User:Phol ende wodan/Frustration issues

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Frustration issues are elements of NetHack that are distinctly Not Fun for a large portion of the player base, and that players have no choice in confronting or are compelled to do. Things that slow down the game and have no inherent gameplay benefit.

Note that there are many things in NetHack that are frustrating just because the RNG decided not to be helpful to the player in a certain game, e.g. finding no scrolls of enchant weapon or armor until Gehennom, or having no general stores or temples in the whole Dungeons of Doom. If something is only inconsistently frustrating, it is probably better classified as a balance issue.

Strategies like pudding farming that are boring but voluntary are more difficult to classify. It may depend on the amount of pressure the game puts on the player to undertake that strategy (pudding farming is generally less necessary than stash management, for example).

The strategy for dealing with frustration issues is often different from the strategy for dealing with balance issues: while balance issues should be resolved through tweaking mechanics to fix the imbalance, frustration issues should usually be removed in a way that is palatable to players. This is because frustration tends to lead to boredom, and a game should try to minimize the amount it bores its players.

As with any game change, it's going to be impossible to satisfy everyone. Some people don't find these things frustrating and like the additional difficulty it provides. The goal here, however, is to analyze NetHack's sources of frustration and suggest ways they might be removed or replaced without detracting from the game for the large majority of players.

Note that the this document is directed at issues in vanilla NetHack. I am aware that many variants have already gone out of their way to fix them.


Whether it's stumbling around below Medusa or trekking through Gehennom, you're going to be seeing a lot of mazes in a complete game. Nearly all mazes appear on the main branch of the dungeon; the only exception is the Catacombs, which ironically is a fairly good example of how a maze can be done well. And walking through mazes just isn't fun for a character who's used to the standard Dungeons of Doom layout.

Problems with mazes

For the below points, I'm primarily referring to the randomly generated mazes below Medusa and in Gehennom, not the Catacombs, though some points apply to both.

  1. Mazes are a very "closed" sort of level. The more "open" a level is, the easier it is to locate goals (such as structures, items, monsters to pursue or avoid, dungeon features), and the faster it is to traverse. Room-and-corridor levels are about average; corridors are not very open, but rooms are, and rooms hold all the interesting features. Cavern levels (particularly lit cavern levels) and special levels like the Big Room are the most open sort of levels. Since mazes are closed, they naturally take a long time to traverse. This additionally exacerbates some balance problems with HP and Pw regen: the player is given a lot of non-combat time to recover them without actually needing to stop and rest.
  2. When walking through a maze, players tend to pick out an area of the map as a short-term goal, the next place to find and explore. However, the shortest distance between the player and that destination might be quite long. This is actively frustrating.
  3. Perfect mazes like NetHack has have many of their own problems. In a perfect maze, every path is either a dead end or a branch containing only dead ends. Mathematically, it's best to do a depth-first traversal, because the player has no idea which small dead-end branch will contain the downstairs. (Note that 3.6.1 at least includes loops in some mazes, making them imperfect.)
  4. There's nothing to break the monotony except monsters, traps, and the occasional item. There are no dungeon features besides the stairs, and there are no terrain types except walls and floors. Demon lairs and the Wizard's Tower don't count: there are either 0 or 1 possible points of entry to these structures, so the maze is really just built around that structure and not interacting with it.
  5. Spellcasters, especially high-level divination spellcasters, enjoy a huge advantage over characters who can't cast these spells. (This is largely due to a spell balance problem in general, but this list is for maze problems as they currently exist.) Magic mapping instantly shows you the stairs, allows you to chart a path, and lets you determine how many walls you would need to break through to make a better path. Detect treasure shows you all the loot you can get on the level and lets you determine whether it's worth going after and how long it'll take you to get it. This can be done in two actions the moment you arrive on the level. Players who can't do this have to stumble around the level, will take much longer and encounter more monsters and traps, and may miss valuable loot. Contrast the standard room-and-corridor levels: even without spells, it's relatively easy to find all the rooms, all the dungeon features, and all the objects in the rooms, and it can be done fairly fast. The reason that this is a frustration issue is that it consistently makes the game more frustrating for those who can't cast such spells.
  6. People with easy access to digging enjoy a similar though smaller advantage over those who don't have it. For the aforementioned magic mapper casters, it's relatively easy to optimize the number of times you zap or cast digging and conserve your resources. Likewise, characters that wield a digging tool as their main weapon can just bust through as many walls as they want. This isn't a criticism of those benefits to those roles as much as a criticism that roles without those benefits are either compelled to traverse the mazes or lug around a digging tool and frequently have to switch it out of hand for a primary weapon.
  7. Mazes make it harder for the player to get surrounded, which makes them tactically easier, since the player can just retreat until they can fight one monster at a time.

Proposed solution

The simplest thing to do is make Gehennom not mazes, by replacing them with caverns or something. I can hold my nose for the at most 3 levels between Medusa and the Castle being mazes, as long as the player doesn't have to go and do twenty more levels like that.

Another option is to draw on the Catacombs' example and insert rooms and open areas into mazes, which primarily makes it more interesting (short-term goal of finding the way into a room, particularly if it contains stairs) and more open (open areas can serve as a junction for many paths and facilitate exploration).

Quest XL

An experience level of 14 is required for the Quest. NetHack's experience point curve means that most heroes will reach the Quest itself at level 10 or 11, so then they must either continue further into the dungeons or try to find alternate sources of gain level. However, it's pretty hard to get to XL 13 by killing monsters, and it's really hard to get to XL 14 by killing monsters, especially without farming, so the solution nearly always involves luring wraiths, consorting with foocubi, or collecting potions of gain level. The game doesn't provide a reliable source of any of these, as it probably shouldn't. In the worst cases, players might be forced to go as deep as the Castle or the Valley of the Dead.

This is rooted in two balance issues: one, many characters don't ever need to level up past level 14, and two, gaining levels through normal experience is so hard that experience points effectively don't matter past level 13 or 14, since the only realistic way to gain more levels is through effects that raise you another level.


Amnesia falls into the category of interface screws. Forgetting discoveries and level maps can be mitigated by taking screenshots of the discovery list and each map, or playing back a ttyrec. It's a perfectly solid strategy, but not fun at all to execute; yet doing it is an objective improvement to the game.

Forgetting spells, on the other hand, is arguably not a frustration issue - the character has forgotten something the player can't restore. Unlike the other effects, it isn't an interface screw. However, it doesn't really have any gameplay benefit, and the player won't voluntarily seek it out.

I have considered how amnesia could be converted into something that isn't a frustration issue without removing it entirely; there have to at least be some redeeming beneficial effects of amnesia. Perhaps something can be fixed into your mind that adversely affects you and can only be removed by amnesia (I have since learned that dnethack weeping angels do this). Or amnesia could drain skill practice points, hurting your skills in the immediate moment but letting you retrain into other skills later. Something that gives it a gameplay benefit and makes it not a universally bad thing for everyone.

Bag of holding explosion

Three items - a charged bag of tricks, a charged wand of cancellation, and a bag of holding - destroy a bag of holding and all of its contents when placed into it. This cannot happen without the player explicitly commanding it, but it is very easy to do by accident (fat-fingering the wrong key, or putting all wands in without noticing one is called "vanish copper"). The later this happens in the game, the more devastating it is to the player, and it can set an ascension-ready character back tens of thousands of turns. For a late-game character, the source of frustration is that they must either push on while severely limited in resources, or spend a lot of time gathering new ones. (Particularly if they were carrying around unspent wishes in the bag.)

One solution would be for each item to have a 1/13 chance of vanishing, as from a cursed bag of holding, and a 12/13 chance of being scattered (as drawbridge chains are in 3.6). It still punishes the player, but the penalty is much less harsh.

Item destruction from elemental damage

Cold, fire, and shock damage that manages to hit the player destroys potions, scrolls, and rings and wands that are being carried around in inventory. This is a minor frustration issue since putting these things in a bag protects them, but it is annoying for the optimal strategy to be to keep all or as many as possible of these objects in a bag, from the moment they're picked up till the moment they're needed.

Shock damage is not very common, but it can be particularly frustrating when an errant electric eel or energy vortex destroys the player's only source of levitation or free action. (Exacerbated in variants like FIQhack where lightning blasts may cause lightning explosions which are not protected by reflection.)

The mysterious force

Does anyone particularly like feeling slightly accomplished for traversing another level of Gehennom on the way up with the Amulet, and then having it all be for nothing as you are kicked back down to a random location one, two, or three levels deeper? Worse still, having nothing that can prevent it and it happening unpredictably at random? If you're unlucky, you'll be knocked back repeatedly, sometimes all the way back down to the vibrating square level, and you'll often be placed in unexplored maze, forcing you to have to find your way back to the upstairs. Because of all these things, you can't really claim to have made any progress on the ascension run until you reach the Valley of the Dead and the mysterious force stops working.

The force also disproportionately hits lawful characters; they are the only ones that can be knocked back three levels at a time. As best as I can determine, this seems to be a result of confusion on the alignment axis, where Gehennom/Moloch are undisputably evil, but chaotics are also considered to be evil compared to lawfuls and neutrals, so Gehennom/Moloch don't have as much "resistance" to them when they're taking the Amulet away. If, for alignment balance reasons, chaotics should have an easier time on the ascension run than lawfuls and neutrals, there are better ways to do it.

Rogue quest goal level

This level has the potential to be very annoying. A spoiled player will know that there is no passage between the four chambers of the level, only one contains the Master Assassin, and a different one contains the upstairs. There are several methods of dealing with this; one involves falling through the ceiling, which requires cursed potions of gain level or levelport, others involve using a drum to wake him up, others rely on other instruments which require gaining even more levels, others involve self-polymorph into a phasing monster or master mind flayer, which needs polymorph control. It's entirely possible for a Rogue not to have these resources, and until they do get them, the quest is blocked. Worse, a Rogue that falls through the ceiling by accident into one of the inaccessible areas without the means to return will be stuck for a very long time.

Steed drowning

When you ride a non-flying, non-swimming steed over water, it drowns instantly (in addition to wetting your things). This is quite easy to do by accident.

Choke points on non-diggable levels

A choke point is a place where there is a diagonal opening through which the character can move, but only if carrying less than a certain amount of gear. In order to pass through, the player must drop all of their things on one side or throw them through (risking fragile item breakage) until they are carrying little enough weight to pass. Normally, the player can just dig out one of the adjacent spaces and make this unnecessary, but in Mines' End (Mimic of the Mines) and the Caveman quest home level, the walls are undiggable. Mines' End is less bad since the player only needs to go in briefly if at all, but the Caveman quest sticks its downstairs behind two choke points.


Considered by some to be the worst status problem in the game. Assuming you don't have the means to immediately cure it, once you contract it and start transforming into handless, weak monsters at random intervals, your game is almost always stuck until you can get the means to cure yourself. You can't effectively traverse the dungeon in your werecreature form because you can't carry your gear with you, and even if something does kill you back to your normal form, you are now facing a hostile monster with no armor, no weapon, and no supplies. Often, the only good option is to sit on your pile of dropped gear and wait to transform back so you can pick everything back up, re-equip everything, and try to get a little further before your next transformation. There is no good result that comes of this, unless you become a werewolf, summon many tame wolves, and happen to have a magic whistle to herd them all, but more commonly you simply die from being vulnerable or manage to wait it out long enough to pray. Compounding the problem is the fact that this usually happens pretty early in the game, when the player is not prepared for a werecreature unless they can take it out at range.

I don't think lycanthropy is unsalvageable, but it needs some serious work to be made non-frustrating.

Covetous warping

Serves to make the most powerful enemies in the game more or less untouchable unless you can beat them to the stairs or death-ray them. If you happen to deal some damage to them while far away from the stairs, you won't be able to get rid of them except by slowly making your way to the stairs, fighting them the whole way, and then doing some clever maneuver to get onto the stairs before them. Other strategies exist, such as getting to the downstairs and letting them follow you, or levelporting, but it is almost impossible to do away with them for good unless you manage to find yourself an upstairs to stand on. Of course, fighting them while they are on the stairs doesn't work, because they'll just flee up and then you have to cross another whole level.

Also quite annoying and apparently serving no purpose when applied to a peaceful monster, as in Juiblex or Yeenoghu being summoned through chaotic same-race sacrifice. Their constant warping (and following) only makes them get in your way, almost as if they're trying to pick a fight.

Stash management