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 happiest things that can happen to a player in Nethack is being granted a wish. Wishes are one of those things that distinguish roguelike games like Nethack and ADOM from the vast category of lesser RPGs. Imagine if a Final Fantasy VI player were able to wish for the most powerful weapons in the game from relatively early on? That these two games now only allow this, but are not irretrievably broken because of it, speaks volumes about the care that was taken in putting their supposedly-chaotic designs together.

In ADOM the player can only wish for non-artifact objects, but in Nethack, a wish can give the player nearly anything, including artifacts and even one quest artifact per game. The only object types that can't be wished for in Nethack are your role's own quest artifact, and the four objects required to win, one of which being the Amulet of Yendor itself. But obtaining a wish is not easy, and knowing what to wish for is not obvious.

The ways you can get a wish in Nethack involve fountains or thrones (both very unlikely, and are highly dangerous to low-level characters), magic lamps (quite uncommon and it requires special equipment to maximize the chance of a wish), smoky potions (same as lamps, but much rarer) and wands of wishing (the least common item in the game). All these methods are rare, unintuitive, and/or dangerous enough to a new player that many people go for months without realizing that such things as wishes are even in the game.

But eventually, a player drinking from random fountains, generally an unwise move, lucks out and summons a water demon, who is grateful for release and grants him a wish. What to wish for?

The Question With No Right Answer? Well Actually...

NetHack___The_Sceptre_Of_Might_by_calamarain.jpgA new player has never had a wish before. He may be able to piece together for himself that he is supposed to ask for, that is type in the name of, an object. Most early Nethack players, again, have probably not seen even half the ordinary stuff that can be generated in a game, even less often identified that stuff, and has probably not ever seen a single artifact. It is a case where the player does not even know what is in the game, so he won't know what he can ask for.

As he puts more time into the game he'll find more items, that eventually he might acquire some objective understanding of how they help his game. Among the most useful items are speed boots, but compared to Stormbringer or an amulet of life saving their effect isn't very flashy. He may even figure out for himself that he can wish for items with a specified enchantment, erosion-resistance, or blessed/cursed status, all at once. Of course, the only opportunity he could have to find out that works is at a wish prompt, and even with obsessive play it can be days or even weeks between those for a typical low-level Nethack player.

Now, let me skip ahead to the end of this train of discovery, and note that the destination is a spoiler, so try to skip past the rest of this paragraph if you care about such things. The best item to wish for, for 90% of Nethack characters, is blessed +2 gray dragon scale mail.

This one item, obtained and worn, will suddenly make most characters about three times more survivable.

  • It will give him a negative armor class all by itself (dragon scale mail is the best type of armor) so monsters hit less often and do less damage when they do.
  • It's extremely light so it won't weigh him down like plate mail.
  • It's not made of metal so it won't inhibit spellcasting.
  • It doesn't burn, corrode or rust.
  • It even confers magic resistance, immediately ending the game-ruining effects of level-teleport and polymorph traps, nullifing the effects of wands of striking, magic missile, and death, and making the player immune to the worst monster spells: Destroy Armor and Finger of Death.

Dragon scale mail is never found randomly in the dungeon, but must otherwise be made from dragon scales of the right color (infrequently dropped by the eponymous monster) and then a scroll of Enchant Armor must be spent to make it, so the chances are slim that a character will find one eventually anyway. And yet, this item is not even an artifact. Dragon scale mail is so useful that all Nethack characters not specifically looking for a extra challenge win the game with it on their backs; even for those 10% of characters for whom gray dragon scale mail is not the best choice it is only because they already have or can infallibly obtain another source of magic resistance. For them, silver dragon scale mail is recommended.

(Spoiler end.)

"So It's Great, but I'm Still Not Sold...."

Nethack___The_Longbow_of_Diana_by_calamarain.jpgA character who obtains this thing is suddenly in a position to make excellent progress in the game. The Gnomish Mines change from being a ravening slayer of innocent players to almost a playground. It stops short of being a guarantee of survival (especially if the player doesn't have poison resistance), but it has a profound effect. Finding out about dragon scale mail is as major a step towards becoming a Nethack expert as discovering what's safe to eat, figuring out when to use the #pray command, learning about sacrificing at altars, piecing together how to make and use holy water, and noting how to pay for intrinsic protection. All of these things make a Nethack character that more likely to live through a general crisis, but none of these things is too terribly obvious to someone making his first trip into the Dungeons of Doom. It is possible to win without knowing any of this, but realistically, that's territory for experts, not the average 'hacker.

This brings us around to the point, which has to do with the relationship between roguelike games and spoilers. There are many players of more mass-market computer games who would never think of tackling a new adventure from the likes of Blizzard, Square/Enix, Nintendo or Rockstar without a strategy guide at the ready. Many experienced players, like myself for instance, scoff at this. We know that computer games are now many times easier than they were in the old days, and we defeated enough in that dusty era to easily give us the confidence we need to power through Final Tales of DeityGlobe 3: The Enfastening.

But with roguelike games... with these...

The Guiltless Confession

It is not so much that I am "admitting" to having read practically every spoiler about the game of Nethack ever written. It's that the purpose of spoilers for these games seems to be something different, not just in scale but in nature, than it is for other games. One cannot really "admit" anything, because winning the game all but implies being spoiled. While people do win at Nethack without being spoiled (they didn't write themselves, anyway) it is surpassingly rare.

Nethack_Yendorian_Express_Card_by_calamarain.jpgYet the game is chaotic enough that knowing all there is to know about it does not mean automatic survival. In fact, just having the information means nothing unless you have digested it, sorted it out in your head and turned it into a plan of attack. Reading the spoilers for such games doesn't ruin them, it is the barrier of entry to success.

Now some people complain, with some justice it cannot be denied, about this state of affairs, and it has lead to the creation and development of an entire class of roguelikes that prides itself on not requiring a master's degree in the game in order to win. But it is worth examining how this situation came about, and how it is that, to a great degree, the situation is fundamentally unavoidable.

"My Valkyrie Puts All Her Skill Points Into 'Google Lore'!"

The first roguelike game was, of course, Rogue, which was a much harder game than any modern example of the breed while having not nearly as much to learn as any of them. A rogue can be killed through pure bad luck. Even an expert player will die many times before he wins. There is a balance in a game between the share of the difficulty that comes from lack of knowledge and that which comes from the game environment. Rogue's balance is tilted far over in favor of environment.

For this kind of game, the chances of winning can be measured as a very low percentage of games, but knowing certain facts about the monsters, the dungeon or how the items work could raise that by a couple of percentage points each. In the early history of Rogue, the game was played mostly in university computer rooms, whether the received wisdom of the game was passed orally, then through the use of text files like the Rogue's Vade-Mecum.

Nethack_Master_Key_of_Thievery_by_calamarain.jpgNethack's evolution has filled the game with progressively more ways to ease its difficulty curve, so that the balance is far on the side of knowledge. For a well-informed player the game is much easier, and there is a well-known set of hint files relating to the game dating back to version 3.0, called the WCST Spoilers, widely read at the time. The game is famous for "being fair," that is, providing ways out of almost all situations. This implies that it is the player's fault if he dies, but there is a downside; if there is a way out of every situation, then a perfectly knowledgeable player will be able to survive any situation. But the important thing to understand about this is that there is no middle ground; if the game is going to remain a challenge (and the game's score-based premise means it must be), and not an action game, then a balance must be found between the two poles: pure chaos with no guarantees of survival, or complete survivability to a sufficiently determined, that is to say spoiled, player.

This means that people who expect to be able to win if they play well will come to see reading the spoilers as necessary to play. Spoilers are not required to win at Nethack, but the trail goes on for years without them. You can discover that dragon scale mail exists, that gray dragon scale mail provides magic resistance, that magic resistance is an essential attribute to have, and then piece together that a first wish should be spent on it over time, slowly, over the course of dozens of individual incidents spread across many hundreds of games, eventually forging the essential fact in your head through research independent of the efforts of others. Or, you can spend ten minutes reading it here.

What's it going to be?

Thanks to Roger "calamarain" Barnett for the renders of the Nethack quest artifacts. His roguelike webcomic, "Angband – Tales from the Pit," can be seen at this address: http://angband.calamarain.net/