Why do I keep dying?

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This page is an attempt to provide basic tips for survival and it specifically describes typical beginner misconceptions regarding NetHack. It is aimed at new players who feel like they 'cannot get the hang of it', dying early every game, so it will focus on the early game stage and deliberately ignore Nethack's abundant corner cases. Follow the links if you want the gory details or a complete strategy overview.

It is assumed you have played (and died) a couple of dozen times and know how to open doors and do simple stuff like that. If you are still wondering what the funny @ means, then first have a look at the excellent Guidebook that comes with NetHack, play a few games to get the feel of it, read the Guidebook again — picking up the numerous hints you will overlook during the first reading (oh, yes, you will!), then come back here.

You noticed the part about Engraving Elbereth in the dust with your fingers, did not you? Now, did you try it the last time you died? There you go.

The one lucky game

You sometimes hear NetHack is near impossible to win, because of the amount of exceptional luck winning requires. It takes years to get this one lucky game, finding an early wand of wishing plus everything else working out just right, and you surely need that to win, right? Well, no, that is a myth!

If your survival depends on luck then you are following the wrong strategy. True, a few unavoidable deaths remain, like falling into a poisoned spiked pit, or the proverbial GWTWOD, but these are threatening only early, before countermeasures have been acquired. Truly outstanding players manage to ascend 80% of their games; they do not get more wands of wishing than the rest of us.

(Note there is also the in-game concept of Luck, which is a different kettle of fish.)

== Moving fast, typing slowly ==

Never explore while Burdened or worse. Speed is a major issue. When you are Stressed, your average opponent can hit twice for your every chance to move. Your HP will just melt away. (If you do need to haul around heavy stashes of equipment, stick to known territory and be ready to shed weight at the sight of danger.) In such occasions, a wand of speed monster or speed boots are a big advantage, allowing you to hit (or escape) faster.

Do not use the cursor/arrow keys, because they provide only orthogonal movement, requiring twice as many steps to reach a diagonal destination. If the 'vi'-like keys don not suit you, make a habit of using the number pad instead. Take advantage of diagonal movement keys.

At the same time, type slowly and deliberately. You cannot run from monsters by typing more quickly! Running is a separate command. Therefore never hold a key for autorepeat. Instead prefix G, g or numpad 5. Also useful is _, especially when followed by > or <. To wait for your health to come back try n50. (with number_pad) or 50. (without). All these commands will stop as soon as anything dangerous (or interesting) comes along. A great part of NetHack is acquiring safe habits.

You may also find it useful to take notes on what you are doing. Besides the information's intrinsic usefulness, it encourages thoughtfulness.

Beginners should also endeavor to play purposefully: "Just exploring", in the long run, is the same as "just running around until I get killed". If you find yourself doing this, look at your equipment and status to see what your immediate goals should be: "I need an effective projectile weapon", "I need to get my armor class down", "I need to identify this magic stuff I've collected", "I need fire/cold/magic resistance before I go much further" ... whatever's appropriate at the moment. Thinking this way will improve your game rapidly.

Finding down

Every room has a way out. If none is apparent, search for it by hitting s on every step along the wall or at the dead end of a corridor — it may take you ten times or so before finding a secret door or passage, though. If all doors are locked and you have no other means to open them, kick them down — but this is noisy and will wake sleeping monsters.

Every level has a way down. (Yeah, there are exceptions, but if you know them, why are you reading this anyway?) Look on the map for a large, empty area where an additional, undiscovered room might fit and search (as above) along adjacent walls. Or the stairs might be covered by an item — yes, NetHack does have mighty big fortune cookies! If that F is sitting on top of them, you will see them as soon as you leave the room.

Leveling up

Obviously, when you gain a level your maximum HP and power increase. Thus a common misconception is to suppose you have to slaughter everything that moves and level up quickly to win. This is wrong.

Don not level up unnecessarily. With every level you gain the game will throw harder monsters at you. No, this is not fair. Your equipment (AC and so on) must improve in parallel, matching your level, otherwise your opponents will eventually overwhelm you. Level up slowly by letting your pet do much of the work. Kill primarily when threatened or hungry.

Drinking Water

Simply do not. A beginner who starved a couple of times might get the idea that drinking was also necessary. Unfortunately the Guidebook's advice on this matter is misleading, stating "Although creatures can survive long periods of time without food, there is a physiological need for water".

There is no need to drink water. In fact quaffing potions of water is a big waste of resources as there are much better uses for them.

And drinking from fountains is downright dangerous, many bad effects can occur. True, if you are exceptionally lucky you might get an early wish, or some other benefit, but the chances are tiny; much more likely you will get nasty, hostile monsters. Remember survival and the one lucky game?


You tried eating corpses, but this felt akin to Russian roulette: You tasted kobold, which poisoned you; next was a jackal, which "tasted terrible" but seemed OK, so you saved its mate for later (they come in packs), but, no luck: that one even gave you deadly food poisoning. So you decided eating corpses off the floor was uncivilized anyway and vowed to stick to proper 'people food'. On your next game you starved before finding any... Sounds familiar so far?

First, understand that there are two separate kinds of poisoning that you can get from food. The first is food poisoning ("FoodPois"), contracted from eating old ("tainted") corpses. This will kill you, but avoiding it is simple: Eat your corpses fresh. 60 turns is the limit! Only lichens, lizards, and corpses kept in an ice box do not age. By the same logic, remember that zombies and the like died long before you met them: they are walking food poisoning. If you "hear some noises" and then find a dwarf corpse, you can bet it was a dwarf zombie, otherwise your pet would have eaten it.

The second kind is poison, which is simply a property of some monster types (e.g. kobolds). Corpses your pet dog/cat will eat are safe (with very few exceptions). Eating a poisonous corpse will cost stats and HP, though not kill you directly. Unlike the first kind of corpse poisoning, you can become resistant to this type, and in fact you should as soon as possible. This will also protect against the aforementioned spiked pits, poisoned orcish arrows and other sudden deaths. Some roles/races start out resistant, all others are safe as soon as "you feel healthy". (By the way, watch out for other "you feel" messages, too, and learn which monsters cause them to appear.)

Remember: Nethack is not real life. Though most of us would not eat a sewer rat or a (uncooked!) jackal's corpse — and would most probably get ill if we did —, that is not an issue for your alter ego in the game. Therefore, unless there is something intrinsically harmful about a particular corpse — such as the aforementioned kobold's, which is poisonous, or a cockatrice's, which causes stoning — and provided it is fresh, it will probably be safe for consumption.

Then of course there is also "proper" food. Eggs and tripe rations are for pets; keep the rest for hard times. In the roguelike community, such food is called "permafood", short for permanent food, because it never rots.

Finally, if you are already Weak or Fainting (not earlier!), you can also #pray. Though you should not do it very often — otherwise you may anger your god (see below) — it is quite possible to survive on prayer alone.


Most real life religions encourage you to pray regularly. But NHINRL, this time the Guidebook states clearly: "#pray — Pray to the gods for help." The NetHack gods will be perfectly happy never to hear from you. If they regard you as constantly whining they might eventually put you out of your misery and send someone worthier to fetch the Amulet of Yendor for them.

Used sparingly, prayer can get you out of tight spots. Before doing it again, wait around 700-1400 turns, the longer the better. Sacrifice can shorten the time as well as have other benefits.

Watching your pet

You have already learned to watch what corpses your cats and dogs eat — horses will not eat meat anyway (see diet.) But there is more that pets can do for you:

Finding better equipment is vital (see "Leveling up" above), but you must not Wear, wield or Put on anything that might be cursed, and altars for ascertaining that are scarce. Just drop stuff on the floor where you can see it and wait. Pets will step on cursed items only reluctantly, if at all. If a pet walks over an item without a message appearing, or even pick it up, then they are safe to try on. Early on, pet-test most of the armor you find, lowering your AC quickly greatly aids survival.

Furthermore, your pet can stop a nymph before she touches you or get the horn of a peaceful unicorn that you must not desecrate yourself. Eventually, your pet's natural aggression may get it killed by the Minetown watch captain (a large dog or cat will attack watchmen) or a pissed off shopkeeper (warhorses attack these), so keep it away from these powerful monsters or upgrade it.

Read the Wiki page if you want to learn more about what your pet can do for you.


Boldly reading, quaffing and zapping everything you find is the obvious method of identification — and ridiculously, suicidally dangerous, so do not do it! Much is written in this Wiki, here only a quick summary for the impatient:

Armor, weapons and amulets are actually quite safe to try on after curse-testing them with your pet. Few items will autocurse, but they are rare and not life-threatening. Make sure you are capable of paying for the item if you decide to try it in a shop, though.

Rings are also safe if curse-tested, with three complications: conflict, polymorph and teleportation. Never try them near a shop or if your pet is powerful enough to kill you in one hit. Take off torso armor if you are wearing something valuable (e.g. a cloak of magic resistance). Remove the ring immediately on the next turn to keep the chance of anything going wrong to a minimum, unless you think you can handle being polymorphed or teleported around. However, often you learn nothing and will have to read a blessed scroll of identify anyway.

Wands are fun. Write Elbereth with your finger, then add to the engraving with a wand. Many will identify or at least give you hints. Six wands do nothing special, none of them are particularly important. Never, ever put wands that make engravings vanish in your bag of holding until you are absolutely sure the wand is a wand of teleportation or a wand of make invisible and not one of cancellation — otherwise you will cause a deadly magical explosion.

Potions are trickier. Potions of Water are clear. Potions of Oil light up when applied. By dipping some darts/arrows you may discover potions of polymorph and potions of sickness. Dipping a unicorn horn will turn some harmful potions into water. Finally, you have to rule out potions of sleep and potions of paralysis somehow, e.g., by having seen a monster throw them at you, by being resistant, by wearing a ring of free action etc. The rest is safe to quaff after curse-testing.

Scrolls are candidates for price identification, which is complex and weary process, so we will make it short: drop the scroll at a shop (do not actually sell it). Sometimes the shopkeeper will try to rip you off, so repeat if in doubt. Multiply the offer by 2 (3 if you are looking like a tourist) to get the 'base price', which is also roughly what you would pay to buy the item. Thus easily recognizable is the most common and cheapest, the scroll of identify, with a base price of 20. Next are scroll of light at 50 and scroll of enchant weapon at 60. 80 is shared by the scroll of remove curse and the scroll of enchant armor. The two scrolls behind the first four pits in Sokoban are scrolls of earth. The rest are too complicated or risky or both to try out, so just collect them and read a blessed scroll of identify on the lot of them.

An exercise

Just as a challenge, discover how far you can get by completely relying on your pet:

  • Initially kill a few monsters (mainly to make prayer reliable).
  • After that, every time upon meeting a monster head back to your pet.
  • If surrounded, write Elbereth with your finger once (!). On every turn add another Elbereth. Thus wait until your pet arrives or you can slip past the monster.
  • Always try to hide behind your pet. If the monster is too fast keep adding Elbereths again. If monsters shoot or throw stuff, move.
  • Explore every level completely before heading down, but do not linger.
  • Steal corpses from your pet whenever you get the chance, otherwise pray when Weak.
  • You are allowed to kill monsters only while still at experience level 1. Use it sparingly.
  • Keep some real food for bad times, i.e., for after you have used up prayer for emergency healing.
  • Controlling pet: keep one tripe ration in inventory, throw others at your pet, apply whistle or non cursed (!) leash. Keep your pet away from floating eyes — so it will not get stunned.
  • Curse-test and try every piece of armor you find to lower your AC.
  • Maybe you will discover other useful stuff, e.g., a wand of speed monster (if that happens, zap both yourself and your pet). Avoid wearing rings of regeneration, which double hunger.
  • Do not become Burdened. Make a stash next to the downstairs, nothing will move while you are not on the level.
  • If your starting pet dies before growing up to a dog/housecat/horse it is bad luck, usually an early trap. Just retry. If you die before that point you have likely been sloppy. Retry!

If you have never tried anything like the above before, you will be surprised how far you can actually get. Of course this is not the way to ascend easily. But if you were actually reading this because you "kept dying", as the title says, then you will learn lots from attempt that. The Oracle is perfectly within reach, and, who knows, in case you do manage to pull off a protection racket you will have quite a strong character to continue with.

Read also

External links