posted Thursday, September 20th 2007 by
Dungeon Mastering Advice
Nethack is an ancient, text-graphics dungeon crawl game that’s managed to stay in continuous development since its initial release in 1985. It’s the pinnacle of gameplay over graphics: the simple, turn-based ASCII interface makes it quick and cheap for the developers to add remarkable detail, making the game almost as flexible as real Dungeons & Dragons. A dungeon master think that this makes Nethack a good example on how to run a D&D game. He’d be wrong.
One of the reasons for Nethack’s longevity is that it’s almost impossible to beat. The game betrays its eighties origins, when games were so limited in scope that the reward came from defeating difficult games rather than simply succeeding at varied and complex challenges. Dungeons & Dragons has likewise evolved from its dungeon crawl roots, and players today enjoy all manner of character development and munchkinry in addition to aspects of storytelling and true roleplaying.
A D&D player today wants to expect that if he plays well and has just a little luck, he’ll raise a character all the way to twentieth level. He’s no longer amazed by the mere achievement, but instead cares about how powerful a character he can create as he progresses and what interesting things he can achieve within the game world. For many players, munchkinry – all-out powergaming – is the game’s primary purpose, and I think current players have a high expectation of their character’s survivability.
With Nethack, on the other hand, lethality is the entire point, and like the old games, merely completing the game once is its own challenge. Old Dungeons & Dragons was like this – DMs played to create impossible Tomb of Horrors style dungeons that only the luckiest and most experienced players could survive. Today, this is a faux pas. Your players cultivate their characters like a plant and expect to have their dillgence rewarded. Nethack is very D&D–but it’s not our generation’s D&D.
Of course, Nethack is still ripe as a source of DM inspiration. The sheer variety of options reminds players that they can attempt weird, clever things and very often have them succeed. You can turn creatures against each other or lead them into traps as I enjoyed in Quake 2, befriend or tame creatures, or even try odd things with the dungeon furniture. As a DM, on the other hand, don’t be afraid to keep the danger factor in your game, just to keep the players on their toes – if your guys can’t get killed, where’s the excitement?