The Finger of Death Hat

The Finger of Death

This month, Richard Bartle looks at the
most important character in MUD - the wiz

MUD's multi-user capabilities set it aside from normal adventure games. There are many of these features, including communication, interaction by way of giving, stealing, kissing and the like, and of course the great favourite, killing your fellow players. These are reasonably direct consequences of having more than one person playing in the same world at the same time; the most significant development, however, is in an entirely different vein, although indirectly its success depends as much on the game being multi-user as something as obvious as FOLLOW or ASSIST does. I am referring to the concept of a wizard/witch.


Since "wizard/witch" is a bit of a mouthful, and since MUD players are too fastidious to tolerate the type mismatch involved in calling a male a witch or a female a wizard, the MUDspeke term "wiz" has been coined to mean wizard/witch generically (or witch/wizard, you pedant!). Although using wizard/witch expands the size of this article, and hence means I get paid more, I'll stick to the friendlier term "wiz"".

Last time, I told you that MUD has "levels" indicating a player's experience of the game, which depend on the number of points you've obtained for your deeds (similar to the Dungeons and Dragons system). This is so that people who know the game better can swank around as something like "Nero the Hero" instead of just plain "Nero". Also, your chances of getting spells to work increase on a level-by-level basis, and there are certain useful artifacts such as the amulet which you can't use until you're a sorcerer or whatever. The levels have to end somewhere, and the top of the tree is wiz. It's possible to make wiz in 4 or 5 games if you get absolutely ALL the treasure. Indeed, you can make it in only one game if you don't mind kicking the beggar 102,400 times. Once you've reached wiz, however, the game changes.


SOME PLAYERS go to extraordinary lengths to get points. One made it to the top level of experience almost solely on the basis of what he learned by reading through log files of other players' games, which thev had forgotten about shared disc. Another favourite ploy is to ask for innocent "hints" from various people about some particular problem in the game, stitch the answers together, and then go do it.

This was the strategy of one of our regular players until last night. The most vicious and ferocious creature in MUD is the dragon. It is not unknown for this monster to beat a party of 8 players who mount a mass attack at once. If you come across the dragon, you can reckon on a life expectancy of about 20 seconds unless you flee before it notices you. However, by probing and questioning. our hero managed to learn that there was some easier way to kill the dragon, and that a lump of coal was something to do with it. Linking this with a half-erased notice he'd seen, he managed to find out from an obliging colleague that if you feed the coal to the dragon, it dies.

Happily embarking on this quest, he courageously wrested the coal from the bunker full of rats where it is stored, braved the shark and the storms to get to the island where the dragon roams, came upon the beast and fed it the coal. Nothing happened. Perplexed, he was looking for someone to ask what to do when all of a sudden the monster smashed him into a pulp with one blow of its enormous claws!

Evidently, no-one had told him that it takes 30 minutes before the coal has any effect on the dragon...!

Oh well, it's only a game.

Well, perhaps it's not fair to say the game actually changes. It's still the same old MUD, it's just that once you're a wiz it takes on a new perspective. If MUD were an ordinary adventure, you could expect at this point some kind of "endgame", and that would be it, you put your cassette back in the box and rush out to buy (ha!) a new one. MUD, however, as I keep telling you, is not an ordinary adventure, and reaching wiz is where the fun really begins!

When you're a wiz, you have power. And I mean real power. You can do virtually anything. A forbidding array of commands lies at your fingertips. These are so virulent that it's a cinch to crash the game if you're not careful. Indeed, MUD even has a CRASH command for wizs in case they can't be bothered to, say, pick up the rain twice from different rooms and do an inventory (although that's more fun!). Once people make it to wiz for the next couple of days the game crashes with monotonous regularity until they learn the ropes. Fortunately, one of the first commands they learn is how to reset the game so that they can unscrew all the problems they've caused!

Of course, in the commercial version of MUD this sort of thing would be tone down a bit, otherwise you'd get people from rival games companies making wiz and keeping your world in a perpetual state of imminent destruction. Since MUD has no competition as yet, though, this fragility is left unchecked to give the "mortals" (non-wiz's) a little more incentive to get those few elusive points that they need to reach the top.


Most commands will stay in any commercialised MUD, however. Some are powerful yet not dangerous, for example SNOOP. This enables you to see what is on the screen of any mortal you choose, exactly as it appears to them. In effect, everything MUD sends to their terminal is copied and sent to yours too (in addition to the stuff you'd normally get). Of course, you can't snoop on someone who is snooping on someone else, otherwise it's possible to get into a sort of feedback loop, which wouldn't do the game much good at all! SNOOP is one of the most popular wiz commands, and it's normal for wiz's to be snooping on a mortal full-time. The reason it's so good is that there's a certain wicked human fascination for watching other people making compiete idiots out of themselves as they try to go about doing things completely the wrong way.

Other reasonably safe commands include the ability to pick up or drop objects anywhere you like without having to move there. Even if you did feel the need to make an appenrance, you can materialise in places rather than take the normal walking sort of route which mortals are obliged to use. There are a few rooms. in fact, which it is impossible to reach except by teleporting there. These are the STORE, full of useful, spare items which you might want players to come across (like zombies, for example); HOME, the wiz room where you can sit and SNOOP on mortals without their knowing you're in the game (since it is cloaked from their view); LIMBO, an exitless room which corresponds to a sort of "sin-bin", a place you take mortals who are annoying you to cool off, leaving them to languish until you deign to release them; and XMASBX, which contains all you need for a merry christmas, and which wizs distribute to players when they feel the seasonal urge to do a bit of goodwill to all mankind.


PLAYERS may come and go in MUD, but the names of everyone who ever made wiz are preserved for posterity in MUD's graveyard. Later players gaze on these epitaphs as they wend their weary way by (for the graveyard is also an easy maze), and hear some of the great names of the past. These are often in-jokes, for example "On a huge grave is the name, Evil the Wizard." means nothing until you've seen how fat the chap was! A similar sentiment can be applied to the description "You smell the grave of Conn the Wizard some way to one side." Some tombs outline the method by which the player made it to wiz, for example "The hastily-erected grave of Endora the Witch is said to stand here..." (she made it from scratch in 4 weeks - a record) and "The grave of Tremble the Wizard is here, made almost entirely of old logs." (he spent hours sifting through log files of other folks' games to find out how to do things!). The third type of headstone is the one ordered by the players themselves. Some go for the impressive ("Before you looms an obsidian vault, insculpt Shadow the Wizard."), but thankfully we're not all that egocentric. ("Inscribed on a modestly austere tomb- stone here is the name, Richard the Wizard.")!

These abilities are reasonably harmless, as I said. Tormenting mortals by sitting around in HOME, SNOOPing on them and dropping strange objects in the rooms you think they're about to enter is the sort of fun thing wizs do all the time. Some of the things they can do are not harmless, though. Primary among these is the FOD. FOD stands for "Finger of Death", and what it does is more or less obvious from that! Once you're FODed you're "dead dead"; you lose all your points, your persona is destroyed, and you have to start from scratch again. Wizs mainly FOD each other, since they can come back straight away due to there being a password on wiz mode. Once you've made wiz, you just tell it the password and you're back to wiz again. Sometimes, though, if mortals really play up a lot and pester you despite your ominous warnings of the dark and mysterious things you're going to do to them, you might use your FOD on them as a last resort.


Wizs, although all-powerful, are meant to be generally benign. Most of what is done to mortals is really just teasing them, and they are generally rewarded by a few points or some treasure once the wiz has finished their play. Mortals don't have much say in the matter, naturally, but are spurred on by the knowledge that when they're a wiz, they'll be able to dish out similar treatment to hapless, innocent victims!

There is an unwritten code of conduct which wizs follow, and which works because the wizs were once mortals themselves. Wizs know all too well what it's like to be summoned to a cold, dark room and left alone with the words "hehehe" ringing in your ears. They know the disappointment in forging through the swamp for half an hour only to find that someone has swapped the incredibly valuable crown in the centre for a fake one. They've felt the pangs of outrage when you've been attacked by a souped-up bunny rabbit which took you 15 minutes to kill. In short, they know when to stop.


THE RECORD for number of times FODded goes to ABUSE, who, as the name implies, used to come in as a novice and spend all his time (short though it was!) insulting people. After being FODded he'd start from scratch and do the same thing. Eventually he had to give up when people used to FOD him before he could open his mouth to say anything! MORAL: if you're going to insult people, make sure they're not wizs!

There are many more powers which wizs may call upon to make their life easier and cause mortals to fear them with fervent paranoia, some more of which I'll doubtless be mentioning in future articles. I'll also be introducing you to a few wizs who have achieved notoriety, and telling you some of the quaint tricks they get up to to give mortals the heeby-geebies. To finish with, though, I'd like to talk about the relevance of MUD's wizs to Multi-User Dungeons in general.


Simon Dally of Century Communications, who plays as Century the Wizard and Grendel the Mortal
Image size: approx. 8K.

Anyone can design a multi-user adventure and sell it. It will be a success whatever they do, but if there's one thing MUD has going for it, it is experience. A total exceeding 20,000 hours of play has been spent on MUD, and if any single point arises from that it's that wizs make the game. They rule it, they stamp their personalities on it, and they give mortals something to aim for, a goal, a purpose, something which explains why they're in there hacking and slaying. Without wizs, MUD would only be half the fun that it is with them (although still considerably more than single-user adventures!). If MUD does nothing else for multi-user adventure games (whenever they become generally available), for evolving the concept of a wiz it should always be remembered.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: maoct84.htm