Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time, he presents a Halloween special in honor of devnull's Nethack tournament, which begins at midnight!]

The most impressive thing about devnull's Nethack tournament is its longevity. This is the tenth consecutive year it's been run. It's old enough that it's spanned multiple Nethack versions. It's been said that it could be the oldest-running computer gaming tournament in existence. It's a difficult claim to prove, but it may will be true.

logoDespite the great obstacles to making roguelikes work as multiplayer games they have long had a substantial online presence, and a big part of this is the relative ease in setting up terminal-based, ASCII games for playing over the internet via telnet, SSH, or some other form of remote console.

Originally intended for local networks, when the internet hit it big suddenly games that were originally shared between a group of students could be enjoyed from the other side of the planet. In the case of Nethack, despite the availability of graphics when played locally, a good case could be made that online play, such as though alt.org, is the best way to play.

It gets you other people's bones files (remnant levels of past, lost games), a community score list (now so bloated that the lowest entry on the top 2000 list is an ascension with over 4 million points), ghost names taken from prior players, realtime game spectating, game recording through TTYRECs, and even the sending of messages to players during the game by retrofitting Nethack's mail daemon monsters.

What is probably the best-known public Nethack server isn't even up year-round. The yearly Nethack tournament hosted by dev/null/network only runs during the month of November, usually making the front page over at Slashdot shortly before it lands. (Slashdot stories: 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2001) While light on features compared to alt.org's (mostly) perpetual setup, their tournament is interesting for many other reasons.

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Despite Nethack's great suitability for online play, there are some difficulties with running an actual tournament. Probably the biggest is that, in the years since the release of version 3.4.3, Nethack has been extensively analyzed and spoiled, even wikified, and its source code has been made searchable on the web more than once.

Anyone willing to put the energy into it can build an extensive bulwark of knowledge against the game, and a player that has acquired it can play amazingly well. New players are lucky to get to level 7, but people who have really studied the game win all the time. A few players, given enough time and effort, seem able to win on demand.

Three games over on alt.org have earned exactly the maximum possible score in the signed 32-bit integer variable the game uses to record it, over 2.7 billion points, and one of those wasn't even a winner. If more than one player is capable of reaching MAXINT-1 points then, it's sad to say, score is probably no longer the best measure of playing ability.
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devnull's award setup takes this into account by measuring some accomplishments other than score. To this end, there's roughly four levels of trophies, with some aimed at nearly every type of person who plays Nethack.

Things Most People Can win

TheDilithiumStar_Icon.pngTheSilverStar_Icon.pngThe lowest tier simply measures progress towards winning a game. There's an array of several Stars, from plastic to dilithium (the most valuable gemstone in Nethack), that are awarded for making game progress. Each player earns one of these, corresponding to his best progress into the game.

A Plastic Star, for instance, is earned for completing the Sokoban levels. A bit further up the scale is the Iron Star, for beating the Quest dungeon. The Copper Star is awarded for entering Gehennom. The most notable stars are Silver (getting the Amulet of Yendor), Gold (reaching the Elemental Planes), Platinum (reaching the Astral Plane), and Dilithium (ascending).

Notably, one of the stars is earned from reaching the bottom level of the Gnomish Mines, which, with persistence and luck, most players can probably accomplish. Because of this, a good majority of players can win something. (Note that by winning "something," I mean a small gif suitable for linking to a website. I do not think there are physical trophies involved this year.)

Another category that tends to be wide open are the challenges. One of the most distinctive things about the devnull tournament is that it's not played, strictly speaking, with vanilla Nethack. Every year since 2003 2005 the maintainers have written and added a new patch to the game that implements a substantial new feature. The feature is never revealed ahead of time; the player must discover it during the game.

PacManChallenge_Icon.pngKoLChallenge_Icon.pngIt always revolves around some thing that a player must accomplish. These "challenges" are sometimes surprising in their wide-ranging scope: the very first one required that players go to popular web game Kingdom of Loathing and complete a quest in a Nethack-inspired parody dungeon! Other challenges haven't required going to another site, but have some fairly heavy Zork references and a Pac-Man maze.

UnknownChallenge_Icon.pngNethack adepts may shaking their heads in dismay at that news, so they'll be relieved to hear that devnull's challenges are optional. The first time the player does something that in any way affects a challenge he's told and asked if he wants to participate, although the nature of the challenge itself isn't otherwise revealed. If he chooses then, he can completely disable challenges and play what amounts to (barring bugs) standard Nethack 3.4.3.

Most of the really good players know that to do well at Nethack requires knowing as much about the game as they can and so pre-disable them in their tournament config file. But to players who don't care so much about winning one of the big trophies, the challenges can be a fun diversion, allowing them to liven up a game of which they thought they had known everything.

Note, especially, that each year all the challenges from previous years remain in the game, in addition to the new challenge. All of the challenges get their own trophy awarded to players who complete it. This year, as revealed by the trophy description page, nine trophies center on the new challenge!

Things Experienced 'Hackers Can Win

The next tier of awards are for those players to whom ascensions are expected and foregone conclusions, and counts what a variety of ascensions they have during the tournament month. Ascending a character of each gender (that is, any male character, and any female character) has "shot the Birdie."

Ascending a character of each gender and alignment (lawful, neutral and chaotic) in any combination, requiring a minimum of three victories, is "throwing the Double Top." Add in all the races (human, elf, dwarf, gnome and orc, so five wins minimum) to "do the Hat Trick." "Hitting the Grand Slam" is to also ascend every role of the game's 13, which by implication means also winning 13 games during the one-month contest period. Last year, three players accomplished this.

TheFullMontyWithBellsOn_Icon.pngFinally, "going the Full Monty" is doing all this, plus keeping all of the game's conducts in at least one won game. They don't have to all be done in a single game, but a few of the conducts, like foodless, weaponless and pacifist, are still quite challenging all by themselves. All of these awards can also be earned "with bells on," which in the jargon of the tournament means meeting their requirements in consecutive games.

So, to win the Full Monty With Bells On is to win 13 games in a row, one of every role, and getting in the foodless, atheist and pacifist conducts along the way. Last year someone won this for the first time in the tournament's history. Predictably, it was won by marvin, maintainer of the Atari ST port of Nethack, scourge of alt.org's scoreboard, and probably the best overall 'hacker in the world.

HighScoreValkyrie_Icon.pngHighScoreWizard_Icon.pngHighScoreMonk_Icon.pngHighScoreTourist_Icon.pngThings Really Good Players Can Win

Another set of awards goes to the player who earnest the highest score with each character role. Score, as mentioned, is no longer the best measure of playing skill, but the game still tracks it and it does serve an important historic value. It's interesting to note those cases where a score listed as winning a role trophy also appears winning another trophy; in this manner, one can discover that the player who won Most Conducts did it while playing a Monk.

BestBehavedAscension_Icon.pngThe top tier of trophies are the mutually-exclusive (except for ties) ones that record the best players, according to various measurements, played during the contest period. The best scoring game played during the month is recorded here.

In 2007 that top score was 134,520,114 points, obtained in a game played by user nopsled. This was also that Monk game that won Best Conduct, with 10 of the game's 12 earned. (I've been unable to find conclusive details of the conducts he kept, but it was probably all of them except pacifist and foodless. The reason playing a Monk is significant is that they actually get bonuses for fighting unarmed, so the conduct for never hitting with a wielded weapon is relatively easy to keep.)

Things The Very Best Can Win

LowestScoredAscension_Icon.pngAnother top-tier trophy notes the lowest scored ascension, which in 2007 went to theta's game of 25,360 points. Earning an extremely high Nethack score is mostly a matter of patience, but earning an extremely low score for a winning game is a tremendous challenge.

The player gets one point for each experience point earned through combat (no free experience grants are counted), and that score is doubled upon victory, so to do this one must nearly play as a pacifist anyway. The first ascension trophy goes to the player to get the first victory during the contest period, usually on the first day.

FastestAscensionGametime_Icon.pngFastestAscensionRealtime_Icon.pngThe fastest ascensions in game time (turns elapsed) and real time (only actual playing time counted) are now tracked by separate trophies. 2007's fastest game in real time was aardvark's credibility-defying four-and-a-half-hour game, and its fastest counted in turns was r.g.r.n regular rast's playthrough of 10,067 turns, which is even more eye-popping to someone who knows what a player must go through to win.

Getting to the penultimate level of the dungeon rapidly is not hard at all for a player with just the right equipment (controlled levelport has been a trademark Nethack trick since ancient times), but getting that one last floor down requires getting three specific items that usually require a lot of fighting to earn. But the worst bit is that the player cannot purposely levelport while wearing the Amulet of Yendor, so he must walk all the way back up, while getting sent back levels randomly, purely through the malevolent whim of the game.

BestOf13_Icon.pngMostAscensions_Icon.png
Things Marvin Can Win

Of the four remaining exclusive trophies, two of them, Most Ascensions and Best of 13, are nearly always won by marvin. Best of 13 is the number of won games out of 13 consecutive ones. Hitting a Grand Slam with Bells On would also earn one a perfect score in this, but I don't know what happens if two players qualify.

Things Kenny From South Park Can Win

KilledByATrickery_Icon.pngAnother trophy notes the "death by trickery" that the game reports when, due to a bug in the game's code, it wrongly counts a game as having been tampered with.

If Nethack thinks it detects tampering with the game files it'll end the game, reporting "A trickery" on the scoreboard. Since the tournament version patches the game software, it is always possible that this will occur (as it did a number of times last year). In that event this trophy is offered as a consolation prize.

MostUniqueDeaths_Icon.pngThe last trophy is a real favorite, awarded to the player who encountered the most unique causes of death during the contest period. 2007's trophy for Most Unique Deaths was won by theta who, with 141 different types, had 72% of all the possible demises.

This is pretty impressive in itself; much is made by all the ways a Nethack game can end, but the tournament's maintenance software lumps most monster-caused deaths into a small number of root causes, so one can't just get killed by every monster there is to shoot up his total. Many causes are rather obscure.

Everything that clips even a single hit point is potentially a source of mortality, and Nethack has so many sources of piddling low damage that the great majority of those death types, in practice, only occur to players who are shooting for them. And many death types, like being petrified by Medusa or dying to a demon lord, basically require giving up a game so advanced that winning would be a foregone conclusion to many players.

If this sounds like fun, new players can sign up once the tournament begins on November 1 on the registration page. If you just want to watch, check out the bragging board. You can also help the tournament out by purchasing merchandise at the swag page, which has new stuff as well as a few items left over from the very first tournament. Go have a look, and bask in that warm glow of awesome that only a printed adaption of a green-screen terminal display can provide.

[Come back in a couple of days for part two of @Play's devnull Nethack tournament special, a Q&A session with devnull maintainer Robin Bandy!]