Adventurers Club Ltd. Member's Dossier, August, 1987 Hat

Richard Bartle's Pages

I thought this time I'd let you know of some of the activity in the USA on the Multi-User Adventure front. The fact that there must be about a dozen games in the UK, and that the USA has a far larger number of people with modems, would imply that there's maybe fifty or more such games over there. You could be forgiven, therefore, for wondering why none of them have been launched in Britain.

Well, the reason's pretty simple, there aren't any MUAs in the USA! Well, that's probably a little harsh, I know of about six of them but none are commercial, and most aren't finished. The biggest project is one calld SMAUG, being developed at Rutgers University. It has, however, been in the process of "being developed" for at least five years, and it's not as if they'll actually let you play it. The UK's growing number of MUAs can therefore be attributed directly to the influence of MUD; people played it, liked it, and thought they'd write a MUA of their own. Few Americans have played it, and that's why there are none to speak of over there. I'm not claiming that MUD is necessarily any better than other MUAs, by the way, merely that the effect of having a free game lying around since 1979 has given UK players ideas which US ones would have to think up from first principles.

That said, there is something close to a MUA, a game called ISLAND OF KESMAI. There are two ways you can design a computerised fantasy game, the "Adventure" way and the "D&D" way. MUD and the UK games take the former approach, IOK takes the latter. It's sort of an adventure, in the same way that VALHALLA, say, is, but it's not a real one. Let me explain.

For a start, it's graphics-orientated. These are rather lousy graphics because their quality is constrained by having to be sent down telephone lines at 300 baud to arbitrary types of terminal. Here's an example screen:

~~~~~~        []         A Keasdea
~~~~~~A       -          C Sheriff
~~~~~~        []
   C      >   []


A bit of a mess, yes. The [] is a wall, ~~ is water, - is a door, and > is me (facing east). The two letters represent other players (or mobiles) in the vicinity. The scene comes with a little text to describe it, and this reads-: "You are standing in the main plaza. To the east you see a building that appears to be a small gymnasium.". No, I didn't have BRIEF set! For most places, you don't get a description at all!

You see everything in a small (30') radius about you. You can communicate with anything in that area just by giving your message in quotes. Mobiles have a very limited ability to understand you. This is because you need to be able to buy things from some of them in the shops in the town that forms the surface of the island.

The game is characterised by a phenomenal amount of complexity. There's a special program to generate characters, based on their sex and race. From what you get, you have to decide on a class. It's just like rolling for a character in D&D - even the attributes are the same!

There are rules about everything. How to gain experience by training (in specific weapons, mind you), how to buy things, cast spells (you get a spell-book and have to remember a meaningless "chant"), and co-operate with other players (there are "good manners" you should follow). There are different values for weapons against specific types of armour, sackfuls of esoteric magical items with obscure abilities, at least 50 spells (each with their own min. level, cost to buy experience for casting them and energy lost in so doing). There are classes of gems, dazzlingly complex combat tables, and an alignment-scoring mechanism to ensure you can't use lawful weapons if you do a lot of murdering. The game plays like a very, very complicated version of ROGUE.

I was quite pleased when I first heard about it, because it confirmed me in my belief that I should resist all attempts to D&Dise MUD! Over the years I get many ideas put to me time after time, and which I deliberately don't put in MUD. Primary among these are "lots more rooms", "money" and "no resets". IOK has a surface level about 80 by 80 squares (they call them "hexes"!), and four underground levels about 4O by 40. That's over 12000 locations altogether. However, since you play in roughly a 7 by 7 "room" at a time, these awesome figures aren't really worth much. The size of the world actually "feels" quite small.

They also have problems with money. Players can take it with them when they quit, you see (as well as any objects they have with them - there's only one "Mjolnir" weapon, and if someone got it 3 days ago, hard luck!). With a never-ending supply of money, inflation occurs. Once-expensive weapons at fixed prices are soon much easier to buy because there's more cash. Training sessions (another black hole into which to sink your lolly) convert money into experience points, which means that these, too, are devalued. Since money can buy objects and experience, the three are intertwined. Every time the game resets or some new player comes in to spend their start-up cash, money becomes worth less. The only way to break the circle is to have people actually killed so that money/objects/experience are removed permanently. Even that is not done in IO< - there's a RAISE DEAD spell...

The game gets played out fairly soon, so there are limited resets after a while. Mjolnir comes back into play after about 5 dragon-deaths. The game has times of day (it was sunrise when I started), and these progress as real time does. All very nice stuff, but unless you invest a lot of real money learning how to play, it be lost on you. You'll just wander around with no idea of what you're supposed to do (unless you buy the 150+ page handbook and spend a day reading it).

IOK lacks two things necessary to be classified as an adventure: puzzles and a goal. There are lots of intricate tables of figures governing the game, which the experienced players know by heart, but no real "what do I do with this?" or "how can do this to this?" puzzles. The only incentive to play is to get your name in the list of the top ten players - and if you think you can do that when some of these guys have been playing for a couple of years already, well you'd better have a Van Gogh to sell to finance yourself!

IOK is a MUG (G for Game), but I wouldn't say it was a MUA (A for Adventure). Still, it's the best the yanks can offer at the moment. I can see how such games can evolve viry easily from a yearning to computerise D&D, and that many people will like the "detail" it uses to hide its paucity of puzzles. However, I'm glad the UK has gone the direction of MUAs instead; you actually need BRAINS to play these!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: aclaug87.htm