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R0twang's True Beginner's Guide to NetHack

I have only one truth that I can pass on to you my son: seek ye not the Amulet, for that way is the way of fools. But if fool ye be, go not into those dungeons pursuing glory, gold, or recognition of ye sad small life. For even if ye should succeed, those things shall become meaningless to thee. Go instead seeking death. For that is what ye shall find there, stacked in heaps of rotting corpses on ye left hand, and thine own profaned grave on ye right.

1. Play Something Else Instead

Ok. So the first rule to enjoying NetHack? Don't start playing it. Seriously. NetHack sucks. I was a happy person before I started playing this game. You know what is a good game? Diablo. Go play that instead. Or maybe that's too simple and you seriously need overwhelming complexity in your life? Then Dwarf Fortress is for you! It's way prettier, way more sophisticated, and way more satisfying than NetHack. Go play that. (I'm kind of an open-source purist, and that kept me from Dwarf Fortress years ago. Don't make that mistake. The guys who develop Dwarf Fortress live in their mom's basement and work for donations. They are way more purist than you ever will be, even if they keep the code to themselves.)

You read all those raving idiots on the internet talking about how NetHack is the greatest game ever created? You saw MoMA has it on their list of games being acquired for their permanent collection? You still want to play? I'm telling you, forget it. NetHack is soul-destroyingly heart-breakingly cruel. You know what game you can't win but somehow remains satisfying to play? Dwarf Fortress. You know what game you can win, but even if you do it is really a pretty big letdown? NetHack.

One last reason to go start reading the quick-start guide to Dwarf Fortress right now: because you make mistakes typing. Dwarf Fortress doesn't care. NetHack does. One slip of the finger in NetHack, one character out of place, one y when you meant n (which are, of course, also directional keys,) and that's it - the character you put weeks of playing into is dead. And there are no second chances in NetHack. Dwarf Fortress rewards creativity and sophistication. NetHack punishes people who take chances, and rewards people who cringe in corners and type very very slowly and accurately. Think about that next time you are reading some zealot's post about how NetHack is the greatest game of all time.

If you read all of this, and you still want to play, then I intend to write here a true beginner's guide to NetHack. Not like the crappy beginner's guides you see out there that leave some sense of mystery to the game. Forget those. NetHack is so stupid that even if you can get past _all_ the mystery, you will still die over and over and over again, in ever more excrutiating ways. I'm no elite player, I've ascended a few characters, and have come so _so_ painfully close a few times more. I suffered through this crap for years, and the point of this page is to save you that. I warned you, and if you are still going, then read on! And try to save yourself.

2. Pick Some Good Music

One of the great things about NetHack is that there is no sound. This is a your opportunity for to really develop an awesome sophisticated music collection, because you are about to start wasting so many hours of your life playing such a stupid game. Find some good stuff, and crank it up! It will help keep you relaxed when you die as a result of hitting a floating eyeball while typing too fast for the 12th time in a row. Personally I highly recommend checking out Bathory's Viking Metal albums. You probably haven't heard them, and they are a piece of genius work that just rocks well with slaying in a dungeon.

3. Explore Mode is Stupid

One thing other beginner's guides will tell you is to make liberal use of explore mode, which is supposed to be like a cheat mode where you can choose to come back to life after you die. That's crap. Explore mode is useless. Just having the ability to not die doesn't prevent you from getting into a situation where your character just dies over and over and over again, and there's nothing you can do about it but quit. I suffered this fate a half-dozen times before I realized how stupid explore mode is. Save yourself the trouble, just die like normal and start over again. Try not to have too many regrets.

4. Read the Spoilers!

This is the single most important piece of advice for a beginner NetHacker. They call them "spoilers" but they really aren't. They are just guides to how to play the game which happen to be online and written by piles of different people. Don't think you need to be a purist (like I did) and not read them because some idiot in an online forum said that spoilers aren't noble and you should be able to figure out the game from the context inside the game. This is more total crap. After dying in the stupidest ways possible dozens of times, a buddy of mine told me to just break down and read the spoilers and as a result (after a few days of reading them) the game finally started to not suck. Get it? "Spoiler" is the wrong word because it has some kind of negative association from giving away cliffhanger movies. Nethack is not a cliffhanger movie, it is a pile of random crap that makes no sense until you have a guide to explain it to you. Just remember this: Spoilers = Nethack-not-sucking-so-much. There's _no_ shame in reading "spoilers." How do you know that for sure? Because even after you have read every spoiler you can find repeatedly, even after you have memorized every stupid joke and idiosyncracy in NetHack, even after you have become a codediver and you go deep in there to try to tease out how some dumb Monty-Python reference works, you are still going to die. Over and over and over again. There _are_ some unsporting and unfair exploits you can take advantage of to win in NetHack. Spoilers are not one of them. Spoilers are just the crap that the dev team should have included somewhere in the game anyway, but for your inconvenience, did not. Which brings me to:

5. The Dev Team Most Certainly Does NOT Think of Everything

This is the biggest crap of them all. You hear it repeated over and over again online about NetHack. It is not true in any way. Much more accurate would be: "The Dev Team Thinks of Every Possible Stupid Reference to the HitchHiker's Guide To the Galaxy." That would be a true statement. Does the Dev Team think of anything that makes any sense whatsoever by some random person who might start playing Nethack? No, not at all.

For instance, you have to eat in NetHack. Constantly. It's really _really_ annoying. Your character will get hungry every 5 minutes you are playing. And you can eat the corpse of all sorts of monsters. You just gobbled down a whole goddamn tiger raw, and 5 minutes later you are hungry again. And then you pass out, and a newt comes along and kills you. OK, so we'll give the Dev Team that one: you get hungry a lot. Heck, I get hungry a lot in real life! (I'm not eating whole tigers, but whatever.) But do you ever get thirsty? No. Never. In fact, drinking _anything_ in NetHack is generally a bad idea. Do _not_ drink potions (when you are getting started.) Do _not_ ever _ever_ drink out of a fountain. Holy crap is that a bad idea. Do not drink from sinks. Do not drink from any water feature you might find in the dungeon. You _can_ drink. Just don't. It's not like you'll ever get thirsty. You would think the Dev Team would give a beginning player some kind of hint about this, but they do not. Also, no, you cannot dip your towel in the fountain and use it as a whip. You know why? Because that would not be a stupid reference to HHGTTG or Monty-Python or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and so the Dev Team did not think of it. Also, don't eat tripe. Sure, tripe soup is delicious in real life. In NetHack it will probably kill you. The tripe is for your pets. I don't know how you are supposed to know that without reading the spoilers, but there it is. And you can't really train your pets, so don't keep throwing them tripe because you think they might learn a new trick. And just because the game keeps telling you that the corpses you eat are disgusting, don't take that as a sign you shouldn't eat them, you should. There's no way to cook your food. Cooking is something humans have been doing for 400,000 years, and is arguably the thing that _makes_ us human, but (while there is occasionally cooked food in the game in tins) you can't cook any food you find - because the Dev Team didn't think of that. You can #chat with other characters in the game, but they don't really say anything of note. Dialog isn't really part of the game. That drives a good friend of mine crazy, but I just chalk it up to another one of those things the Dev Team doesn't think of/can't be bothered with.

As you play you'll find a thousand other things that you wish the Dev Team had actually thought of but didn't. Try to not get too annoyed. I'm going to take you on a walkthrough of the game so it isn't just a totally frustrating experience of trying to tease out what dumb obscure nerd-reference the Dev Team used as a fundamental principle for the game. I'm going to try to show you how to get a character going that _might_ have a shot at living long enough to reach the phase of the game where a careless typo probably won't kill you (and therefore the game becomes far less annoying and frustrating.)

How to (Maybe, If You Are Really Lucky) Not Die

Valkyrie! - The Only Way to Live

Ok. Time to get started wasting a big chunk of your life. Fire up NetHack. I _highly_ recommend playing in the original ASCII mode. It is way more enjoyable than the graphical versions because the game isn't really on the screen, it's _in_ your head. It's almost magical. More like reading a book than playing a video game. You will learn a deep fear of purple lowercase "h"s.

The first thing you will be asked is which role you want to play. Play Valkyrie. Don't question it, just do it. NetHack might technically be a "role-playing game" but you really don't want to play a "role." You want to play a character that isn't going to die. See "tourist" there on the list? You might think to yourself "hey, I don't know what I'm doing, maybe I should play a tourist because that's what I am and it will be easier, right?" You would be wrong. Toursists are in fact one of the _hardest_ roles to play. You will die shortly after seeing your first newt.

Play a human for your race. Dwarves have good armor and are good eatin' so you'll want to kill and eat lots of them without your god getting pissed at you about canibalism.

Play neutral alignment. Lawful has too many annoying rules you won't be able to remember.

When you start you'll be in a room. You can figure out what everything is by using the / key. When you press it, the game will ask you, "Specify unknown object by cursor? [ynq] (q)". Just press y. I don't think I have ever said n to that question. I'm not even sure what it does. Move the cursor around until you are on something you don't know, and hit return and it will tell you. When you use it on monsters/pets it will ask you "More info? [yn] (n)" Just say n. That information is not useful for anything but figuring out which H.P. Lovecraft novel the Dev Team thought they were being clever by referencing. There is no information that will help you live.

You are the @ sign, your pet is a cat (f) or a dog (d).

Move Around A Bit

Ok, finally, you can start moving around. You can use arrow keys to move around, but it's worth the effort to learn to steer using hjkl. You're eventually going to be using like just about every goddamn key on the keyboard to control Nethack, so being able to use hjkl to steer your @ sign around will make you a much faster Nethack typer eventually. I always thought of it that way: in order to play Nethack, you first need to learn to TYPE Nethack. It's like some kind of other whole wacko Dvorak keyboard, and it is centered on the hjkl directional keys.

If you can't get it just start pressing each of the keys: h, j, k, l, y, u, b, n. You'll see your @ sign move in all the different cardinal directions. It's annoying at first, but really, it will help you out a lot later. As a bonus, those are the same directional keys used in the text editor vim. (I once said to a friend "the nice thing about learning Nethack is now I can use the hjkl directionals in vim too!" He replied "Yeah, that's true. I hardly ever die in vim anymore!") Nice huh? You learn one arcane piece of ancient software, and you are well on your way to a second one to boot! Someday I'll have to write a beginner's guide to vim too.

So now you're moving! Awesome. Look at you go, @ sign. The dungeon is randomly generated. That's the best part of Nethack - it's never the same game twice. Except for the parts that are. You'll have to play for a while to figure out what's random and what's not, but it's pretty nicely different every time you play. You'll start in a room with your pet. Maybe you'll see a brown 'd'. Nice! probably a jackal. Walk towards it. Stand next to it. Now walk INTO it. Ah! instead of walking you hit the jackal with your weapon. Cool huh? You only know that because the message at the top of the screen told you so. Whack the jackal a couple of more times and it should die. It will turn into a % sign. This is food. Move on top of the food and the message will tell you you are standing on a jackal corpse. Press e to eat it. In Nethack you pretty much want to eat everything. This is how you get "intrinsics" which are characteristics that make you invulnerable to things monsters that attack with cold, fire, electricity, poison, and a bunch of other nasty ways to die.

Now, in the above instance maybe it wasn't a brown 'd'. Maybe it was a blue 'o' (orc) or a red 'f' (fox). This stuffs random remember? Some monsters leave corpses some don't. You've been playing nethack for 30 seconds now, and you know what? It's time to stop and go read a spoiler about what corpses are good for you. This one is good:

Done? Great. Now that you know what corpses are good for you, and which ones are going to instantly kill you, you can actually get started playing the game.

You Played A Lot of Dungeons & Dragons, Right?

Oh wait. No we can't. Because first we have to talk about all the things the dev team just assumes you know because you played so much Dungeons & Dragons. You did, spend years rolling dice on the tabletop before you tried your hand at Nethack didn't you? Oh, you didn't? Neither did I. Turns out Nethack is more or less entirely based on the D&D system, which is insanely confusing if you don't know anything about it. I did not. It took a long time, and a lot of reading about OTHER games to figure out how Nethack's most basic stats worked. Because, you know, the dev team thinks of everything, like detailed instructions on how the game actually WORKS. Or not.

The most fundamental thing being "turns". Every time you move your @ sign you are using a turn. For each turn you use, your pet gets to move one turn, and any monsters on the level get to move one turn. You can press '.' to just do nothing with your turn. By the time you finish a game of Nethack (if you ever do) you will have used hundreds of thousands of turns probably.

Sounds simple, right? It isn't. There's also "speed". Say there's another monster in the room. For every turn you take, that monster moves 3 spaces, it has 3 turns for every 1 of yours. That's because that monster has a much faster speed than you. (Oh, maybe I should also say that in D&D world a "monster" is pretty much everything that isn't you and your pet.) At some point in the game you will REALLY want to get your speed up so that YOU get to move a bunch of moves for every move the monster has. Not being slow is a critical way to keep from dying. You don't have to read the spoilers about speed right now, but if you get anywhere with your character, you should remember to read up on speed at some point:

HP Armor Weapons monsters AC