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

We've discussed the information-heavy balance of the game Nethack before. How, once the player learns enough about the nature of the game world, all of the difficulty turns out to be front-loaded, before the player has had the chance to build up experience levels and equipment.

Recently, a couple of variants have arisen in order to remedy this perceived problem. Two years ago was the release of Derek Ray's Sporkhack, and only this past month saw the release of another, UnNethack, created by Patric Mueller.

Nethack's mysterious Dev Team is presumably aware of the problem, and though it is known that they're still around, updating bugs and answering email, and thus we assume are still working on the game, it has been a very long time since the last version. It has been over five years since the release of Nethack 3.4.3, the latest version of the game.

A rising current of opinion on is that the Dev Team has abandoned the game. Even if they haven't, a few of the more irksome characteristics have survived for multiple versions, long enough that it begins to look like the Dev Team is perfectly happy leaving them in.

Both are games that, to the many characters who die in the earliest regions of the dungeon, seem almost unchanged from the original game. While not any unfriendlier to a new player than vanilla Nethack, most of the changes in these games are aimed at the experienced hacker. Unlike uber-variant Slash'EM, neither seems to be interested in radical reinvention of the game.

The idea of a expert-foiling balance patch has actually been around for some time. One of the most popular variants of 3.1.3 was Stephen White's Nethack+, which also took it upon itself to correct some balance issues. Unicorn horns in that version, for instance, degrade with use.

So, what are the things that they balance? Quite a lot, really. Following are just two of examples. This list contains spoilers, of course, but the effect of these changes is to make the game harder for players who are already spoiled. Still, you should probably move on if you care about such things. We'll probably pick this thread up again later, after UnNethack has had some more development time.

Balance fix #1: Loosening up the "ascension kit."

This is particularly a focus of Sporkhack. In Nethack, nearly all players who aren't actively avoiding them for some reason strive to build up a certain set of equipment which make success all but certain. Nearly all ascensions not only contain some form of dragon scale mail, due to its light weight, non-hindrance to spellcasting, unequaled protection and special protection based on color, but in practice it's only three colors that are even used: gray, silver, and, coming up distant third, black. One way this is done is through the addition of a fractional resistance system. Permanent intrinsics from eating resistant monsters don't immediately go to 100% upon success, but must be reinforced through several such meals. This makes equipment-based sources, such as from the off-colors of dragon scale mail, more useful.

Related to this is the place of magic resistance in the game. After poison resistance (and in some ways surpassing it), magic resistance is the most essential intrinsic in vanilla Nethack 3.1-3.4, nullifying a wide range of dangers through the acquisition of one characteristic. Vanilla Nethack balances this by making equipment the only way to gain it, and few items grant it: basically, to get magic resistance, the player must wear a cloak of magic resistance, a suit of gray dragon scale mail, or hold one of a few quest artifacts, which must either be wished for or the matching class must be played.

Sporkhack's solution is to make magic resistance both less needed and less useful. Magic resistance is essential because of the high-level monster spells of Touch of Death and Destroy Armor, both most-often cast by opponents who are able to teleport after the player and are thus difficult to escape without fighting them, and thus taking a few spells. They may even decide to use one immediately after a teleport, giving the player no opportunity to avoid a potentially deadly attack. Magic resistance protects against both states, and so it is of great value in a game of vanilla Nethack.

No, more than that: because the player's whole game can be ended, or grievously harmed, by a single unavoidable moment, magic resistance is an essential characteristic. If you don't have it by the time teleporting liches start showing up (usually the Castle), then you are subjecting your character's life to the whims of the dice, and as we covered before, high-level roguelike play is about eliminating such risks wherever possible.

Sporthack makes Touch of Death do high physical damage and max HP drain instead of killing the player outright (think of it as an "aging" attack....). Magic resistance helps reduce this penalty but doesn't eliminate it. It also makes it so that the Destroy Armor isn't outright blocked by magic resistance.

Balance fix #2: Make the game's levels more unpredictable.

This is a focus of UnNethack primarily, which merges in more versions of many special levels. It gets its levels from other variants and patches. Both it and Sporkhack also fold in Pasi Kallinen's "flipped levels" patch, which sometimes mirrors a special level on its X or Y axis. Sporkhack also contains new code that allows more doors to be randomly placed, in order to keep long-time players on their toes.

The level additions are made possible by the fact that most of the game's important locations are not random in layout, but come from a level file, a utility file created from a source definition during the compilation process. This setup was developed in order to allow more coding-friendly hackers to modify their game dungeons, but it also allowed the Dev Team, eventually, to make multiple versions of the most important special levels, which are randomly selected for inclusion each game. This makes it relatively easy to add new levels to the game, so many variants feature them.

Both Spork and Un add in some level variants, but more in order to liven things up by presenting more options for those levels that are chosen from pre-made templates. One of the biggest sources of new levels is Pasi Kallinen, who has written a range of patches that include new versions of levels such as Sokoban, Medusa, Castle, and other levels. Some of these versions post new challenges; word is one of the new versions of the Medusa level must be travelled carefully to avoid catching sight of its star monster before engaging in combat with her.

Unnethack also brings in the "Heck2 patch," a radically reorganized scheme for what most players consider to be the most boring area of the game, Gehennom. It also has variants for the demon lord lairs, and additional lairs for previously-neglected lords. It also includes a Very Special Guest Star subbing in as Amulet guard for the High Priest of Moloch....

Basic Nethack has four primary level generation systems. Dungeon levels are those found throughout the main dugeon, Cave levels are found in the Gnomish Mines, Mazes are generated in the deep dungeon and Gehennom, and the Rogue level has a unique generation scheme. After some plays, these schemes, while suitably chaotic for new players, can become fairly familiar to an experienced hacker.

UnNethack livens the early dungeon up a bit by adding in the "town" generation scheme from Nethack Brass. Sporkhack tries to mix up Gehennom a bit by randomly changing its maze walls to other types, such as lava, a rude surprise for players used to leaning on direction keys to hurry through. Both games also do away with one of the most frustrating aspects of Nethack's ascension run, the "mysterious force" that sometimes random teleports players downward while carrying the Amulet.