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 can be strong due to their starting poison resistance and strong 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 because the very early game can be 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 advantage, but they are restricted in all edged weapons and cannot advance any ranged weapons past basic, meaning their weapon choice is hard early on. They are generally considered a hard role.
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.
Healers start with poison resistance, and are the role best-equipped to attempt the Protection racket, which can give them a good defensive boost early in the game. Some argue that the protection racket is the best strategy for healers, and if you succeed the game becomes easier.
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, and specifically one entry (the Archeologist) seems extremely misplaced in this ranking. A newer evaluation based on data from 2014-10-24 and based on a different statistical approach can be found at  for comparison.
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.