How can I conquer Rogue-Likes?
September 25, 2009 9:17 AM   Subscribe

For over 10 years I've been playing various rogue-likes. Nethack, Angband, ADOM, and now Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. I've never, ever been able to get past a few levels.

I usually choose a human with a warrior-type class for maximum survival, but still, my survival skills are abysmal.
I usually gain a few character levels and go down a few floors in the game, and then die horribly.

I need some hints and tips to actually conquer these games, which I love, but hate so much at the same time.

Even save scumming doesn't save me!!
posted by PowerCat to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
for nethack, you can find all kinds of ideas (read: cheats) in the nethack wiki.

The Strategy page is a good place to start.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:31 AM on September 25, 2009

One general technique is to take things very, very, very slowly. If you play a version of one of those games with a bot enabled, you'll notice that the bot progresses very slowly, constantly going back to the upper levels (or town level, if there is one).

The Nethack wiki has lots of good strategy articles. You'll be most interested in the standard strategy, which is a broad overview of a straightforward playthrough of the game.
posted by jedicus at 9:33 AM on September 25, 2009

okay. Let's deal with NetHack, because I'm more familiar with that than the others and there is a ton of information available on it.

First: WikiHack: the Nethack Wiki.

Second: How are you dying most often? Learning to play NetHack usually involves getting over several humps of death types. For example, starvation, killed while helpless, etc. There are some deaths that are essentially unavoidable, like the falling rock trap on level one when you're playing a gnomish wizard, or the unlucky poison arrow when you haven't gotten poison resistance yet, or the gnome with the wand of death. Ideally, all of your deaths should end up falling into that category. And as you get further in the dungeon, there are fewer and fewer things of that sort.

Third: If you are still using things (potions, wands, scrolls) without knowing what they are: STOP.

Carry all scrolls until you find a bookstore or general store (often you can find one in the first five or six levels. if not, once you start making it to minetown regularly, there's often one there). In the store, drop your scrolls and see how much the shopkeeper offers you for them. Scrolls of Identify are cheaper than any other scrolls. They should be the only one where the shopkeeper offers you less than 25 gold (this can vary a little with charisma and luck, but the next cheapest scrolls aren't very harmful for the most part, so if you slip up it's not the end of the world).

As for potions, if you haven't identified them by the time you find a unicorn horn, you can dip the unicorn horn into the potions. This will turn ALMOST all harmful potions into either water or juice. Also, every time a baddie throws a potion at you, the game will ask you what you want to call the potion, regardless of whether it hits you or not. Even if you don't get any other hint as to what it is, name it "harmful". Monsters never throw good potions at you.

And wands: You may not know, but you can engrave on the ground with a wand. I usually just engrave an "X" (if your engraving is too long it can use more than one charge). Many wands will then give you a message that either identifies the wand or gives you a good hint.

And finally: Remember that NetHack is a turned based game. Whenever you find yourself in a situation that is potentially dangerous, stop and think. It doesn't take any turns to look at your inventory. If I think I'm close to death, I always pull up my inventory and run down every item, considering whether there is any way it can help me. If you're one turn from death and have no escape, always try praying if you haven't done something to anger your god. If you know or expect that your god is angry, well, now's the time (the ONLY time) to read those unidentified scrolls and hope they are teleportation.
posted by 256 at 9:34 AM on September 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

My rule of thumb: until you hit character level 10, don't go to a lower dungeon level than half your character level. From CL 10-20, you're okay at DL=CL, if you take things slowly. From CL 20-40-ish, you're okay at 150% of your CL. Only after CL 40 should you venture down deeper.

In all cases, depending on your game there are certain resistances/immunities that you absolutely need to acquire before descending below certain levels. In Angband, for instence, trying to fight a Drolem without poison resistance is pretty suicidal, so you need to have that before you hit the level where it starts to appear. Etc. Find a FAQ for your particular game and it should have a listing in there somewheres.

This is tedious for a while, but it's the only way to survive.

In short: go slow. Real slow. You'll get the hang of it and eventually be tough enough to survive.
posted by valkyryn at 9:53 AM on September 25, 2009

(I've only played angband, so this may not apply elsewhere)

I agree with going slow, except at early levels. When you don't have much time sunk into the character you can afford to be a little more reckless and it sometimes pays off. Sometimes you luck out and kill something that gives you two or three levels at once. Sometimes you get uberloot. One time I got law dragon scale mail from Farmer Maggot at level 4.

Fight in corridors, not in the open. In a corridor you can get hit by enemies on two sides. In the open, 8 enemies can swarm you. This trick doesn't work so well against archers though. Against them, try to lure them to a corridor with a corner and stand one space away from the corner. You'll have one guy in your face and maybe another one shooting, but the rest of them will be useless. Finally, if you're exploring save the doors for last. Many enemies won't bother with doors. Once opened, they'll aggro on you though.

Print out a copy of the game commands. There are more options than you realize.
posted by valadil at 10:12 AM on September 25, 2009

I can advise on nethack, probably, as I've ascended most character types.

- Take it really slow. No, slower!

My general strategy is this

Step 1. Get your AC down to -6 and improve one of your weapon skills twice as soon as possible, before descending below minetown (and even then, this is the most dangerous portion of the game)

This should mean you're pretty much safe from most things, but do carry a few throwing items for dangerous things (mumak; cockatrice; floating-eye). Use your pet to test every item of armour you come across early on. If the pet steps on it and you don't get a "moves reluctantly" message, it's not cursed and is safe to try on, so do so - you can also do this for items found in shops, just make sure it's not cursed. If you're lucky enough to find an altar, drag stuff back to it and test it that way though do not get burdened - make 2 trips back to the altar rather than one burdened one. Do not be afraid to run away, even after losing just half your hitpoints - heal, come back, throw stuff. Use prayer for food as much as you can (as a rule of thumb, you can pray every 1300 turns ish if you're killing stuff), and look after that pet as much as possible - allow it to kill the small stuff as it'll gain levels and experience faster than you, and be far more dangerous early on!

Do not descend below minetown or the Oracle before you have AC of -6. Sokoban is dangerous before this too. Carrying healing potions / teleport scrolls if you have identified them as they could save your life. As could a wand of digging by zapping a hole through the floor or a wand of fire by burning Elbereth. If you find helpful detection items (such as amulet of esp, ring of warning) use them and don't worry about the extra nutrition cost.

I don't tend to price-identify much except for lamps (if it's worth over 20zm it's a magic lamp), and scrolls - the most important scrolls are the cheap ones.

If you find an unattended altar, convert it if you can (wands of create monster can help here, by creating, killing, sacrificing) and get as much holy water as you can once you've identified a few things. Holy water is pretty much the most important potion in the game, I've even cleared unidentified potions early on just to obtain some holy water.

Step 2. Get some way of dealing with polymorph traps, preferably before descending below level 10.

The polymorph trap is a little unfair in nethack. It can create monsters that are waaay out of your league by monsters stepping on it, or instantly destroy all the armour you spent thousands of turns identifying. You will need one of the following: Cloak of magic resistance, gray dragon scale mail, amulet of unchanging or ring of polymorph control. If you really haven't found any of these, have a reasonable armour cache somewhere nearby (drag it down each level with you, so it's close) and search every single square multiple times.

Step 3. Complete the ascension kit, whilst getting your AC down even more. The kit should be fairly complete by the time you hit Gehennom. Use the wand of wishing to make up the gaps in the kit, but do save a wish in the wand if you can for dire emergencies!!


Don't be afraid to try the "harder" classes - I think I started out like you, playing Valkyrie's and Barbarian's because they were "easy" and never got anywhere. My first ascension was as a Tourist, and I think it's simply because you *have* to be incredibly patient early on, *have* to run away all the time, and *have* to be an expert tool users that I made it.

The game does get easier as you get further on. So, if I manage to survive the first 20000 turns, my chances of a successful ascension are probably about 75% or so. The early game is brutal, keep trying, the RNG will throw you something good every now and again, the trick is recognising that it has and what to do with it!
posted by BigCalm at 10:20 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has a fairly active community in the IRC channel ##crawl on Freenode. If you're comfortable with SSH, I'd connect to the crawl server and play online with one or two people watching.

In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup you should be use-IDing stuff fairly early and often. You don't want to be using unknown potions/scrolls/wands when you're in a bind.

Take a Mountain Dwarf Fighter. Heal up completely between fights and make sure you use corridors in order to only fight one enemy at a time.

Other than that, I'd echo what everyone else said: Go slow.

Feel free to memail me if you want me to watch you play. I'm no expert myself though and usually die in the mid-game.
posted by ODiV at 10:29 AM on September 25, 2009

The game does get easier as you get further on. So, if I manage to survive the first 20000 turns, my chances of a successful ascension are probably about 75% or so. The early game is brutal, keep trying, the RNG will throw you something good every now and again, the trick is recognising that it has and what to do with it!

This is entirely true and an important thing to remember when you start to get discouraged. Learning to survive the early game in NetHack is the biggest challenge in learning to ascend at NetHack.

In fact, this is so true that, for the last year or so I've stopped playing NetHack in favor of sporkhack, a variant that makes the early game slightly easier and the endgame insanely harder.
posted by 256 at 10:29 AM on September 25, 2009

Try this too - this certainly helped me for nethack - How to play weak characters. If you can play a weak character, you can certainly play a strong one!
posted by BigCalm at 10:46 AM on September 25, 2009

When I was traveling abroad, angband on a flash drive was my main source of computer-based entertainment. As everyone has said, go slow. I've had good luck with magic users; you can fight from a distance and generally get away easily. When in med-hard levels, once you have a teleport spell, you can generally tele to safety (or at least relative safety) if you get into trouble. Enabling the cheat to allow you to cheat death is a good way to get the hang of the game too.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:54 AM on September 25, 2009

Don't be afraid to try the "harder" classes - I think I started out like you, playing Valkyrie's and Barbarian's because they were "easy" and never got anywhere

I actually think that wizard is easier than the warrior classes in Nethack. You start with an excellent distance attack (force bolt) which can easily handle most challenging monsters on the early levels. Plus,


your first sacrifice gift, Magicbane, can rapidly and accurately engrave Elbereth without dulling. You know about altar sacrifices and Elbereth, right? Anyway, fast Elbereth carving can get you out of any number of sticky situation.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:16 AM on September 25, 2009

Here's an alternate opinion to the "go slow" crowd:

Although I'm sure you're aware of the basic tenet of rogue-likes ("You will die a lot"), you may not have internalized it. It took me a while, coming from JRPG and Tactical Strategy gaming. Here's what you do:

Play fast and carelessly for a while. It doesn't matter a bit if your character dies; just make another and keep playing.

You will quickly start developing a feel for how the game is played, instead of slowly developing a procedure for playing it.

Once you "get it", you can slow back down and start working on the details, but if you just, you know, go for it for a bit, I'll bet you'll begin to make much better progress.
posted by Aquaman at 11:26 AM on September 25, 2009

Paging mefi's own JHarris.

This article in particular looks like a good place to start for NetHack.
posted by juv3nal at 11:33 AM on September 25, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, this is some great info. Indeed I want to go fast, bash through all the monsters and kill kill. Wearing anything I find (yeah, ending up cursed) and so on.

Just to clarify, I don't play nethack anymore. I've adopted Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup as my new favourite, but still, all strategies apply equally to different roguelikes.

Thanks for this great info, hopefully I can win someday.
posted by PowerCat at 12:10 PM on September 25, 2009

Wow, this is some great info. Indeed I want to go fast, bash through all the monsters and kill kill. Wearing anything I find (yeah, ending up cursed) and so on.

I'm afraid that you're going to need to overcome that (at least that last part) if you ever want to get anywhere in most roguelikes.

Certainly you don't need to go slow, but a certain amount of caution is a requirement.
posted by 256 at 12:32 PM on September 25, 2009

One thing I've not seen addressed here so far is roguelike tactics. How to move and fight effectively, a skill that can carry over, to some extent, between all these games. If you're dying a lot in early Nethack even with Barbarians and Valkyries, that leads me to believe you could be spending a bit more time playing carefully.

We don't have any knowledge of your playing style so all we can do is suggest things scatter-shot and hope one of them hits your play style deficiencies. Please keep this in mind here, and accept the advice that seems to make sense to you.

For basic roguelike tactics:

Tip 1: Make every move count
Unless you have some specific reason to stick around for a while, try to get what you need done done as fast as you can. This helps with both food consumption and monster generation. Strive for efficient movement. In Nethack, for example, you can often use diagonal moves in those zig-zag corridors, and get down them in half the time. This is not just a time saver; if you try zig-zagging down those routes while chased by a monster, he'll get two turns to your one, and probably eat you.

Tip 2: Don't overextend yourself
You heal naturally while moving in roguelikes, but it helps to rest up too. In many games the period key causes you to regain health without moving. Wandering around with low HP is asking for trouble. Some games (especially ADOM) have unusually slow healing and you should take that into account, but in games like Rogue and Nethack, you should strive to be above half your hit points whenever possible.

Tip 3: Fight from doorways and corridors
Getting surrounded by opponents is a very bad thing, since they'll each get a turn for every move you get. If you do get surrounded, it's usually best to retreat to a corridor, where you can take them on one at a time. Or better yet, use an escape item like a teleport scroll. (If you're playing Dungeon Crawl, it's probably best to find out what escape items are by use-ID.)

These next tips are more for Nethack than the others, which is probably the easiest major roguelike to win once you've absorbed the necessary body of knowledge. But there is a lot of such knowledge! The following could probably all be learned from the Nethack Wiki eventually, but it's useful to have it all in one place. This isn't a walkthrough either; if you've been playing for ten years I assume you already know what you need to win.

Tip 4: Avoid common instadeaths
In Nethack this requires some presence of mind to avoid smacking floating eyes. Later on there are a few situations that are extremely perilous. Being adjacent to a cockatrice, facing an enemy with a wand of death, dealing with black dragons and fighting monsters with the Touch Of Death spell are among them. The best way to handle these dangers is to make them moot, to make them less dangerous through equipment (that is, building up the ascension kit, except for cockatrices, which you'll just have to handle by being careful around them, or genociding them if you're paranoid), but until then you have to make due with tactics.

Oh, and please do NOT drink from fountains! They give you occasional stat boosts and, once in a blue moon, a wish, while they frequently send in angry monsters that will make your life miserable. The best use for fountains is dipping items into them, to make useless potions/scrolls into water/blank paper, to uncurse items as an emergency measure (and metal things could rust in that event), and if you're Lawful, possibly producing Excalibur. Don't drink from sinks either; the best way to use sinks is to kick them, which might summon a succubus/incubus for level-gaining dalliances (if your Int + Cha is 34 or close to it) or a black pudding (dangerous monster, but they divide when you hit them, their corpses can provide many possible intrinsics when eaten, and they are great for sacrificing). Of course, sink-kicking is best done once you're powerful enough that all of these dangers become moot for you.

Tip 5: Recognize the most dangerous monsters, and take measures against them
Soldier ants are, game for game, the deadliest monster in Nethack. Beware of big cats and mumaks. Leucrottas will have you for lunch if you're not careful. Nymphs should be left to your pets or distance weapons until you're probably around experience level 12 or higher. Mind flayers are incredibly cruel monsters now that their brain-sucking attacks cause you to forget item identifications. Liches are a prime candidate for the first blessed genocide scroll (genocide capital-L). You should be building up an inventory of items for handling these kinds of opponents from a distance; a few attack wands will usually be sufficent.

Tip 6: Take proactive measures to build your equipment
You can get a unicorn horn relatively easily, especially if your pet has advanced pretty far. Unicorn horns, provided they're not cursed, are one of the most massively useful items in the game. Once you have such a horn, most ailments like confusion, stunning, poisoning and blindness are simply no longer a problem for you. 'a'pply the horn until the condition is remedied. Get the horn blessed to make it work even more reliably.

An altar (provided there is no priest around it, or just a priest of your alignment) is one of the most valuable resources you can find. Drop water on a like-aligned altar (check altar alignment with the ":" key while standing on it!) and pray to make holy water, which you can use to bless things by alt-'d'ipping things into it. Any altar will identify the curse/blessed state of all items dropped on it for free. You can convert unlike altars to your alignment by sacrificing monster corpses on it (they have to be fresh, like within 40 or so moves of being killed, and your god must NOT be angry with you -- if he is, you might convert to the altar's alignment instead, which is extremely bad. Make-the-game-unwinable bad!). The first thing you should do once you find such an altar is to convert it (if it's not already your alignment), then sacrifice wandering monsters at it until you get an artifact or two. (Of course, you should make sure you have enough food for such a process.) If you do this with a Valkyrie you'll always get Mjollnir as your first gift, and that's nearly half the game right there. If you're playing a Wizard you'll always get Magicbane first, which is free magic resistance while you wield it and it's special effects make general combat a lot easier. If you're playing a Knight, get a longsword if you don't start with one, and get it dipped into a fountain the moment you hit level 5! And if you ever get Greyswandir early in the game, take a moment to thank the gods.

Another thing to watch out for is early wishes. Surprisingly often there will be a magic lamp for sale in the Minetown lighting store. It can be recognized as one that costs more than 50 zorkmids. If you find one, don't mess around. Get that sucker blessed then alt-'r'ub it until you get its dijinni, who (if the lamp was blessed) will grant you a wish 80% of the time. As for what to wish for, see below.

These items are needed to win:
- A source of magic resistance (to survive Touch of Death attacks and to negate the Destroy Armor spell)
- A source of level 3 magic cancellation, which protects against many, many special monster attacks (oilskin cloaks, cloaks of magic resistance, cloaks of protection and elven cloaks. Elven mythril will provide it too, but is generally much worse armor than dragon scale mail)
- A way of getting past water. Levitation boots, levitation ring, water walking boots or, in a pinch, a number of scrolls of earth. Controlled teleport will also work in many cases.
- Poison resistance. The best way to gain this is to eat poisonous corpses until "you feel healthy," but that'll steadily lower your strength. Get it back with a potion of restore ability, applying a unicorn horn, or prayer. Really, not having poison resistance will probably will kill you eventually until you get it.
- The other resistances, especially sleep. These are best gotten by eating monsters.
- A really low AC. Dragon Scale Mail is the primary route to this.

Tip 7: Don't forget to pray
Prayer is actually kind of broken in Nethack. Nearly any bad situation you can be put into in the early game, you can get out of if you pray at the right moment:
  • If your're Weak from hunger (not just "hungry"), pray and your stomach will be settled.
  • If you're at less than five or one-seventh of your hit points, whichever is greater, pray and you'll be fully healed.
  • Turning to stone? About to die from food poisoning? Turning into green slime? Put on an amulet of strangulation? PRAY.
The caveats are that:
  • You MUST have zero or positive luck to pray, so don't do this if you've just broken a mirror, cheated at Sokoban (it is wise to use Sokoban as merely a source of early food, rings and wands if you don't know its puzzles backward and forward), or it is Friday the 13th.
  • You must not have prayed, or been granted an artifact by your god, in the last few hundred-or-so turns.
  • You must not be in Gehennom (if you're strong enough to have made it to Gehennom you probably no longer need prayer, but in a pinch you can duck out into Vlad's Tower for a quick pray.)
Tip 8: Get your stuff ID'd as soon as possible
Scrolls of identify and light are the cheapest ones, both typically less than 30 zorkmids. Finding that first identify scroll is an important milestone.

Tip 9: Equipment is more important than level
People coming from MMORPGs and JRPGs sometimes find this counter-intuitive. I tell you, the day level became the be-and-end-all of character advancement was the day that hell began to bubble up and cover the earth.

You have to have to have a good experience level to win, level 14 is necessary for entering the Quest, and those first few levels are important for general survivability.

But remember: gaining experience levels raises monster generation levels too. And a level 30 character, without good equipment, is in a lot of danger, while a mere level 10 character with great equipment can be a tank.

Tip 10: What to wish for
Ready for this? This is an extremely important tip. Think of it as a kind of cheat code.

That first wish should be for "blessed +2 gray dragon scale mail"

If you already have a source of magic resistance (unlikely unless you started as a wizard) then make it for "blessed +2 silver dragon scale mail" instead. The armor class bonus from dragon scale is so great it's not even funny, and its color provides an extra resistance besides. You can make dragon scale mail by wearing dragon scales (often from killing a dragon) and reading a scroll of enchant armor, but it's usually more important to get it early than worry about wasting a wish. Wearing dragon scale mail provides so much AC that it's almost like a different game. If you're building your other armor too, working on getting them all enchanted, and are paying priests for protection, you can get your AC down into the -10s without trouble. -30-40s is ascension territory.

Tip 11: Don't take dying so hard
I used to be in your shoes, long ago. Now I win at Nethack almost as much as I lose, and I have to say in the days since I got better at it, I've played it far less than I used to. A roguelike game you die a lot at is more fun than one you can beat arbitrarily. It'll probably be the same for you too. Enjoy it while you can.

I usually choose a human with a warrior-type class for maximum survival, but still, my survival skills are abysmal.

It should be noted that playing such "combat wombat" classes makes Nethack easier, but it makes some of those other games harder. Each game is different.

Even save scumming doesn't save me!!

I strongly suggest giving up this practice. Restoring from backed-up saves instead of starting new games means you're not exposing yourself to the wider array of lucky starts that some of these games allow, and doesn't even "count" as a win when you succeed. Most people. when they win their first (Hack-like) roguelike, it's because they found a great item laying around that let them power through the early game.

If all else fails, try starting Nethack with the -X command line switch. That'll begin you in Discovery Mode with a free wand of wishing. The game won't count for victory or scoreboard purposes, but it'll help you to learn a lot about the game.
posted by JHarris at 12:42 PM on September 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

I wrote the above when I was in a hurry. I noticed, after hitting Submit, that you were mostly playing Crawl these days. I've not played as much Crawl as Nethack, and I've yet to win (although I've come close, and not really after many games).

Crawl is a somewhat harder than Nethack, not the least reason of which is that it's designed to eliminate places where the player can gain advantage through repetitive tasks, and also the Stone Soup is undergoing heavy development to remove game exploits.

Tactics (the first three tips in my message above) play a much greater role in Crawl. I wrote a column that went into more detail on the matter a couple of years ago that should be helpful. Crawl is less vulnerable to spoilers, and the best Crawl players, while good, haven't yet gotten to marvin-level skill, but looking up the structure of the dungeon should be of some use to you; some runes are definitely easier to get than others, and in the standard game you only need three to enter the Realm of Zot. Beyond that I can only suggest being careful, especially around tough monsters (ogres, player ghosts, high-level demons, etc). And remember that roguelikes (other than Nethack) tend to be harder later on for melee classes.

It might be useful to go to akrasiac's scoreboard page and seeing what the best players are picking for their race and class.
posted by JHarris at 5:55 PM on September 25, 2009

Try larn or ularn. You'll might still die a lot, but it's possible to actually win a game in one sitting, which is a nice change of pace from the Moria descendants.
posted by jefftang at 8:12 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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