Nethack: How Not to DM

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?

Comments (5)

ChattyDm (September 20th, 2007)

Damn Jonathan! I had stopped playing for some time so I could concentrate on blogging….. must… fight… pull….

Seriously, I still enjoy Nethack and despise with a passion any DM who says that’s the way the game should be played. I’ve had my phases in my 2 decades of DMing and that one shall not come back… (although I sometimes miss random encounters)…

Anon (September 22nd, 2007)

I’ve gotta disagree with you here, a DM can easily run a killer campaign that still manages to entertain players. In fact, what say you to all the products out there such as, Paranoia a game that literally gives you a 6pack of characters, which are intended to challenge the player?

Johnny Boy (September 22nd, 2007)

I have been addicted to Angband for years—-it’s a slightly more recent (still early 90s) nethack-based dungeon crawl, with far more reward, and just as much lethality. There is definitely far more room for variation, as well. Just check out for a great game and a great community to share it with. One-player dungeoneering is a great pastime for anyone lacking a table.

Jonathan Drain (September 22nd, 2007)

@Anon: It can be enjoyable, but this is assuming your players intend on undertaking a game where the allure is high-risk lethal danger, rather than aspects such as character development (both crunchy and fluffy). The reward comes mainly from short-term success, not long-term rewards.

You can run killer dungeons or Paranoia games, yes, if that’s what your players want. In killer dungeoneering, actually making it to twentieth level is an incredible feat, much like defeating Nethack. However, you need to be remarkably good at what you do in order to survive that long, and even then your fate is partly at the whim of the Dungeon Master.

In other words, yes, it’s a valid mode of play, but a campaign of this kind is not necessarily one that you play taking for granted that you’ll eventually hit twentieth.

Chris (July 3rd, 2008)

Those types of games can be fun but really I find playing them on PC is better. Still though I have fond memories of Undermountain played like that. We used a character generation book that provided you all kinds of extras. We go down with a pack of war dogs, boosted stats, all kinds of equipment. Generally we went got slaughtered by the first encounter with trolls. It was all over in one night and we try it again another night taking a right turn instead of a left. It was a blast but really not all the fun for long. Just quick spurt, nice for a change.

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