Why I Can’t Stop Playing NetHack

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of an ancient computer RPG called NetHack.


I mentioned this game almost exactly two years ago today as an example of how not to run a D&D game: lethal, obscure, and impossible to win. And yet, over twenty years since release, a game with text characters for game art remains popular. So what lessons can Dungeons & Dragons players take from NetHack?

1. Danger is exciting

NetHack is infamously deadly. Less than 1% of NetHack games completed on alt.org resulted in a victory. Bad luck will kill you, as will polymorph traps, food poisoning, food shortages, choking on food, cursed equipment, angry deities and ghosts of your former characters. When you are killed, there’s no respawn, no raise dead, and you can’t even re-load your save game.

And yet NetHack is still addictive: not in spite of the challenge, but because of it. I can attest that some of the most entertaining Dungeons & Dragons games happen when there’s real risk of total party kill. The danger, or element of risk, is a vital part of the game’s excitement. This is why DMs shouldn’t be too lenient. If the players discover you’re afraid to kill off their characters, the gig is up.

2. Exploring is fun

Exploring is an important aspect of NetHack. Not just exploring corridors and rooms, but also the rules, the strategy, and the arcana. Learning the game’s many secrets is not just interesting, but vital to success.

Dipping a longsword into a fountain when of lawful alignment can turn it into Excalibur. A pet can be pushed onto a polymorph trap to become a more powerful creature. A lizard corpse cures petrification, while a unicorn horn cures poison. Cursed items glow black when placed on an altar.

In the same way, Dungeons & Dragons is most interesting when you have opportunity to learn about the rules, the world and the arcana, and most rewarding when you are able to reap the benefits of your knowledge.

3. Players will try the unexpected

Tabletop RPGs have something called the Fifth Door Rule: Put the heroes in a room with four ways out, and they’ll find a fifth. Players have a knack for finding solutions that you hadn’t considered. That a human DM is available to adjudicate unexpected actions will always be a strength of traditional roleplaying games.

In a rare example among videogames, NetHack has been programmed to handle many of these logical, if unorthodox player actions. Dipping a potion into a fountain dilutes it. A cockatrice corpse can be thrown to petrify opponents. Smearing grease on your helmet protects you from the tentacle attack of a mind flayer. Pets can be trained to steal from shops.

4. Balance is boring…

The above screenshot shows me (@), a level 1 character hopelessly overpowered by a water demon (blue &) and the unique demon lord Juiblex (green &), after a failed attempt to summon a friendly water demon from a fountain on the chance it would grant a wish. If successful, however, I would have begun this game with the best suit of armour in the game.

There are wonderful instances in NetHack where luck or cleverness can grant you some huge bonus. Magic items beyond your normal level, lucky finds of gold, rare equipment, unexpectedly powerful pets, and even wishes can all boost your power in almost game-breaking ways. Finding a power boost is always exciting.

5. …but sometimes necessary

However, there’s usually a balancing factor so that the decision to take extra power isn’t a no-brainer. A pickaxe lets you cut right through dungeon walls, but it’s heavy so you can carry less treasure. Magic amulets increase your food requirements. Any magic item could be cursed. Even when you find a wish, you find yourself worrying that you could have wished for something better.

Morever, the game remains a challenge even when you do have the best magic items and all the obscure bonuses. In Dungeons & Dragons, there’s nothing long with a player keeping some unexpected boon, as long as they still face credible dangers (perhaps because of it). The player will be that much happier when, not only can he keep the incredible item or ability he won by his own luck or clever thinking, but that power is a major factor in battles to come.

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