The ultimate computer game for the imagination.
That sounds like a pretty outlandish title, huh ... but I mean what I say. By accident as much as design, Nethack has evolved as a game that is uniquely suited to exercise the imagination. It takes place in a complicated, colorful world, and it describes that world using a method that shows you exactly what's going on ... but which also demands - insists - that you use your creative skills to visualize, hear, and feel the environment. This unique game doesn't draw you into itself - it compels you to draw yourself into it.
Because the game does not actively ply you with environmental cues, it appears to have a curious lack of substance. But it's not really substance that sets Nethack apart; it's the way the game leverages that lack of substance. The interface is bizarrely minimalist. Nethack has no movies, no sound, and no pictures. It's just colored text and symbols, and most of the time the symbols don't even resemble what they represent. To the newcomer, it's hard to even recognize as a game. It looks more like the guts of an old typewriter creeping around on the screen.
You know those games where you sit around a candle-lit table with some books and some friends, and describe an adventure with pencil diagrams and evocative prose? Nethack lore is drawn from that tradition - the role-playing tradition - but in Nethack, you don't even get the prose. Sure, you get single-sentence notifications of what happens - ("KABOOM! You see a door explode.") - but the text is disconcertingly light on adjectives.
And for this, Nethack stands in a bizarre place of its own in the cultural landscape, as a complete inverse of the computer games that now dominate the industry. It's not 3-D, it's not in real-time, and it's not networked. And yet, people still play it like crazy. How can it possibly be compelling? What could it possibly do to entertain, without graphics or sound or prose? Why would anyone today want to play it?
The answer is simple: Nethack does what computers do best - what computers were invented for. It hands you a symbolic representation of something, and lets you interact with it. The symbols are utterly mundane ... but the interaction is extraordinarily complicated. Interacting with the game of Nethack can be glorious, frustrating, hilarious, and satisfying. Like any great game, it's even fun to watch and talk about when played by others. There are probably more web pages of people telling their Nethack war stories than there are pages discussing the game itself.
This is one of those pages. I'm writing this because, after twenty years of playing, I finally completed the game.
Nethack and its long legacy first appeared in my life when I was a wee lad growing up in the woods near Santa Cruz. The dial-up Bulletin Board scene was thriving at the time, and students and hipster engineers had created a thousand independent virtual meeting halls, teeming with thoughts and ideas, from the complex and informed to the puerile and pornographic. They built these places almost entirely for the hell of it, since running a BBS was rarely profitable.
Slowly, the internet as we know it was escaping from behind university doors. Some of the more ambitious BBS owners (usually the tough-as-nails UNIX geeks who had some connection to a university or the phone company) began to hook their own systems up to the network and provide access to their dial-up patrons. They inadvertently became the world's first dial-up ISPs. The information flowed out, and it also flowed back in...
So one day I dialed up to deeptht to check my email, did a "w" command to see who else was dialed in, and noticed that someone (probably pax) was busy running a program called "nethack". Well, with a name as intriguing as that, it's got to be worth a try!
I typed it at my own prompt ... and presto, countless hours of my life vanished.
A few years later, during a summer away from school, I got myself a real taste of the profound changes that the internet would bring to everyone's lives in the next decade; and Nethack was involved. Somewhere I'd obtained eighty yards of phone wire and an equally long extension cord. I ran the wires out of the house, down the hill, and into the woods. There I set up a tent with a sleeping bag inside, and a pile of snacks, and a phone. I hooked a 1200-baud modem to the ends of the wires and fed that into a splitter, with one wire going into the phone, and the other connected to a WYSE-50 terminal borrowed from my pal Andy (I have absolutely no idea where he got it from).
So for the whole day and night, with the bugs chirping around me and the trees towering above, I played Nethack and slashed my way deep into the mazes, and chatted online with people in different cities, states, and even different countries (shout-outs to my Australian friends on the Undernet IRC network, in channel #dreams!). I was connected to everything - or at least I felt like I was - but at the same time, it was just me in the dark woods, with the glowing green symbols on the WYSE-50 terminal forming a portal to another world. The darkness in the woods outside and the darkness between the WYSE-50 symbols became part of the same space in my imagination and memory.
Ten years later, when I was in the theatre watching Frodo and his companions march into the Mines of Moria, an eerie feeling of familiarity stole over me. I wanted to turn to the guy in the seat nearby and say: "I've been there. Those floors really do go on forever."
Such is the power of Nethack.
Six years after that, for reasons I cannot comprehend, I was seized by the strong compulsion to play Nethack again. More bells and whistles were added to the game over those ten years, of course, including a new character class or two. (Nethack has been under active development since before I was born.)
The "Monk" class was new to me, so I started playing that. The tale I'm going to tell here is of my fifth new game, after four brief exploratory losses. When it started, I had no idea it would be the game. The game where I would actually get the Amulet of Yendor, bring it all the way up out of the dungeon to the Astral Plane, and present it to my god for the win. No cheating, no hacks, no savegame duplicates, not even any notes taken. Just one run.
Hot damn, it was fun!
Veterans of the game call it "Ascension", since you are listed in the high-score table as having "ascended to godhood". Back in the late 80's and early 90's when I was playing this game over dialup from an Apple IIgs, I strongly believed that Ascension was almost impossible, and that the handful of people who got those huge scores on the deeptht list were actually cheating. It just seemed so hard. There were so many ways to die, and the monsters in the lower levels were so damn nasty. Now, finally, 20 years later, I know it's possible. I'm not just proud of it, I'm ... smug about it. Heh heh.
So here's how it went. This is YAAP, as the seasoned players call it. (Yet Another Ascension Post). An Ascension is such a fine adventure that people always want to share their story. I've tried to minimize the boring details, but I still get a little thick with the jargon. Bear with me. ... Or check out the Nethack FAQs and spoiler sections all over the intarweb.
A complete game of Nethack from beginning to Ascension is an extremely long adventure. There are ten parts to this story, and it's okay if you want to skim it or skip around.
I started out as a chaotic Monk with a bunch of food and a spellbook of sleep. Chaotic alignment means, basically, evil. It means I can steal from shops and commit murder and my god will praise me for it. Not usually the sort of religious relationship you'd endorse in civilized life... But gods in Nethack are what you might call "Old World" gods. They like to compete, and they enjoy smiting misbehavers. For this reason, "lawful" and "chaotic" are actually better brands than "good" and "evil", since "evil" implies holy disapproval, and as a chaotic my god actually rewards murder and deceit with gifts and blessings.
On the other hand, it also means that if I actually pay for things, and do good deeds like feeding random starving kittens, my god will become annoyed. It's give and take. But in general, I'd say chaotics have more fun.
Sleep is a relatively easy spell to know and to cast, but for now I didn't need it since a Monk has good hand-to-hand combat skills. I punched and karate-chopped my way down a few floors, working from room to room at a brisk pace. I immediately read any scrolls I found and quaffed any potions, in my standard dangerous tactic to figure out what was named what. (At the beginning of every Nethack adventure, the item effects are randomized with the item descriptions. What the game reports as a "puce potion" could poison you this time, even if it healed your other character in a previous game.) Some people collect these items and try to identify them later. I just chug 'em down and hope. Eventually I did exercise some caution - like taking off my robe to read unknown scrolls, in case they were of "destroy armor". A Monk without his/her robe can't cast spells decently, and that is a Big Problem.
On level 3 I took the stairs forking away from the main dungeon and entered the Gnomish Mines. I still remember the time, years ago, when I first entered these mines. It was very disorienting then, since the randomly generated caves look competely different than the standard (but also random) rooms and hallways. This time it was like returning to an old playground. Yes! I am the snarky old man sitting on his porch, rambling on about first times to all you bored whippersnappers. I have no excuse.
Where was I ... Right, the Gnomish Mines. Monks can hit hard, like Barbarians do, so the hapless gnomes and dwarves were barely a challenge. They'd come running at me from all angles the second I stepped off the stairs, and sometimes they'd be in such a hurry to smite me that they'd blunder into their own traps and die en-route. I snagged a pick-axe off my second or third murdered dwarf, and found a key lying around after that, which I knew was a skeleton key. Both these items are excellent tools, and I would keep and use these regularly for the rest of the game, all the way up into the Plane of Earth.
Well, not this particluar pick-axe... I'd shortly need a new one. Here's why: Further along the level I looted a chest and found a scroll of genocide. A genocide scroll allows me to remove one type of monster permanently from the game. Thinking way ahead, I decided to eliminate all rust monsters. They're spritely buggers that stand around touching you, rusting the heck out of all your metallic items, including helmets and gauntlets and armor and shoes and weapons. They don't hurt you, but they destroy your stuff. They must go. So I typed "rust monster" at the prompt.
... And six of them appeared. Duhurrr. The scroll had been cursed. I swung at one in a panic, then realized I was still holding my pick-axe, which I'd just used to dig through a tight gap in the cave. It instantly rusted. I dropped it and started beating on the rust monsters with my leather gloves. Can't rust these, you bastards! Die! Die! Hi-yaah!!
It took a good while to chop through a half-dozen rust monsters. And they still weren't genocided. One floor down I stole a replacement pick-axe off another murdered dwarf, and was back on track. A few floors after that I entered a level that was lit. (Usually the caverns are all dark.) My dog had already blundered into a trap and been killed, but I'd made another pet by feeding some of my rations to a wandering kitten. (Yes, kittens can be found wandering around in the Gnomish Mines. Nethack is strange that way. Of course you already know that Nethack is strange, since I've mentioned "Rust Monsters"...)
As soon as the kitten was tame, it wandered around the corner and made a ruckus. When I arrived I saw it was biting a mountain nymph. The nymph was trying to cope by freezing the kitten long enough to steal something and teleport away, but obviously the kitten had nothing, and with nothing to steal, the nymph couldn't teleport.
From a safe distance I cast "sleep" and zapped the nymph into dreamland. Then I strode quickly up and karate-chopped it, and stood over the corpse so my kitten wouldn't eat it. This meal was for me.
Now, Monks are supposed to be vegetarian. Eating a nymph corpse is taboo and gets my god irritated with me. But I ate it anyway, since there was a chance that eating the corpse would grant me intrinsic "teleportitis". Which it did. Now, every couple hundred or dozen turns, I teleported randomly around the level. I couldn't control it ... yet ... but it sure confused the gnomes.
Another floor down and I arrived in the Mine Town. This particular configuration had four small shops - not my favorite layout - but the temple was presided over by my god, which was a stroke of luck. I'd found a wand of create monster earlier (seen a dwarf zapping it and guessed what it was), so I stood in the temple and manufactured monsters, which I then promptly chucked on the altar and sacrificed, to bring my luck counter up.
After a few rounds of this, another lucky thing happened. My god sent me an artifact. Getting an artifact from sacrificing is not news, it is in fact a pretty reliable tactic, but this artifact was Stormbringer. Along with it I'd also been granted basic skill in swordsmanship, so I was able to pick it up and start swinging it. Which I did. I grabbed it, walked over to the down stairs, and slashed my way gleefully all the way down to the bottom of the mines. The blade sucked the life out of almost everything it hit, granting those hitpoints to me, like I was some kind of vampire. Stormbringer was my new best friend.
But there's something else about Stormbringer that I had to learn along the way: It doesn't care what it attacks. My kitten (now a cat) was blocking my progress down a hallway, and like usual I stepped onto it in order to displace it behind me and continue walking. Well instead of displacing it, my damn sword went crazy and attacked my cat. Hit it pretty hard, too, and killed it. So having Stormbringer around is pretty much a death sentence for pets - and you better put it away when you're in shops or walking around guards or even your own priest. I did put it away after that, in order to develop my hand-to-hand skills more, but eventually it came out again. That vampiric aspect is just too much fun.
So for now it was hand-to-hand. I karate-chopped my way around the bottom floor of the mines until I found the blank rock wall on the right side. There I got out my pick-axe and dug a channel into the mountain, until I broke into the room with the pile of gems in it. The rest of the mines are randomly generated - but this little room is not. The small gray stone resting on the floor is always a luckstone. I snatched that up, then I strolled to the other side of the map and pilfered the wine cellar for potions. Plundering complete, mission accomplished! I retraced my steps back through the levels until I reached the Mine Town again.
Once the guards wandered out of sight I dipped the potions in the public fountain and turned them all into water. Dropped those on the altar in the temple and prayed to make holy water, then immediately dipped the luckstone into one of the potions, blessing it. Now I could keep my good luck perpetually. A blessed luckstone is a vital part of any player's toolkit, like the pick-axe and the skeleton key. With the luckstone in my pocket, I could accumulate and keep a store of "good luck", helping me to avoid traps, dodge death rays, and sneak around sleeping monsters.
On the way back up through the mines I found a floating eye - another common monster whose corpse, like the mountain nymph, grants a valuable intrinsic. In this case it's telepathy, which allows you to see where the other critters on a level are if you cover your eyes. The two popular ways to do this are: put on a blindfold, or wrap a towel around your head - apropos of Hitchhiker's Guide.
If you attack a floating eye without your own eyes covered, the dastardly thing will hypnotize you and freeze you in place. Since I had neither towel nor blindfold, I threw daggers and arrows at the eye from a distance until it fell dead, then I munched the corpse. Mmmm, eyeball. "You feel guilty..." Yes, it's obviously not vegetarian. So my god, Huan Ti, doesn't approve.
Back on the first level of the Gnomish Mines, I found a blindfold in a corner. Before putting it on I had to make absolutely sure it wasn't cursed. Stumbling around the dungeon with a blindfold permanently affixed to your face is not a fun way to die. I went back down to the Mine Town and over to the altar and dropped it there, looking for an informative black or amber flash. Nothing. While there I had the idea to check in the shops for a towel, and sure enough there was one, so I bought it, curse-checked it, and ditched the blindfold. That's another essential tool in the toolkit. You should not hitchhike through space or tour the dungeons without a handy towel on your person at all times.
Finally I marched up and out of the mines, and into the regular dungeon. Back on level 3 I started working my way down. Hack! Slash! I gained enough levels to earn the "perceptive" intrinsic. I walked into one room and saw a hobbit zap himself with a wand. Since I was perceptive enough to see invisible critters, I saw him become transparent instead of just vanishing, and I realized that he'd been using a wand of make invisible. So like your typical chaotic playground bully, I walked up and clobbered him, then stole his wand and zapped myself invisible, then zapped myself repeatedly with the wand until it was drained and thew it away so no other monsters could use it.
Another level down and I found the stairs to the Sokoban branch of the dungeon. This is essentially a miniature game of Sokoban reproduced inside Nethack, using boulders instead of boxes. The only two exceptions to make it fair are, you cannot teleport around, and you cannot push boulders diagonally or move diagonally between them. I went up through four levels of that, enjoying the last puzzle especially, then slaughtered everything in the last room and walked back down again. That experience gave me a few more levels and an armload of food rations, which are very important to a Monk. (Other characters can eat the corpses of what they slay for food, but for a Monk, doing that regularly will destroy your luck.)
The only thing I missed in Sokoban was the bag of holding in the last room. It makes anything you pack into it weigh 1/2 to 1/4 its original weight, and is another excellent tool for the toolkit, but at the time I didn't know what it was so I left it behind. Besides, I had other loot to identify and try on, including a collection of rings I'd been gathering since the mines.
I went down a few more levels and encountered a general store. Yes, a store in the middle of a dungeon. It's another Nethack incongruity you'll learn to love. I still had teleportitis, so I knew that going in there was pretty much a guaranteed act of theivery - I'd pick something up and then teleport out before I could pay for it - so I held back, trying to make up my mind. Shopkeepers can be vicious when angered, and I was tough, but not remotely tough enough to fight a shopkeeper. Still...
I decided to go for it, on the assumption that once I 'ported out, I could escape downstairs in the confusion before the shopkeeper got his hands on me. Also, the Keystone Kops would be good for the experience points.
Just one problem: A shopkeeper won't let you in the door if you're invisible. This confounded me for a moment. Then I read a spoiler page and learned that if you kill a mummy and put on the mummy wrapping it leaves behind, the keeper will be able to see you, and will let you in. Ah-hah, there was one just upstairs! I retrieved it, and dropped it in a hallway and waited to see if my cat would pick it up (yes, I'd found another pet). If he refused, I'd know the wrapping was cursed. He grabbed it and trotted merrily around for a while. That answers that. I put on the wrapping, and immediately took it off once the shopkeeper let me past the door.
Now, describing all that in a hurry makes it sound completely absurd. But that's fine, because Nethack is absurd. That's part of the appeal - you sometimes find yourself doing bizarre things to avoid being killed by the game's twisted but consistent logic. Want in to a shop? Kill a mummy. But make your pet walk on the wrapping before you wear it, otherwise there could be a curse.
Inside the shop I found some identify scrolls and ID'd the rings I was carrying. That's when I made a big discovery: I had a ring of free action. An amazing item that reduces all paralysis and stun attacks to 1 turn. That ring went on, and stayed on, for the rest of the game. I never took it off.
I hoovered up all the other interesting items in the shop, then began quaffing potions indiscriminately, until I was teleported out. Alas, my poor cat was left behind. An alarm sounded. The escape was on! The Keystone Kops poofed into the level and began slinging cream pies. I hurried towards the big room with the down stairs, hacking at the Kops and picking up pies for later, and when I busted into the room I got a surprise: It was stuffed wall-to-wall with little green gremlins.
Apparently one gremlin had been randomly generated on the level, and wandered up to the fountain and hurled himself in, and multiplied over and over until the fountain dried up. Now there were two dozen packed into the room, bouncing around like some kind of pathetic rave party. They were chaotic monsters so they ignored me, but I couldn't get to the stairs with them in the way, so I had to wade through them with Stormbringer. Between them and the rubber-hose-weilding pie-throwing Kops it was pandemonium. The good news was, the shopkeeper didn't have a chance of getting anywhere near me as I slipped downstairs.
On the level below that I encountered the Oracle of Delphi, but skipped right by it because I didn't care to have my fortune told. By the down stairs I found another pet dog, which I gave a tripe ration to. Screw you, Huan Ti! I'm going to feed starving pets no matter what you think of it!
My new dog followed me down and we explored this next floor together. There was an unattended altar here, so I converted it to my diety for the sake of tidiness. My dog went wandering nearby. I turned back to investigate a promising hallway, when - kraazap! My dog stepped onto a polymorph trap and turned into ... an incubus.
Now just so you know, I was playing a female Monk. An incubus is the male equivalent of a succubus. I walked over to see if my ex-dog was alright. Out of curiosity, I used the "chat" command. Typically when you "chat" with your pet, you get something like, "The dog yips!" or "The kitten mews." and that's how you know its status. A whining dog needs food or healing. A purring cat is content.
This time, my own pet seduced me.
The incubus murmurs in your ear, while helping you undress.
"Take off your robe, it's in the way."
"Take off your gloves, they're too clumsy."
Time stands still while you and the incubus lie in each other's arms...
The first time, he enjoyed it more than me. I would have lost a level but I was holding Stormbringer, which prevented the drain. (Don't ask me how I did the horizontal boogie with a bloodthirsty sword in one hand. Very carefully, I guess.) I waited around a bit and then chatted him up again, and this time I enjoyed it more, and gained a level. Then he complained of a headache, so I left him alone and explored the rest of the rooms ... but on my way back in from the hallway, that blasted Stormbringer got all up in my face and stabbed the crap out of my pet incubus, angering him and forcing me to kill my own pet yet again. But that's alright - it was kind of a disturbing relationship anyway.
Further down still, I found an altar with an actual priest walking around it. Luck was definitely with me, since this priest too was aligned to my god. I dumped my accumulated treasure on the altar, checking for blessed and cursed items. Across the level I bumped into the ghost of a dead Wizard and his pet cat. I fed the cat and chopped methodically at the ghost until it was destroyed, then picked up all the loot around the corpse and dropped that on the altar too. Ah hah! An uncursed magic marker!
Using this item, and scrolls dipped in fountains to create blank paper, I could write my own scrolls - provided I already knew the identity of the scroll I was trying to write. Since I'd already seen scrolls of genocide (that stupid rust monster incident), I decided to try the crafty tactic known to regular players as "nurse dancing".
Here's how it works. You dip a cursed scroll in water, turning it blank. Then you use the magic marker and write on it, making a cursed scroll of genocide. Then you head to a nice open space on a dungeon floor that's non-teleport, for example any of the Sokoban levels. You stand in the middle of a room, put away your weapon, take off all your armor, read the scroll, and ask for "nurses". Six to ten of them appear around you.
Yep. Nethack is weird. I told you!
So I did exactly that, on floor 2 of Sokoban. If you're naked and unarmed, nurses heal you when they hit, instead of doing damage. I gained hitpoints until I was completely healed ... then my maximum started creeping upwards. Smack, smack, smack ... another 10 added to my maximum. The nurses tried to teleport away every now and then, but the level stopped them, and they walked right back. Pretty soon I'd doubled my maximum hitpoints. Eventually the nurses began to vanish, leaving me alone with an extra fifty hitpoints. An excellent use for a scroll of genocide.
Back in the regular dungeon I continued a steady climb downwards. Somewhere during the descent I bumped into a tengu, and beat it senseless and ate the corpse. That gave me an intrinsic I was really needing: Teleport control. Now I could choose my destination every time I randomly teleported. Very very useful.
I found the portal leading into my "quest" area, but ran back through it when the earth elementals got too scary for me. Found another shop, and didn't need the mummy wrapping to get in -- I just followed behind a dwarf, who carved a hole in through the wall with his pick-axe. I don't know how those dwarves do it - shop walls are always too hard for me. This time I actually paid for the items I picked up, since I was no longer interested in Keystone Kops and their paltry experience points.
I identified an uncursed ring. Hrmm, what's this? A ring of conflict! Oh man, that is going right in the backpack. A very useful item when you're surrounded by nasties. Put it on, and they all start attacking each other. The perfect tool for a chaotic player. Ah hah, and what're these? Water walking boots? Those are going right on my feet. Thanks Adisonhopo, a pleasure doing business with ya. By the way, on my way back from the bottom floor I'm going to decapitate you and get all my money back. Just a friendly heads-up. Har har. Decapitate. Heads up. Har.
So I hacked and slashed and chopped a trail all the way down to the Medusa level, then went back up one floor and established a base camp. I piled up all my blank scrolls and spare wands, sacrificed a few critters at the handy altar, and did some scroll reading. I also read a few more spoilers and realized what a great item the "bag of holding" up in Sokoban was, so I marched all the way back to floor 4 and grabbed it. My monk was pretty tough by now, especially with my armor enchantments, so I decided to go ahead and kill Medusa.
If you're never played Nethack before, you're probably wondering, "what's all that gobbledygook up there?" That, my friends, is Nethack. It's a screenshot of my base camp. All this colorful action I've been describing to you? It's just typewriter barf, on the screen. Your imagination probably created a lot more detail than this. If it did, consider what visions actually playing the game inspires.
On the way back down I killed a wood nymph and lifted the mirror off her corpse. Nymphs always carry little mirrors. It could be sexist, but hell, what do you expect, they're nymphs. Along the way I picked up more miscellaneous items, including the spellbooks I'd been reading along the way, and deposited them all at my base camp on floor 20. Time to boogie with the gorgon.
Downstairs, the room was dark. I put on my towel to use ESP, and saw a titan nearby. A real nasty critter. Feeling cocky, I dove straight for him and chopped at his shins with Stormbringer. The battle went surprisingly well thanks to the vampiric effect and my extra hitpoints. He went down, and it was then I realized: My character wasn't just tough. She was a serious badass.
I opened the back door and walked out across the underground ocean that fills the Medusa level. I took off the towel to get a good look at the islands, then put the towel right back on, so I could keep track of the critters. Medusa herself was asleep in her chamber, on the island at the far side of the map. And there was a black dragon wandering around, which worried me a great deal. One blast with his disintegration breath and it would be all over for me. I also took note of an umber hulk, a weird rock-chewing critter whose hypnotic gaze can invoke severe confusion. Confusion can actually be useful in certain situations. Hrrm.
I walked between the islands, tracing a wide path around the dragon, who couldn't see me due to my invisibility. Unlocked the back door to Medusa's fortress and snuck around the critters, unlocked her chamber door, and sidled right up next to the lady, with my towel around my head. Fancy that, she's still asleep.
So I tapped her on the shoulder and shoved the little mirror in her face. Presto, one more statue. All too easy. I blasted the statue apart with a force bolt, in case she had been carrying anything interesting. Nope. Then I did the same to the nearby statue of Perseus. Then to all the other statues out in the hall. Nothing useful in any of them. Bollocks!
The noise woke up the guards in the antechamber and they came bumbling out, so I chopped them all to bits. Then a hill giant got in my way, and Stormbringer took offense. I ate the corpse for the strength bonus. Huan Ti was way too pleased with me to care.
At this point my options were to head downstairs into the maze, or to head back up and take on my "quest". The black dragon worried me ... what I really needed was some kind of reflection, or at least some kind of magic protection. I read over the spoiler section for the Monk's quest, and realized that the artifact I would be sent to retrieve, the Eyes of the Overworld, granted magic protection when carried. That settled it; I began preparing for the quest.
I went back upstairs to my fort and prepared some enchant armor scrolls, and grabbed a scroll of teleport. Then I went back down to Medusa's level and walked out over the water near the umber hulk. He staggered over to the edge of his island to say hello, and his gaze confused me. That is - confused my Monk. The player. Er, not me the player; I mean the character. My player. Suffice to say, there was confusion.
While confused, I read the scrolls of enchant armor, and fireproofed my gloves and my cloak. Then I read the scroll of teleport, and chose to appear on dungeon level 5. Poof! Thank you for flying umber hulk confusion airlines. No, the game doesn't actually say that, but if it did, that would just be typical. Reading a scroll of teleport while confused causes you to teleport randomly between floors, instead of randomly around the level. With my intrinsic teleport control, I was able to choose my destination floor.
So here on level 5, it was time to lower my armor class even more. That can be accomplished by donating massive amounts of cash to your local aligned priest. Seasoned players call this arrangement the "protection racket". I had an aligned priest in the Mine Town, so I went stomping down into the Gnomish Mines with my accumulated booty.
While descending, I stopped to finish exploring a few caverns I'd hurried through before, just in case there were any scrolls or wands laying about. All I found was traps. Lots of them. Arrows, darts, pits, fire ... I wandered up to one heap of equipment and a land mine exploded beneath me, blasting rocks and armor and gold pieces all over the room. That was the last straw, and I went limping back to the explored area. But before I got there I wandered onto one more trap ... the very worst kind. A polymorph trap.
Krazzap! I turned into a cave spider. Dropped my sword, my armor, all my cash, all my tools. 7 hit points. This sucks. I had to wait a while to stabilize, then go walking slowly out across the dungeon on my six fuzzy legs, trying to get a monster to attack me. Only a severe beating would return me to human form. If you die by sickness, poison, magic, or other metaphysical means while polymorphed, you die permanently - but a good kick in the ass will shock you back to your old self instead.
Around the corner I saw a hill giant, but he wasn't in a fighting mood. So I bit him. He swung wildly and missed. Drat, I'm still invisible. Then I had a really nasty thought: What if some stupid critter like a hobbit wanders up to my stuff and steals Stormbringer? Then ambushes me with my own sword? The vampiric attack could kill me permanently. Very bad news indeed.
So I scooted back over to my stuff and waited there. The hill giant came moseying around the corner, still annoyed but totally unable to find me. He did spot my pile of stuff though, and came over to help himself...
Wait, hill giant! There's a cave spider hiding under 11245 gold pieces! You bite the hill giant.
He smacked me, good and hard. I rose up out of my pile of crap and returned to human form, which must have been quite a surprise. He kept hitting me, but I ignored him while I picked up all my gear again and put on my robe, then wielded Stormbringer. Thanks for the "help", mister giant. Stab. Ho, ho, ho. Here's cold steel in the gut for your trouble. And yes, I ate his corpse for the strength bonus.
I was in a really foul mood. One floor down I entered the Mine Town again, and fully aware that I was a badass, I walked up to the first shopkeeper I saw - "Invisible customers are not welcome!", he chirped - and wailed on him with kung-fu. He tried to hit me with a wand of magic missile, and I laughed right in his face, and then punched him there, and in a few rounds he keeled over. I didn't take his lousy wand, but I did take all the cash out of his pants - a good 3000 zorkmids. Then I moved on to the next shopkeeper. And the other two.
After that, I felt better. My pockets were jingling, and I donated the cash to my aligned priest, who lowered my armor class by several points. A good use for all those lousy zorkmids. Poking around in the general store I found an amulet that wasn't cursed, so I scooped it up and identified it. Hey hey, this is an amulet of life saving! Quite a find. I put that on immediately.
I'd like to pause here and reflect that even though I'm describing things like shopkeepers keeling over, and laughing right in their faces, those things weren't actually described by the game. The thing about Nethack is that you get personally invested, even though the game makes almost no effort to immerse you. Since the game is hooked into your imagination almost as a prerequisite for playing, it's easy to add details that aren't implied, and in a way, that makes Nethack into a kind of interactive Rorschach inkblot test. You see the details you want to see, moving beyond the symbols to make the story personally compelling.
And some of the details really do tax the imagination. For example, a Monk eating a hill giant corpse. What does that look like? Or a monstrous purple worm triggering a land mine? Or an umber hulk chewing through a wall? How does that sound? After all these years I'm still not sure. Each time I imagine it slightly different.
Anyway, I hacked my way out of the mines and down a few floors in the regular dungeon, until I found the magic quest portal. Once again I was standing outside the big temple, with earth elementals all around, but this time I was tough enough. Whackitty smack! The quest leader told me a sad story about how the Eyes of the Overworld were stolen, then ordered me to go get them from Master Kaen, fellow badass, then pointed at the stairs. You there; go get some stuff. Down I went.
More slashing, more hacking. My armor class wasn't as low as I'd hoped for, but the life-draining ability of Stormbringer made up for that lack by healing me each combat round. So, paradoxically, as long as I kept fighting I never got in trouble.
Finally I went down the last staircase and arrived in Master Kaen's lava-filled hideout. Two xorns and two earth elementals surrounded me and began attacking, and the next turn Master Kaen teleported up alongside me and beat the living snot out of me with four hits in one go. I teleported back to the stairs but he appeared next to me again, so I threw a potion of paralysis at him, freezing him in place, and freezing me for just one turn (thank you, ring of free action). During that turn the xorns smacked me the rest of the way down and I died - but my amulet of life saving brought me back to full health. Job done, the amulet disintegrated. That had been a very lucky find.
I fled upstairs and cast a protection spell to lower my armor class like crazy, then went immediately back downstairs and began chopping franticly at Master Kaen, who was still frozen in place. I hacked away for five or six turns before he finally died, with the elementals and the xorns beating on my backside the entire time. Once the boss was down I turned Stormbringer on the elementals and cut me a nice mound of julienne fries. I sucked all the life out of the level and scooped up all the worthwhile items, then went jogging back to my master and presented the Eyes of the Overworld to him - which he told me to keep of course. So I put them on. The permanent x-ray vision would prove to be incredibly helpful in the mazes of Gehennom. I also got this nifty little Bell of Opening, that goes "ding dinggg!"
Now that the Eyes had granted me magic protection, I was ready to go down past Medusa's lair, and into the real maze. A maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Hack, slash, et cetera.
The first floor down from Medusa was the underground castle. Somewhere in that castle was a guaranteed wand of wishing - an item really worth fighting for. Between it and me was a tidal wave of angry monsters. With my towel on, I could see them all behind the walls, sloshing around, anxious to reach me. I could walk around and take the back way in, or choose the direct approach and lower the drawbridge. I chose the direct approach.
I had a spell of 'knock' that I could cast to lower the drawbridge, but the spell was too hazy in my addled Monk brain to cast. Back up to the fort for a quick read, then back into the maze... And zap, the drawbridge came down. Immediately the nasties inside began pouring out, so I slipped on the ring of conflict. (The nasties have to be within your sights for the ring to have an effect.)
The umber hulk gazes at the black naga. The black naga looks confused. The black naga bites the umber hulk.
The fire elemental hits the ogre lord. The ogre lord is on fire!
The disenchanter hits the cockatrice. The disenchanter turns to stone.
The iron golem hits the cockatrice. The iron golem solidifies. Now it's a stone golem.
You can just imagine the chaos. (Well, you have to, really.) Looks like the cockatrice was going to clear out the hall for me. Every now and then a monster would make it over the bridge, so I hacked it up as a way of congratulating it. "Here's your door prize!" *stab*. The hall was almost clear when the cockatrice finally got beaten to death. Then I saw a message which scared me:
The soldier weilds a cockatrice corpse!
Oh dear. A smart soldier with leather gloves. One hit from him and it's game over.
I backed away from the bridge and took some wands out of my bag. Whenever the soldier wandered into the doorway (I was invisible, so he didn't quite know where I was), I zapped him with a magic missile. When a wand ran out, I threw it at him. (That doesn't really hurt him - I just do it because it's funny.) Three wands later he was down, and the cockatrice corpse landed next to his. Now it was my turn to swing that rubber chicken.
I was worried about krakens sucking me into the moat, so I read a scroll of earth (from Sokoban) and pushed the boulders in around the drawbridge. Then I stormed inside and grabbed the cockatrice in both gloved hands. The hall was clear, so I advanced to the throne room and stoned three trolls, an ogre, and a couple of winter wolves, by smacking them with the corpse. Then I stuffed the corpse into my magic bag. Time to find that wand of wishing.
I found it in a locked chest in the northeast corner. Hooray, three wishes! The smart thing would have been to wish for two scrolls of charging first, so I could recharge the wand for another go. But instead I wanted STUFF. Item number one: An amulet of reflection. Very very helpful. I put that on immediately. I could have wished for a shield of reflection, but that'd be mettalic, and would interfere with my spellcasting big time. Item number 2: A helm of brilliance. Currently I was just wearing a plain soldier's helmet. The helm of brilliance would help my spellcasting abilities.
Next up: The scrolls of charging. Gotta be able to recharge the wand, and get my three more wishes. I zapped the wand.
WHAT? No, no, this cannot beeeeee...
Arrrrgggh! It only had two charges! I've been hornswoggled! I want my money back! Waaiiiteerrrrrr!
This put me in a seriously bad mood. I stuffed the empty wand into my magic bag and wandered out into the throne room to kill some stuff. The three dozen soldiers in their barracks did nicely. They zapped me with wands, but the rays just bounced right off my amulet. Well at least I have the amulet. That's important.
There are no down stairs on the castle level. You're expected to dig through the floor, kick the throne, or fall down a trap door into the Valley of the Dead to keep going. I walked over the moat with my handy water-walking boots and checked out the other side of the map, just in case. Nothing there but a water nymph, which I toasted with extreme prejudice and then ate, in order to boost my teleport control up another level. Now I could hit ^T to invoke the teleport deliberately.
So, with my shiny new hat and amulet, I went strolling over to the back entrance of the castle and onto a trap door. Down I went.
Ahhh, the Valley of the Dead. Plenty of wraiths. And vampires. But if you've got Stormbringer, the vampires can't drain your life. What a nasty little sword! I strolled around to the cusp of the teeming graveyards, and began chopping my way through the undead hordes. To clear the way faster I put the ring of conflict back on.
Ghosts surrounded me - some with my name. They began swinging at each other. Nick Danger's ghost got in a slap-fight with Hether's ghost, but I didn't stick around to see who won. I did pause after disemboweling a vampire lord, however, to read some of the humorous gravestone inscriptions.
Eventually I worked my way to the other side of the map, where a priestess of Moloch was presiding over an altar. She didn't even wait for me to defile anything - just pulled out her mace, and it was on. Apparently she'd seen my type before. But really, the fight was no contest. A few clouts from Stormbringer and she went to go hang with Moloch in person.
Then I did a real boneheaded thing. An orange dragon came skipping by - probably summoned by the priest - and I decided to kill it over the alter of Moloch and make a sacrifice of it, in an attempt to convert the altar. But the altar of Moloch cannot be converted. Moloch rejected the sacrifice - of course - and spat lightning at me (boiinng), and my own god became apoplectic with rage. So here I was standing at the entrance to Gehennom, a huge labyrinth full of demons and worse, with a luck rating at rock bottom. No way.
I turned right around and marched back through the valley, out of the castle, across Medusa's sea, and up to my fort. There I zapped wands of create monster repeatedly until I got monsters supremely bad enough to count as worthy sacrifices to Huan Ti. I finally mollified him by leading a black dragon onto his altar, killing it there (because I'd never drag it onto the altar otherwise), and sacrificing it. Then the same with an ice troll and a fire giant. I didn't stop until I'd been seeing four-leaf clovers for a good while, and then Huan Ti got especially jolly and decided to crown me the Glory of Arioch, and told me to go forth and collect souls for him.
Happy to be of service.
I read all my spellbooks again, just in case, and went over my belongings. Everything was in order. So I set off for the Valley of the Dead, and this time, I took the stairs down behind the altar of Moloch. The game gave me a scary warning about never being able to return, but I knew it was lying.
I hacked and slashed my way through the twisty little passages, whistling a merry tune. The x-ray vision from the Eyes of the Overworld made it much easier than I anticipated. I located the down stairs to the next floor, and got out my pick-axe, and took down a bunch of walls in the maze, creating a more direct path between the two stairwells. Always a good idea.
On the next floor I found Asmodeus' lair. A long skinny region with undiggable walls. When I barged in, he teleported up next to me and demanded cash for safe passage, so I overpaid him just to make sure and he vanished, laughing to himself about "cowardly mortals". Good riddance. Once inside his sanctum however a master lich discovered me and began causing me serious pain, casting spells to summon badass monsters all around me, including a master mind flayer. Mind flayers are terrifying, and I hate them. Not only can they clout you with regular weapons, but the tentacles coming out of their face wrap around your head and literally eat your brain. Four attempts per turn. And a helmet never blocks them all.
Perhaps I could cause a diversion here. I put on the ring of conflict and everyone went nuts.
The purple worm swallows the master mind flayer. "Burrrrp!" The master mind flayer is destroyed!
Oh yeah. Take that you tentacled brain-sucking bastard.
Eventually all that was left was me and the purple worm. The purple worm swallowed me too, but I was immediately regurgitated. Apparently I tasted foul. Ring of free action, perhaps?
Next level down I encountered Juiblex. This was odd because Juiblex is supposed to live on a swamp level (in fact that swamp level appeared later on in the dungeon levels) but instead Juiblex was up here, on vacation apparently, trolling around in a regular maze. I got eaten and immediately became deathly ill, so I used the blessed unicorn horn in my toolkit for a rapid cure, then cast the "knock" spell at Juiblex's insides and it spat me out with a wet squelch. That action left it very weak, and one poke with my sword destroyed it. What a relief!
A few maze levels after that was Baalzebub's lair. He, too, demanded cash for passage, and I gladly paid him to leave me alone. He, too, had a big ol' lich hanging around in his living room, who harassed me upwards through three levels before I finally ran him down in Juiblex's swamp and stabbed him with great relish. Nearby I spotted a handy cockatrice, which I slaughtered and then used on my walk back down to clean up the zoo of monsters the lich had summoned. By the time I was back at Baalzebub's house the cockatrice corpse had rotted away to nothing.
I tried to go down another level after that, but it became hard going because I had an awful encounter with another master mind flayer. I zapped all my spare wands at it to kill it from a distance, but it kept on coming. Eventually I had to step in and finish the job with Stormbringer, and it got one turn of attack, which meant four attempts to eat my brain. The first three failed, but the fourth one scored, and I lost an intelligence point. Next hit, he went down. I restored the damage to my intelligence with the unicorn horn, but the major loss was that my character was forgetting what items I'd identified. (And in pursuit of fairness, I hadn't taken notes outside the game.) Knowing which scroll does what is very important if you're using magic markers to write them. These damn mind flayers were eating me alive.
Also, the stupid lich had cursed several of my items. I marched up out of Gehennom, through the castle to Medusa's island and out over the water. There I dipped random useless potions into the water to make uncursed water (it's more reliable than using a fountain). Another floor up and I was at the last regular dungeon level, where I'd dropped all my loot and miscellany. I got the water blessed at the altar, uncursed my items, and made a blessed blank scroll, which I used with my magic marker to create a blessed scroll of genocide. I read it, and selected to eliminate all of the symbol 'h' from the game.
Bam, no more mind flayers. Good riddance, you bastards.
Back down into Gehennom I went, further this time, until I arrived in Orcus' town. A rotting ghost town in the middle of hell, with shops overflowing with mimics, presided over by the demon Orcus. I elbowed my way through the crowd until a bunch of shades hemmed me in. My attacks kept passing right through, so I was at a loss for what to do, until I looked at my spells and realized I had "charm monster". "What the heck, it's worth a shot." Surprisingly, four of the shades became tame, and began attacking their friends on my behalf, clearing a way for me. I couldn't accidentally anger them with Stormbringer either, since the bloodthirsty blade never managed to hit.
Finally I murdered my way over to Orcus, who woke up and began zapping indiscriminately with his wand of death. I tried to kill him before he used up all the charges, but the monsters he summoned kept interfering. Out came the ring of conflict, and I hacked away at him while the party raged around me: Vampires biting wraiths, dragons breathing poisoned crap at giants and getting clobbered by boulders, shades touching each other, et cetera. A real family circus. Orcus turned tail and fled to the stairs, so I followed him over, and he fled up them, so I pursued.
The level above was a standard maze level, and I knew where the up stairs were, so the second Orcus teleported over to smite me I hit ^T and teleported over onto the up stairs, blocking his escape. Oh, he came right back, and summoned countless baddies, and beat his fists on me and wailed, but I wouldn't budge. Things were getting kinda hairy with all these critters around, and I got worried when Orcus summoned Yeenoghu, who hit very hard and often. I unleashed the fury on their asses and Orcus turned to flee, but Yeenoghu tag-teamed with him and I couldn't get a break. Soon they were both harrassing me again.
Finally they appeared on either side of me in the narrow hallway, and one of Orcus' summoned nasties, a black dragon, wandered up to bite at an invisible stalker around the corner. Sensing my opportunity, I took off the ring of conflict. Sure enough, the black dragon set his sights on me, and since Orcus was in the way of a melee exchange, he chose to hurl a breath attack my way.
The black dragon breathes a disintegration blast!
The blast of disintegration misses Orcus.
The blast of disintegration whizzes by you!
The blast of disintegration misses Yeenoghu.
The blast of disintegration bounces!
Yeenoghu is disintegrated!
The blast of disintegration whizzes by you!
Orcus is disintegrated!
I would have been happy just to catch Orcus in the blast, and let the amulet of reflection save my life. But no, my luck was so high, that the amulet wasn't even neccessary. Orcus and Yeenoghu? Mmmmeh ... Not so lucky.
I laughed pretty hard, and stabbed the black dragon right in the guts for his trouble (I'm playing chaotic alignment, what else do you expect), but this actually presented me with a huge problem: When Orcus disintegrated, all his possessions went with him, including the wand of death. It was the only one I'd seen in the whole game so far, and I'd been counting on it as a surefire way to dispatch Rodney when it came time to swipe the Book of the Dead from him. Now I would have to resort to something far less efficient - perhaps even actual hand-to-hand combat - to take him out.
See, this is the thing about a complicated game like Nethack. It's quite easy to die - just do the wrong thing for a couple of turns, and before you know it, you're reading your own headstone. But it's also possible to succeed, and to work around problems, because there are always a dozen options to consider.
When you find yourself up against a wall with two hitpoints left and a horrible beast at your throat, you can sit there and puzzle out exactly what moves to make. You can comb over your inventory looking for a helpful tool. Should I cast a spell? Which one? Should I zap a wand? Dig through the floor? Call my pet? Throw or drink a potion? Read a scroll? Should I pray to my deity for help? Write a magic word on the floor? Activate a trap? Jump? Teleport? Invoke an artifact? Turn invisible? Lay an egg? Spit venom? Swallow the attacker? Bribe it? Kick it? Grab and crush it? Chat it up?
There's always some way to beat the odds, you just have to figure it out before you get killed.
What I really needed was a scroll of charging, so I could get four more wishes out of that blasted defective magic wand from the castle, but I hadn't seen any of those anywhere in the game either. There was no longer any hope of seeing them randomly generated with new dungeon levels, since I'd explored them all, and I had no idea what the chances were of a randomly generated monster dying with one on-hand. Probably infinitesimal. Even if I got lucky enough to write one sight-unseen with a magic marker, my markers were out of charges.
I had only one idea for how to get a scroll, and it was a long shot. I began walking up. As I went, I chopped walls down with the pick-axe and thinned out the nasties, clearing a path for the serious ascension I would be conducting later on when I had the Amulet of Yendor. I walked up through hell and the lower dungeon levels, stopping to quaff at the fountains in hopes of a wish (and getting bad breath and cursed items for my trouble), until I arrived once again at the Gnomish Mines.
By now, the mines were crawling with much, much nastier critters than they started at. Instead of cute little gnomes with 2 hitpoints each I was clubbing wargs and ogre lords. Well, I could have steered around the ogre lords but Stormbringer was having too much fun. At the Mine Town once again, I cast "detect treasure" to reveal all the objects on the map, and rummaged around in the deserted lighting store until I had a pile of oil lamps gathered on the ground in front of me.
I picked up one lamp, blessed it with a potion, lit it, then snuffed it back out, then rubbed it with my sleeve about a dozen times. Satisfied that it was not a magic lamp, I used "name" to name its item class "lamp: notmagic", and dropped it on the ground. Then I went and looked at the pile, and saw that they were all in the "notmagic" class, except ... aha! ... for one!
I needed to bless it in order to raise the chances of getting a wish, and for that I needed more holy water. I had some uncursed water potions in my sack, but I needed to get them blessed at the town altar, so I went running over there. Unfortunately I forgot to un-weild Stormbringer, and that crazy blade leapt around in my hands and slashed at my own aligned priest, who was presiding in the temple. Of course he got very angry and wouldn't leave me alone to do my business at the altar, so we went toe-to-toe and he got disembowled. My own god was rather offended by the sight of his servant's innards slushing out onto his altar, and he hurled lightning at me ... which bounced off my amulet. Kapweeeng!
Huan Ti sulked for a while, but I zapped wands of create monster and kept sacrificing the nasties in his name until my luck changed and I was seeing four-leaf-clovers again. I imagine it's tough for those monsters ... all of a sudden they appear, and as they take their first wondrous look around with their new eyes, what do they see? A stone room with an altar covered in blood, and an eerie monk standing a few feet away with a honking great sword in one hand and an impatient look on her face. Then it's chop-chop and here comes the afterlife; wasn't that fulfilling!
I prayed, made the holy water, blessed the lamp in it, invoked the Eyes of the Overworld to check my luck status (which was excellent), and rubbed the lamp. In a cloud of smoke, a djinni emerged, and I got my wish.
X - a scroll labeled ELAM EBOW
What, just one? I'd wished for two! Oh well. So I blessed it and read it, and recharged the "copper wand" (due to a damn mind flayer attack I'd forgotten its true identity). Now I had a full wand of wishing again. Huzzah!
After that I had to think for a while about what would really be useful to me. I had a pile of holy water and a pile of blank scrolls, but my magic markers had run dry. If those markers were charged I could make use of all those scrolls. So first off, I wished for two scrolls of charging, and got them. I immediately charged the markers in my pack and wrote a scroll of genocide, and destroyed all the liches in the dungeon. Take that, you bastards! Mind flayers and liches: The first with their backs to the wall in any Nethack revolt.
I also wrote a couple scrolls of enchant armor to better my equipment, then realized that the next thing I wanted to write was a bunch of scrolls of identify to reverse the amnesia that the mind flayers had given me. But wait ... wasn't there a smarter way to proceed here? What I really needed was a way to cast identify on demand. So I turned back to the wand of wishing and invoked it for a blessed spellbook of identify.
Being a level 20 monk, it was easy for me to read the spellbook. The fail rate for casting the spell was 0% thanks to my robe and relative lack of metallic armor. So I went on an "identify" spree. I cast it and learned the remaining charges of every wand in my bag. I identified all the gems I found at the bottom of the mines. Soon I was casting it to identify individual items as I picked them up. After such a long battle with amnesia, this ability was fantastic. Wizards are such lucky punks to have this in the early game.
Before I left the Mine Town, I poked through the dead priest's possessions, just in case she had any spellbooks I didn't know about. She didn't, but what she did have was all the gold I'd given her to lower my armor class earlier in the game. Some 26000 zorkmids. I gathered it all up and crammed it into my second bag with the gems. Then I used "name" and called the bag "Pirate Swag", to distinguish it from my bag of useful items.
Some players really go nuts with the naming feature. They'll name their wands, every piece of armor, and the gems in their bag. They'll name monsters they don't like, then kill them, then put chunks of them in tins with a tinning kit and ascend to the Astral Plane so the tins show up in their final score. People find the darndest ways to express themselves.
Finally I could turn my back on the Gnomish Mines forever (or so I thought). I made my way back up, then down through the levels one floor at a time, identifying all the crap I'd thrown in the corners. I uncovered a ring of levitation, and kept it. I ID'd a wand of polymorph, and stuffed that in my bag for later.
Halfway down I strolled into the randomly generated temple I'd found earlier in the game, and I stopped to identify all the cursed stuff I'd dropped there, for the hell of it. A cursed amulet I'd named "DO NOT PUT ON EVER" turned out to be an amulet of strangulation. Mmmyep. While I was hanging around, I realized that I could lower my armor class even more.
I scooped all the money out of my Pirate Swag and dropped it on the floor in piles of 10000. I donated these piles to the priest, one at a time, and got another five points of protection (1-2 randomly per donation). If I had a few more priests, I'd do this over and over - a macabre new twist on the "protection racket" - but there was just this one priest left.
Down I went, pausing to lop the head off the Oracle of Delphi (chaotic Monk here, just doing my job) and steal his money. I also blasted apart all his statues, though that wasn't purely for the sake of evil: There could have been spellbooks inside. Not this time.
One floor away from the place I'd set up shop, I ran across a half dozen Mordor orcs, falling all over themselves in an attempt to kill me. I mowed them down and was casually stepping over the corpses when something stopped me right in my tracks. There on the floor was a fully charged wand of death. An orc must have been carrying it - randomly generated carrying it - and wasn't smart enough to use it. Granted, if he had, he would have just executed all his friends when the death ray went careening off my amulet, but still. Too stupid to even make the attempt. (And yes, that is part of the game mechanics - some monsters are smart enough to use magic items, and some aren't.) I picked it up, blessed it immediately in holy water, and went downstairs.
As an aside, there is some code in the Nethack program that creates a phenomenon known as the "death drop". When you kill a monster, the game will convert the monster into a corpse of the appropriate type, and drop it on the floor, on top of whatever the monster was carrying. However, the game will also randomly choose to create an item out of thin air, adding it to the pile on top of the corpse, to give the impression that the monster was carrying an extra item. This is done to make the early game more interesting - you never know what you'll get when you kill a critter. Even critters who typically carry nothing at all will sometimes yield an unexpected - and inexplicable - piece of treasure, thanks to the "death drop".
(Seasoned players wishing to experience the full weirdness of what Nethack has to offer will employ a procedure known as "pudding farming" to exploit the "death drop" ... but that's a whole different story, and you can do a web search if you want to learn more.)
Anyway, had that wand of death been lying on top of a corpse instead of beneath it, I would have attributed its appearance to the "death drop". But no, the stupid orc had been holding it the whole time. Seriously, he deserved to have it taken away.
Back in my makeshift camp I thought for a while, then zapped the wand of wishing again. My third wish was for fireproof gauntlets of dexterity, finally getting rid of my old, beat up, thoroughly burned, extremely rotten leather gloves. I'd swung cockatrice corpses with them, karate-chopped countless gnomes, and punched shopkeepers right in the face. Now they could retire. If I zapped the empty wand of wishing enough times, I could get one more wish out of it, but I wasn't sure what I needed most so I put it away and took out the wand of polymorph. Time to do some polypiling.
In the other room I had collected every single spellbook I'd found in the game. As a monk, I kept forgetting my memorized spells, so I had to keep them handy to re-read. Many of them were duplicates - I had three spellbooks of sleep for example. So I picked out all these duplicates, lined them up in pairs along one wall with a few miscellaneous rings and wands tossed in, and zapped them all with the wand of polymorph.
Not much came of it, even after four good zaps, but polypiling is a low-yeild business. It used to be more fruitful in previous versions of Nethack. Back then, you could turn an amulet of strangulation into an amulet of life saving just as easily as the reverse. Not so any more. I did manage to get two useful new spellbooks out of the pile, though: "Magic mapping" and "dig".
That done with, I sat around trying to decide on the final wish. What was my most annoying problem, now that I had charged markers, a good kit of armor, and could identify on demand? I thought of the nasty critters in the levels below. I thought about how I had reflection as well as intrinsic disintegation resistance (a while ago I had eaten a black dragon corpse). What I really needed was some way to kill things from a distance. Something that didn't rely on wands, which inevitably got drained.
I mapped the wand of wishing to key 'z' on the keyboard, so I could choose "zap: item z" repeatedly just by holding down the 'z' key. Then I walked to a safe corner of the level. About 10 seconds of rapid-fire zapping, the wand responded, and I wished for my last item: A blessed spellbook of finger of death. Oh yeah.
I read it successfully, and observed that even with my +5 robe working for me, the spell had a failure rate of 52%. Just a little over half the time, I would fail trying to cast it. Perhaps those odds would improve with practice - but for now, it was fine. (Once again those Wizards are lucky punks. They start the game wearing armor that can resist the death ray, and the mana cost and recovery time can be so low that they can just fling it around casually like they're playing darts. I watched another player on alt.org/nethack use it to kill a garter snake, of all things. A freaking garter snake. A death ray kills the Wizard of Yendor outright, and here's this smug Wizard doling it out to tiny grassland reptiles.)
Figuring myself ready to take on Vlad the Impaler in his tower, I went downstairs to Medusa's level. Walked out on the water until I got confused by the umber hulk, who was still marooned on the central island. Read a scroll of teleport, and poofed all the way down to level 40. Well, I tried to anyway, but ended up in the Valley of the Dead instead, so I began walking. On the way I ate a wraith and gained a level, whupped a pack of soldiers, and bum-rushed a balrog who was fruitlessly zapping me with another wand of death. A second wand of death, ah-ha! I put it in my bag. Finally I found the up stairs to Vlad's tower on the same level as the top floor of Rodney's place.
Vlad's tower is small and easy. However, trying to make room for the second amulet of life saving, I made an incredibly stupid mistake. I put a wand of cancellation into my equipment bag without thinking. Kablam! A magical explosion! And the bag was gone. With everything in it.
Most players will use the naming feature to carefully label any wand of cancellation they pick up, to remind themselves, and avoid this problem. That's why many an Ascension report has inventory items like
H - a blessed wand of cancellation named HOLY CRAP DO NOT PUT IN BAG
I lost the two charged magic markers, seven blessed candles, 8 blessed scrolls of blank paper, all my holy water, the second wand of death, both amulets of life saving, a ring of polymorph control, a spare luckstone, three wands of digging and other assorted wands ... damn. I quickly realized that the biggest loss was actually the 7 candles. I needed them to use the Candelabrum of Invocation and get to the Amulet of Yendor, and they're actually extremely rare. I wasn't sure if the mine shops had any more. How would I find them otherwise? How could I even wish for them, with no more magic lamps and no more wand of wishing?
I cleared the rest of Vlad's tower out, deep in thought the entire time. Vlad himself turned to dust without incident, and I took the Candelabrum of Invocation from the floor where he'd dropped it. The treasure chest behind his throne had - of all things - a couple tripe rations in it. What, Count Dracula has a housecat? Wait, maybe they're for him. Yeech.
By the time I emerged from the bottom floor of Vlad's tower and back into the maze, I realized that there was only one place I'd even seen candles, and that was at the Mine Town. I didn't care to walk all the way up there, though, so I drank a potion of booze and read a scroll of teleport, to travel vertically. Poof, I was up on dungeon level 3. Down into the mines I went.
I found 4 cursed candles and 3 uncursed ones buried in the rubbish of the deserted shops. I prayed at the altar to uncurse them, and affixed them to the Candelabrum. This would have to be it. There wasn't a single candle left in the whole game. I'd narrowly avoided a game-stopping situation, by sheer luck. Truly, things were going my way. Back at dungeon level 3, I turned my back on the Gnomish Mines for good.
(Okay well, to be honest, I could have just gone around randomly killing monsters until one of them "death drop"-ed a magic lamp, and then used the lamp to wish for more candles ... but that would have taken a long, long time.)
I elected to walk all the way down to the bottom of hell (Gehennom), so I could clear out my ascension path. I dug corridors in the rock between all the stairwells in the regular dungeon, and knocked down all the walls between the stairwells in the various levels of Gehennom. Some walls I couldn't knock down, such as Baalzebub's lair. Those would just have to be marathon runs.
Once I hit the very lowest level, I became a regular mining machine. I began systematically cutting down all the walls in the dungeon, back and forth in long rows, looking for that one little vibrating square that identified the gateway to Moloch's Inner Sanctum. I still needed the Book of the Dead to open it, but I wanted to be absolutely sure of its location before I went to fetch the book. I needed to come straight back afterwards. After an eternity of tedious chopping I found it in the lower-right region of the map.
While I was down here I got in some practice with the "finger of death" spell, annihilating a couple of demons and a disenchanter. My accumulated experience had lowered the failure rate to 44%, which was probably as good as I was going to get it. It still cost a heck of a lot of mana points though - I had enough for five attempts before I was completely drained.
Well, that's it. No more chores to do. Time to go kill The Wizard of Yendor. This task is best saved for the very last, because once he goes down, he can reincarnate any time, any place, and assault you over and over again.
I went up a few floors until I was at the entrance to Rodney's tower. (In case you're wondering, Rodney is Yendor spelled backwards. Folks call the wizard Rodney because it's a nice chummy-sounding name. Which is definitely ironic.) I fried the krakens and eels in the moat from a distance with the spare wands of lightning and magic missile I had lying around. Those would be worthless against Rodney anyway.
First floor I laid waste to a beehive, then chopped up a few vampires and trolls. Second floor I waded into a treasure zoo, and got to kill the monsters one at a time thanks to stealth and invisibility. Things were going along nicely. Third floor was the last stop, and the Wizard was waiting behind another moat, in a tiny sealed chamber. Again I picked off the sharks and krakens and whanot from a distance, and killed everything else on the level for some privacy. I zapped a wand of cold across part of the moat, freezing it into walkable ice. Then I put on my speed boots. I had to do this as fast as possible. Ready? Here goes.
It was over in two easy steps. First I zapped a wand of digging, making a hole in the tower wall, then I zapped the blessed wand of death into the hole. The Wizard of Yendor had just enough time to pick up the Book of the Dead from the floor - then it fell back again, and his stone cold corpse fell down on top of it. Dead before he even landed a blow. That's the way we do things downtown, Mr. Wizard.
But he would come back; that was certain. I walked in and minced his pet vampire lord (his hellhound had succumbed to the death ray), and grabbed the book off the floor. Then I beat a hasty retreat out of the tower, swapping my speed boots for the water-walking boots just long enough to get good and clear of the moat.
Down I went, running along the paths I'd carved between the stairs, until I was back at the bottom floor. I ran over and stood on the vibrating square. No Rodney yet - so far, so good. I lit the Candelabrum of Invocation. Kerzap! I rang the Bell of Opening. Ding dinnggg! I read from the Book of the Dead. BOOOOOOM.
Massive geologic upheaval. Fire traps and a moat appeared around me. And there, at my feet, was the stairwell leading down to Moloch's Inner Sanctum. Somewhere in there was the Amulet of Yendor.
Down the stairs I went.
The first thing I tried on arrival was a spell of magic mapping. That failed of course. So I went wandering. Pretty soon I found a locked door, and quietly opened it onto a massive graveyard, brimming with the undead -- all of them asleep. Just like the treasure zoo. I hacked the critters up one by one until I arrived at another door. My x-ray vision showed a bunch of priests of Moloch right behind it, dancing around like nervous groupies. They just couldn't wait to say hello.
Nothing for it. I opened the door and waded in. First thing I cast was finger of death, dropping two of them, but there were many others. They summoned clouds of insects, filling the room. I hacked at those for easy hitpoints, and kept the priests at arms' length. They taunted me the whole time. "Why seek the amulet, cretin? Thou wouldst but lose it.", et cetera. The only thing that seemed to reliably kill them was the death bolt, and my mana regeneration was very slow, so it was an arduous battle. The ring of conflict only made the insects attack each other.
I drew the priests around the room in a big loop, observing that there was a walled-in chamber in the middle. That must be the Temple of Moloch, where the high priest and the Amulet reside. I used a wand of detect unseen to find the door, but didn't go near it until every priest outside was dead. I kept worrying that the Wizard would crash the party. I waited around as long as I dared, accumulating the mana points for another death bolt, then approached the temple.
The second I opened the door, Rodney poofed back from the dead, blocking my path. Such timing he has. I launched a "finger of death", and his corpse hit the stone floor before he even landed a blow. Second time, Mr. Wizard. Who's laughing now? The death bolt bounced off a wall and narrowly missed the high priest, who was in a spitting rage. You're next on my list, pal.
I hung out just beyond the temple door, knowing he wouldn't emerge to pursue me, and cleaned up a few straggling monsters. Eventually I had the mana for another death bolt, so I jumped over the fire traps into the temple and fed it to the priest, point-blank against a wall. Tasty, tasty death. I picked the Amulet of Yendor up from his cold corpse - naming it "REAL ONE" in case Rodney tried to pull a switcheroo on me later - and turned on my heels. Now it was time to begin the ascension.
Teleport spells were useless. I was going to have to walk with the Amulet, one square at a time, from floor to floor with the Wizard of Yendor ambushing me regularly. I emerged from Moloch's Inner Sanctum onto level 49, jumped over the fire traps (which still burned my boots), walked over the moat, and swapped my water boots for boots of speed. Step... Step... Step... Pardon me, zruty! Out of the way, balrog! I didn't bother fighting anything and just stepped around it.
Actually the ascension went a lot smoother than I anticipated. I'd dug straight pathways between the stairs on almost every level, and Rodney only bothered me twice. The first time was in Juiblex's swamp, and I took him out with a spell instead of the wand, saving precious wand charges for the Astral Plane. Gbloosh! His corpse fell into the swamp and vanished. The second time was in the regular dungeon level where I met the gremlins, and my death ray missed. I didn't have any more mana points (the Amulet of Yendor tends to steal them away), so I let him have it with the wand. Blam! Thud. And before I knew it, I had climbed all the way up.
So here I was, on floor 1, where the whole adventure began. Standing next to the stairs where me and my pet dog (rest in pace, Sir Pantsalot) had entered the dungeon a zillion turns ago. The Amulet of Yendor hadn't left my hand since I'd taken it off the dead priest 49 floors down. Time go leave this thoroughly trashed dungeon forever, and begin my journey on the elemental planes.
The Plane of Earth: Amusing. Rodney was waiting for me, but I capped his ass with the wand on sight. A fancy purple elf was nearby, and though he wasn't particularly threatening, Stormbringer didn't like his hat, and tried to stab it off his head. Totally not my fault. I dug around in the caves, knocking the pansy earth elementals aside and causing mayhem. Somehow my towel got cursed; luckily I wasn't wearing it at the time, so I wielded it and read a scroll of remove curse, which fixed the problem.
The Plane of Air: Terrifying. If I hadn't brought a ring of levitation, my game would have ended here. Another lucky coincidence. It's true what they say, air elementals are incredibly nasty. A crowd of them nearly pummeled me to death before I put one to sleep and ran around the clouds. A vortex blundered into the portal, so I saw where it was, and went straight for it. Glad to be out of there.
The Plane of Fire: Frightening, but not as bad as Air. I did an end-run around about a thousand fire elementals, then followed a monster into the portal. Once again, thank goodness for that ring of levitation.
The Plane of Water: Boring and stupid. Wander around in a moving bubble of land until you're pitched into the portal by chance. Screw that. Also, I was running out of food (the Amulet of Yendor doubles your hunger rate).
The Astral Plane: Okay, here's what it all comes down to. Three temples, each guarded by a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Death, Famine, and Pestilence. Perhaps the assumption is that you are the fourth Horseman, War, arriving to start a riot. Who can say? I'm a chaotic player, so I like the idea.
First I turned right, heading for the chamber that had Famine in it. I figured he was the least threatening, since Pestilence can kill you in two turns, and the wand of death only makes Death nastier. Famine was coming out to greet me - as I approached the door, he opened it and stepped into the hallway. My wand of death missed him the first time, but got him the second time. Carefully I stepped over his corpse, into a conflagration of angry priests, hurling magic missiles and swinging artifact weapons in my face and calling me awful names. I fought them for a while but the crowd was so thick that I couldn't make any progress towards the inner temple door. I had to know if I was in the right temple, and the only way to find that out is to stand right on top of the altar.
I took out a wand of teleport and began zapping monsters out of my way, a few at a time. That tactic got me through the last door and up to the altar - which turned out to be the wrong altar - and then Famine rose from the dead, blocking my escape. Oh crap.
I put on the ring of conflict, hoping to get an easier path to the door. Famine was wedged in with 20 priests and angels and summoned beasties, weaving like a drunk in a mosh pit. I zapped the wand of death at him through the open door but the wand was out of charges, so I threw it at a priest. This was getting very bad.
I ran back behind the inner chamber of the temple, drawing some of the furious priests and angels with me. Then I started hacking at them. Thanks to Stormbringer I pulled my hitpoints back up near maximum, but the priests were summoning monsters over and over. The crowd was actually getting thicker in here. Nervously I watched my mana counter struggle up past double-digits. I had to take a shot at Famine before I starved to death just waiting around.
Finally I got a path around to the inner door, and hurled myself into the front room again. Famine was only a few steps away, with a priest between us, and he was on the horizontal, so I made my shot. The ray missed the priest but caught Famine, who went down for the second time. Then I busted out the wand of teleport and zapped a hole through the angry crowd to the temple entrance. My hit points were down by half as I staggered back into the hall. Okay, so that was the wrong temple. Two left to try.
In the middle was Death. To my left was Pestilence. Considering the two, I chose to face Death next. My wand was out of charges and I figured that since Pestilence could kill in two turns with his horrible disease attack, Death would be less risky. That decision sounds pretty funny -- Death being less risky -- but I reasoned that my luck was high enough to avoid the Touch of Death effect, so I could probably run around the guy and into the temple behind before he beat me too severely.
Well I was partially right. I got halfway around him and the press of bodies made escape impossible, so I went hand-to-hand combat with Death. Stormbringer did nothing of course. We traded hits and I stepped around him and reached the inner door, but he beat me so hard that I was one turn away from dying. His attack not only reduced my hitpoints, it reduced my maximum hitpoints. He shaved 200 off it.
It came down to one turn. I double checked my inventory for anything helpful but there was nothing. I checked Death's hitpoints with my stethoscope, and they were low. I could try stepping through the door, and hope that Death didn't just follow me in, or I could try hitting him one more time... But if I didn't kill him immediately, I was toast.
I grit my teeth and chose 'attack'. ... He went down.
I fled into the temple and turned a hard right, running back around to the rear hallway. I needed some time to heal - at this point even the high priest standing by the altar could take me out. The angry mob came surging around the corner, but they were stretched into a parade, and I hacked at each monster in turn. My hitpoints crawled up to their new pathetic maximum. I ran around the loop to the other corner and stepped inside to check the altar -- and it was the wrong one again. As I stepped out, Death glided back up off the floor.
This time I knew I couldn't possibly beat him. So I stayed inside the inner temple and slashed at priests and angels and monsters until every single one was killed. A black dragon assisted me by disintegrating a few priests, and I repaid the favor by eating his corpse, since I was down to two food rations, and I knew that if I ever got past Death I might meet Famine in the hall again.
This time I decided to get tricky. Since everyone in this sanctum was dead, I was free to move, so I crept up to the inner door and waited for Death to come chasing after me. He followed me in, and I ran around the loop, pulling him after me so that when I got to the inner door again he was a few steps behind instead of in front. I sprinted across the front room and out into the hall. Now I had to go find Pestilence.
But wait, what's this? Pestilence was apparently coming out into the hall to meet me. In front of him was a crowd of priests and angels from his own temple, surging forward. I collided with them only a few steps away from -- literally -- Death's door. And Death was catching up, and it looked like he might enter the hall too. What a party.
I fought with the angels and priests, wanting to get away from Death even though the angels and priests were the only things separating me from Pestilence. Now I knew: Death was worse! Besides, I had enough mana for another death bolt again, and if I could get a clear shot at him, I could take Pestilence down and walk past him into the third and final temple. I took down a priest and an angel but another priest stepped right up, blocking my progress down the hall. For 10 turns Death hovered indecisively just inside his own front door. If he came out, he could walk right up and hit me.
Pestilence was very close now, and almost on a horizontal with me, but now I had another problem. The priest in front of me was wielding Vorpal Blade. If he got a lucky swing, I would be decapitated instantly. I couldn't risk hand-to-hand with that menace, so I stepped back, closer to Death's door again. Luckily that step was enough: Pestilence stepped forward and down, lining up on a horizontal, and I took my shot. It missed the first time, but bounced off the wall and caught him in the back. Then it killed the priest. That was close.
As soon as he dropped I stepped over his corpse and picked up Vorpal Blade, so nobody else could take it. Then I went crazy on the rest of the priests in the hall, fighting my way through to the entrance chamber of the third temple. Inside was another mosh pit, and the priests summoned a horde of insects, making movement almost impossible. Eventually I fought to the inner door, but behind it were three dragons of various colors, and while I was chopping at the first one Pestilence re-animated and began striding up the hall for me.
I didn't have the strength for another death bolt and my wands of teleport were gone. My only hope was that the insects and priests still flailing around in the room would block his way long enough for me to get through the door. They did a terrible job -- in fact it seemed like the crowd was parting just so he could get closer -- but I got lucky again and two of the three dragons stepped aside when the first one fell. I jigged around them, then around a rabid angel, then around a furious priest, then into the inner chamber where the altar was. The monsters in the room freaked out and went diving for the door. That was how I knew: This was finally the right altar.