Starting difficulty versus ascension difficulty
Usually when people talk about role difficulty they are mainly referring to the beginning of the game. This is because the early game is by far the hardest part of the game, to the point where you could argue that starting difficulty is the only factor that matters.
However, some roles have advantages over other roles in the late game, in spite of being at a disadvantage in the early game.
For example, barbarians do better in the early game. They start with poison resistance, which allows them to eat poisonous monster corpses and protects against instadeath from poisoned arrows and spikes, common causes of death for early-game players. However, tourists have a number of late-game advantages over barbarians. Their quest artifact is vastly more useful than the barbarian's, and they eventually get a good enough weapon and armor to match a barbarian's.
- High Strength and Constitution
- Good starting equipment
- Access to good ranged attacks (especially daggers)
- Good starting intrinsics (especially poison resistance and speed)
- Access to strong artifact earlygame
- Good quest artifact
- High maximum statistics (determined by race)
- Good acquired intrinsics (for example wizards gain warning and teleport control at high levels)
- Access to useful weapon and magic skills
- Good artifacts available by sacrificing
- Starting with highly enchanted or hard to find equipment
- Chaotic alignment (and to a lesser extent, neutral), to reduce backsliding in Gehennom
Roles' advantages and disadvantages
Most agree that (dwarven) valkyries are the strongest roles, due to the strong physical combat options presented by the role from the very beginning (arguably minimizing the amount of strategy necessary). Lawful valkyries have the advantage of some easy access to early artifacts (Excalibur), an easy quest with an excellent quest artifact (the Orb of Fate) plus intrinsic cold resistance.
Barbarians start strongly due to their initial poison resistance, strength and two-handed weapon, but have a bad race choice (human/orc), a hostile Gnomish Mines, and a poor quest artifact. Some people recommend beginners try barbarians rather than valkyries since their very early game can be somewhat easier to navigate.
Samurai start the game with powerful physical combat capabilities (both melee and missile), but have fewer advantages as the game enters the middle phase. In particular, their quest is riskier than either the Valkyrie's or Barbarian's. The luck of the draw (finding a longsword to dip for Excalibur or an altar for sacrifices) has a big impact on how easy it is to manage this phase of the game.
Wizards are usually fairly easy due to their good starting equipment (for this reason, wizards are often start scummed) and strong late game (thanks to their excellent quest artifact, the Eye of the Aethiopica, which enables them to cast powerful spells without worrying about conserving energy). They also have potential to cast spells with no hunger penalty, and easy access to Magicbane. However, those that try to play them as physical combat characters will find them difficult.
The priest's innate ability to detect the BUC status of an item is a tremendous early advantage, especially in armor selection. This, combined with their starting holy water, makes them essentially "walking altars". But they are also restricted in all edged weapons and cannot achieve multishot with any ranged weapon thus significantly reducing their options. They may or may not begin with immediately useful spells and are generally considered a moderately difficult role. Somewhat ironically, they are the role best suited for an atheist conduct.
The knight's codes of conduct can be cumbersome, though the penalty for breaking them (1 point of alignment) is minor, unless you are roleplaying or playing a pacifist. It can also take some time to learn how to use their steed effectively. Due to access to Excalibur in the early game and the fact that they get very strong (>100 damage) magic missiles, they are perhaps the strongest late-game characters.
Rangers and rogues can either be difficult or easy, depending on how capable one is of making use of their powerful ranged attacks, especially in the early game. Rogues have the potential to become powerful melee fighters in the later stages, whereas rangers will tend to rely more heavily on the ranged game throughout.
Cavemen can be considered a more difficult version of samurai and/or barbarian. They have few good weapon options until receiving the Sceptre of Might from their quest and also lack the ability to #twoweapon.
Monks are a unique role whose early game is relatively easy compared to its tricky midgame, mostly due to Master Kaen (prior to 3.6.0) and various armor and weapon penalties. They are perhaps the role best equipped to attempt a weaponless conduct.
Healers start with poison resistance, lots of zorkmids and a deep knowledge and skill in healing both themselves and any pets. But they also begin with poor armor, a weak weapon and typically single-digit strength, making them difficult early. They are perhaps the role best-equipped to attempt the Protection racket, which can give a good defensive boost early in the game.
Archeologists start with speed and stealth. Starting with a pick-axe (for digging out vaults or gems embedded in rock) and the ability to formally identify precious gems with their starting touchstone, they are also well-suited for buying protection early. However, their bad starting physical stats and AC make the early game very difficult.
The tourist's greatest early-game advantage is their starting stack of +2 darts, which are good ranged weapons for the early game and can be poisoned; their expensive camera is also useful for evading non-Elbereth respecting monsters. Tourists enjoy a lot of advantages in the endgame, which make them arguably one of the stronger roles - they can use nearly any weapon effectively, start with a Hawaiian shirt, which can be enchanted for extra AC later in the game, and their quest artifact, the Platinum Yendorian Express Card, is one of the best artifacts in the game.
Role difficulty statistics
NetHack players widely disagree about which roles are easiest or hardest. In order to provide an attempt at objective statistics, the following table lists win rates on nethack.alt.org, as of December 11, 2011, for games which would form a streak of 3 or more if won (and thus, it can be assumed that the player was likely trying to win).
|Role||Wins||Losses||Total||Win rate (%)|
The selection criteria of this data evaluation is debatable, though, partly because it only examines the games of players skilled enough to win two games in a row; and specifically one entry (the Archeologist) seems extremely misplaced in this ranking.
Another evaluation based on data from 2014-10-24 and based on a different statistical approach can be found at .
An unbiased analysis (excluding no games except ones where the player quit or escaped, assuming that nearly all of them were startscummed) of games on nethack.alt.org from 2008-03-20 to 2017-05-01 is as follows:
|Role||Wins||Total games||Win rate (%)|
This has similar conclusions to the gridbug.de unbiased analysis, and it most likely indicates some differences in how different roles are generally selected and played. For example, Cavemen are the least popular role to play and are likely chosen more often by experienced players trying to complete all roles or play in tournaments, and Wizards have enough good and varied starting equipment that startscummers might try to play them instead of quitting, but still die quickly because the player still doesn't really care about the outcome of the game.
Many players mentally group roles into categories based on typical style of play.
Valkyries, Barbarians, and Samurai specialize in melee combat and rely on strong armor and powerful weapons. This style of play tends to be easier for less experienced players. Knights also fit into this category, but can be much more effective using a very different style based on their ability to #ride their starting pony. Cavemen are essentially weaker versions of Barbarians. An Archeologist who finds a dwarvish mattock and some decent armor can do pretty well as a melee fighter.
Roles that specialize in spellcasting include Wizards, Priests, Monks, and Healers. Using spells effectively adds a new dimension to game strategy, requiring the player to keep track of available Power, avoid metallic armor, and understand the advantages and limitations of the specific spells available, which raises the difficulty level for new players. However, the tremendous power of many spells (as well as other advantages of these roles, such as the Priest's ability to BUC-identify) can be very useful.
Rogues, Rangers, and Tourists are best suited to focusing on ranged weapons, at least in the early game. Success often depends on patience and cunning, as well as an understanding of the power of Elbereth.