Why do I keep dying?
This page attempts to give basic tips for survival and specifically describes typical beginner misconceptions. It is aimed at new players who feel like they 'can't get the hang of it', dying early every game. We'll focus on the early game and deliberately ignore NetHack's abundant corner cases. Follow the links if you want the gory details or a complete strategy overview.
We assume you've played (and died) a couple of dozen times and know how to open doors and stuff. If you're still wondering what the funny @ means then first have a look at the excellent Guidebook (http://www.nethack.org/v343/Guidebook.html) that comes with NetHack, play a few games to get the feel of it, then read the Guidebook again, picking up the numerous hints you overlooked the first time (oh yes!), then come back here.
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? This is a myth!
If your survival depends on luck then you're 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 don't 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, while 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.) For the same reason a wand of speed monster or speed boots are a big advantage, this time 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't suit you, make a habit of using the number pad instead.
On the other hand type slowly and deliberately. You can't run from monsters by typing more quickly! On the contrary, 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're doing. Besides the information's intrinsic usefulness, it encourages thoughtfulness.
Every room has a way out. Search for it by hitting s a couple of times on every step along the wall or at the dead end of a corridor. If all doors are locked and you have no other means then kick them down, but this is noisy and will wake sleeping monsters.
Every level has a way down. (Yeah, Mines' End, Quest, Vibrating square, but then, why are you reading this?) 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'll see them as soon as you leave the room.
Don't 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.
Simply don't. A beginner who starved a couple of times might get the idea that drinking was necessary, too. 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".
And drinking from fountains is downright dangerous, many bad effects can occur. True, if you're exceptionally lucky you might get an early wish, but the chances are tiny, much more likely you'll 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, this 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 ... Sound 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. On the other hand remember that zombies and the like died long before you met them. 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 grant them.)
Then of course there is 'proper' food. Eggs and tripe 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.
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.
Watching your pet
Finding better equipment is vital (see "Leveling up" above), but you mustn't Wear, wield or Put on anything that might be cursed, and altars for checking are scarce. Just drop stuff on the floor where you can see it and wait. Pets will only reluctantly, if at all, step on cursed items. If it walks over the items without a message, or even picks them 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.
And of course your pet can e.g. stop a nymph before she touches you or get the horn of a peaceful unicorn that you mustn't desecrate yourself. Eventually it may be killed by the Minetown watch captain (large dog/cat) or a pissed off shopkeeper (warhorse), so keep it away from these powerful monsters or upgrade it.
Boldly reading, quaffing and zapping everything you find is the obvious method of identification - and ridiculously, suicidally dangerous, so don't 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're rare and not life-threatening. Be capable of paying if doing this in a shop.
Rings are similar, i.e. 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're wearing something valuable (e.g. a cloak of magic resistance). Remove the ring immediately on the next turn to keep the chance 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're absolutely sure the wand is a wand of teleportation or a wand of make invisible instead of a cancellation.
Potions are trickier. Water is clear. Oil lights up when applied. Dip some darts/arrows to catch polymorph and sickness. Dipping a unicorn horn will turn some harmful potions into water. Finally you have to rule out sleep and 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, so we'll make it short: drop the scroll at a shop (don't actually sell it). Sometimes the shopkeeper will try to rip you off, so repeat if in doubt. Multiply the offer by 2 (3 if looking like a tourist) to get the 'base price', which is also roughly what you'd 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 is light at 50 and enchant weapon at 60. 80 is shared by remove curse and enchant armor. The two scrolls behind the first four pits in Sokoban are 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.
Just as a challenge, try how far you can get, 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 don't linger.
- Steal corpses from your pet whenever you get the chance, otherwise pray when Weak.
- You're allowed to kill monsters only while still at experience level 1, use it sparingly.
- Keep some real food for bad times i.e. when you've 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.
- Curse-test and try every piece of armor you find to lower your AC.
- Maybe you'll discover other useful stuff, e.g. a wand of speed monster (zap both yourself and your pet). Avoid rings of regeneration, which double hunger.
- Don't become Burdened. Make a stash next to the downstairs, nothing will move while you're not on the level.
- If your starting pet dies before growing up to a dog/housecat/horse it's bad luck, usually an early trap. Just retry. If you die before that point you have likely been sloppy. Retry!
If you've never tried anything like this before, you'll 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 "keep dying", as the title says, then you will learn lots from this attempt. The Oracle is perfectly within reach, and who knows, in case you do manage to pull off a protection racket you'll have quite a strong character to continue with.