The Ballad of Big Bertha

Big Bertha the valkyrie joins Rosa the priestess, Grundle the caveman and Dez the archeologist in the Brickroad pantheon of NetHack demigods.

Most people start out in NetHack by playing one of the easier roles, most notably wizard, because they confer the most advantages. I did exactly the opposite, because I felt that learning the game with a more difficult role would help me develop a solid playstyle. And I think it’s working; it took a hundred archeologists and two dozen priestesses, but I ascended after only two failed valkyries.

Big Bertha Prime was slaughtered in the Gnomish Mines by some clown with a wand of fire. I’m not willing to call this one YASD; exploring the Mines before Sokoban is a controlled risk, but 99 out of 100 valkyries will survive the trip. My dice just came up sour. (If I’d pushed passed Minetown, yeah, okay, that would have been YASD. But I’m not that foolhardy.)

Big Bertha the 2nd had many exciting adventures, including a brief stint as a fire vortex and a very close shave with Medusa. However, she made it all the way to the Castle, got her ascension kit in order, and was ready for the endgame. Just one last niggling thing: she wanted more divine protection.

You may recall Rosa got lots of divine protection by donating tons of gold to a temple, then killing the priest and carting the gold down to the next temple. She was able to get away with this because she was chaotic. Big Bertha was lawful, though, and murder was a sin. I might have been able to live with that, but the penalty for sinning is the loss of divine protection — which makes the whole exercise pointless. My plan was to goad the priest into attacking me, so killing him would be self-defense rather than murder. Then I’d take my money back and innocently bring it to the next priest.

I was right about one thing — the priest wasn’t happy when I sacrificed a lizard corpse on his neutral altar. Unfortunately for me, Odin wasn’t happy either. He blasted me with lightning, which bounced off my shield, then with a wide-angled disintegration beam. This didn’t kill me (I was wearing an amulet of life-saving), but it did obliterate all the awesome armor I’d just wished up for myself. Losing that +4 grey dragon scale mail and +3 cloak of displacement meant a much larger AC loss than divine protection could ever make up for.

So I threw a second lizard corpse on the altar and let the next beam finish me off. No, I do not want my possessions identified. I already had them identified, and then they got disintegrated. You fucker.

So enters Big Bertha the 3rd. She had an advantage the other Berthas didn’t; her starting longsword was blessed. Part of the reason valkyries are such an easy class is they have a guaranteed artifact weapon right there in their starting inventory. A lawful character of at least XL5 can #dip a blessed longsword into a fountain, thereby transforming that longsword into Excalibur. There are some risks involved with playing in fountains that early in the game, but Excalibur is such an amazingly powerful weapon that it’s absolutely worth it. So by the fourth dungeon level I already had the weapon I would use for the entire game.

The next neat thing I found was a newt figurine. You can [a]pply the figurine to make it come to life; blessed ones have a good chance of being tame. (Wishing for a blessed figurine of an archon is usually a good move.) Thus did my little pal Newtly follow me dutifully for a few dungeon levels. He was too weak to want to fight anything, but he stuck by my side until the Oracle level or thereabouts. I didn’t see much point in taking a pet which couldn’t help me in any way, so I abandoned him there. I figured, hey, maybe I’ll come back later and polymorph him into something, if he’s still tame. That never happened, but I did come across Newtly during some late-game errands, and took a quick detour to check on him during the ascension run. As far as I know he’s still kickin’ it down there. Rock on, Newtly.

Minetown had nothing useful, but an early potion store on DL2 left me with both holy and unholy water, so blessing things wasn’t an issue. Upon dropping some gear on the Minetown altar I learned an amulet I’d been carrying around was uncursed, so I put it on. I forgot about it until much later, when I was [E]ngrave-testing one of the Sokoban wands. It turned out to be enlightenment, and one of my attributes was “your life will be saved”. Nice. I [N]amed the amulet “life-saving”, collected my bag of holding, and pressed onward.

I managed to find a tinning kit early on. This is kind of a neat toy, which allows you to can monster corpses so they 1) don’t rot, 2) don’t make you sick and 3) don’t fill your stomach to the point of bursting. I put this item to use canning up every giant I came across. Eating a giant guarantees a permanent Strength bonus, but giants are so huge that eating one usually puts you in danger of choking to death. The tinning kit ensured no giant went uneaten, and between that and a few beehives I managed to reach the max Strength of 18(99) just by virtue of my diet.

Another happy find came a few floors later, when a troll in a throne room (the third or fourth throne room I’d seen) zapped a wand of death at me. This caused my amulet to evaporate, and considerable stress trying to think of a way to kill a troll in one turn. I burned Elbereth, which caused the troll to try and flee. Except he didn’t have anywhere to flee to, since it was a throne room packed with monsters. So I basically hacked him to death as he was trying to scramble over a room full of sleeping hobgoblins. Then I stepped forward and claimed his mostly-unused wand. In hundreds of games, this was the first time I’d come across a god’s-honest wand of death outside of Gehennom. Surviving it without reflection or magic resistance was pure luck, of course, but I’m not one to look a gift horse etc. And I certainly don’t mind trading an amulet of life saving (an item that is good if you screw up, but not strictly necessary) for a charged wand of death (a must-have for any adventurer).

Opening a vault around DL20 revealed the portal to Fort Ludios, a fortuitous find in any game. Telepathy revealed a silver dragon on the level — a possible source of armor. This was kind of a Catch-22, though; without reflection, I didn’t want to take on the Ludios military and their giant stacks of attack wands. (Nor did I want to take on the dragons and their breath weapons.) Yet braving those dangers and turning the silver dragon into armor meant a source of… reflection. I was in a position where I needed reflection to get reflection.

I chose to redefine the situation: what if I used an inferior source of reflection to get a superior one? One of the statues in Medusa’s room frequently contains a shield of reflection. I could use that to raid Ludios and safely take down the silver dragon, enchant the scales to make armor, then discard the shield. Medusa’s level did, in fact, have such a shield. It also had a pair of baby gray dragons, one of which picked up an amulet of life saving in my line of sight.

This presented me with a puzzle. If the silver dragon didn’t pan out, I’d want scales from one of those gray ones. Unfortunately, baby dragons don’t drop scales. I was fairly sure I could force the dragons to grow up by hurling potions of gain level at them, but I had no such potions. And finally, I absolutely wanted that amulet! I saw the dragon pick it up, but not wear it, and wasn’t even sure dragons could wear amulets. I’d have to deal with all that later on.

Fort Ludios is a magical place where wonderful things happen. The first wonderful thing is hundreds of dead soldiers. That means tons and tons of trash equipment prime for polypiling. It just so happens I had two charged wands of polymorph handy, and zapping the enormous piles of military gear presented me with just about every piece of armor I could possibly want. Gauntlets of power. Speed boots. A helm of brilliance? Whatever, I’ll take it. Piles and piles of shirts. (I selected a nice, blessed Hawaiian one.) From the piles of attack wands came all the fire and digging I could ever want. The stacks of K and C rations yielded a couple of lembas wafers.

And my eight blessed unlabeled scrolls turned into enchant armor. Amazing.

The silver dragon didn’t drop its scales, even after I zapped it back to life with a wand a few times. I’m not sure if reviving a monster resets its chance to drop an item, but I wasn’t going to do anything else with that wand of undead turning, so it was worth a shot. I tinned Croesus (because hey, why not), looted his vaults, stole his gems, then carted the loot back to Minetown and bought protection with it. One thing’s for certain — Bertha #3 wasn’t going to go out the way Bertha #2 did.

(I mean that literally. I tinned up a black dragon and ate it for disintegration resistance. At this point no god could kill me.)

The castle went well. Telepathy revealed a silver dragon in one of the side rooms, so I’d get another shot at my scales. It also revealed a lich in the entryway, so I took special care as I used the drawbridge to murder everything. (The castle is sealed with a magical drawbridge that only opens if you play the proper tune on a musical instrument. Anything standing on or next to the drawbridge when it’s opened or closed is crushed, or drowns in the moat. It’s an easy and hilarious way to kill tons of monsters and rack up lots of experience.)

This dragon cooperated, so by the time I collected my wand I was wearing some pretty heavily-enchanted silver dragon scale mail. I replaced my shiny shield with a silver saber I’d picked off the polypile in Ludios, and spent the rest of the game #twoweaponing. (Silver sabers are good off-hand weapons because most evil creatures take extra damage from silver.)

My next conundrum was a happy one: I didn’t need to wish for anything. I mean, I still needed magic resistance, of course — but there were tons of thrones and fountains in the early dungeon, and I was confident at least one would yield a wish. (And this turned out to be the case; +5 greased cloak of magic resistance, here I come!) I had well over 200 HP and stacks of full healing potions besides. I had Excalibur and a full set of ascension-ready equipment. So I stashed the wand of wishing in my bag in case of an emergency. I eventually did need it twice: for scrolls of charging to use on a (0:7) wand of death I’d find later. But no major items. That was definitely a first.

The valkyrie quest was breezy and fun. Lots of giants, interesting terrain, relatively easy quest nemesis. The prize was the Orb of Fate, which halves physical and magical damage. (Not that I needed the help, with -37 AC.) It can be [a]pplied to find traps or items on your current level. I planned to use this feature to find the portals on the elemental planes. In addition, it can be #invoked to level teleport. I didn’t have teleport control, so I ate a tengu. That gave me teleportitis, which sucks, but I lucked into a ring of teleport control a few levels later, so it all worked out.

The Orb, plus a small stash of cursed teleportation scrolls, gave me mastery over the dungeon. I mapped Gehennom from the bottom up, collected another wand of death (from Orcus) and another amulet of life saving (from Vlad). I had to chase Asmodeus for about six levels before I finally killed him. More like Pussymodeus amirite? Warped back up, got my candles. Outside the Wizard’s tower, I accidentally stepped into the moat while fighting a kraken. This wasn’t dangerous, but it did blank a lot of otherwise useful scrolls. Probably a blessing in disguise; throwing away all those now-useless scrolls and potions meant I wasn’t walking around so close to Burdened.

So I blasted the Wizard, got my book, did the ritual. Early in Gehennom was a ring of conflict, which I put to excellent use. I considered wishing for this, and probably would have if I hadn’t found it before the planes. In any case, the sanctum went off without a hitch.

The ascension run was torture. While you’re holding the Amulet of Yendor, there is a chance that going upstairs will warp you backwards in the dungeon. This happens more often to lawful characters than chaotics, and can send you back up to three levels. I swear I walked up forty levels of Gehennom before I finally got free. I walked through Baalzebub’s and Asmodeus’s fortresses so many times I was afraid they were going to start charging me rent. The Wizard of Yendor kept hassling me, too, which is why I ended up going through so many wands of death. (I got three tins of Wizard of Yendor meat out of the deal, though. Made for some nice sandwiches after I got to Demigoddessland.)

On the way back up through the dungeons, I considered slaughtering the priest holding all my loot and taking the gold with me. Losing the nine points of AC wouldn’t have been worth it, though.

The plane of earth was a bitch. I brought three wands of digging with me, but the portal was really far away and the wands ran out only halfway through the level. There is a guaranteed spellbook of dig near the entrance, but I knew my metal-wearing valkyrie who’d never cast a spell in her life would be unable to use it. (Of course I blessed the book and learned the spell anyway, just to confirm. Yep, 100% fail rate.)

What I ended up doing is using a pick-axe to dig my way across the map. Each square of digging through solid rock takes several turns. This is fine in the normal dungeons, where exploration can be almost liesurely. But on the planes, when you’re hassled every two steps by something scary, and where the Wizard has a chance to appear every turn, it’s a bit daunting. Plus, the plane of earth specifically spawns earth elementals when you dig into walls; something about your leavings coming to life. You have to wield a pick-axe to use it, which meant constantly switching between it and Excalibur in my hand. Every single step across the plane involved swinging my pick-axe, wielding Excalibur, turning on #twoweapon, killing an elemental, dealing with whatever monsters had caught up to me in the meantime, then finally taking a step forward.

Twenty steps of that is enough to drive a man crazy. It was excruciating.

Air, fire and water were uneventful. The astral plane was as crowded as ever, but I had lots of death and teleportation charges, and a spare wish to boot. (Four spares, technically, considering I could have charged the wand.) So ends the journey of Big Bertha the lawful human valkyrie.

Of note: this was my first ascension where I didn’t genocide any monsters. I had scrolls in my pocket in case I needed them, and kept a close eye on Ls and purple hs. Even fought a few hand-to-hand. None of them ever caused problems for me. Mind flayers aren’t quite so scary when you’re wearing a greased helmet, and though half a dozen of them got the opportunity, none ever managed to suck my brains.

Next up: Ragnar the chaotic orcish ranger. He’s already had an amazing start, followed by a stunningly stupid (and preventable) move that may end in his untimely demise! Will he salvage what otherwise has been a particularly charmed run? Stay tuned…

(By the way, I eventually did go back and kill those baby gray dragons. The amulet mysteriously never turned up, though. I have no idea what happened to it.)

6 comments to The Ballad of Big Bertha

  • gord

    Thank you for putting the keys for actions in your writeup, I have been an off and on nethack player for a year or so, whilst I remember gameplay, every time I leave the game for a few months, I have forgotten all the keys. Little triggers like this are wonderful. Super entertaining and interesting as always too 🙂

  • dtsund

    Regarding undead turning and monster drops: normally resurrected monsters are just as likely to drop stuff as regular foes are, but dragons are special-cased here. Usually, dragons drop their scales with a 1/3 chance; resurrected dragons only do so 1/20 of the time.

  • Solitayre

    Most guides I’ve read put wizards as middle of the road, difficulty-wise. Harder than the straight melee classes (samurai, knight, valkyrie, etc) but easier than the crazy masochist stuff like Tourist or Healer.

    My one ascension was with a wizard, but he didn’t start with anything good. He just had one of those rare “charmed” runs.

  • dtsund

    Oh, and incidentally, even if Big Bertha 2 had successfully pulled off her plan, it still would’ve counted as murder. What matters for that purpose is whether the NPC was ever peaceful toward you; if you piss one off and kill them in self-defense, it’s still murder (see also: Minetown guards). The High Priest of Moloch is the *only* exception.

    • Brickroad


      What about a former pet that has gone feral?

      • dtsund

        You can kill those safely, but don’t sacrifice or eat their corpses.

        Also, there is a way to circumvent the murder penalty: polymorphing the priest into a non-human would’ve worked. Except that aligned priests have a 1/49 chance of being generated wearing cloaks of magic resistance, which would prevent you from polymorphing them…

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