Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

One of the best ways to learn about Nethack is from reading YAAPs ("Yet Another Ascension Posts"), descriptions of victorious games on the newsgroup

It may be an unusual impulse to write up a detailed report of a computer game, roguelike or not. It may be even more unusual to be interested in reading it, but it cannot be denied that they are fascinating. It is the same impulse, I believe, that causes people to want to watch speed runs. Most of them are typical wins (especially the first time someone prevails in this game infamous for its difficulty), but some are of difficult challenge, or "conduct" games. Some, such as the tale of Nightshade below, are written in the style of an actual story, with the player's character usually the protagonist.

In this first installment of Giant Eel Stories, we'll be looking at two classic victory posts of the past. Since many of you are probably not Nethack fanatics, I'll supply much of the necessary information needed to understand them, and understand why they're cool, including a brief glossary at the end of this article. All links are to the original post on Google Groups. Later Giant Eel stories may not necessarily be concerned with Nethack: these are, though.

[Click through for the full post!]

To give an account of a victorious game, it is necessary to describe things that happen during it, and the tactics the player used, so there are heavy spoilers to follow. Spoilers are much less dangerous to a roguelike game than a more typical RPG, since so much of them are randomly generated, but there are still some who want to figure out everything for themselves -- although in Nethack's case that would probably take many years. If you are one of those noble individuals, you may not want to read on.

(Oh, and giant eels are a particularly dangerous aquatic monster from Nethack's bestiary. Just so you know.)

3/20/2002: Nightshade, Chaotic Female Elven Wizard
played by nyra

One of the cooler features of Nethack is that characters can be polymorphed into the form of various other monsters in the game. When a character is polymorphed, he gains all the special abilities, and drawbacks, of that monster. Turn into a xorn and you can walk through walls, but you're too large to wear armor -- and will in fact destroy any you were wearing beforehand.

The new body assumed by the character is usually chosen randomly from the monsters in the game, but there are two exceptions to this rule. If the character has picked up a means of polymorph control somewhere in the game, usually from a worn ring, then the game will instead ask the player what new form he wants to take. Rings of Polymorph Control, thus, are excellent finds. And if a player is wearing colored dragon scales or a suit of dragon scale mail, then he will always turn into the type of dragon matching the scales: red dragon scale mail means a red dragon. The dragon scales are protected from destruction in that case.

Other than possible armor loss, polymorph is usually not that bad an affliction. While changed, the player is actually given a buffer zone of safety. If a polymorphed player runs out of hit points he doesn't die but turns back into his normal self, just a few hits shy of his maximum – meaning that polymorph can actually be an excellent source of healing. Further, after a while characters will always turn back into their normal selves, more quickly if their new body was much greater in power compared to their real form.

This is how it usually works, but in a recent version of Nethack introduced a new item: Amulets of Unchanging. A character wearing such an amulet is completely immune (and thus his armor is immune too) from polymorph effects. But more interestingly, an already-polymorphed character wearing an Amulet of Unchanging is immune from changing back. Until the amulet is removed, the character will remain, for better or worse, in his new body. The change will never expire naturally over time, and the character can remain in a cool powerful state the rest of the game if he likes. But if the character runs out of hit points he won't turn back all healed up: he'll actually die.

Now the interesting thing about Nethack polymorph is that, in the long run, the most powerful monsters in the dungeon are player classes. There are many monsters with powerful abilities, but almost all of them are rather low on hit points compared to a player, even if he's of only moderate level, and many powerful monster forms can't wear some of the most important types of armor. So although many monsters have nifty special abilities that can come in handy in special cases, including a few that cannot be obtained any other way, a permanently-polymorphed player is at a disadvantage in terms of general survivability.

But nyra was not dissuaded by this. After a traumatic, yet cool, experience in her youth, character Nightshade gained a strange aspiration for her life, even for elves: she wanted to be a black dragon. Black dragons, as far as polymorph forms go, are one of the better choices: they can fly, they have good armor class, they have more hit points than most monsters, female dragons can lay eggs and thus eventually gain an army of followers following them around, and best of all, they are the only monster in the game with a disintegration breath attack, which instantly kills, and very few monsters have disintegration-resistance.

You now know what you need to know to begin the Tale of Nightshade the Black Dragon. Have a look at the original post on Google Groups here:

2/22/2004: Ciompi259, Neutral Male Human Tourist
played by Robert Schneck

Another relatively recent addition to the game of Nethack, which has overall changed little since version 3.1 was released quite long ago, is the idea of tracked conducts.

To explain. The jeweled drinking halls of are filled with a wide assortment of player, both newbies and old demigods alike. Some of these people have won the game many times. In fact, some are so good at the game that they actually win (make it through and ascend to demigod-status) more often than they lose (die or quit or escape -- but usually die). A few players almost never lose, if the victory percentages on public Nethack server are anything to go by: the player named "Ascension" has won twelve out of the thirteen games he's played there.

And for the most successful of these players, the game inevitably became rather dull and niggly, until they hit upon the idea of playing conduct games. That is, the player would decide on some aspects of Nethack's vast array of features to avoid using that game, and see if he could still win. Nethack is a game in which things can be done in lots of ways, but very few things are actually required to be victorious. All a player really must do to win out is gain the three essential "key" objects (the Bell of Opening, the Candelabrum of Invocation and the Book of the Dead), use 'em properly and get the Amulet of Yendor, escape the dungeon with it, then figure out a way through the five final levels to offer it on the correct High Altar on the Astral Plane. Those things are required to win. Most others, it turns out, are not.

A fairly recent version of Nethack aided this elite pastime by tracking conducts, with the game itself keeping a record of which aspects of the game the character has not used. To get a list of these, the player need only start a game and quit on the first turn:

Voluntary challenges: You went without food.  You were an atheist.  You never hit with a wielded weapon.  You were a pacifist.  You were illiterate.  You never genocided any monsters.  You never polymorphed an object.  You never changed form.  You used no wishes.

It may seem difficult to believe, even to a player with some experience with the game, but each of these has been done lots of times, and so have many combinations of them, although doing them all in one game is almost certainly impossible.

The two single challenges that are the trickiest are possibly Pacifist and Foodless. Pacifist is difficult because Nethack characters usually encounter thousands of hostile monsters during the game and the player himself cannot kill any of them, even accidentally. If the player manages to survive the monsters, one of the requirements to obtain the Bell of Opening is that the player must achieve experience level 14, and without the slaughter of monsters this is very difficult, although not impossible, to achieve.

It is Foodless, however, combined with certain other conducts, that is the subject of Robert Schneck's game. Novice players soon find out that, while it's nowhere near as bad as Rogue, it is still easy to run out of food on Nethack's early levels. Even when they learn about all the food options available to them they still often starve to death until they discover the game's panic button, Alt-P, the (p)ray command. A prayer to the gods in Nethack is always a request for aid, and if the player hasn't prayed too recently, his Luck isn't negative (not real-life luck but an invisible statistic tracked by the game), and isn't in an area warded from his influence, your deity will help you out of most predicaments you could be in if they're dire enough. Being weak from hunger (not just hungry) is one of those troubles. Although the player cannot pray for aid in the second half of the main dungeon, there are ways in Nethack to quickly get out of there to a region in which prayer works.

This method of subsistence cannot be used if the player is attempting a Foodless Atheist, who disavows all knowledge of the gods until the final sacrifice of the Amulet of Yendor is made on the Astral Plane. But there are other ways to avoid starving: a Ring of Slow Digestion decreases a player's food consumption to very low levels, though it's still not enough to enable a player to avoid starving before winning the game. Amulets of Life Saving, if worn at the moment a player expires, will bring him back to life and fill his stomach one time, then disintegrate. Players can polymorph into monsters that don't need to eat, but will always turn back to normal unless they wear an Amulet of Unchanging, which unfortunately introduces food consumption even if the player has no mouth or stomach. A polymorph-controlled player can request to turn into his own race, which will turn him into "a new man" or "a new woman," also fills his stomach, and won't even count as a polymorph to the game. That wasn't enough for Robert Schneck's character, Ciompi259, however.

The number in that name is the number of times he had to try this before he was successful. His character's epic story, that of a winning Foodless Atheist true-Polyselfless Survivor, in which he survived entirely on a Ring of Slow Digestion and the very slight nutrition provided by Potions of Fruit Juice and Water, can be read here:

Glossary of terms:
!oGL or !GL: Potion of Gain Level
?oCharging: Scroll of Charging
/WoW: Wand of Wishing
/WoD: Wand of Digging
"oR: Amulet of Reflection
BoH: Bag of Holding
AC: Armor Class, the old Dungons & Dragons concept. Nethack may be the last game in the world to still use armor class that starts at 10 and counts down, heading past zero into negative numbers as it improves.
PYEC: Platinum Yendorian Express Card, a special artifact that can charge items indefinitely. Only Tourists can use it to its full effect, and they can always find it in their Quest dungeon.
Buc, or Blessed, Uncursed or Cursed: any item in Nethack can be any of these three statuses, with blessed items generally being better to have than cursed ones.
Mines, Sokoban, Vlad's Tower: Three branches leading off from the main dungeon, some of which it is unnecessary to visit. Sokoban is a recent addition, and has special rules.
Quest: A special dungeon branch that is different for each character class. The player must be at least level 14 to get beyond its first level.
AoY: Amulet of Yendor, the object sought in the game.
VotD: Valley of the Dead, a level deep in the dungeon.
VS: Vibrating square, an important spot very deep in the dungeon.
Wizmode: Short for Wizard Mode, a special debug mode included in some compilations of the game. Wins in Wizard Mode don't count, and scores won't be added to the score list.
Levelport: Short for "level teleport," a version of teleportation that moves the player vertically, to other dungeon levels, instead of elsewhere on the current floor.
Reverse genocide: A clever tactic to summon several of a specified type of monster.
Stash: A place the player keeps spare objects so he doesn't have to carry them around the dungeon, adding to his burdened status.
Bones: A level left behind from a prior game.
Sacrificing: Offering fresh corpses of defeated monsters on an altar, in the hopes of receiving favor and some goodies from one's deity.
Pet: A friendly monster that helps the player. Players begin with one, a cat, dog or horse, but it's possible to get more.
Artifact: Unique weapons with additional powers, some very strong and some less so.
Unique: A monster there is only one of, if killed once they never appear again (with a notable exception).
Rodney: The nickname of the Wizard of Yendor, the player's arch-foe.
Farming: Purposely creating an abundance of some monster, or infinite opportunities to kill one that revives (like riders), for player advantage. Considered an abuse by some.
Protection racket: A novel, though often foolhardy, strategy, through which a very low-level character can gain points of intrinsic armor class cheaply, although not without a fair bit of risk.
Ascension run: When the player gains the Amulet of Yendor, like in Rogue, the game becomes a race back to the surface before death strikes. Nethack makes this harder by limiting the player's ability to teleport, teleporting him back levels randomly, and sending in a certain powerful monster at intervals to harass him.
The Planes: The final levels of the game.
Riders: Three exceptionally dangerous monsters on the last level who cannot be killed permanently.
High Altars: The ultimate destinations. One of these three, chosen randomly, must be found to win the game.
YASD: Yet Another Stupid Death.

Thanks to:
Joe "Jove" Bednorz (who found and linked to ascension posts in a newsgroup message)
tg (additional links)
Roguelike Magazine (for general awesomeness, and for first coming up with the idea of a look at classic win posts)