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.]

The venerable roguelike Nethack, the most popular of them all and possibly the deepest computer game ever made, is filled with a great many ways to die.

A popular spoiler some time ago was a listing of many of those ways, more than sixty of them, in which the game can end.

When a player in Nethack dies, the game prints an ASCII tombstone for him embossed with character name, cash on hand at game end, and the cause of death. This information also goes into the score list to be ranked against other players. One of the joys of playing Nethack on a multi-user system, in fact, is noting some of the unusual deaths experienced by other players and thinking to yourself at least it wasn't me that time.

[Click through for more.]

Now, it is fun to build onto the reputation of a game noted for mercilessness, to tell inverse fish stories about the times you died in an impressive manner. And Nethack indeed is not afraid to kill the player if he does something worth being killed for, or fails to protect himself from that death. The existence of cockatrices in the game is more than enough proof of that. But it can take a good amount of trial, and a whole lot of error, to learn all those situations, and some people regard this as one of the game's flaws.

For example, the first time a player encounters a giant eel may end the game, because they can wrap themselves around him and drag him into the water, killing him in two turns. Eels are an extremely dangerous opponent. But once the player knows about the danger, it turns out there's quite a lot he can do in this situation:

  • He can just use a means of taking care of the eel from afar, and since they can't leave the water that's not too difficult.
  • Or he might grease his armor, making it difficult for the eel to gain hold.
  • Or he might wear an oilskin cloak, which is similarly slippery.
  • Or he might wear an amulet of magical breathing, making drowning impossible.
  • Or he might polymorph into a monster that doesn't need to breathe.
  • Or he might bridge the water with ice using a wand of cold, since eels are harmless out of the water.
  • Or he might teleport the eel with a wand, hopefully onto dry land.
  • Or he might trap the eel in a small pool by pushing boulders into the spaces around him, creating land.
  • Or, if he's levitating, he can stop, surprising the eel and making him lose his grip.
  • Or he could just wear an amulet of life saving.

Nethack has many ways of killing players, but it also tends to have as many ways of surviving those deaths. On top of that, many of the "causes" in the game are actually caused by just one thing really: damage. Everything in Nethack that causes damage, even as little as one hit point of it, potentially has its own unique epitaph on the score list.

Because of these things, the game has a bit of a reputation among some players for being unnecessarily cruel to new players, but once you know (finally) everything there is to know they say it's actually somewhat easy. This may, indeed, be true, but keep in mind that most people take years to get to that state, of Knowing It All, and many of them have a lot of fun along the way as well, so long as they don't get too broken up about dying all the time.

Anyway, here are some of the more interesting (or at least entertaining) of the many causes of death in Nethack.

Death by Inches

Player, fell onto a sink.

One of the more back-handedly useful effects in the game is levitation, gained from wearing the appropriate ring or boots, or drinking a certain type of potion. If gained by ring or boots the effect lasts until the item is removed, and if the item in question is cursed then that's an exceptionally bad state to be in. Levitating players cannot pick up anything off the floor or go down stairs, although they can sail over water and many traps.

But there are clever ways out of many problems in Nethack, and involuntary levitation is no different. One of the ways to stop levitating is to move onto the same space as a sink. (Think about it for a second... and yes, there are kitchen sinks in this dungeon. For Nethack, it was only a matter of time.)

Players who attempt to levitate over a sink crash to the floor, and in the process (ah-ha) they take a small amount of damage. If that damage should just happen to put a player's hit points to zero or lower then they die, and the reason for death reported and saved to the score file is "fell onto a sink." Not the most notable way for a player to go, but there are worse ways....

Player, killed by an unrefrigerated sip of juice.

One of the most potent traps in Nethack for early players are the fountains scattered throughout the dungeon. You can tell when a player becomes serious about winning the game when he decides he's had enough of being killed by water demons or water moccasins, having his stuff stolen by water nymphs, dying from system shock from failed polymorphs, or drowning in created pools, and finally determines to himself that he's going to stop drinking from those damn fountains!!!

One of the possible results from drinking from a fountain is tainted water ("Perhaps it is run-off from the nearby slime mold farm?"), and when drunk—you can probably guess where this is going—it does a small amount of damage. Like with sink falls, if that puts a player into a health deficit he dies, the reaper forgoing his customary scythe in favor of that unrefrigerated sip of juice.

Player, killed by an electric chair.

Another source of random effects are thrones, which unlike fountains have enough possible good effects to make them worth the utilization risk. When a player sits on a throne the best possible result is a wish for an object. The worst result is a shock of electricity that does, you guessed it, damage.

Death by Logic

Player, killed by a scroll of genocide.

We're starting to go now from random novelties to genuine sources of peril, but this one's still pretty obscure. Scrolls of genocide eliminate all of one type of monster in the game. Blessed scrolls do the same for one whole class of monster – classes are all those monsters represented by the same character on the display, for example all "h"s. But one of those characters that represent monsters is "@", which of course represents humans and elves, and the player is also an @. Thus reading a blessed scroll and specifying @ is a very quick way to perish yourself.

Ordinarily this is just kind of a joke, as it's pretty easy, you know, to just not type a @ when asked what you want to genocide, but there is one circumstance where it can be very perilous indeed. One of Nethack's many unique features is that some items have different effects in some circumstances, like when they are blessed or cursed for example. It so happens that scrolls, when read while the player is confused, have entirely different effects from when they're read when clear-minded. Sometimes these effects are better than the normal ones (especially scrolls of taming, which become much better), but a few are worse, and worst of them all are scrolls of genocide, which automatically kill the player when read while confused. They are the primary reason it is bad idea to ID scrolls by experimentation while confused.

Player, unwisely ate the body of Pestilence.

Nethack's epitaphs are usually straight-faced. Sometimes they might seem a little pithy (like "killed by elementary physics," which comes from damage taken from throwing objects into the air and not having something hard to wear on your head), but this is the only one that actually passes judgement on the player, at least in a way other than killing him.

On the Astral Plane at the end of the game there are three specific monsters who cannot be permanently slain (at least not normally – as with almost everything, There Are Ways), three of the riders of the apocalypse, Death Pestilence and Famine. You can run them out of hit points, but that will leave their corpse on the ground and it is always just a matter of time before it becomes animate again and resumes its pursuit.

Some players, who might think themselves pretty clever, will off one of these regenerating opponents and realize that he's fought foes like that before. Trolls in Nethack are infamous for resuming the fight over and over again, coming back to life over and over, until some method of disposing of their corpse is found. The method of choice is usually eating the corpse, but doing this against those final opponents will always kill the player, regardless of almost all other circumstances. That'll learn 'em.

Player, petrified by a cockatrice.
Player, petrified by swallowing a cockatrice whole.
Player, petrified by touching a cockatrice corpse.
Player, petrified by trying to tin a cockatrice without gloves.

The lowly cockatrice is perhaps the most dangerous monster in the game. There are plenty of monsters with more hit points, who do more damage, who have special attacks, and are just bigger, but cockatrices instantly kill anyone who touches them with their bare skin, and are thus very likely to kill players unwise in their dealings with them. Even Death up on Astral Plane has to succeed in an attack against a player to deliver an instakill, but a cockatrice can kill by being attacked.

  • If the player attempts to fight a cockatrice without a weapon or wearing gloves and hits, he turns to stone.
  • If the player hears a cockatrice's hissing, there's a chance he'll begin to turn to stone slowly. There are a few ways to stop that process, but if none of them are used he is petrified that way.
  • If he attempts to pick up a dead one with his bare hands, that will also turn him to stone. (It can also be wielded, however. Applications for a wielded cockatrice corpse are left for you to imagine, but I will say that it can be, hm, useful.)
  • If he's blinded and steps on the same space as a dead cockatrice without gloves on, then, since the player can only discover what's on a space by feel in that event, he'll become a very confused-looking statue indeed.
Player, killed by a collapsing drawbridge

There aren't really that many drawbridges in the game. There are never any before the Quest (around level 12-15), and sometimes the player won't find one until the Castle, which is quite deep into the dungeon. There's always a drawbridge on the Castle level, but many times there won't be any others.

The problem with drawbridges is that, if you're standing on the space in front of one and it opens you get squished, full stop. If you're standing on one that closes or gets destroyed you'll meet a similar end, even if you can breathe water. There are so few drawbridges in the game that discovering these deaths by trial and error means the end of very good runs, so many Nethack players come to develop an irrational fear of drawbridges, even if the actual deaths themselves are rare.

Deadly Reading

Player, committed suicide.

Sounds pretty prosaic, right? Several things a player can do in Nethack can cause direct death but have their own epitaphs, so what must players do to be considered to have explicitly committed suicide? The cause is fairly obscure.

First, get a cursed scroll of teleport, or read an uncursed one while confused. Teleport scrolls usually transport the player to another spot on the current level, but if they are read while it's cursed or he's confused the player will instead be transported to another dungeon level.

Then, obtain a means of teleport control. There aren't many ways to get this, the least risky way being to find the eponymous ring. Once worn it means, when you teleport, you get to pick where you go instead of getting sent to a random location. And if you get level-teleported, you get to pick, by entering a number, which level you go to.

Yes, you can go very deep into the dungeon instantly with just the ring and one scroll if you like, and almost reach the lowest level with but two scrolls. But consider for a moment: what does it mean to go to some numbered level of a dungeon? If you go to level "1," you are one level beneath the surface. If, on the other hand, you were in the basement of a tower and you took an elevator to the first floor, you'd then be on ground level. The riddle here is: where would be the zeroth floor?

The proper answer is "nowhere," and if, when asked what level to be magically teleported to, you answer "0," the answering prompt should be more than enough warning:

Go to Nowhere. Are you sure? [ynq] (q)

If you say "y," the result is:
You scream in agony as your body begins to warp... You cease to exist. Your possessions land on the floor with a thud.

Why this lurid fate is masked on the score list with "committed suicide" is anyone's guess.

Player, teleported out of the dungeon and fell to his death.

If, to the above prompt, you answered a negative number (that is, some level above the surface):

You are now high above the clouds... Unfortunately, you don't know how to fly. You plummet a few thousand feet to your death.

If you're a monster who can fly the result is different:
You are now high above the clouds... you fly down to the ground.

Your game still ends, mind, but it's by escaping, not death. There is not really a lot of difference between the two results, you just get 10% more points and the comforting knowledge that your character can now roam the earth as a vampire lord or whatever.

Player, went to heaven prematurely.

There's yet another result if you teleport to level -10 or, uh, higher:
You arrive in heaven. "Thou art early, but we'll admit thee."

There are a good number of other neat death causes, including a couple that aren't seen too much these days, "panic," meaning Nethack encountered a seriously faulty internal state and ended the game to avoid a likely crash, and "trickery," which means the game, upon inspecting a save or temporary level file, discovered that it failed its internal consistency checks and assumes the player is cheating by modifying them.

The Most Obscure Death

First, get a means of polymorph (a certain potion will do the trick) and a ring of polymorph control. It doesn’t matter what you turn into, it just has to be something that can read.

You’ll also need a scroll of genocide. The idea is to genocide your own species while polymorphed into another type of monster. This produces the ominous message:

You feel dead inside.

Now, when you change back to normal, your game will end instantly. Of course you could remain a monster indefinitely with an amulet of unchanging. You would, indeed, have to do this to stay in the game.

But what you want to do is not keep playing. You want to quit instead, with Alt-Q, which provides one of the cooler messages in Nethack:

Player, quit while already on Charon’s boat.

Charon is, by some accounts, the boatman that ferries souls to the underworld. He is also a monster who has long been seen in Nethack’s source code but has never been actually included in the game. It seems like he has been doomed forever, along with Cerberus, on the sidelines of the monster definition array, kept away from existence by a mere comment barrier, since the days of 3.1 and before.

There are other ways to get the Charon’s boat epitaph, as noted in Google Groups message from 2003. It seems that it's possible to abort some versions of Nethack in a way that causes it to automatically save, such as ending a telnet session or hitting Ctrl-C at a [more] prompt. If the player has been taken down to zero or lower hit points by his last action, but hasn't gotten the "You die...." message yet, then upon restoring the game the player will die immediately and the Charon's boat message will be given as the cause.

Interesting causes of death are part of what make Nethack, Nethack. Even players who consider that they have no chance of winning can still at least strive for a memorable way to end their life. One of the awards at /dev/null's yearly Nethack tournament is one for most causes of death encountered during the one-month contest period. You can also play the game to win, competing against legendary players like marvin, aka Christian Bressler, who last time won thirteen games in a row to walk away with the Best of 13 trophy.

Even if you don't think you have a chance at that one, you'll still get to compete on the big top score list, and encounter bones files from other players along the way. There's still time to sign up to play at this year's tournament, beginning November 1st, at Maybe I'll see you, or a ghost that used to be you, there.