Steve Cooke plugs into Shades and MUD - two multi-user games anyone with a modem can play.

Just occasionally you pass someone in the street who looks as if they could do with a good night's sleep, a month's wages, and a prescription for tranquilisers. Chances are that this man or woman has recently been MUGged.

MUGS, or Multi-User Games, have been around for several years and take a number of different disguises. Some are Play By Mail (PBM's), in which case players take out a subscription to the game and are sent 'turn sheets' on which they enter their moves, return them to the game control centre for processing, and await the result. A couple of weeks later they get back a computer printout telling them whether they are one step nearer conquering the galaxy, ruling the tribe, winning the war, or whatever.

PBM's are essentially strategy games played by many gamesters simultaneously, with the moves processed by computer. They are slow, stately affairs; the postal chess games of the computer fraternity. Players can communicate with each other directly as well as with the central base, making alliances, striking bargains, and arguing about points of policy. MUGS, in other words, without modems.

In complete contrast you have the On-Line MUG, played by linking your micro directly to the central computer with the aid of a modem. These are neither slow nor stately, being fraught with danger, discovery, and sudden death. They are also expensive to play, habit forming, and rapidly becoming big business. For example, there's a game within the Prestel network called Shades which hosts up to 4,000 users each week. At just under a pound an hour to log on - plus telephone charges - you can understand why British Telecom is getting excited. What do these On-Line MUGs offer? Are they worth the money? Let's examine the record...


'You Haven't Lived Until You've Died in MUD'- so runs BT's ad for MUD, or Multi User Dungeon. Most PC PLUS readers will be familiar with the concept of adventure games; where the player moves from one 'location' to another finding and using objects, killing dragons, looting treasure or whatever. This sort of game is a very solitary affair, although most modern examples feature so-called 'interactive characters' - computer- controlled entities that you can address or otherwise communicate with.

What's missing from these games though is a spot of real human contact. How much nicer it would be if that dwarf you'd just decapitated was your landlord in disguise. Well, in MUD it just might be.

The game first appeared at Essex University in the form of a 60,000 line Pascal program suitable for running on a DEC VAX minicomputer or similar. It provides a mythical world ('The Land') in which many human players can simultaneously adopt mythical personae and rush about killing each other, finding treasure, making friends, and achieving powerful magical status.

Although the Essex version still runs, the game has really blossomed since being licensed to BT. A VAX in Ealing currently looks after the BT's Hotline service by day, but at night becomes home to up to fifty aspiring wizards simultaneously. You dial up the service, enter your ID code, and find yourself a very long way from Compuserve or BT Gold: in an Elizabethan Tea-room to be exact, from which genteel location you sally forth into The Land.

The objective of MUD is simple: to gain points by finding treasure and getting the better of other players.


You are about to enter Shades
Image size: approx. 28K.

As you accumulate points you grow in stature from novice (up to 200 points) through to Wizard (204,800 and above). It's the enormous powers that Wizard-hood conveys that adds stimulus to the game and spurs the players on, as Wizards can do practically anything. They have over 60 spells at their commands, can kill other players, transport them helplessly about the land, teleport anywhere they please, and generally have a Good Time. Since you're actually interacting with Real People, that can mean a Very Good Time Indeed.

But before you hand in your resignation and get in a supply of caffeine tablets and game credits, there are some things to bear in mind - otherwise any visit to The Land may not be the magical experience you expect. First, MUD is very much a closed World in many respects. It's a dedicated MUG system (unlike Shades - see below) and that means that the people who play it tend to be dedicated adventurers


Image size: approx. 29K.

The atmosphere of the game can be slightly daunting for a first-time player, but as a rule other MUDders are tolerant of newcomers and even helpful if you meet trouble. In particular, the Wizards are not as haughty as their great powers might suggest - they will come to your aid if called and, provided you are in genuine difficulty, will almost always help you out.

The lesson it that if you want to have a serious crack at the game you have to take it seriously from the start and be prepared to adopt 'learner' status - however grandiose your long-term ambitions. You don't become a Wizard overnight: estimates of time required centre on the 120 hour mark - 120 hours of serious, dedicated play. The rewards, however, can be many. You can create different personae in MUD to satisfy different sides of your own character; so you might be a woman in one game, a man in another, now a fierce warrior, at other times a thoughtful cleric. The game itself is constantly changing as well - new locations (there are currently about 800 plus four mazes of various types) are constantly being added, and new commands introduced.

Since treasure only scores points by being dumped in the lake, from which it cannot be recovered except by meddlesome wizards, it follows that a game 'reset' is regularly requited. At that point you all re-enter The Land and rush off to find where the treasures have got to. Your personae endure from game to game though, unless killed off; growing in stature and, one must add, investment by way of phone and log-on charges.

One of the best things about MUD is the style of the text. The location descriptions are long, well-written, and vividly evocative of a never-never land that seems at times like a lost part of rural Somerset and at others like a mutated section of Transylvania. Apart from the players you've also got 'mobiies’ roaming The Land - computer controlled characters that equate to the 'interactive characters' in standard adventure games. Most of these are worth points - or worth avoiding! The best way to find out about MUD is to pay a visit to The Land. 'Guests' can make brief, non-chargeable appearances to decide whether or not you fancy registering.


Shades is another British Telecom multi-user game, based on MUD but different in several respects. It was written in 1975 by Neil Newell, inspired by the Multi-User Dungeon, and it now operates within Micronet - that part of Prestel dedicated to the personal computer market.

This in itself is significant since it follows that anyone logged onto Micronet can decide, on a whim, to enter Shades and have a game. You therefore get a wider variety of player than in MUD, where players tend to be more dedicated to the spirit of adventure. In particular you get a number of players who are just there for the enjoyment of interacting sociably ('chatting') with other players.

Shades encourages this informality by including in its command structure a large number of words that are purely there for interaction: you can hug, kiss, pogo, boogie, giggle, scream, laugh, smile - in fact whatever you're feeling at the time you're probably able to communicate to anyone present. There's even a generalised interaction command EMOTE which effectively allows you to do anything you like to someone else. But the game controllers do encourage responsible and adult behaviour, so don't expect to break the law with impunity.

For PC users the fact that Shades uses the Prestel teletext service also makes a difference. MUD is very satisfying to anyone used to, for example, Telecom Gold's scrolling 80-column text format. Shades is more colourful, but the display doesn't scroll and the 40 column format can be a bit heavy-handed for displaying poetic descriptions of another world.

The aim of Shades is the same as MUD: to achieve wizard or witch status by gathering treasure and getting the better of other human and inhuman characters. The atmosphere is quite different, though. First time users find it less daunting than MUD, while serious adventurers may find it less enthralling. But it does have an emotional immediacy that seems lacking in its elder relative - MUD by comparison seems a somewhat austere environment in which grand conceptions are brought to grand conclusions. Shades also offers you that strait and narrow path to Wizardhood, but be prepared to boogie all the way.




You can access Shades either through Prestel or Micronet, incurring costs of 6p or 1.62p per minute respectively. In addition these services charge 6p per minute for computer time between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday, or 8am to 1pm Saturday. There is also a standing charge of £6.50 per quarter for Prestel users, plus an extra £10 for Micronet.

If you are already on-line to Micronet or Prestel then you can access Shades through page 6004314. If not, contact Prestel on 01-822 1100 or Micronet on 01-278 3143 for details.

A demonstration of Prestel can be run using the ID 4444444444 (10 4,s) and the password 4444. Phone the above number for details of your local node, or connect to 021-618 1111 with a modem set for 1200/75 baud, seven data bits, even parity, one stop bit.


Multi-User Dungeon is run by British Telecom and costs £4.95 to join. This gets you the starter pack with maps and so forth, plus three hours free time. Prices after that are on a sliding scale; 10 hours costing £10, while 300 hours would set you back £150. For further details contact the MUDLINE on 01-608 1173.

If you've got a modem you can log straight into MUD and try it out for free: just enter MUDGUEST when asked for 'username' and PROSPECT as the password and you get 10 minutes with a cut-down instruction set. Phone 01-998 8899 for 1200/75, or 01-997 9433 for 300 baud. Settings are eight data bit, no parity and one stop bit.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: pcpsep87.htm