Adventurers Club Ltd. Member's Dossier, November, 1988 Hat

Richard Bartle's Pages

Multi-User Adventures, by virtue of having lots of real people as players, develop their own social structurs within the framework of the game. The subtle inter-relationships that develop between folk who would be complete strangers if they met in real life is one of the more interesting manifestations of a mature MUA, and can indeed become the main reason why some people play such games. I thought in this issue I'd look into this aspect of MUAs more closely.

One thing which must be stated at the outset is that MUAs are living, growing things. New players join in, old ones move on, and the general atmosphere, or "feel" of a game, can change quite radically over time. Sometimes the emphasis is on scoring points, three months later it might be on chatting. One year a game can be dominated by fighting, yet the next three there is hardly any at all. That's just within one game, even between different versions of the same game there can be vast differences in atmosphere.

The overall setting is determined by the game itself, of course. The way certain key issues are treated has a strong bearing on how a game feels to the players. If spells are easy to cast, weapons do phenomenal damage, or you get an enormous number of points for killing someone, then you would expect more fighting than in a game where fleeing was easy, resurrection possible to half original status or more, and little to give you an advantage in combat.

The scenario plays a part - players will be friendlier if they share a goal, eg. escaping from a POW camp - but not as great as one might think. Psychologically, the room descriptions are more important rather than the grand overall setting; they exert a subtle influence on the perception of the game by newcomers, which they carry with them for life. Dank, gloomy, oppressive rooms deep under ground are more likely to give a novice permanent paranoia than are wide, breezy open spaces with plenty of light.

So far, this isn't any different from the case with Single-User Adventures, where the desired atmosphere of a game is determined by the game author and is deliberately programmed with that in mind. Filling the game with nasty monsters that often attack you leaves a different impression at the end than one packed with mind-numbing puzzles. In this way, the adventure is like a book, where part of the attraction is burying yourself in a different time and place, well thought-out and detailed enough to be convincing. With books and SUAs, of course, everything is under the control of the author. With MUAs, though, we have this irritating problems of all those players...

The general class of person who plays a MUA is the first influence on the overall atmosphere in it. If the user hse is mainly composed of teenage males, you can expect a more volatile game than one which draws its players primarily from bored managers in the business community. Price is a factor here - people who are playing effectively for free from work will be more cavalier than little Johnny who has to save up his pocket money to play and consequently does NOT want to be killed and start again from scratch.

How one individual sees a game and how another sees it are two different things entirely. You may think it's fun to collect treasure and give it to a novice, others may prefer to push novices off cliffs. With the continual arrival of new players and slow departure of old ones, the way the game is played gradually changes in character. When MUD first started in the USA, some players complained that they didn't like all the fighting. I told them to stop playing for 3 months and try again. Several of them did, and at least one is now a wizard; when they came back, the fighting phase had turned into a more peaceable one (although, of course, it could instead have got even worse!).

The main dictators of the way the game is perceived by its players are, of course, the wizards and witches (or gods, or starfleet admirals, or whatever else those at the top of the pile are called in different MUAs). This is for several reasons, the fact that they tend to play longer hours being not the least of them! Mainly, however, it's the powers they possess to shape the game to their will, and to coax(!) mortals into behaving in certain ways. So long as they don't contravene a basic set of guidelines (MUD's is called "Good Wiz Guide") they can do pretty much what they want, so they do..!

The jump from mortal to wiz is profound, and some players cannot adjust. They feel alienated from their old friends because they are now of greatly superior status, and yet they don't feel "one of the gang" yet with the existing wizzes. This can be an awkward time, but it is normally helped by a strange phenomenon of MUAs whereby wizzes tend to come in batches of around 3 within a few days of one another. Thus, they can cling together for support!

Within the ranks of mortals, there is usually a loose structure imposed by the game, and generally based on the idea of "levels", as in normal fantasy role-playing games. Players gain an instinctive idea of what it "means" to be a certain level. In MUD, for example, players are usually classified as "high-life" or "low-life", depending on the level they have managed to achieve, and the understanding of the gane which this implies. High-life levels are sorcerer/sorceress, necromancer/necromancess, warlock, and mage (beyond which is wizard/witch).

If you see a sorc, your impression is that this is someone who is a serious player, but doesn't necessarily know more than a few of the main ways of getting points. Sorcs tend to go for the little stuff lying around rather than the big treasure that takes a while longer to reach. A necro, however, is someone who knows most of the ways of getting points, and will regularly try for at least one high-scoring treasure hoard. Necros also tend to have a good idea of how to fight... Warlocks normally go for the big points, have been killed at necro several times, and know maybe 95% of the game. Mages are wizzes in training.

The way players view levels is the final key to how the game feels to them. The atmosphere at necro may be hunky dory, but warlock is high enough to attract legions of killers. Mages must prepare to be attacked every time they play, and to be pestered continually by low-life to cast trivial spells for them.

So MUAs provide a constantly changing kaleidoscope of experience, with no two sessions ever feeling quite the same, and the whole game evolving as time goes on. Not everyone's cup of tea, perhaps, but strong enough to capture the hearts and minds of many others for months, even years. Variety is, after all, the spice of life!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: aclnov88.htm