B.W. Smith

It's so cheap to kill your friends, after 12 and at weekends. Multi-User Dungeons, played remotely at the end of a telephone line, could herald the future of computer gaming.

Every adventure game written for computers has its roots in the original role-playing fantasy games, where a Dungeon-master created a whole fantasy world on a table top, and the players had to explore it while acting out their chosen personas. The whole concept can be curiously compulsive, and hardened role-players have been known to comment that what happens in the game is real life: the fantasy world is the one that you and I inhabit. This type of game is also part acting, and a lot of pleasure comes from interacting with the other members of your team, all of whole have their own make-believe characters.

Transferring this sort of game to a home computer presents problems. A role-playing game can be as big as the Dungeon-master cares to make it, while micros are limited to relatively small databases. On top of that is the problem of hooking up all the players simultaneously; networking is still relatively rare in the home market. Consequently the direction taken by adventure games has been the single-user puzzle-solving programs which we all know and love.


For some time now, however, a true multi-user role-playing computer game has been available to those with the right equipment. The game is called Multi-User Dungeons (not surprisingly!), or MUD for short, and it runs on a DEC System 10 minicomputer in Essex University. If you aren't actually on site to play in person, then you can play remotely using your home computer and a modem as a terminal. This explains why MUD is a nocturnal or weekend activity: the telephone charges are cheaper then. Also, the DEC is required for rather more mundane tasks during working hours! Unfortunately some restraint is still called for: nighttime play didn't prevent one player from racking up a massive £3000 phone bill, which not surprisingly brought participation to a sudden end.

It may seem odd that a serious institution would devote so much equipment, time and programming effort into such an apparently frivolous pursuit. But MUD has hidden depths. From a computer science viewpoint MUD provides a testbed for artificial intelligence routines (for example, the parser which interprets the English sentences input by the players), and for communications (MUD has probably one of the most advanced user-to-user communication channels in public service: better than Micronet, for example). Coauthor of MUD Richard Bartle belives that MUD has put Essex in the forefront of this field.


MUD is a real-time game, and he who hesitates will probably find that another player has beaten him to the treasure. Any player who is on-line can manipulate the database, so if you drop an object somewhere and go back to collect it later, it's quite likely that someone else will have found it and taken a fancy to it.

You can talk directly to any or all of the other players by using the person's name or the command Shout. You can fight them as well if you wish, but novices are warned that this could be a quick way to die early. Cooperation is also possible, and you can ask another, more powerful player to perform some action that is beyond you: he, of course, may or may not oblige. Or he might demand payment of a treasure.

Just like the 'real' roleplaying game, your character develops with experience. Players start off as novices and can work their way up through the ranks to the heady heights of Wizard. Players at this level have quite extraordinccry powers, and can spy on lesser players, move them around and generally be the sort of nuisance that wizards ore supposed to be.

The human players are not the only participants in MUD's adventures: the game has its own characters called mobiles, which are creatures, usually hostile, which are controlled by the program. They can be quite nasty, and a group of players may need to combine their strengths in order to vanquish one.


MUD is free to play, but you require a modem and a computer configured as a terminal. You will also need an account with the PSS (Packet Switching System) of British Telecom, which doesn't come cheap. (Compunet users will be getting their own version of MUD). You're probably looking at a start-up cost of £150 if you only have a computer at present. On the other hand, the fascination that MUD has on its players may be worth this outlay. I know one Wizard, Thor by name, who gets a lot of useful information through his MUD contacts: sometimes even paying for real-world data with fantasy-world treasure!

He also points out that MUD has a disturbing tendency to reinforce character traits in certain players, which is reflected in their daytime behaviour. So if you do get the MUD bug, try to keep a grip on reality: whatever that is ...

Richard A. Bartle (
4th May 1999: ctjan85.htm