Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud Hat

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud...

The first of a series of articles on Multi-User Dungeon,
Written by one of the game's authors, Richard Bartle

BACK IN 1980, when the PSS network was Experimental PSS (and hence free), a couple of students from Essex University used the facility to log onto the computer in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of MIT in America, and sent a message out on the ZORK mailing list. Due to the fact that EPSS was renowned for crashing any time it felt like it, the message had to be short and yet arouse the curiosity of those receiving it. The two students were myself and Roy Trubshaw, who were eager to let the world know about our new computer game. The message read, "You haven't lived 'til you've died in MUD".

Since those early days, when MUD's only external players were those Americans patient enough to brave EPSS for a few minutes' play, MUD has spanned the globe. Recent players include people in Australia and Japan, and there are copies of MUD running in Portugal and Sweden. The game has built up a large following here in Britain, and has over 20,000 hours of playing time behind it.


A wizard's eye view of the land of MUD, showing the salient features and hazards
Image size: approx. 18K.

For those who don't know, MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon. It's the world's first adventure game which allows more than one person to wander around in its environment at the same time. This means that you're not the only intelligent being playing the game, and other real live people sitting at their own micros some miles away are there in the game with you picking up the treasures you wanted to pick up yourself, shouting seemingly inane comments to other players you've not yet encountered, and setting about with a large axe when you finally come across someplace that hasn't been looted ahead of you.

MUD is big - very big. It runs on Essex University's DECsystem-10 computer, which during the daytime services the whole of the campus. Only at night does it have any spare capacity, and it is then that the university generously opens up MUD to people out in the real world, or "externals" as they are known in MUDspeke ("internals" are people who play it from the university itself).

Now the reason I'm telling you all this in a magazine called Micro Adventurer and not one called Mainframe Adventurer is because, like it or not, in the next few years multi-player games like MUD are going to become the dominating factor in adventure games. The reason for this is quite simple - MUDs are absolutely fantastic to play! The fact that it's You against Them, rather than You against It, adds an extra electricity you just can't experience in a single-player game. If you like adventure games already, MUD will absolutely slay you (often literally!).

And, of course, you WILL be able to play on your micro, although not the same way as you do at present. In the current arrangement, you buy (a likely story!) your cassette and run the software on your own machine; when MUD goes commercial you won't be able to get a copy anywhere in the shops. What you will be able to get is some sort of package explaining to you all you ever wanted to know about the game, and access details on how to contact the host computer over some network. You follow these instructions and there you are, in a game with 100 other people, who are also sitting at home playing on the mainframe via their own micros. The only cost is that for the network (telephone, cable or whatever) and around a pound an hour peak times for the game itself.


A panoramic view of the mainland of MUD, seen from the vicious rocks
Image size: approx. 25K.

The MUD program comes in two parts, the database and the interpreter. The former is a description of the world, what will happen if people type certain things, and what will happen of its own accord whether you do anything or not. The latter is the program which takes in commands from the user and follows the sequence of actions which this entails as defined in the database. To clarify this, you can look on the database as if it were, say, a BASIC program. It describes exactly what it is you want to happen, but doesn't actually do anything. The interpreter is like the BASIC interpreter, which reads in the program (database) and brings it to life. MUD's interpreter comes in two parts, one which compiles the human-readable database into computer-readable form, and one which loads and runs this.

There are three MUD databases at present: MUD, VALLEY and ROCK. MUD is the main one, VALLEY is a smaller area which adjoins it; travel between the two is possible, although communication isn't. ROCK is a version of ITV's Fraggle Rock, and is generally regarded to be impossibly deadly! MUD has over 400 rooms, the other two are about 100 each. For this reason, I'll tend to talk about MUD most of the time.

The reason for partitioning MUD in this way is that you can port it over to other machines very easily, at least in theory. All you need to do is to rewrite the intepreter, and the databasc can remain unchanged. Unfortunately, the database is at quite a high level, and the interpreter is pretty collosal. When MUD is rewritten for commercial use (ie you pay to play), the interpreter will be much smaller, the brunt of the work being done in the database because it's more transportable.

When you run MUD it looks, to start with, like an average adventure game. It asks you for a name, what sex you want to be, and a password. Then it gives you the description of the first room. MUD's descriptions are normally 7 or 8 lines long - any more and you'd get killed in the time you took reading them! The object descriptions come on separate lines (to give some hint that they're not actually part of the description, and you can DO things to them). and so does the information about who is present in the room with you.

The aim of MUD is to collect points. There are three ways to do this. The most common way is to get treasure and drop it in the swamp, which effectively puts it out of the game so points can't be scored for it twice. The second most common way is by killing people. When you top another player. you get 1/24 of their points, in general. The third way is to do some menial task like making the bed or drinking some spring water, although the points for these are piteously poor.

You can lose points, too. Points can be lost for doing stupid things like trying to smoke the wolfsbane, but more often than not they go when you're killed. In MUD you die often, and it depends how it happened as to how permanent it is. If you're dead, it usually means you did something which killed you, like jump off the cliff without some sort of parachute, or drink some poison or whatever. This in MUDspeke, the jargon MUD players use, is termed as being "dead". You can come back from being dead, but you lose points for it. If you are killed in a fight, however, you end up permanently deceased, or "dead dead". Hence, although fights have good rewards for winning, they' re soul-destroying when you lose! The only way to be dead for doing something silly is if you carry the uranium around with you, ignoring the messages about how tired you feel.


ONE OF the features of MUD is that if you type LOG at it, it copies all output to a file so you can peruse it later at your leisure. Hours of endless amusement can be had by looking at other people's LOG files which they have left lying around.

Consider the plight of two of our very first externals, who played from the USA back in 1980. One of them had been in before, but his friend hadn't, and fortunatdy for us thought you had to LOG into the game to play. This meant all his activities were recorded for posterity, unbeknown to him.

Also in the game was Niatram, one of the system operators (who can't spell his name backwards). He decided to loom up on this second character, follow him around a bit, then kill him. This he repeated several times, gaining plenty of points in the process. Finally, the newcomer was at his wits' end.

"Who's this Niatram character?" he asked his friend. "He keeps following me around and killing me!". "Yes, he's done that to me before", came the reply, "I think he may be dungeon generated!" At this point Niatram appeared, and out of despair his victim quit, rather than be killed yet again by this "artificial person".

Since players with more points tend to be more popular targets for those with an urge to kill, they have better attributes than those they started with. MUD generates a random set of characteristics for you when you start - your "persona". These are strength, stamina and dexterity. The other Dungeons & Dragons abilities are up to you, so if you're thick in real life you'll be thick in the game. The abilities are used mainly in fights, where stamina is how much damage you can take, strength determines how much damage you do when you hit, and dexterity is your chance of hitting. They crop up in other places too; for example dexterity is used to see if you manage to steal from another player successfully.

This is the near future I'm describing. There's nothing technologically complicated about it, since MUD has been up and running for the past four years on the University's machine. In order to get you all used to the idea, and give you a taste for the Things to Come, I'll be doing a semi-regular column here devoted to MUD and the Adventure games you'll be playing in five years' time.

For the next few months, I'll be using the pages of this illustrious magazine (well they pay me to write this so they must be illustrious!) to talk about MUD and how it's developing. I'll keep you up to date with how the commercial version of the game is getting on, and some of the improvements which will be incorporated into it. I'll introduce you to some of the characters who play the game at the moment, or have done in the past, and what's gone on in the game since I last wrote. Hints and tips will leak out from time to time to keep you all interested for when you ever get to play yourself, plus some insight into the strange tongue which MUD players use when they converse with one another.

Details of how to access MUD can be obtained by writing to Richard Bartle, Department of Computer Science, Essex University, Colchester, Essex, C04 3SQ.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: masep84.htm