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Can somebody please give me a good overview of the prayer system in NetHack? From what I understand, you can pray once and your god is more than happy to help you out, but if you pray again, you get punished pretty severely for being so needy.

Basically, how does NetHack prayer work?

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I'll lay a wager that this gets a good amount of views just from the title :) –  squillman Aug 11 '10 at 15:46
    
that's what i was going for ;) –  espais Aug 11 '10 at 15:49
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I imagine there must be some strong symbology for earning "Enlightened" on the question "How to pray to god?" –  Grace Note Aug 11 '10 at 20:58
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I believe that the only method of attaining the Enlightened badge will be for me to transcend this mortal plane with my new found knowledge of sublime prayer. –  espais Aug 12 '10 at 7:08
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I've prayed to my computer before, that it recovers from a BSOD. Also to the porcelain god. –  espais Aug 31 '10 at 14:20
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up vote 55 down vote accepted

The most important and constant variable when it comes to praying is something called "prayer timeout". When you first start the game, you have a prayer timeout of 300. This decrements by 1 every turn (not every action you take). When it hits 0, it is safe to pray. Praying will generally save you from immediate trouble, like being low in health or starving. It can also take care of minor problems like cursed equipment, but see the following note.

As ires_and_curses points out, if you're using prayer to save yourself from trouble, then you can actually pray before your prayer timeout hits 0. Major trouble can be safely done with 200 or less prayer timeout, while minor trouble can only be safely done at 100 or less prayer timeout.

Upon praying, your prayer timeout will increase by some amount between 50 and 1000, and you'll have to wait until it drops before you can pray again. Note that if you have been crowned by your god for your services, the prayer timeout increase is actually higher. Any item that gives you enlightenment, like a Potion of Enlightenment, will tell you "It is safe to pray" when you are at 0.

If you pray before your timeout is 0, then you will anger your god, and increase the prayer timeout. If you sufficiently anger your god, then you will receive increasingly dangerous punishments, starting with cursed or destroyed equipment and ending with lightning from the heavens being followed by a wide-angle disintegration beam (this is not two separate punishments!). Praying while your god is angry with you will also be bad, you need to pacify the god by making sacrifices before you can safely pray again.

Some other factors that affect when and where you can safely pray, even with 0 prayer timeout. Praying on an altar of another god is going to anger your current god if your alignment is good. Praying in Gehennom counts as praying to Moloch, so it has the same effect. If your luck or alignment is negative, then prayer will not work (though I don't recall if you get punished here). Being a demon and praying to a non-chaotic god will accomplish nothing because the thought disgusts you. Being undead and praying to a non-chaotic god will cause the god to turn you back to living and sustain damage as you return to the natural cycle.

You can reduce the prayer timeout by sacrificing creatures. The better the sacrifice, the better the rewards. Good sacrifices are creatures of the opposite alignment to your god, especially opposing unicorns. This is the only way to reduce the timeout besides waiting for it to naturally expire.

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This is one complicated game... –  jmfsg Aug 11 '10 at 15:09
    
i would say this is a sufficient and well thought out answer ;) ty! –  espais Aug 11 '10 at 15:25
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One clarification: You can safely pray, even before the prayer timeout, if you have a problem. The exact value depends on the problem. For major problems (stoning, weak from hunger), you can safely pray with a timeout as high as 200! –  ire_and_curses Aug 11 '10 at 15:29
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Yes, as far as I know, it's guaranteed safe, but it depends on how serious the problem is (e.g. simply Hungry but not Weak is a minor problem, not major -> max safe prayer timeout 100). After praying, your prayer timeout is incremented, i.e. increased relative to its current value. –  ire_and_curses Aug 11 '10 at 16:07
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Saying that Nethack is complicated is like saying that a nuclear bomb is kind of explodey. The game still holds the title of poster child for The Dev Team Thinks Of Everything (Warning: TVTropes) –  Shadur Nov 16 '12 at 11:22
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@GraceNote's answer is correct, but she glosses over the alignment portion of it. You definitely do get punished if your alignment is not positive. Cave(wo)men, Priests, Tourists, Valkyries, and Wizards start with 0 alignment, so if you haven't, say, killed an off-alignment creature, you will get punished. This is important for people trying for the pacifist conduct, among other things.

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Don't try to fool the Gods. If you are praying because you are hungry but you have food in your inventory.

Scene:

Playing as a Valkerie that had become 'Weak' and was holding a lichen corpse and a uncursed food ration. The Turn counter was 500+. When I tried to #pray for food, the response was 'Tyr is displeased'. My guess, gods can smell food on you and don't like greedy beggars.

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I have successfully prayed to have my hunger cured while carrying food. Are you sure he wasn't mad at you over something else? –  Larry Wang Aug 13 '10 at 19:32
    
Not sure but it was really early in the game so I hadn't had much chance to stray from the path. It leads to another question about ways to gain/lose favor. Maybe I'll post it as its own question. –  Kelly S. French Aug 13 '10 at 19:44
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@Kaestur's right. You can pray for food even while carrying it: in fact, most every non-atheist game I play, I'll avoid using any of my starting rations and use a prayer the first time I become Weak. I never drop the food. If you hadn't prayed/wished/otherwise directly angered your god, you may have simply lost Alignment or Luck (which start at 0, meaning you'll be negative). –  Grace Note Aug 19 '10 at 14:56
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