As you can see, this guide hasn't been updated since 2002. For more information about this fine game, go see Nethack Wiki.
Written by Mikko Saari with contributions from Raisse the Thaumaturge, JPV, Aaron, Scott Schulz, David Damerell, Topi Linkala, Chip McCleary, Timo Korvola, Eva Myers, Oisin "Curly++" Curtin, Virgo Vardja and Dylan O'Donnell. Extra special thanks to Raisse for being a nitpick.
Thanks to Gary D. Young for the second subtitle, though this honour probably belongs to the endless stream of newbies of r.g.r.n. May Moloch leave you in peace, for you are our future!
NetHack is, without a doubt, the best game ever written. There are many reasons for this. First, it's free. Second, it's more complicated and deeper than pretty much anything else. And third, if zipped, it almost fits on single 1,44 Mb diskette. How many games today can achieve all that?
It is also one of the most difficult games I've ever met. I've only ascended (NetHack term for winning the game) it once. And I've played it for years. Ok, I suck, but it's also because the game is so difficult. Especially in the beginning. And that's why I wrote this, to help beginning players to get some idea what is going on, without spoiling the fun.
If you have any comments/additions to this, please mail me (my address can be found in the end of this file). This guide is valid for NetHack 3.4.1, but most things should be correct for earlier versions as well. That I won't guarantee, however. And before you whine and complain to me, please read the disclaimer in the end.
It is a good idea to play a lot of random characters in the beginning. If you get stuck on one character, you won't see the whole picture of the game. For example, playing only priests with their ability to detect the cursed or blessed state of an object might make you too dependent on that ability. Play different classes to get the whole picture, then choose your favourites.
There are, however, big differences in the survival rates of different classes. Barbarians and Valkyries are the strongest classes and so usually survive better than weaker classes. Lots of hit points, decent equipment and strength to use it. Samurai are not bad either.
Archeologists start with a pickaxe (and should probably wield it, until they get a better weapon; a dwarvish mattock, that is) and a touchstone to identify gems.
Barbarians are strong warriors. They start with good weapons and some food. They are also poison resistant.
Cavemen are a weaker version of Barbarians. Not good, play Barbarians instead if you don't seek extra challenges. They, however, don't know why cannibalism is a bad thing and that can be useful sometimes.
Healers have some interesting equipment and spells, but are rather weak. They should have no problems getting food, though.
Knights have good equipment but are not really combat monsters. They can jump and turn undead. They have also a code of conduct to follow, which makes things complicated.
Monks are difficult, they are martial arts experts and should not use body armour or eat meat. Food rations are vegetarian, but you can't eat meaty corpses without a (small) penalty.
Priests can identify the blessed/cursed status of objects. It is a very useful ability, but watch out that you don't get too used to it.
Rangers are experts with ranged weapons and can be very deadly from a long distance.
Rogues can throw multiple daggers in one turn, which is good. They can also be experts in two-weapon combat. They should use their daggers to kill just about everything, until they reach a level high enough to start to learn two-weapon combat.
Samurai can fight with two weapons too and are strong warriors. They probably should start fighting with two weapons immediately to learn it. Only when it's really important to hit something, use one weapon.
Tourists are a slightly curious bunch. They have lots of money and food but not much else. They are one of the most difficult characters to start with.
Valkyries are the best choice for newbies, they are the strongest warriors and survive easily. Also, growing up in a cold climate has made them cold resistant (I wish I was cold resistant too, but Finland is not cold enough for that, I guess.)
Wizards start now with the force bolt spell, which increases their chances of survival. Still, they are not the easiest class to start with.
Don't care too much about the race of your character. It has little impact on beginner's playing. Humans are the basic choice, other races have some benefits (infravision, mostly). Dwarves are ok for warrior types, elves for wizards. Being a dwarf or gnome makes the Gnomish Mines a lot easier.
One thing that kept killing me in my early NetHack days was starvation. Many characters start without any food at all and it won't take very long to get hungry. After you're hungry, you get weak and sooner or later you'll be fainting and finally starving to death. Where to find food?
Well, there's pretty much food just lying around. If you're getting hungry and the level in which you currently are is empty of food, try going down a level, there might be some food.
One option is to kill something and eat it. However, while eating some corpses might give you certain benefits, eating some corpses will give you nothing but food poisoning. A few rules of thumb are a) eat your corpses fresh and b) your pet knows certain things better than you. Don't eat anything your pet won't. It'll keep you out of the worst trouble. Also remember, some corpses are more filling than others and some are worth saving for later.
There also one way to get your stomach content, but that should be left to the uttermost emergencies. If you have a healthy relationship with your god, praying will fill your stomach if you are in real need. However, one should not pray too often. Gods get angry and when they are angry, mere mortals should beware. So, save praying for food to those situations where it's a choice of praying or dying.
One of the first things you might notice is that you have little clue what different items do. The item descriptions are always randomized, so for example oval amulets are usually not what they were in previous games. However, all oval amulets in a single game are the same. This same principle works for all magical objects (but not for weapons and similar stuff, 'crude dagger' is always 'orcish dagger'), of course.
One way to identify items is to use them. Put on some armour and see what it does to your AC. Wield a weapon and look how easily the monsters die. However, it's not a way I'd recommend. Armour might be cursed. That amulet you try might just be a cursed amulet of strangulation. Whoops, you just died. The safest and the best way is a spell of identify (usually from a scroll of identify) which will identify at least one item in your inventory, sometimes even more. The scroll of identify itself is rather easy to identify; it is the cheapest scroll available, usually costing about 20-30 gold. The price can vary a lot, though.
Amulets and rings are pretty to safe to try on if you know that they are not cursed. If they cause anything hazardous, just take them off (though, I'd take rings off if they don't do anything useful immediately; they might cause some big surprises...) Same goes for armour and weapons. Wands can be identified when you engrave with them and rings can be dropped in sinks. However, wand loses a charge when you engrave with it and ring is lost in the sink. If you don't know what the message you get means, you've just lost something you could have used. Another tip for engravers: engrave something first with your fingers!
Sometimes, you don't identify a thing but are instead asked for a name to call it. You can also name items yourself, just use command #name. If you don't name just a single item, the whole class of items gets named. That is useful for example if you identify a wand when you engrave with it but the game doesn't identify it for you. Just #name the item class yourself.
There are some easy ways to figure out the blessed/cursed state of objects. If something is cursed, your pet won't step on it, or "moves only reluctantly". Also, if you drop things on an altar, it will tell whether they are cursed or blessed.
Remember also the '\' command, which gives you a list of what you already know. You might have seen a monster use something and know it that way.
You shouldn't be killing everything you meet. That will most probably result in horrific deaths. Some monsters should be avoided, unless you have means to combat them.
Floating eyes (e) - these little eyeballs are one of my favourite monsters. They seem to be pretty harmless, but do not let their peaceful appearance fool you. They are deadly! Even though they can't damage you, attacking them might freeze you and then you will be killed by some newt or other passing monster. Yet they are useful to kill, for their bodies hold useful magical powers. They are slow, so you should just throw stuff at them (sharp and pointy things, rocks, glass, whatever useless stuff you have). Also, if you can't see them or they can't see you, they are safe to attack.
Nymphs (n) - do not disturb nymphs unless you are prepared (with ranged weapons or wands, that is). They steal your stuff and then teleport away. However, they won't usually leave the level so if you hunt and kill them, you'll get your stuff back.
Leprechauns (l) - leprechauns are similar to nymphs, but instead of stealing equipment, they steal money. They are annoying, but the easy way to handle them is to drop all your money (or put it in a sack) and then go and beat them.
Rothes (q) - rothes are dangerous to beginning characters. Their attack does lots of damage, mostly because they attack many times in a round. Besides, they usually appear in groups. Watch out for them. A good tactic to employ is the retreat-into-a-corridor-trick. If there's a group of monsters trying to kill you, retreat into a corridor where only one of them can attack you at time.
Fungi (F), molds (P), blobs (b), jellies (j) - while most of these are pretty harmless, some of them can do surprising amounts of damage to beginning characters. Also, they might be acidic and corrode your weapon. Avoid them, kill them from a distance. They are very slow if they move at all.
Mimics (m) - if you see a shop and there are some items, which don't fit in the general content of the shop they are probably mimics. They are dangerous! They are slow, but do lots of damage. Especially as it's hard to flee from larger mimics. So watch out, they've been known to kill a lot of promising characters.
Ants and bees (a) - these won't appear in the first few levels, but when they appear, watch out! You're not probably ready to fight them. They are pretty fast, appear in groups and are a pain.
It's also advisable to pick up all potions, scrolls and wands you see lying around. Even if you have no use for it, some monster just might. Intelligent monsters know how to use them and a puny gnome is a lot less puny if it zaps you with a wand of lightning. And if you've never met a monster with a wand of digging, you can't know how annoying *that* is!
A few levels down from the beginning of the game, you will find a level with two staircases down instead of one. The other stairs lead to the Gnomish Mines, which is a branch of the main dungeon. It is easily identified when entered, as it looks different from the normal dungeon. If you play a fighter character and have descended carefully enough so that you have about 50 hps, you might consider entering the Mines. Weaker characters should continue down the main dungeon and return when they are tougher. However, this is a playing style issue; some enter the Mines right away.
The Gnomish Mines go down about 8-10 levels. Halfway down there is a town, where one can find some shops and a temple with a priest who has an 1 in 3 chance of being of your own alignment (you can donate money to him/her and use the altar to discern blessings and curses even if he/she isn't.) On the bottom level, there is some interesting stuff (mostly valuable gems).
The second stairs up can be found deeper in the main dungeon, below the Oracle level. Oracle level has a large room with statues in the middle. The large room has smaller room in it, which has four fountains and Oracle, who gives minor and major consultations. Minor consultations are same messages than in fortune cookies, except that those given by Oracle are always true. Major consultation tell about bigger things in game and contain very important information which you need to know if you don't want to read spoilers.
The second stairs lead to Sokoban, a puzzle which has four levels. There you have to push boulders into holes that prevent your access to upper levels. The last level has a prize (random one of two good and very useful items) waiting. It's worth a try, at least to pick up the food available on the first level. It's not required, however, so don't worry about it if it seems to be too hard or if you get stuck (a hint: if you get stuck in Sokoban, usually you can solve the situation by dropping all your stuff, then you can squeeze behind the boulders).
There are other branches and special levels, but if you can reach them, this guide is not for you.
This ever-so-desired state can be achieved in this game. There are few ways, but the most reliable is the explore mode. Just press X and answer yes to the question. Ta-daa! You are now immortal. You won't get your score recorded, but that's a small price to pay.
Indeed, if you ever feel like quitting playing when you've died once or twice too often, try explore mode. You can freely experiment on various things (especially if you start game with 'nethack -X', when you will get a wand of wishing), without the fear of the error part of trial and error leading to an early doom.
Using the command "nethack -u wizard -D" ("nethack -uwizard -D" in Unix systems, however, only certain users are allowed to do that) to start the game, you will get wizard mode. It's like explore, but you get unlimited wishes, teleport, magic mapping, identify, create monster and other goodies. It is a good way to experiment with things.
Most things have multiple uses, many of which you probably wouldn't think of. Try to do unexpected things and get unexpected results. For example, the towel. You've read "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", haven't you? A towel is a very useful item, in many different ways. As the proverb says, "The Dev Team thinks of everything". They certainly do...
Maybe the single best source for information is the newsgroup, rec.games.roguelike.nethack. There you can find lots of experienced players and source divers, who can tell you anything you want to know about the game. However, before asking questions there, check the guidebook. If your question is answered there, you won't make people angry. NetHackers are usually quite a jolly bunch, but it's annoying to answer the same questions again and again.
The official NetHack site is http://www.nethack.org/. The latest versions of the official binaries and sources are available there.
Maybe the best source for NetHack information is Kate Nepveu's http://www.steelypips.org/nethack/, which has lots of links to spoilers and other information and all of it is layed out clearly and without unnecessary decorations.
Of course, the best source of information is the NetHack source code. It takes a little knowledge about programming in general to understand, but there are maps (Sokoban, all the Quest levels, endgame levels and so on) and other data files you might like to take a look at.
I refuse any responsibility and so on. I am no NetHack god, just a mere demigod (I have only ascended one character). Instead, I'm rather experienced in dying with low level characters, which I think is more than enough for me to write this guide. This is merely intended to guide some beginners into safer waters, more experienced players will surely do things in different ways.
(C) 2003 Mikko Saari. Distribution of this file is freely allowed and highly encouraged, just keep it as it is. If you want to see some changes, please contact me. I'm open to changes and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest version of this file is always available, in ascii and html at http://www.melankolia.net/nethack/index.en.html.This guide will also be posted twice a month to rec.games.roguelike.nethack. However, I don't read the newsgroup so if you want to reach me, use e-mail.