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NetHack: the minimalist strategy

Tags: nethack roguelike strategy conduct minimalist balance | Wed Jun 12 14:27:48 UTC 2013 | Written by Alex Smith

One of the major criticisms levelled at NetHack by good players (often, who have moved onto variants or other roguelikes) is that it is too easy for an experienced player. This might be a bit surprising, considering how much difficulty newer or unspoiled players have winning (often measured in years or even decades). One possible way to understand the disparity is to look at just what is, and isn’t, important in winning the game.

As such, I decided to see just what I could get away with doing without. NetHack has several “conducts” where players eschew, for instance, wishes or weapons, in order to make the game more difficult. Instead of removing specific categories of items or specific overpowered strategies, minimalist play, a sort of pseudo-conduct, instead tries to make do with only a few types of item, ignoring the entirety of the rest of the game. Specifically, items are only included if I feel that they make a significant difference between winning and losing the game.

In this article, I’m mostly assuming that the character is a lawful Valkyrie. This is a useful combination for my testing, first because it has a particularly easy early game (and thus a good ascension rate overall, and also means I’m less likely to die due to early bad luck), and secondly because its late game is good but less good than some other classes (meaning that the effects of items on strategy become more pronounced).

My definition of the conduct is evolving over time, as I try to establish which items really are useful or at least helpful, and which are overrated; but here’s where I’m at at the moment, together with my strategy for playing it (items are listed in inventory pack order):


Gold is normally considered relatively unimportant in NetHack, but it turns out to be very important for minimalist play. There are a few main reasons for this:

As such, for minimalist play, not only do I permit the use of gold, but I also put it on autopickup all the way up until the main part of Gehennom (beyond which it becomes mostly useless because you have nowhere to spend it; the last place to spend it is the Valley). I don’t go out of my way to collect it in vaults or Ludios, though, because that’s a large detour to collect more gold than I typically end up needing.

List of legal gold-class items: gold piece


Amulets are one of the most useful item classes for minimalist play: although moderately heavy as items go, many of them give very powerful effects. As such, they’re one of the few item classes which the minimalist conduct allows the use of even unidentified; unidentified amulets can be worn (even unBCUed if reliable curse removal is to hand), and carried (for the purpose of later identifying them). Here are the amulets that are useful once identified:

The remaining amulets (that are banned when identified) are negative or useless amulets (change/restful sleep/strangulation/imitation amulet of Yendor); unchanging (which is a niche item useful in some specific strategies, but not this one); and magical breathing, which is more interesting. Protection against eel instadeaths is genuinely useful, and scrolls and potions getting slowly damaged in the process is an acceptable price to pay. I tested it out, and its main problem is slot competition; in those situations where you can’t deal with an eel or kraken via other means, you’re typically in the middle of combat, and need life saving or reflection anyway. Its other problem is that it’s mostly redundant to a wand of cold, which does almost everything it does but better (and a ring of levitation does the rest; eating corpses while satiated is too marginal).

List of legal amulet-class items: ESP, life saving, vs poison, Yendor, unidentified amulet.


There are several monsters later in the game (notably the air elementals on Air, and several boss monsters), where the amount of damage you take on a minimalist run depends almost entirely on your Defence/AC, and how quickly you kill them. As such, having powerful weapons helps.

However, lawful Valkyries have access to Excalibur, which is both available very early (I normally obtain it when I reach XL 7 and the Oracle level, a little after the Mines), and one of the better weapons in terms of extrinsics; it offers both searching (which saves noticeable amounts of nutrition, especially if you kill a coaligned unicorn for its horn), and drain resistance, which means that you don’t really need to worry about magic cancellation. (I think it’s possible that you don’t need to worry about magic cancellation anyway; this could do with further testing, but only in a game where I find a better artifact early.)

Before Excalibur is available, the starting long sword is pretty decent for Valkyries; as such, it might seem that no other weapons but “long sword, Excalibur” would need to be listed. However, there are a few other considerations. The first is that weapon damage is actually pretty relevant, and as such, higher-damage weapons would be permitted. The immediate problem there is that long swords are the second highest-damage one-handed weapon (after katanas), in general; but because katanas cannot be Excaliburised, and thus prone to rust and corrosion, they are likely to end up dealing lower damage over time. Sabers, however, do much more damage to demons and undead than long swords, which is really relevant against many covetous monsters (especially arch-liches and Orcus), and thus are worth carrying around if available. Additionally, if not carrying a shield in the offhand, it’s possible to carry a weapon there instead, and sabers are the best option there as well due to being naturally rustproof. (Theoretically it might make sense to wish for a rustproof enchanted katana for use in the offhand; I’ve never done this because I either needed a shield there or already had a saber and thus the wish wasn’t worthwhile, but I must try it in one of my test runs.) Finally, artifacts can easily do higher damage than regular weapons; interestingly, the only one-handed artifacts that beat out Excalibur are all sabers or long swords anyway, apart from Mjollnir (which is thus permitted for completeness, but which I’m dubious about compared to Excalibur).

Another consideration is that some artifacts can be useful unequipped, and thus their damage wouldn’t matter. The only weapon that counts here is the Sceptre of Might (Magicbane only works when wielded), which gives two important extrinsics: magic resistance and conflict. (It’s standard strategy on real-time speed-runs to wish up the Sceptre as a first wish, even in favour to DSM; I think that might be correct in minimalist play too if you gain an early wish, because those two extrinsics are the two most important.)

Finally, sometimes it’s important to have a ranged weapon; this saves you from being trapped in corridors to starve by floating eyes (yes, even in AceHack and NetHack 4), allows you to wake up monsters at range, gets in damage on monsters that are dangerous to melee like nymphs, and the like. At the start of the game, your only option for this is your starting dagger, and it’s sometimes relevant before you have another option, so it has to be permitted. The best choice, though, is darts; they’re plentiful from disarming dart traps, and do enough damage in the early-game, when you need them. By about Medusa, they’re no longer relevant and can be abandoned permanently.

List of legal weapon-class items: long sword, artifact long sword, Mjollnir, silver saber, Grayswandir, dagger, dart, Sceptre of Might.


AC/Defence is the most important character stat for survival in the late-game (except arguably conflict and half damage, which basically both just substitute for lots of Defence). As such, armour is really important. Normally NetHack players care about Defence, weight and extrinsics; minimalist runs rarely run into weight problems (I’ve managed just fine with crystal plate, the Orb of Fate, and no bag of holding), so all that matters is Defence and relevant extrinsics.

As such, DSM (dragon scale mail) is still the best body armour in the game, but less relevant than usual; the best colors are grey and silver, because they give the best extrinsics. (The age-old argument between which is better is sort-of rekindled for minimalist play, where silver isn’t quite as good as before; I’m genuinely not sure which works better even after testing them both.) However, options like plate, crystal plate, mithril, and so on, are all very relevant and entirely acceptable, and in the early game, any noncursed armour (except niche things like dunce caps) is going to help. (Feel free to go without DSM for the purpose of showing off.) You can get a decent advantage from just trying on every (known noncursed due to pet or altar) piece of armour you find, to see which has the best enchantment.

Some particularly notable pieces of armour in other slots involve levitation boots (not for general use, obviously, but levitation is vital); speed boots (your only source of the “very fast” extrinsic); jumping boots (for telejumping on Astral, crossing moats/swamps, burning nutrition, as an escape item); helms of opposite alignment (shortcutting on Astral, faster ascension run); cloaks of magic resistance (MR in a slot with low competition); alchemy smocks (acid resistance, if you’re going without reflection); helms of telepathy (for the same reason the amulet is good); shield of reflection (still a useful extrinsic, even though it replaces your +3 small shield); and gauntlets of power (the carry cap boost is pretty minor for a Valkyrie and you don’t have much stuff to carry anyway, but the damage boost is noticeable). But really, just using the best item you find is going to be worthwhile.

List of legal armour-class items: all of them, as long as they’re better than the other alternatives you have


Nutrition is obviously quite important to a character’s survival, but monsters tend to drop food frequently in the form of rations and corpses, and so it turns out that in the vast majority of the game, nutrition is not a particular problem. There are basically only three places where it’s reasonable to run out of food: at the start of the game, monster corpses tend to be tiny and thus not particularly nutritious; in Gehennom, you gain nutrition over time on average due to dragons but sometimes you go a long time with nothing but inedible demons; and on the ascension run, there’s rarely a shortage of corpses but there is a shortage of time to eat them. (Note that reserving the guaranteed early-game prayer for nutrition is a good idea with many characters, because that’s the place where nutrition is tightest; Valkyries typically don’t need to, but I often do so anyway out of habit.)

As such, a minimalist run benefits from carrying a bit of food, but in the spirit of not hoarding items and saving weight, it’s important to avoid the common trap where you’re carrying something like 18 food rations in the midgame (I’ve done this in less minimalist runs, and it’s completely pointless). Minimalist players should feel free to (and should) eat permafood off the floor whenever they get hungry (and corpses whenever they’re not satiated, unless they suspect intrinsic-granting corpses will drop in the near future), but apart from that, shouldn’t carry a whole load of food. I use an arbitrary limit of around 2000 nutrition (about 2 and a half food rations), with no hard definition.

The best types of permafood to carry are food rations (which stack and have a high drop rate, and so are the best choice early); K-rations (the best nutrition/time ratio in the game, making them excellent food on the ascension run); and royal jelly (decent nutrition/time, and heals wounded legs, which is relevant because your legs getting wounded is likely to cause the dangerous-although-not-fatal Burdened status). As such, all the other permafood is banned from use.

The one exception to this is the comestible that’s really a healing/defensive item in disguise: lizard corpses cancel out the effects of a new moon, and are the game’s most reliable cure for petrification in Gehennom. Lizard corpses can even be used for nutrition in an emergency! Again, it’s important to not hoard them; one lizard is usually enough, and I have to mentally slap myself if I find myself carrying more than two.

List of legal comestibles to carry (any can be eaten in-place): food ration; K-ration; royal jelly; tin (including unidentified); lizard corpse; no more than 2000 nutrition or so can be carried


Carrying vast numbers of scrolls is quite common in non-minimalist games. It turns out that there are only a few that are particularly useful, but locating them is important enough that it’s worth carrying unidentified scrolls around at least until they can be price-IDed:

Honorable mentions include teleportation (getting to levport from Rodney’s to the vibrating square level would be neat, but you can use the Orb for that, and it requires too much setup; and for horizontal teleports, the wand works just fine), and gold detection (which just isn’t worth it; the Orb of Fate is good enough for portal detection on the less dangerous levels, and on Air, you can use the Bell of Opening to locate the exit portal if it didn’t get cursed on the way up).

One important thing to note here is that all the useful scrolls fall into relatively empty price groups (20, 60, 80, 300), and as such, price-IDing scrolls is particularly worthwhile. (And if they turn out to be in the 50, 100, or 200 group, you can just sell them right there without even wasting an action, which is a nice convenient way to get rid of them and turn them into something useful; although in variants other than AceHack and NetHack 4, you’ll need to cancel the sale so that you can type-name them.) It is therefore definitely worthwhile to carry un-IDed scrolls around until you know what they are.

List of legal scrolls to carry: completely unidentified; unidentified in price group 20, 60, 80, 300; identify, blank paper, enchant armor, enchant weapon, charging; genocide can be used on the spot, or carried until it can be BCUed or to find a safe area for reverse genocide


Valkyries, although “bad at spellcasting”, are actually not so bad that you can’t pull it off if you really want to. On a minimalist run, though, you don’t care about such shenanigans. Many regular Valkyries will learn a spell early on for the ability to confuse themselves at will, but that’s hardly helpful for a minimalist player (who doesn’t used scrolls of teleport or gold detection), and as such, there’s no reason not to blanket-ban spellbooks. (Apart from the one you need to win the game; and even that one should just be carried from the Wizard’s Tower to the Vibrating Square and then dumped.)

List of legal spellbooks to carry: Book of the Dead


Potions have several problems even in regular play: they’re heavy, and not particularly useful. So it’s not all that surprising that a minimalist run makes very little use of them. I used to just blank them arbitrarily to make holy water, but after testing, holy water also turned out to be insufficiently worthwhile (although using it on the spot on a unihorn, marker or stack of scrolls makes sense, if you find it), and as such was removed from the strategy, making things much simpler.

There are basically only three ways in which potions are useful. One is to restore HP (and sometimes even gain a maximum HP boost in the process); full healing in particular can make the difference between winning and losing a fight on Air or Astral (or against Rodney anywhere if you’re out of death charges), and thus definitely needs to be included, and even extra healing is useful enough to make the cut. The other is to make the entry requirement for the Quest; potions of gain level are the only reliable method of level gain that can be stored for later use rather than needing to be consumed immediately, and so carrying them around until you get an opportunity to quaff them all at once to reach level 14 is worthwhile. (Minimalist runs tend to hit 12 or occasionally even 13 naturally, incidentally, so not many potions of gain level are needed.) Finally, if you’re not using speed boots, the potion is the only way to reach top speed; because you might not find speed boots or might need to rely on jumping boots, potions of speed are legal to carry.

It should also be noted that all the potions listed will be used by monsters, if they find them. This means that there’s little reason to go out of your way to ID potions; all the ones you care about will become identified by themselves over time.

One other potential use for potions is to alchemize them into more useful potions; but out of the potions listed, it turns out that all the alchemical ingredients that self-ID are also other listed potions, apart from regular potions of healing. It’s not really worth carrying around potions of healing in case you get to alchemize them later, so alchemy is not much of a reason to extend the list. (You should totally alchemize extra healing + gain level = full healing if you get the opportunity, though.)

List of legal potions to carry: gain level, extra healing, full healing, speed (all only if identified); other known beneficial potions can be quaffed or alchemized on the spot, rather than carrying them


Most rings are not particularly useful. Some, though, are very important, and as such, rings are the items that it’s worth spending the most effort to identify.

In general, as long as you’re using a beneficial ring, there’s no reason not to permit it; but likewise, it’s not worth carrying around an identified beneficial ring if you’re not planning on using it. Out of the rings that it makes sense to carry without wearing them, there are only four: conflict, levitation, free action, and protection.

There are many other rings worth just leaving on permanently until they become obsolete (because you get an intrinsic, or another item, with the same or a similar effect, or because its effect becomes no longer useful): stat-improvement rings; resistance-granting rings; see invisble; warning; teleport control; polymorph control (for protection against polymorph traps). When you find better things to do with the ring slots, just abandon them.

List of legal rings to carry: conflict, levitation, free action, protection; unidentified rings; any beneficial ring that’s equipped


Being comparatively light and usable multiple times, wands are one of the more useful item classes for Valkyries in general. Strangely, it turns out that not that many have particularly useful effects. Here are the ones that do:

Wands of make invisible and speed monster (if you don’t have the intrinsic) are both reasonable candidates to use on the spot; cancellation is also spot-usable for blanking scrolls. Note that the wands allowed in a minimalist game can be engrave-identified, so there’s not much of a reason for carrying unidentified wands around.

List of legal wands to carry: digging, striking, cold, death, sleep, teleportation, wishing; partially unidentified wands that vanish engravings; one wand of fire or lightning (fire is normally preferable).


Tools are quite a varied item category, and also vary somewhat as to how useful they are. There’s one noticeable difference between minimalist runs and regular runs: the bag of holding is great in a regular game, but a minimalist player doesn’t have carry capacity problems and the bag has several drawbacks (can’t hold certain items, and causes trouble when cursed). Minimalists still like to have a container (to protect their scrolls, potions, rings and wands from damage, and to reduce clutter on the inventory screen even though they rarely need all 52 slots), but a sack (or oilskin sack, if you find it first) is the best choice. (I should test using a large box as the container; they’re available earlier, and the weight might not matter, although they’re heavy enough that it might.)

There are several tools necessary to win the game (candles, invocation items), so those obviously count as helpful. The remaining helpful tools are the skeleton key (which lets you avoid waking monsters, making kills on them much easier, and also lets you lock doors behind you for escape purposes); unicorn horns (just kill the first unicorn you see for one of these, coaligned or otherwise; the luck and alignment penalties will fix themselves over time; they’re worth it just for the restore ability effect, and curing blindness/confusion/stun is a nice bonus); and magic markers (for writing extra scrolls of enchant armor or charging). Magic lamps can also be useful, and are worth going out of your way to bless (by blanking a random potion and doing a water prayer, which would not otherwise be allowed in a minimalist game). Being able to blind yourself is useful for finding distant monsters (especially nymphs who stole a valuable item) and beating Medusa without reflection. Finally, fear is a useful effect, especially on Air, which can help save on potions (especially if you don’t have conflict), and as such, tooled horns and leather drums are legal (you can just use-ID them when you find them). Tooled horns also give an alternative method to clear the Castle, but it isn’t their main use for a minimalist (as opposed to some other sorts of game).

List of legal tools to carry: any container; candle, Bell of Opening, Candelabrum of Invocation; skeleton key, unicorn horn, magic marker, magic lamp, unidentified lamp; blindfold or towel; tooled horn or leather drum.

Gem, statue, boulder, chain


(The only item here that’s even worth considering is the luckstone, but you can just use the Orb of Fate for that.)


So now that the legal items have been defined, what’s the best way to actually play such a game? It starts out quite similarly to a normal game for me, except I pet-ID armour I come across (something like a +2 orcish helm may well stay on my head all game). I use the first prayer for nutrition out of habit, and start off by grinding experience on monsters. At level 4 or so, I enter the mines for candles, price-ID, and the chance of a magic lamp (and maybe to buy protection if I have a lot of gold; the protection racket is legal on a minimalist game but I believe it to be a bad strategy for a non-pacifist). I’ll abandon my pet before entering the Mines, incidentally. Because bags of holding are awful as containers go and amulets of reflection are reasonably underwhelming, I skip Sokoban nowadays despite the potentially valuable wands and rings. The Castle is normally the next step; I’ll stop off at the Quest for fire resistance, but not attempt it before I have level 14 and some decent protection from wands, whether it’s a shield of reflection, silver DSM, or a good selection of elemental resistance, which is often but not always post-Castle. Ludios is not worth visiting for a minimalist; and crossing Medusa is rarely a problem (you’ll likely have jumping, levitation, or cold by that point). I’ll start two-weaponing as soon as I get a good secondary weapon, unless I need to use a shield of reflection or my small shield for AC (in which case I’ll start two-weaponing rather later or not at all). I’ll use clairvoyance to map the first several levels of Gehennom, and autoexplore to map the rest (except in variants that don’t have it, where it has to be done manually).


The “hard part” of a minimalist run is really the ascension run and Astral; Gehennom is actually dangerous to a minimalist, and Astral even more so. This is probably the reason I haven’t ascended a minimalist yet (I’ve come close, with earlier versions of the strategy that were a bit more permissive, but not got all the way). Here’s my history of minimalist attempts (not all of which were under the same rules):

The last two deaths were what convinced me permanent Elbereth wands should be permitted, incidentally; dusting is enough in most situations, but in both of them dusting wasn’t enough (in the first of them, I only had one chance and failed it, in the second, I couldn’t use one Elbereth to protect me while I wrote more because of the presence of Elbereth-ignorers). No doubt, after several more Astral deaths, I’ll discover something else that the strategy is missing, or maybe something else that can be removed (like holy water seems to be). Still, the results are encouraging; my ascension rate playing more normally is around 30%, so considering how far I’m getting in the games, I don’t think there’s reasonable evidence to conclude how powerful the strategy is yet. And although I suspect it’s not as good as the standard overpreparation (it would be very surprising if it were), it’s both looking hopeful to be not that much worse, and is making something of a point about NetHack and how to play it. All that stuff you do in a standard game? It really isn’t making that much of a difference.

Finally, I’m having a lot of fun playing minimalist, even when I die on Astral. It’s not so great for my rankings in the Junethack tournament (unless you’re looking for interesting/difficult unique deaths; three of my four deaths are difficult or timeconsuming to obtain in a unique deaths tournament), but the additional lategame danger is making the game more interesting than usual. And isn’t that what games are all about?