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.]

In Giant Eel Stories, we examine the phenomenon of Usenet victory posts, in which players crow about games which were very interesting, often because of something that happened, or some conduct they upheld, or they won. This time we again focus on Nethack, although we may not in the future.

In this installment:

- We learn about a wizard who wasn't just content with killing a lot of monsters, but had to kill all the monsters....

- After than, we meet a Healer who won the game without killing anything at all, although it must be said a large horde of henchmen was seen following him through the dungeons...

- We have a look at the story of the Priest who did not win, but will still be remembered probably for years to come for getting the highest score. And when I say that, I mean she really got the highest score....

- We finish up with a look at a real story: a work of Nethack fanfiction. Yes, it exists. No, it is not as lame as you think it might be.

Edward, Chaotic Male Elven Wizard Extinctionist, Ascended
Played by Matthew Bourland
Google Reader archive

Some of the more useful objects in Nethack are scrolls of genocide, which can be used to wipe entire species of monster out of the game. While they don't work on everything, they do work on a lot of things, and they do an utterly thorough job. Once genocided, a class of monsters will be completely absent from play for the rest of the current game. It will be cleared out of the current level, will be wiped from existence from previously-visited level when they are seen, and will never be generated again.

But there is another kind of "genocide" in the game as well. Unlike most other roguelikes (and RPGs in general), generally speaking, there is only a limited number of each kind of monster existing in the game. Every time a monster is generated, a counter is incremented for that species, and once it hits 120, generally speaking, no more of that monster will be seen. In game terms, that monster is "extinct." When the game rolls to generate a new roaming monster on a level, if that monster is chosen it'll roll again, and again if necessary. Levels that come stocked with that monster already on it, even non-random levels, will, in most cases, be a bit emptier. Those monsters can still be added to the game via a small number of other ways, but they won't be roaming around levels, in general, any more.

Nethack is not a small game, but neither is it very big, and there are hundreds of types of monsters for the generation code to choose from, so it is rare that a quarter of those limits are reached in a game if the player is really trying to win, even if he drags his feet along the way. The extinction check is mostly there to put an ultimate barrier to certain kinds of monster farming behavior (which it really isn't too good at since the worst kind of farming, that of black puddings, uses a method that ignores extinction).

Even so, there has in recent years been established an unofficial conduct called Extinctionist, and many players have accomplished it now. The linked-to story describes the first such game recorded. What an Extinctionist tries to do is completely eliminate as many kinds of monsters from the game as possible, either through genocide if it's available, or from just depleting all the kinds of monsters that can be produced.

People who play these games, it must be said, often find that by the end it is not just the monsters that are exhausted. Extinctionist games can last weeks, and it is not even terribly exciting play along the way. A character with sufficient mojo to cause the game to run out of Archons will not have much to fear from the rest of the bestiary either, and the tremendous amounts of loot that rapidly pile up during these games eventually make what few source of danger that remain trivial to overcome.

But Extinctionist games are interesting not just as an example of some players' degree of obsession with Nethack. When Nethack starts to run out of monsters, what happens is, first, the few monsters that aren't yet extinct appear much more often, which are often the harder foes in the game by that time (like Archons), but their increased numbers run them out faster as well. But in the long run, after even the rarest foes are depleted, the way Nethack handles it is that monsters just stop appearing. (This is its own problem, since without monster corpses to eat, and once all the territory in the game has been explored, most players will eventually run out of food.)

Another consequence of Extinctionist games is that vast amounts of loot will eventually be generated in those games. Some of the loot generated by this are things that the player can use to increase his stats, or damage done, or armor class, or be used to make other useful things. By properly utilizing all this stuff, Extinctionist characters can become super-strong, powerful to a degree far beyond the realm of mortals. We're talking people in a world with 1st ed D&D sensibilities having hit points enough to make Final Fantasy characters jealous, armor classes of -60 and better, and a few other, esoteric benefits that most players go their entire Nethack careers without seeing, like acquiring high levels of intrinsic damage bonuses from eating many rings of increase damage.

But such extents of power are overkill, of course, as Nethack characters wielded by players who are steeped enough in the game's lore that they can seriously attempt Extinctionist games are rarely in tremendous danger after the early levels of the game, unless they are playing one of the truly extreme conducts. Like Pacifist.

Patito, Neutral Male Gnomish Healer Pacifist, Ascended
Played by Andreas Dorn
Google Reader archive

In a game in which thousands of monsters die by the end of a game, it seems like pacifist characters shoudn't even be possible, but they are, and the conduct has been done several times now.

Pacifism, in Nethack, means that the player cannot bring about the death of a monster by his own actions. It is okay to hit monsters (there is another conduct, regarding wielded weapons, for that), although it can be dangerous to do so since one might accidentally kill it in the process.

The problem with playing a Pacifist is that there are so many monsters who want to kill the player, and without being able to kill them in return it is extremely difficult to survive long enough to get to deeper levels. Plus, many of the objects the player needs, and really wants, are held by particular monsters. The solution to that is to have lots of pets, and strong ones, to take care of those monsters for you.

The problem with that is that pets are vulnerable in way the player is not, and can be instantly killed or permanently transformed very easily, in addition to facing most of the same dangers player characters have to deal with. Pacifist players usually must continually acquire new pets to make up for the ones lost to attrition.

Pets are not as capable as players for other reasons besides. When monsters are tamed, many of their non-melee abilities, like dragon breath and spellcasting, are lost, and they will never willingly attack a foe more than one experience level greater than it. Most of the baddies towards the end (particularly the Wizard of Yendor, who gets stronger and stronger) have so high a level that no pet will attack them unless special measures are taken to enhance their power. Because of this, Healers are probably the best choice for Pacifist games, not just for their thematic appropriateness but because their quest artifact, the Staff of Aesculapius, can drain levels from foes when they are struck with it, eventually getting them to the point where they can be finished off by a handy horde of friends.

Pets are the key to surviving a Pacifist game (that and figuring out how to raise one's experience level without combat), and Patito the Gnomish Healer was extremely skilled at their acquiring and maintenance. So great was his mojo in this regard that he even managed to tame... Pestilence.

That's Pestilence, the Horseman of the Apocalypse who hangs out on the Astral Plane, a unique monster who cannot be permanently killed but, apparently, can be tamed. Word on whether it enjoyed scooby snacks is, unfortunately, unavailable.

Zadir, Neutral Female Human Priest, killed by overexertion.
Played by legopowa
Google Reader archive

Nethack is a roguelike game, a roleplaying game, and its own self-consistent, algorithmically-generated world, but it is also a computer program, and computer programs, as we discovered back in 1999, have limits.

Destroying all the monsters in the dungeon is one such limit, and another is the range of the player's score. When computer games are stretched far beyond the expected limits, sometimes strange behavior is seen. The old arcade phenomenon of scores that rolled over to zero after passing a maximum value is an example of this. Many of them used a kind of binary-coded-decimal system to represent the score both on-screen and in memory, as a way of saving a few extra processor cycles, but with the result that, once the player's score exceeded however many 9s were allotted on-screen, the score value would "roll over," back to zero.

Modern computer games (and make no mistake, we are talking about one of them) use a C number type, in Nethack's case 31 bits long plus one bit to hold a positive sign, to store the player's score. Just like with a decimal record-keeping system, this variable can overflow, but that value is so vastly great that the player would have to earn... let me see... ah, 2,147,483,648 points to do so. That's over two billion points in a game in which most games score less than 1,000, victories tend to score between two and eight million, and Extinctionist games are in the tens of millions. So, would you believe that--

Aw heck, who am I kidding? Of course you believe it. We've already established that some people can win as pacifists in a game in which anyone sane kills monsters reflexively.

Further, legopowa's game was not something he did at home, away from prying eyes that might discover any cheating methods he might have used. He played his game in public, on alt.org's Nethack server. For a while, players had amused themselves there with setting higher and higher scores, trying to gain the coveted top spot on the list, while all the ordinary players (like myself) were sent into deep despair of ever hoping to topple them.

Nethack points are earned for reaching new dungeon levels, for collecting gold and artifacts, and for a variety of other little things, but in the end the thing that makes up most of the score is experience points. Not "gift" experience, such as from finding sources of free levels, but experience gained from killing monsters. Players gain the great majority of their points through killing monsters, and there is really no way around that. While a player, once he's reached the point where he can kill with impunity, can basically mint his points, it still takes an incredible amount of time to earn scores even of a hundred million. For two billion, it would seem to require decades, certainly at least years.

legopowa, using macros to automate his game, did it in a week.

The full details are in the Google Groups post, and he explains it better than I could, but the final result of his game are these: first, he scored MAXINT minus one points, getting the highest possible score without overflowing the score counter and thus finally and eternally claiming the top spot on alt.org's scoreboard, and second, he proved without doubt that Nethack's scoring system is broken. It might seem to be rather an extreme length to go to to prove such a thing, but that is just the kind of game it is.


In leaving you this time, I present that piece of Nethack fanfiction mentioned before, Virgo Vardja's "Behind The Scenes," the tale, not of how Cloud would love Sepiroth ever so sweetly, or of how Sonic the Hedgehog characters get along in their eternal angst-fueled war against the machines, or of how the author could be the only person Legolas/Captain Picard/Neo could ever love.

It is the story of what happens, in the Dungeons of Doom, after a player wins the game, and the residents have to get back to their lives. Perhaps that isn't as, um, "exciting" as the other inspirations for fanfiction out there on the internet, but it is at the very least entertaining to think about. (Other stories from Virgo Vardja can be found on his Nethack site.)