About the attempts of various NetHack forks to balance the game and make it harder, and why SLASH'EM Extended succeeds at doing so while others fail
An essay by AmyBSOD
One of the main reasons to make a NetHack fork certainly is that you're bored with the vanilla game, and feel that it's too easy to win, or perhaps more to the point, there are a few narrow strategies that will make you win, so the player basically has to follow a certain "road" that will lead to success with 99% certainty. Once you assembled your ascension kit and have poison resistance, reflection and magic resistance, you've pretty much "won" the game already, and the only way to lose is by personally screwing up. Further precautions can be taken to increase the chance of success even more, e.g. by genociding the nastiest monsters in the game - purple liches (hard to kill, curse your stuff, summon nasties etc.), footrices (with them gone, petrification is virtually a non-threat), semicolons (only appear in a few predetermined areas and can easily be killed with an oilskin cloak, but genociding them means you never need to worry about them again). But, thing is, once your character has the three key in/extrinsics, you're pretty much set. It's just a matter of time until you get to the wand of wishing (unless you completed the set by actually going for the wand of wishing), and then you wish for speed boots, gauntlets of power, a helm of telepathy, or whatever other parts of the ascension kit you didn't already randomly stumble upon.
The slog through Gehennom is thus just that: a long boring slog - since you already have everything you need, there's no incentive to actually explore those levels. You don't absolutely need any crucial items any longer, and you get enough potions of full healing and scrolls of enchant armor just by killing random monsters, so topping off your character isn't a problem either. Heck, if you're really desperate, you could just hang around and farm random monsters to get those consumables. Pudding farming isn't even necessary in vanilla, I've never done it and I could ascend the samurai in my sleep by now. The only threats during the ascension run are Rodney and the Riders, and very theoretically Demogorgon if something summons him but if you kill the major demon lords quickly enough then the chances of that happening are next to none. Everything else you can either cut through like a hot knife cuts through butter, or in the case of the huge clusters of monsters on Moloch's sanctum or the Astral Plane, nullify them completely with a ring of conflict.
So that's where variant developers come in, saying "But if the late game is so easy and boring, we have to make it harder!" And so, variant developers change things. They fiddle with lategame balance, trying to make the game challenging for the experienced players again. Problem is, while the result may be more challenging, it's not really more interesting - Gehennom remains the boring slog.
"But why, Amy? Why are the Heck2 patch levels, Sporkhack's lava caverns, or dnethack's additional demon lairs, not making Gehennom interesting again?"
Well, thing is, once you have a complete ascension kit, you've won the game already. Some variants try to "fix" that problem by reducing the amount of guaranteed wishes you are handed, which may lead to missing ascension kit pieces in Gehennom... but thing is, you're not supposed to be in Gehennom without reflection and magic resistance (and if you are and get killed due to lacking them, it's entirely your fault), and so, in the case of doubt you'll just have to farm random monsters for a longer time until you can finally get hold of those coveted items. Even if it means hanging around at a depth where dragons are just barely in depth to be spawned randomly, and farm them until you get the required color of scales. Or polypile for a source of magic resistance. With enough patience, you will get the necessary kit for Gehennom, and then you've won the game. And it doesn't help when variants add in random difficulty spikes that force you to be alert for certain parts of Gehennom. I'm referring to vorpal jabberwocks in Unnethack of course (which you'd be wise to genocide, since their instakill attack is just so completely out of place considering how you can basically steamroller every other randomly spawned monster type in Un), and Dagon and the elder priest of Moloch in dnethack (which can completely fuck you up even if you're basically stepping on everything else along the way). The latter two cases are even worse, since they're mandatory fights, and their difficulty level and the danger of their attacks is absolutely off the charts while other big bosses like Mammon or the Avatar of Lolth go down easily enough and still others that would otherwise be dangerous like Asmodeus or Pale Night can just be avoided entirely.
And the miscellaneous rule changes that variants do, well, they're not helping much either. Because the problem is that those rule changes are static. Sure, non-wand wishes in Unnethack can only yield crap items that aren't strictly necessary for the ascension kit, wands are never safe from lightning attacks in Nethack Fourk while they are in open inventory, and the blessed scroll of genocide only genocides a single species in Dynahack. All those things make the game harder, but they make the game harder in a predictable way; they're changing the rules of the game, so to speak, and once you've fully spoiled yourself about the changed rules, getting an ascension is no harder than it is in vanilla, you just need to adapt your playing style to the changed rules. Non-wand wishes being crap? Well, just use the (still guaranteed in Un) wand of wishing to get what you need, and if necessary polypile for whatever you're still missing. Wands getting destroyed by the spiteful change of the "wand destruction patch" where nothing (and I repeat, NOTHING) can save your wands from lightning? Well, just carry them in a container all the time, and be prepared to have to waste a turn getting them out whenever you actually want to zap one. Scrolls of genocide being nerfed? Just need to farm for a longer time until you can finally genocide everything that warrants being genocided, and you're good to go. Thing is, just like Vanilla NetHack has been solved ages ago and can be played by the cookie cutter approach to almost-guarantee an ascension (there's of course early game randomness like the gnome with the wand of death or poisoned spiked pits, but that's why you have won only as soon as you're resistant to ray wands, touches of death, and poison instakills), knowing the rules of a variant allows you to use a similar cookie-cutter approach and also ascend almost every game. The rules themselves may be different, but they're still laid out in a way that allows fully spoiled players to ensure victory, hence why I say they're "static".
Gehennom is still a long, boring slog in all of them. Because you're running around with an ascension kit, and few (if any) dangers remain. A fully kitted out player character can fight minotaurs head-on and won't even be dented. It takes outerspace crap like the elder priest of Moloch's cloak-of-magic-resistance-trashing tentacle attack from dnethack, the vorpal jabberwock's bisecting beak in Unnethack, or a samurai reading a scroll of genocide in FIQhack, to kill you, and all of these just feel very "slapped on" (for lack of a better term). It's like the developers just don't know how to make the average gameplay harder, so they resort to adding just a few random difficulty spikes and calling the result "a variant that strives to make the late game of NetHack more challenging". Thing is, you (as a player) need to be fully alert at some very specific places in those variants, while everything else is just the same boredom. Sure, the revamped Gehennom levels might be nice to look at, and I'm absolutely grateful for the work that has been put in by the designers of all the beautiful new demon lairs which I gladly stole for my own variant, SLASH'EM Extended. But in terms of gameplay, they're just as dull as the rest of it, or in cases where the variant developer somehow didn't strip the most obnoxious and bullshit feature of vanilla NetHack (the mysterious force), they can be actually even MORE dull because who wants to trek through a set of long, winding corridors several times during the ascension run where the Wizard of Yendor is literally the only thing that can still pose a danger? As if Asmodeus' fort wasn't annoying ENOUGH in vanilla!
That's where SLASH'EM Extended truly shines amidst all the other variants. Yes, I know, 9 out of 10 readers are laughing their butts off right now, but I'm dead serious. One of the stated design goals of my variant is to make the game harder in a way that makes ascension not guaranteed, no matter how skilled of a player you are. Yes, you read that right: SLASH'EM Extended is not meant to be entirely fair. That does not mean it's not balanced, though. Many players who have asserted that SLASH'EM Extended supposedly wasn't balanced seems to be because they're frustrated that "perfect play" doesn't ensure their victory. Well, let me just reiterate that: SLASH'EM Extended isn't supposed to hand you a guaranteed ascension with "perfect play", because there is no perfect play! While cookie-cutter approaches may exist, the randomness of the game means there's always something that can screw you over. No matter how much you try to overprepare, things can still go wrong. You might hit an invisible teleporting items trap that decides to teleport a crucial piece of your ascension kit out of your inventory on a level with a xorn that will eat said piece. You can get unlucky and have a random elf-lord show up who reads a scroll of destroy armor and randomly gets past your multitude of saving throws to blow up your kick-ass artifact silver dragon scale mail that grants magic resistance on top of the reflection its base item type confers. Or maybe a covetous arch-lich just happens to have the thief egotype, strips you of your only source of reflection, and then reads a cursed scroll of teleportation that he randomly spawned with, forcing you to search the entire dungeon to reclaim the item while you're open to disintegration beams and everything. Things like those will keep you on your toes, combined with lots of new, stronger monsters in Gehennom that ensure you can't steamroller everything just because you have an ascension kit! In fact, vanilla NetHack tops out the monster list with the arch-lich and archon, no other randomly generated monster is more dangerous than those, and archons are rare, don't appear in Gehennom and usually spawn peaceful if you're lawful, while arch-liches are genocidable so you may just choose to never encounter those at all. And few, if any, of the remaining monsters are any threat at all.
You see, NetHack could really benefit from a few really high-level, ungenocidable foes. But they'd have to be varied in type and attack patterns, or you'd just end up with a few "fuck you" monster types that stick out like a sore thumb from the mass of mincemeat that the other monsters are. Unnethack's vorpal jabberwocks are actually a prime example there: if summoned by Rodney or an arch-lich, they can end your otherwise impossible-to-lose game in the blink of an eye, yet all the other monsters in the game are either no threat at all or, at worst, no more threatening than in vanilla, so it's just "genocide it or avoid it at all costs", and that's not very interesting, IMHO. I guess it means wearing an amulet of life saving at all times if you decide to not genocide them, and stocking up on spares, and the net result is that it's a puzzle with few solutions - you either have such a solution or you're doomed. Or, of course, you get lucky and never have one spawn. But what if every monster class, or even just every other one, had one threatening, high-level member? And not all of them were genocidable? It would be a whole different ballgame, I tell you! And SLASH'EM Extended does exactly that, by adding so many monsters that there's always something that can kill you, *if* it gets spawned. Sure, the pokedex will warn you about their attacks, and so you'll usually know what to expect, but there's so many different types of monsters and attacks that you can't ever have full insurance against everything. Maybe a high-level nymph spawns and strips you of your important pieces of equipment in a critical situation. Or an insanely powerful lich that you cannot genocide teleports into your face, spamming highly damaging psybolts, cursing your gear and summoning nasties. Or, you know, a very fast zombie with tons of hit points that keeps making you deathly sick with his melee attack! The possibilities are really endless, and varied, and it's this sort of randomness that makes SLASH'EM Extended's lategame really shine, compared to the dull repetitive boredom that is vanilla and other variants. Sorry, dear developer colleagues. I commend your efforts and I don't want to belittle your variants - you've certainly put lots of hours into making them, and every such variant has at least some features I really like - but if I have to make an absolute comparison of how boring Gehennom is, then I have to say that in my variant it's certainly the least boring by far.
I could probably go on for hours, detailing all the little things and bits of randomness that makes SLASH'EM Extended what it is now, but I think you get the picture. Thing is, I do strive to keep the game balanced, even though it might not look like that at first (or maybe even second, third and fourth) glance. It's not as if you'd trigger a screen-obscuring checkerboard trap every other level. It's not as if scrolls of antimatter in monsters' hands were so common as to ensure the destruction of your entire inventory. And it's not as if having an inventorylessness stone thrown into your inventory was the end of the world. Few of the nasty things I put into the game will kill you outright, there are numerous ways to get rid of bad items, there are ways to detect most of the traps, and you can wait out the nasty ones or even wish for a switcher that will instantly fix all nasty trap effects once applied. I do my best to ensure the game is still playable. But, just one important thing to note: ascension isn't guaranteed. You will need a high frustration tolerance if your goal is to ascend SLASH'EM Extended, and you have to be aware of the fact that you will lose characters to unfair things, including stuff that's completely out of your control. And even then, the plethora of items, spells, techniques, pets etc. that you can gain may see you through in situations where your demise seems inevitable. Remember: Unless you get killed as a phantom ice mage due to a covetous death-ray-resistant Famine one square away from the high altar on the Astral Plane, you haven't suffered from the most frustrating death in existence.
It happened to me. I didn't throw the keyboard through the monitor, cut myself with a knife, or jump off a bridge (reactions listed in increasing order of severeness). Instead, I rolled a throwaway character (problematic transvestite) a few hours later and kept enjoying the game. Sure, I was sad at the loss of that very promising character. But then I realized that it's just the way SLASH'EM Extended works, and why waste my time mourning and biting my nails for days when I could instead be playing again? I just made my peace, accepted that death is a part of the game, and proceeded to get that new character killed off too. :)
Whatever you do, whichever variant you're playing, and however boring Gehennom happens to be for you: have fun playing, and best of luck!