By Alan Cox, with contributions from Malcolm Campbell
A Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) is a computer program which accepts connections from a number of simultaneous users over a computer network and provides them with access to a shared 'adventure game'; that is, a shared textual virtual environment where players can move between rooms, interact with each other and manipulate virtual objects; all which is described in text.
While there are many multi-user computer games, this article restricts itself to covering those with at least a minimal role-playing content. For this reason it ignores games like Doom1. Although Doom is closer than text-based MUDs to what the immersive virtual reality of the future may be like, the role-playing aspect is very limited when you are a super space marine who is controlled via 'fire', 'switch weapon' and 'operate' buttons.
Unlike the recently popularized network combat games, the role-playing MUDs are surprisingly varied and sometimes extremely sophisticated. While common themes and ideas frequently recur, in much the same way as they do in tabletop role-playing, the games vary enormously from one another.
What are MUDs?
The textual reality portrayed by MUDs is perhaps closest in format to the interactive fiction text games popularized by companies like Infocon Players are given textual and in some games simple graphical, descriptions of their environment. They are given the ability to interact with the environment. The environment varies as widely as the setting of tabletop role-playing games does. Gameplay can vary from exploring educational exhibits to the infamous Genocide game where the players are placed in a fantasy environment, given weapons - and the last alive wins.
The history of multi-user dungeons
The history of role-playing via computer goes back a surprisingly long way. In 1970 Crowther and Woods wrote Adventure2, which is held to be the first text-based computer adventure game. There was very little role-playing, the command set was basic and the goal fixed. Nevertheless, this was the starting point for computerized fantasv role-playing.
The earliest computer-based games that could be said to have a real role-playing element were not computer-moderated. From quite early in the history of interactive multi-user computing, systems supported 'conferences' where people could talk together. Each message scrolled up the display, tagged with the sender's name. While intended for serious long-distance discussions, they rapidly acquired recreational use too, and people began playing Dungeons & Dragons3 over them. Even today, the playing of traditional RPGs over computers on the internet is quite common.
While not the first such game, MUDl4, which ran at Essex University was probably the greatest initial influence on the development of MUDs, including giving the genre its name. In 1979 Roy Trubshaw, then a student at Essex University, wrote the basics of the initial game, unaware that any other such games even existed.
Richard Bartle took over the game and turned it from a simple interactive environment into a masterpiece of interactive fiction, with beautifully written prose and consistent, logical game design. Now over ten years old, the game, in its various expanded forms, is run commerially around the world.
The Essex MUD was played from numerous sites other than Essex as the ARPANET and the UK academic computer network took shape. Essex acquired several other games based on the same system - including a multi-user Fraggle Rock. Its impact on the rest of the world was, however, muted by the fact it wasn't freely available as source code.
Late in 1987 I was a student at the University College Of Wales in Aberystwyth, and along with a few other Essex MUD players got involved in a project that later became known as AberMUD5. Two unplanned events occurred that ignited the explosion of MUDs on the internet. Firstly we ported the game to a Unix system, and secondly someone asked us for a copy. We released it with a licence that allowed free non-commercial use, and half the development team then failed their exams.
AberMUD wasn't that brilliant a game and the program design itself was poor, but it resembled MUD1 and was freely available. It spread rapidly and soon was influencing other people to look beyond the ideas of the original MUD. It was very much a self-centred game. You could play as groups but it was not necessary - and murdering the other players was a lucrative (and highly popular) business.
Two major shifts in philosophy occurred after this time. Firstly people began to look more towards traditional role-playing ideas. This gave rise to games such as DikuMUD6 where people work together as teams of players of different character classes. The system, like that of AD&D7, is structured in such a way that group play is needed to get anywhere.
Second was the shift to pure role-playing and social interaction, without competition or advancement. Jim Aspnes' TinyMUD8 was the first game to embody this concept. It was a simple system that allowed numerous people to interact within a virtual environment. What made it innovative was that it allowed all the players to add to and expand the game world. It rapidly became a cult, with games groaning under hundreds of users. The original TinyMUD game world grew so large that nobody knew it all, and eventually so big that the computer could not run it. Tradition being what it is, they haul the original TinyMUD world back into existence for one day each year, as a sort of memorial to itself.
Before TinyMUD the games tended to be goal-driven and competive. You got points or kicks from hacking your 'friend' to death with an axe. TinyMUD and the many games that have derived from it have moded away from this. You no longer needed to even see them as games; they are closed to being conferencing systems and have been used both as pure social environments and for more serious purposes9.
Perhaps the best serious example is MicroMUSE10. Initially this TinyMUD-derived game was one person's simulation of a space station. It is now the first of several MUD systems intended for learning. What started as a game is now becoming recognized for its true flexibility.
Conventional role-playing and MUDs
There are three types of MUDs: computer-moderated games which resemble multi-player adventure games with a role-playing element; human-moderated games where a number of referees or judges moderate the rules and the MUD is used merely as a setting for play; and player-moderated games where consensual decision-making is used to guide the outcome of conflicts.
All three types have, like tabletop games, a method of character advancement. Some computer-moderated games call this 'score', whereas human-moderated games often prefer to follow a published game system's mechanisms for awarding of 'experience points'. In the consensual role-play of the player-moderated games, there may seem to be no means of advancement - but in these the advancement is often social. It is the popular players who get selected to imprint a bronze dragon in games based on Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, for example.
The settings used in MUDs are similar to traditional games. Over 80 per cent of MUDs listed in the internet mud-list11 are based on a fantasy theme. A small but increasing number accurately follow the rules of commercially published game systems (not always with permission) and games based upon the White Wolf Storyteller games12 are becoming popular and prolific. Several games are based upon well known fantasy fiction, notably the aforementioned Dragonriders of Pern and Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.
The similarities between MUDs and tabletop role-play end all too abruptly once one gets down to the details. The computer-moderated role-playing MUD suffers very badly in comparison with a human referee. While the computer can cope happily with an instruction like 'kill the orc with my axe', players cannot give it detailed instructions about sneaking up on the left side of the orc with a dagger between their teeth.
Despite this limitation, computer-moderated games can work well; firstly because the players rapidly adapt to the limited set of rules and options, and secondly because the most obviously unrealistic and jarring element of tabletop gaming, the rulebook and tables, are hidden from them.
Human-moderated games do not suffer from this problem of limited options, but they do have their own difficulties. It may be difficult for players to get hold of one of the game's judges, and players may be unwilling to resolve situations without the human judges to moderate. The problems of this type of game are a little like those experienced in live-action role-play, where large numbers of players can all wander off in different directions.
The player-moderated style of gaming is perhaps closer to traditional role-playing than the others. It is unusual in that it tends to be a group-written story rather than being guided by one gamesmaster. Such games often describe themselves as a society in which to interact, rather than a game with goals. Nevertheless it is very much a role-playing environment, and few people behave the same way in both reality and the game world. In some cases the game world has acquired a complete political system and behaves more like a society, with petitions, voting and an elected body of overseers and controllers (often called 'wizards' after the highest rank in Essex MUD1). LambdaMOO13 at Xerox Parc is perhaps the classic example of this and has acquired a complete political system and, predictably, its own good-for-nothing career politicians
As electronic telecommunicahons become more affordable and more commercial vendors move in, many people anticipate a growth in the area of multi-user games and a significant increase in the quality of such games. Because most games are written by groups of students with limited time and experience the majority are of truly terrible quality, and are even less consistent than the first edition Werewolf manual. There are exceptions, most notably Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle's Essex Multi-User Dungeon. This has become a successfill commercial product in the USA, although success in this country is still limited by the lack of very cheap phone calls. Another interesting indicator for the future is MicroMUSE, the educational MUD system providing a learning environment for children. With Vice President Al Gore's vision of a data highway to every school and college, the future for educational MUDs can be nothing but bright.
Alan Cox did support work for Adventure International UK writing single-player
text adventures. His first game, Blizzard Pass, was released as part of
a starter pack for the ZX Spectrum 128K. He is the main author of AberMUD,
the first multi-user game to be released freely to the internet. Further work
included the game driver and support work for HorrorSoft's Personal Nightmare
and . He continues to release MUD systems the
latest being AberMUD5. He works for the Institute for Industrial Information
Technology on networking products, and in his spare time on the Linux project.
Malcolm Campbell is active in the running of two role-playing MUDs, and got
involved in MUDs just too late to play Essex MUD. He has been following
and contributing to research on virtual communities for four years.
Malcolm Campbell is active in the running of two role-playing MUDs, and got involved in MUDs just too late to play Essex MUD. He has been following and contributing to research on virtual communities for four years.
1Doom: Id Softwane, episode 1 of 3 available as shareware.
Benedikt, Michael, Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press,
21st January 1999: ifan294.htm