Three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Death, Famine, and Pestilence (all &)—appear in NetHack, and are collectively known as the Riders, even though they are not riding anything. However, the name "Riders" has existed since before riding was implemented.
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The Riders are some of the most physically damaging enemies in the game, in addition to the special effects each Rider's touch attacks possess, so beware facing them in melee with poor AC. Fortunately, Riders receive only a 10d8 roll for maximum HP, rather than the normal (monlvl)d8. However, note that their HP maximum is preserved upon reviving.
All three Riders can fly, are humanoid, can regenerate themselves, can see invisible creatures, have teleport control, and have a low natural armor class of -5. None of the Riders respect Elbereth, and they also ignore the sanctuary effect given to you by a coaligned priest in their temple.
The Riders cannot be stoned and have all elemental resistances and full monster MR. The Riders are not disintegration-resistant, per se, in the way that black dragons are; however, attempting to disintegrate one of them will cause it to re-integrate instantly.
Riders come back to life after being killed: after 12 turns, a Rider corpse has a 1⁄3 chance of revival on each turn. Eating a Rider's corpse kills you instantly; if you survive with an amulet of life saving, the corpse revives immediately anyway (and your wisdom is abused for good measure). Their corpses cannot be polymorphed, and they will instantly revive if you try to pick them up, tin them, push a boulder on their square, etc. If a digesting monster such as a purple worm tries to eat a Rider, the engulfer dies and the Rider is unharmed.
Teleportation has a special effect on Riders: if they are zapped with a wand of teleportation, they are teleported to a square adjacent to you with probability 12⁄13. This is a very Bad Idea. Attempting to teleport their corpses is also a bad idea, as they will be immediately revived.
Touch attacks and stunning
Each Rider can make two special touch attacks per turn. These are some of the deadliest attacks in NetHack. If they would hit you with both attacks in the same turn, the game converts the second attack into a stunning touch; this has led to misconceptions that the Riders' main attacks specifically cause stunning. The stun effect also prevents you from fighting back effectively, so you'll probably have to use a unicorn horn to clear the status effect and hope you don't get hit with it again on the Rider's next attack.
The Four Horsemen
If you are undead, and Death attacks you, you see the message "Was that the touch of death?" and the attack does ordinary physical damage only. Otherwise, one of the following effects occurs:
|15%||As below if magic resistant; otherwise, no special message.||If you have magic resistance, this effect is the same as the one below. Otherwise, you die.|
|60%||"You feel your life force draining away..."||Does physical damage and reduces maximum hit points.|
|25%||"Lucky for you, it didn't work!"||Does no damage and has no other effect.|
The maximum HP reduction scales with the proportion of your max HP to your experience level. If your max HP is at least 25 times your level or you are polymorphed, all the damage is applied to your max HP. Below that threshold, the reduction scales down; with less than five times your level in max HP, you lose between zero and half the damage in max HP. Your max HP will never be reduced below your level.
Since NetHack 3.6.0, as a tribute to Terry Pratchett, Death speaks in ALL CAPS and without quotation marks, like he does in the Discworld series of novels. Additionally, you will get YAFM if you chat to him while carrying a Terry Pratchett novel.
Famine has a hunger-inducing melee attack. You will lose 40–80 nutrition points per hit unless you are already fainting from hunger.
Pestilence has a disease-spreading melee attack, and is healed by the potion of sickness, which he spawns with a small supply of. Conversely, potions of healing, extra healing, and full healing can damage Pestilence, but the effects will always be completely resisted unless it is severely level-drained first. Spells of healing and extra healing will do 3d4 or 3d8 damage, which is halved due to the guaranteed resistance.
You are War.
In the game, if you #chat to one of the other Horsemen they ask, "Who do you think you are, War?" Though the wording makes the meaning ambiguous, a comment in the source code clarifies who they are referring to:
/* Riders -- the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ("War" == player) */
Furthermore, attempting to tin the corpse of a Rider gives the message, "Yes... But War does not preserve its enemies..."
The Riders resist elemental attacks, but have a low HP, which allows you to kill them with ordinary physical attacks. Famine and Pestilence are both vulnerable to death rays, and all three Riders are vulnerable to magic missiles. In addition, Famine and Pestilence can have their maximum HP lowered if hit with Stormbringer, as that HP value will be preserved upon their inevitable revival - for this same reason, you absolutely want to avoid zapping Death with a death ray, which heals him and increases his maximum HP.
Of the three riders, Pestilence is widely considered to be the most dangerous. Therefore, players often use telepathy to identify which altar is guarded by Pestilence, and then explore the other altars first in hopes of avoiding an encounter with him. Thrown healing potions can damage Pestilence and reduce his maximum hit points, while Pestilence is healed by any potions of sickness he quaffs; the first time you kill him, be sure to dispose of his starting supply quickly afterward.
Acid blobs are a good candidate for filling up the Astral Plane to dismiss the Riders, as they can be created en masse with scrolls of create monster while confused. As a fallback method if you lack enough scrolls, reading the cursed Book of the Dead will create lots of graveyard monsters and only partially respect extinction, but some of those monsters can be quite dangerous. As of NetHack 3.6.3, the Riders cannot swap positions with a monster located in a square that is ineligible for corpse creation.
Getting rid of Riders permanently
Although the normal way to get the Riders off your back is simply to ascend, there are a few trickier methods.
- The primary way to permanently banish them is to kill them, then fill every square on the level with monsters so that when they revive, there is nowhere for them to go. When you see the message "You feel much less hassled," a Rider corpse has started to decay, and will eventually rot away, provided that you do nothing to disturb it.
- When the level is filled with monsters, you can eat a Rider corpse without it reviving, provided you are wearing an amulet of life saving. (If your meal is interrupted, you will need another amulet.) This provides teleport control, which is useless on the Astral Plane.
- Attempting to pick up or tin a Rider corpse will still fail when there is nowhere for it to revive.
- A hostile gelatinous cube can "eat" their corpse but not digest it, placing it into the cube's inventory. You could then steal it as a nymph. To destroy it, you can repeatedly loot a cursed bag of holding in 0 turns, or a number of other methods. The Rider corpses will give you severe encumbrance problems; if you are completely unable to lift 1450 units, the corpse will drop uselessly to the floor.
- Riders have full magic resistance, which makes them immune to polymorph, but if you polymorph yourself into a green slime, you can turn them to slime because your sliming attack is not considered magical. If you want, you can then tame the resulting green slimes. Similarly, a substantial herd of tamed green slimes stands some chance of turning a Rider into a slime, although this is only somewhat less risky.
- Famine and Pestilence can be tamed with charm monster if they are level-drained first (though they will resist the spell drain life). Death is immune to level drain.
The horsemen are characters in Revelation, the last book of most common versions of the Christian Bible.
- War: I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. - Revelation 6:4
- Famine: I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!" - Revelation 6:6
- Death: I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. - Revelation 6:8
The remaining horseman (described as the first in Revelation) does not seem to actually correspond to any kind of plague. The idea of Pestilence as a horseman is probably derived from passages following the description of Death, but is not actually a part of the Biblical prophecies.
- They were to have met in the garden of the Chapelle Expiatoire at five o'clock in the afternoon, but Julio Desnoyers with the impatience of a lover who hopes to advance the moment of meeting by presenting himself before the appointed time, arrived a half hour earlier.
So opens The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, as translated from Spanish to English by Charlotte Brewster Jordan. The book is in the public domain; you can read it at Google Books. Since the mention of the four horsemen in the Bible, they have appeared in many other places: in the book quoted above, in the books' various motion film versions, and also in roguelike games including ToME and NetHack.
[Pestilence:] And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals,
and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four
beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white
horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given
unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
[War:] And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the
second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another
horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon
to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one
another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
[Famine:] And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the
third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black
horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his
hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say,
A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley
for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
[Death:] And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the
voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and
behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over
the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with
hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
- src/makemon.c in NetHack 3.6.6, line 994
- mkobj.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 664
- src/eat.c in NetHack 3.6.6, line 712
- mhitm.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 626
- teleport.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 1283
- monst.c in NetHack 3.4.3, line 2741
- read.c in NetHack 3.6.1, line 144
- src/zap.c in NetHack 3.6.6, line 606
- revive_mon in src/do.c in NetHack 3.6.1