This is a hot debate among players of Nethack and ADOM, and the spark for an occasional flamewar on rec.games.roguelike.nethack or rec.games.roguelike.adom. Which of these grand "roguelikes" is better? Which is the One True Computer Game? Personally, I love both games, and don't see playing one to be mutually exclusive with the other, but I like to consider the problem. Therefore, this node will evaluate some of the pros and cons of each game, as well as general comparison and contrast. Spoiler information will be kept to a minimum, though a few minor things may be revealed, so be warned.

A further disclaimer: I am a rather average player of both NH and ADOM. I have not finished either game, though I've come extremely close in Nethack. I hope that this will provide the perspective a newbie would appreciate, though more adept players are welcome to add new writeups filling in the places where my knowledge is lacking.

Premise and Scope

Nethack: Your god desires the greatest artifact this world knows--the Amulet of Yendor. Your quest is to descend into the monster-infested Dungeons of Doom, take the Amulet from its current owner, the Wizard of Yendor, and escape to offer it up to your deity. Along the way you will accomplish a major side quest for the leader of your profession, and explore a few extra dungeon branches, but all in all your goal is straightforward.

ADOM: A great Chaos Gate has opened up deep beneath the mountainous region of Ancardia known as the Drakalor Chain, spewing raw entropy and introducing a host of new twisted, corrupted monsters into the world. You are one of many heroes who have ventured to the Chain, desiring to staunch this flow of evil and gain power and glory. You must accomplish a multitude of quests on the way, and explore many unique dungeons, as well as chart the wilderness of the Drakalor Chain itself. The weather, terrain, and even the movements of the stars may direct your destiny--not to mention the ticking clock of the chaos radiation which may reduce you to a blob of Chaos ooze...

So ADOM is much broader than NH, but that is only debatably a good thing. The player feels more a part of a world, as if ADOM were a commercial FRPG, than Nethack (as a matter of fact, a tabletop RPG based on the ADOM universe is in the works)--but it's hard enough just to stay alive in a dungeon, much less manage food for overland treks and find each place you need to visit. Definitely a matter of taste.

Difficulty (General)

Ok, we all know that Roguelikes are notoriously hard to conquer. As powerful as your hero may be, he/she may seem amazingly fragile when smacked with poison, death rays, or disintegration breath--and guess what? When you're dead, that's it. Your saved game will be erased, and you have to start over from scratch. Sure, you can savescum, but I'm talking about the games' design intent here. Prepare for unending frustration. I've heard NH called "the instakill roguelike," with the following message sequence given as example:

"You fall into a pit!" "You land on a set of sharp iron spikes!" "The spikes were poisoned!" "The poison was deadly..."

And DYWYPI it is. However, I find ADOM as bad or worse on this count: "A stone block hits you in the head! You die..." So I would say this is something to be ready for no matter what the roguelike. The differences in difficulty, then, are side effects of the games' respective styles. Nethack's play style has a rhythm to it, rewarding methodical approaches to combat and a careful building up of intrinsics and ascension kit equipment. Only in crunch situations, or when faced with puzzle-like barriers, need one really stray from the usual approaches (which do vary between classes; a wizard will rely on his long-range magic, while a Samurai's strategy may be based on training his sword and #twoweapon skills). ADOM, on the other hand, provides such a huge array of tactical options and combat-relevant numbers that fights must almost always be considered on a case-by-case basis. Be careful, learn from every tiny mistake, and even then be ready for the times when you'll die from being trapped between Yrrigs, the mad carpenter and a pack of summoned rats, with no way of both protecting yourself and dealing enough damage to escape. Oh, and while you're getting the tactics down, don't forget all the strategic issues of deity worship and alignment, dealing with chaos corruptions, skill training, the quests, intrinsic acquisition... are you getting all of this? (In summary: ADOM's learning curve is monstrous, even nastier than Nethack's. Be warned.)

Skill System

  • Nethack's skill system is reasonably simple. A character has skills for each class of weapon (e.g., daggers, flails, staves) and spell (e.g., enchantment, healing, attack), as well as a few miscellaneous skills (e.g., riding, martial arts, two-weapon combat). These skills get "exercised" as your character makes use of them, until they can go up to the next class, giving the message "You feel more confident in your ___ skills." The player chooses, by using the #enhance command, when the skill actually improves; this is because skills (beyond the "Unskilled" level) take up "slots," of which the character has a limited number based on his/her level, and the player can choose how to employ them. Skill ranges from restricted (doesn't show up on the skill list, and so cannot be advanced at all without divine intervention) to Grand Master (which only the Monk class can obtain, in martial arts).
  • ADOM, on the other hand, has a pile of skills that could rival GURPS. Herbalism! Swimming! Haggling! All the weapons! Bridge Building! Ventriloquism! These are not abstracted as much as in NH; the percentiles and their effects are there to view. They can improve in at least four ways: 1) By practice. This is the only way combat skills can go up, though others do too. "Your Healing skill improves by +1 to 38," for example. 2) By leveling up. 2a) At each level, you get a certain number of skill increases, based on your Learning score and some other factors, like your character's astrological sign. You choose which skill to improve, and dice are rolled to add to that skill's percentile, up to predetermined (and displayed) maxima. 2b) Sometimes, on a level up, the dice which are rolled in 2a actually improve. "You improve in the area of Survival (from 2d4 to 3d4)," for instance. 3) Training. Some competent NPC's can teach you new skills or improve your old ones, perhaps in exchange for completing a quest, or for cash. 4) Magical items. Potions of education, for example, can grant your character a flash of insight that translates into a new skill.

In Nethack, skills have a constant effect, but need only infrequent thought on the part of the player. In ADOM, they are central. You make decisions about them every level, and frequently use them. They determine your rate of healing and mana recovery, your ability to detect traps, your ability to stay alive in the wilderness. Clearly, another case of greater complexity that's available--if desired.

More coming soon! Just wanted to claim the nodeshell...

I'll add a few more points about Nethack vs ADOM. Disclaimer: although I am a veteran Nethacker, I have only won ADOM once. I am currently in an ADOM phase, but will probably go back to Slash'EM (a variant of Nethack) when a significantly different new version comes out. If this writeup seems unfairly biased towards Nethack, it's partly because SabreCat has already covered many of the areas in which ADOM is better.

Reasons why Nethack is better than ADOM:

Nethack has the #name command, an excellent feature which IMHO ought to be available in every roguelike. This command can be used to name an individual item (for example, to note that you think it's cursed), but its main use is to name categories of items. For example, if you engrave with a long wand and the bugs on the floor stop moving, you can then call long wands something like "stop moving 1". (For the curious, this wand is either sleep or death.) If you use up an item like a scroll or potion, and its effect isn't totally obvious, you are automatically given the opportunity to name it. In ADOM, if the item wasn't automatically identified, there's no way to add it to your discoveries list, even if you know what it was. What's more, some items (like the scroll of amnesia) won't auto-identify even though they should.

Nethack has a friendlier inventory management system. When you want to drop multiple items, you can select them from your entire inventory, or only from items of certain types. In ADOM, you can drop all items of a specific type, but can only select from your whole inventory, which will often be much larger than it could ever be in Nethack (there are no bags in ADOM). Nethack's #adjust command is also very handy - it makes it easy to set things up so that in every game, you can use the same sequence of keys to apply your unicorn horn.

Nethack always allows you to do what you want. For example, you can throw arrows with your bare hands (though they won't do much damage), and eat unpaid food or read unpaid spellbooks (though there will be a charge), all things which ADOM forbids you to do. It is said that the (Nethack) Dev Team thinks of everything, and it does feel as though they have considered everything the player could possibly attempt to do and come up with a plausible game response to it.

ADOM has far more equipment destruction than Nethack. In my opinion, this is the single most annoying feature of ADOM - it is very frustrating to have your precious amulet of life saving ripped to shreds by an exploding door trap when you were hoping to give it to the dying sage later. In Nethack, some items are vulnerable to being destroyed by fire, cold and lightning, and there are many ways to lose equipment through carelessness (such as blowing up your bag of holding), but many types of items are pretty much indestructible, and anything kept in a container is 100% safe from destruction other than through player error.

Nethack has a guaranteed wand of wishing, which means that you never have to spend ages hunting for a particular item that you can't live without. In ADOM, anyone attempting to achieve an ultimate ending needs several rare items to complete a particular quest, and since there are no guaranteed wishes, it is often necessary to spend a long time searching for them.

Nethack has explore mode and wizard mode, and its source code is available, so if you get curious about any feature of the game, you can experiment or source dive. (Some would say that this point is in ADOM's favour, since it forces you to solve the puzzles the hard way.) Some hackers refuse to play ADOM on principle because it is not free software.

Reasons why ADOM is better than Nethack:

ADOM has a much more complex plot (as SabreCat mentioned), and it also has multiple endings. Once you've won in the normal way, by closing the Chaos Gate, you can try to become an Avatar of Order or Balance, or if you like being evil, a Chaos God (but then you will eventually be vanquished by a Champion of Law), or an Ultimate Chaos God (in which case you will conquer the universe). In Nethack, the only way to win is to offer the Amulet of Yendor to your deity.

ADOM also does much better on useful NPCs. Nethack has a few types of friendly monster, including your quest leader, but most monsters are just there to be killed. ADOM has many more peaceful NPCs, some of whom are just flavour and don't do much, others of whom send you on quests or teach you skills.

ADOM offers a much wider choice of characters (ten races and twenty classes), and they are better differentiated than in Nethack, where most late-game characters can survive by simply whacking everything to death. In ADOM, it's a lot easier to survive if you can cast spells, but a combat wombat can still win the game. Different classes and races have different skills, some of which can be very useful.

Your alignment (lawful, neutral or chaotic) also makes much more difference in ADOM. In Nethack, the only effects of alignment are that different alignments receive different artifact weapons and that there are a few actions for which lawfuls are penalised and chaotics are rewarded. Also, your alignment will only change if you sacrifice on a noncoaligned altar while in bad standing with your god. In ADOM, your alignment is a measure of where you fall on the spectrum from extremely lawful to extremely chaotic. All sorts of actions can change your alignment, and can easily push you over the threshold between lawful and neutral or neutral and chaotic. Alignment affects NPCs' reactions to you - many NPCs don't like chaotics, but there are a couple who will only talk to you if you are chaotic.

Reasons that ADOM is better than Nethack:

1. Its inventory system. God bless you, Thomas Biskup, for ADOM's inventory. Whereas Nethack assigns each item you pick up a key to press whenever you input a command (for instance, you would say, "Put on 'p,'" having to have memorized which one "p" is beforehand) ADOM gives you a very nice inventory screen, which you can scroll and everything, which lists all your items by category PLUS gives pertinent stats about the items (something Nethack doesn't do at all).

2. Its character gen. ADOM gives you ten races and twenty classes to mix and match, plus a randomly assigned star sign, all of which affect the character, not to mention gender. Nethack's choice is paltry by comparison.

3. The size of its gameworld. ADOM has tons of different dungeons, each with different themes and quests, plus towns and wilderness. The dungeons themselves are also huge, and, in some cases, infinite. Nice.

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