +7, then continuing to accumulate more +0 arrows in another batch while using the highly enchanted ones (this helps save on the huge number of scrolls of enchant weapon the strategy would otherwise need, although it still consumes a lot more than other strategies would use). In situations where fired arrows would be easily subject to destruction or damage, such as near a gelatinous cube, a black pudding, or lava, you would fire +0 arrows in order to not lose your highly enchanted arrows; otherwise, use highly enchanted arrows because they are less likely to break on impact. The best sort of arrows for use with this strategy, when available, are silver arrows, but they are so rare that regular arrows are likely the only viable choice. (Characters may also want to poison their arrows using a potion of sickness to do even more damage to monsters that are not poison-resistant; this is more useful in the early game than the late game, though, and can lead to alignment trouble for lawful characters even taking the huge alignment gains for killing enemies into account.) Keeping a stack of daggers handy is also useful just in case you ever end up running out of ammunition. This strategy is obviously the intended one for Rangers, who gain a larger multishot bonus with arrows than other characters; they can also daggerstorm well, though, and other characters may not do well using arrows.
- As opposed to missiles, it's also possible to use spells for a ranged-combat strategy, a common plan with Wizards; Knights can pull off such a strategy well after they have completed the Quest and obtained The Magic Mirror of Merlin, but by the time they reach that stage of the game, it mostly doesn't matter what strategy they use, and continuing with their existing strategy can work better than changing. Due to the slow speed of energy regeneration, at low levels spells are best used only in emergencies, relying on a secondary damage source like daggers for other purposes; however, as character level increases (and especially, after you reclaim The Eye of the Aethiopica, which is so useful for this strategy that anyone attempting it who can obtain it should try to as soon as possible), energy regeneration increases to the extent that attack spells can be used in basically every combat. Spell selection for this depends mostly on what spellbooks are available; Wizards will always be able to cast force bolt (unless they forget the spell and cannot relearn it again due to lack of access to its spellbook), and although force bolt works excellently for this strategy towards the start of the game, it becomes less powerful as time goes on. A spell with opposite properties is magic missile, which scales sharply with character level, being inferior to force bolt towards the start of the game, and becoming much more powerful later on as your character level increases. This can be used as a staple spell, but the higher-level attack spells, cone of cold and fireball, work better (they have very similar properties, but so many monsters are immune to fireballs that you need a backup attack spell if you use that as your main attack spell). Of the other two attack spells, finger of death is unsuitable as a staple spell due to its ineffectiveness against demons and huge energy cost, and drain life is similarly unsuitable due to being too easily resisted and not dealing damage fast enough (it is useful in other strategies, but not this one). Energy management is the only really difficult part of this strategy; easier monsters should be taken out with a melee weapon (perhaps Magicbane) to save on energy until the Eye is available, and you should try to aim spells to damage or kill multiple monsters at once.
The strategy is generally unpopular, not because it does not work well, but because it requires more concentration and micromanaging than many other strategies; thus, it is not only slower to play (in real time), but increases the chance of making a mistake due to inattention. (For similar reasons, many players may find it less fun to play than a simple melee character.) For instance, allowing yourself to get surrounded by monsters can be very dangerous with such a strategy (necessitating the use of something like a scroll of teleport, or using Elbereth, to escape), compared to a melee strategy, although this strategy makes it easier to avoid in the first place. Using good autopickup exceptions can make playing with missile weapons a lot less tedious, and so is recommended if your version of NetHack has that feature available (and patches have been made to make the process still easier). When using a bow, it likewise helps to use the x command to swap between a bow and other wielded weapon quickly, at least until you have enough practice and ammo to make the bow a primary weapon throughout the entire game. One interesting compromise is to use this strategy throughout the midgame, then switch to melee for the endgame; at that point, your character is likely powerful enough to take on most enemies, and can still use ranged combat in an emergency, but this helps against the dangers of boredom and inattention.