Beginner’s Guide to NetHack

032509-1443-beginnersgu1.jpgNetHack is a Rogue-like hack and slash computer RPG. It is particularly notable because it has been in development reasonably recently, and the overall quality of the game is incredibly good. The game shares a heritage with Moria and Rogue along with other games from this era. It also has a large online following.

It looks not unlike this:

It’s a fun game, but it takes a bit of getting into. There are a lot of commands you need, and lots of little tricks. That’s what this article is for.

Getting Started

The first thing you will need is the game itself. Download link. It’s available for just about any system you care to name. Put it somewhere, extract it, and you’re ready. I would recommend putting a shortcut somewhere, because you will die a LOT, and you need to restart the program for each new game.

So. Run the executable. There’s actually two executables: one is the graphical version, which looks like so:

I personally prefer the ASCII interface, so further screenshots will be based on that.

Anyway, the game will start by asking for the name of your character.

It will then prompt you to select your class, race, and possibly alignment and gender. Class choice matters a lot.

For beginners, you really want an easy class. Valkyrie and Barbarian are probably the ones to go for, but Wizard is good once you get the hang of some of the basics. I chose a Dwarven Valkyrie. You are then given some preamble, and chucked into the dungeon.

Right. Your stats are down the bottom; I seem to have rolled a lousy 14 strength. The rules are D&D-ish, specifically 1st-2nd Ed rules: this means low AC is good. The Pw is your Power, for casting spells.

Things to notice in this:


What is it?


You, or an NPC human.


A dog. This has white background, so it’s your pet. You always start with a pet.


Gold on the ground


A potion on the ground


A monster



Walking into loot picks it up, walking into monsters attacks them. Walking into doors… causes you to walk into a door. Yeah. You need to open it first. So, here’s some simple commands to get you started:

Command Action
o Open a door; press ‘o’ then press a direction to open that door
i View your inventory
w Wield a weapon
W Wear armour (you may need to take off previous armour first)
A Take off stuff
P Put on Rings, Amulets, and the like
q Quaff a potion, or drink from a fountain ()
r Read a scroll (casts) or spellbook (learns spell)
s Search, for secret doors and the like
e Eat something, either in your possession or on the floor
d Drop something
D Drop multiple objects
ctrl-d Kick (to kick down locked doors)
> Go down stairs

Those are the core commands you will need to play the game. Wander around a bit and experiment.

More commands

You’ll start to find there’s sometimes things you have no idea how to do, like open a chest. You’ll soon need more commands. Some of these further commands use just key input, but some are extended: you type # and then the name of the action, which auto-completes.

Command Action
t Throw an object, like a dagger, or an arrow (counts as firing if bow is equipped).
Q Ready a stack of objects in a quiver, for easy firing.
f Fire (throw) an object from your quiver.
#force Force open a chest AT YOUR FEET (drop it if you pick it up)
#loot Loot a chest/bag/container AT YOUR FEET
z Zap a wand
Z Zap a Spell you know (extremely important for Wizards)
. Wait for one tick of time, without doing anything
@ Switch auto-pickup on/off. Good for wandering through stores, or if you can’t carry any more.
p Pay a store keeper for the stuff you’ve picked up in his store.
#dip Dip something into something else. You can dip things into potions for various effects. A Lawful character of at least level 5 can dip a Longsword into a Fountain for a chance of getting Excalibur. Good for a Valkyrie, who starts with a Longsword.
#pray If you’re fainting from hunger, or have food poisoning, or are otherwise completely screwed, use this. There is a timer until you can use it again.
#enhance If the game tells you you are feeling more confident with your weapons, use this.
a Apply. Basically, use a miscellaneous item, such as a lockpick, an whistle, or a magic marker (used to scribe scrolls and spellbooks).
< Go up stairs

Naturally, there are tons of other commands, but these cover almost everything. Check the manual if you need more.

Cursed Items

Items can be Blessed, Uncursed, or Cursed (B/U/C). Blessed items are better, Uncursed are normal, and Cursed either have strange effects (for consumables), or cannot be removed (for armour, weapons, rings, and the like). Cursed equippables normally have a bad effect. Now, whilst you can hope for enough Scrolls of Identify, or you can just try everything on, you’ll have serious troubles if you don’t try to identify things through other ways.

Altar Testing

If you find an altar (_), you can easily test items. Simply drop the items you want to test onto the altar. As they land, they will may flash amber (showing Blessed) or black (showing Cursed)… assuming you’re not Blind or Hallucinating, this is very useful. The game will append these descriptors to the items, and you can pick them up and do what you will with them.

Pet Testing

A pet wanders around a lot, and sometimes picks stuff up. A pet will almost never walk onto a square where there is a Cursed item. So, each time you get a new item, drop it and wait to see if the pet walks on it. If not, it’s probably Cursed.

Bones Levels

Once you play a fair bit, you will eventually run into a ghost of one of your dead characters. You will find his or her dead body and possessions: it’s all saved in something called a bones file. Do NOT immediately start cheering and putting everything on: each item has an 80% chance of being Cursed, even if it wasn’t originally. Careful.

Some Strategy

Here’s some condensed tips for beginners:

  • Make sure your pet is adjacent to you when you go down stairs if you want it to follow you down.
  • If you get a Scroll of Identify, identify something you have duplicates of (same description). This will name all of them, although it won’t give B/U/C status.
  • If you see a Nymph (n), kill it with ranged attacks to avoid it stealing stuff. If you’re a Wizard, do NOT use Force Bolt: Nymphs often carry mirrors, which can break, giving you bad luck.
  • If you see a Floating Eye (e), kill it with ranged attacks to avoid being paralysed… then eat the body, if it leaves one. It grants telepathy, which allows you to see monsters if you’re blind.
  • Use your pet to steal from shops: if it picks something up, move outside (and use a whistle, if you have one), and it should drop the item outside the shop. Yay! Free stuff.
  • After level 2-4, there may be some down-stairs which lead to an area with a solid border, with lots of Gnomes, and a few Dwarves and Hobbits. This is the Gnomish Mines. If you’re a gnome or dwarf, most stuff won’t attack you, but if you’re not, it’s quite dangerous. There’s also lots of traps. If you can survive, there’s lots of XP to be had, and it eventually comes to a town, with shops and a temple. Don’t go further down: it’s too dangerous. Go back up to before the Mines, and find a different path down.’
  • Don’t touch a Cockatrice… not even a corpse. Don’t pick one up if you’re not wearing gloves.

Above all, experience (you, not the character) is everything. The more you play, the more you’ll get the hang of how certain things work. You’ll still die a lot, though.


If you need to look up anything, or want more strategy tips, NetHackWiki is a fairly good resource.

About Duncan

Ellisthion's all about 5E D&D at the moment, but has at times has played every edition from 1E AD&D through to 5E, plus Star Wars: Saga Edition, Paranoia, and more. He DMs a lot, and tends to make overly-complicated campaigns and characters.
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