metzomagic.com Feature

Playing in the MUD

By Adrian Carmody (July, 1996)

MUD, the word brings to mind treasured moments from one's youth, memories of that vacant lot out the back with its strange, perennially moist patch of earth. A place to go with friends and indulge in idle play that slowly built up to the inevitable mud-slinging contest to see who could become the filthiest.

Well, times have changed, and so has the MUD ... What am I talking about?

MUDs, the future of computer gaming according to some people, but whether or not this is strictly the case, they are certainly a new step forward with greater scope for development in computer gaming.

MUDs, or Multi-User-Domains, are online games played over the Internet, over a local BBS (Bulletin Board System) or over a simple network with friends. MUDs do not include games like DooM (*scream*) or any similar multi-player game. By definition, they are role-playing games, and quite commonly also adventure games, as they were originally Multi-User-Dungeons, (now more often called Domains) and have since mutated into MUSEs (Multi-User-Simulated-Environments) and some others including MOOs, MUSHs and more I cannot name.

MUDs are the next step up from a Dungeons & Dragons type role playing game into an online world. We have played RPGs before interacting with computer controlled characters who have a set series of responses. Replace some of those characters with other REAL PEOPLE and you have a MUD.

Single player games (Lands of Lore, Eye of the Beholder, The Ultima sagas, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands and any SSI game to name more than a few) allow you to control a party of characters, or a single character, and guide them/it through a series of quests to complete the ultimate object of the game. Now, imagine an adventure with a number of other players, potentially hundreds, all trying to do the same thing! On your travels you may think you have the Jewelled Eye of the Horned God, but when another player mugs you enroute to the Tower of Mystic Gold you have a whole new challenge to face. Not only have you lost your talisman, but you now are pitted against a player as tenacious and as devious as yourself.

Co-operation is the key
This paints a fairly competitive picture of what a MUD is about, but it is actually a very uncommon situation. Most MUDs will require you to join up with a group of other players to succeed in your final goal. For instance, you (a puny/feeble/humble mage) may need a little extra muscle to open that door, but the player playing the barbarian cannot get through the horde of monsters on the way even with his/her superior strength. That's where you come in. Your powerful spells can decimate whole troops of foes in a single motion, leaving the way clear for you to share or bicker over the plunder with your allies.

The most common setting for a MUD is a fantasy world with magic and monsters, but this is by no means the only setting. MUDs exist for fans of Sci-Fi, Historical sagas (ever wanted to be a slave in the team building the Pyramids?), Modern and even some completely surreal, category-less settings where almost anything goes. (So, which does win, a Meteor Storm spell or a Phaser Cannon?)

The mechanics
The interface for the MUD can make or break it. Traditionally MUDs use a text based interface, reminiscent of the original Zork adventures, depicting a series of locations with descriptions, exits and contents -- a simplistic view of what can be a very complex game! Recently, however, several MUDs have been released in various stages of completion with new graphical interfaces. Some contain text descriptions and actions with a graphical status bar, others use static icons to represent you and your surroundings. Still others use a fully immersive first-person view like Ultima Underworld, or an Isometric view like Dark Sun or Ultima 8. All have their respective advantages and disadvantages.

A text based interface generally allows for a more complex story line and allows you to feel more involved or be more intimate with your surroundings. For instance, you can search walls to find illusory sections, hidden switches or obscured compartments and thus obtain a more detailed picture of an area of interest. But this interface also requires quick and accurate typing skills and a good knowledge of the accessible actions and commands so that you can move through the game. A 3D Graphical MUD, on the other hand, will likely have a less complex story but will be intuitively easier to control, and may even allow players to SEE each other (that is characters will be represented on screen by an icon or a sprite) and occasionally do fun things like frown, smile or wave at each other.

In all cases the added scope for interactive game-play becomes much more sophisticated when you can sell items to each other, or when you can talk, yell, fight, and bicker or even marry other players. Yes, a truly wide avenue of possibilities exists as you make your way through the world of the MUD. I've only ever got married once, been killed numerous times both by design (ah, the wonder of spare 'lives') and by accident (Never, NEVER cast a Universal Conflagration spell in a room with your friends present!) and have solved a number of quests only by being part of an integrated and diversely skilled party. If you have ever played Dungeons & Dragons or a similar paper-and-dice RPG you'll understand the magnitude of possibilities for interaction and involvement, for complex puzzle solving and for quest fulfilment.

Some tips
To play a MUD (and especially one with text input) there are some things you must be prepared for, the most pertinent being the language. And I'm not talking about swearing here, although you'll likely meet more than your fair share -- anonymity brings out the best and worst of people. I'm talking about the "computer speak". There are a number of commonly understood acronyms that you are likely to run across. Tell a good joke or make a funny mistake and you'll have other players ROFL (Rolling On the Floor Laughing). If you don't prepare yourself by reading the instructions, you'll be told to RTFM (Read The, 'ahem', "Fine" Manual) or to maybe FOAD ("Flee" Off And Die). Of course, the ever present emoticon (smilie for those more familiar with this term) is used to convey emotions across the ether. A smiling face meaning good intentions, a frown, perhaps, for less honourable intentions, or maybe a cheeky wink, plus a host of variations.

MUDs add a new dimension to computer gaming, especially on the Internet where you can meet with a great variety of people from all over the world. In a MUD you can be whoever you like, whichever sex you like, and have whatever incredible talent or ability you choose. You can be as sly as you like, or as honest as you like, or sometimes your MUD character can simply become an extension of yourself, though, likely, you will opt to use another name. Just imagine a Mighty Medieval Mage, or even a Hairy Hulk, named Adrian! It doesn't quite work, so it is common for players to adopt a player name that they always use. I have met the same person playing as "Lothian" in a number of MUDs and I personally prefer the name "Shad" for my online characters.

The limits
In as much as the original RPG Dungeons & Dragons were an escape from the norm, so MUDs are the next step, now with the ability to see other players in the world you inhabit as well as the ability to communicate with them. You can be just that much closer to a 'real' virtual world.

When enough computing power is available, and enough time and effort is spent on the production of the game system, a MUD could potentially become a Virtual second life. With more and more progress being made in the area of fully immersive Virtual Reality, my vision of the future features completely convincing virtual worlds in which you can look as you please, be who you please and live out your wildest dreams, all safely while remaining completely anonymous.

News
For players who enjoyed games like Ultima Underworld, a new MUD has been created and just finished Beta Testing called Meridian. With a similar interface to Underworld you will move through a fully 3-D game world filled with shops, players, monsters and a variety of terrains from caverns to forests to cities. (More information is available at http://www.terranova.com)

Players who enjoyed Ultima 8 will be thrilled at the new project from Origin, Ultima Online! Modelled on the user interface from Ultima 8 you will control a "generic" character which you may build up in any way you like, specialising in spellcraft or swordplay as you choose. Ultima Online has just begun pre-Alpha testing. (More information is available at http://www.owo.com)

Fans of the computer game duo Dark Sun: Shattered Lands and Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager will be pleased at the new project from SSI, Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands (DSO). DSO has just entered into Beta testing and it should be a fantastic step into online gaming from SSI.

One MUD (Actually a MUSH - I don't precisely know what MUSH means -- Multi-User-Simulated-History ??) that I have recently become involved in is of the older text interface, but with a subtle twist. There is very little combat in this MUD, only complex Role-Playing. All combat is governed by a Keeper (Sysop) in real-time. Right as you type your commands, he/she is there to judge the outcome. This MUD is based on the World of Darkness rules used in Vampire: The Masquerade and related books. Find more at http://www.best.com/~gazissax/darkweb.html

There are numerous other text-based, but just as fun -- if not more fun -- games available. The best place to look is on the Usenet news group rec.games.muds and several subgroups from there, with rec.games.muds.announce for latest news.

Copyright © Adrian Carmody 1996. All rights reserved.