Just over a year ago 'Comms Plus!' went into liquidation a few days after I submitted a feature article on MUD (multi-user dungeon). I am glad to have the opportunity to write for Malcolm again and to blow the dust off the MUD article. I always went beyond my word limit for Malcolm but I could never get this MUD article any shorter because MUD really is vast and I ran out of my alloted space describing it even before I started on the review part. I'm afraid that the cost of cramming a lot of information into a few pages means that the following may be terse at times.
----* Multi-User Dungeon — MUD
A brief history: the game known as MUD-1 was written by Roy Trubshaw in Spring 1980, while he was a student at Essex University. MUD-1 is actually the third version of MUD; the first version was written the previous year in machine code. A fellow student, Richard Bartle, had contributed to the development and so when Roy left Essex in the summer of that year, he also left behind the bones of MUD-1 which Richard took and used to develop the game further. Multi-User Entertainment Ltd (MUSE) was formed by Richard and Roy with Simon Dally, who then approached British Telecom (BT) to see if they would be willing to fund game improvement so that it could then be made available to a wider audience than CompuNet. BT financed a complete rewrite which made use of the experiences from writing MUD-1 and resulted in MUD-2 which went on-line in 1986.
The reason that I decided to devote so much space to one game is because I was convinced that MUD must have been BT's best kept secret — MUSE couldn't market MUD-2 because it had an agreement with BT whereby BT did the marketing; however, BT chose not to market the game. I shall assume some knowledge of MUAs and describe some of the features of MUD-2 (which'll now be referred to as MUD).
----* Attributes and Objective
One of the main objectives of the game is to accumulate points. You get points when treasure is dropped in the swamp and by fighting. There are other methods for getting points — by solving puzzles, for instance. As your points increase to certain thresholds your experience level increases. Level 1 is at 200 points and you have to double your points to reach each subsequent level.
There are eleven experience levels (novice being level zero) and so the main objective of the game is to reach the Wizard or Witch (wiz) level which gives that persona immortality and access to many very powerful commands. It is not enough, however, to gain sufficient points to become a wiz; a persona must solve seven (of eight) different tasks to qualify. Solution of the tasks involves a good knowledge of the land, skill at combat, player co-operation and the ability to solve puzzles. This means that players are worthy of the power they get as wiz personae. Having played Mist where wiz personae seemed to have been given out with the census forms, it's refreshing to meet wizzes who can answer questions about the game.
With each account on MUD you can use up to three personae. These can be either protected (PP) or non-protected (non-PP). PPs cannot attack or be attacked by other personae and so are useful for exploring the land; they also can't reach wiz level. Players are further sub-divided into magic-users and fighters. Personae start off as fighters and become magic-users by successfully touching the Touchstone. I use the word 'successfully' because, in MUD, it is possible to completely lose a persona; if a persona dies in combat, all points are lost and the persona is wiped from the records (termed DEAD DEAD). Otherwise, you can become DEAD through actions like poisoning, when not all of the points are lost. Thus, unsuccessfully touching the Touchstone means a DEAD DEAD death and only magic-users can become wizzes. I think that it is good to include such a concept of real death because then players have to become more adept at surviving, and this can only add to the excitement to the game and the extent to which one takes the persona seriously.
Personae have attributes of name and gender (which you choose yourself), and then strength, dexterity, stamina, magic and points. You also have a carrying capacity in terms of the number of items and their weight, and this is based on your strength and dexterity. As your experience level increases, so do the absolute attributes. Depending on what happens to your persona, your attributes can be affected: gender can be altered by magic; strength by the weight of carried objects, how injured you are and by magic; dexterity is dependent on the number of carried objects, your injuries, whether you can see and on magic. Your current values of strength and dexterity at any one time are called the 'effective' strength and dexterity. Stamina indicates how injured you are; death is defined as zero or less stamina.
It is inevitable that players will fight other players or creatures. Individual blows are not entered, instead you enter a 'kill brenda with axe'-type command which then initiates a fight, blows delivered automatically every few seconds. Between each blow one can attempt to steal objects, use magic, consume things, scream or anything else you can think of except walk away. If you are attacked you should 'use' an object as a weapon. To leave a fight you have to 'flee' but this causes you to drop everything carried and for a proportion of your points to be lost.
The damage you are capable of in combat is determined by your effective strength, dexterity, your stamina, by the weapon used and by magic. Each successful hit on you will reduce your stamina (actual and maximum stamina levels are displayed after each hit, which was useful when I didn't want to lose valuable time by asking). If you make a successful hit, a range of damage made is displayed (also very useful). During a fight you can 'look' at the other player or creature and see how injured they are. Descriptions vary from "full of energy" to "close to death" with several stages in between. This is a good way of determining whether to continue or to flee. When badly injured, your persona will appear to be staggering to others, and creatures are more likely to attack you. If more than one player co-operates against another in a fight, the points are distributed equally. If all players wish to leave a fight without any incurring a point penalty, they should all 'withdraw'.
Stamina can be regained by 'sleep'ing although during sleep one is blind and deaf to anyone approaching you if they don't explicitly make a noise. The dreams that accompany sleeping are a cute touch. Eating wafers and drinking certain potions increases stamina although stamina regenerates slowly over time while the persona is out of the game and also during the game. Use 'score' (or 'sc') to see a full listing of your persona's attributes or 'quickscore' (or 'qs') to display the effective strength and dexterity, maximum and current stamina, points and the number of games played. MUD automatically saves your persona when any permanent change is made to it (e.g., points or stamina increase) which is another example of how MUD saves the player hassle.
The setting of the game is called 'The Land' and this is divided into three sections: MUD-1 rooms, Valley (which was an early off-shoot of MUD-1) and Simon Dally's rooms. Valley and MUD-1 rooms are separated by the 'Narrow road between lands' (the location of a gap in a wall). The road becomes the 'Badly paved road' to the west (MUD-1) and the 'Narrow road' to the east which includes the Inn (expanded from Valley). Simon's gardens are east of this. To the west of the land is the sea in which you will find the 'Isle of Woe' and the 'Island' where the dragon lives. I decided to avoid paying my respects to the dragon.
You can only pass through the gap at the road between lands if you are empty-handed, although it is possible to work your way around the wall through the forests. When you join the game, you first enter the 'Elizabethan Tearoom' where one can quietly sip tea and chat to players before they enter the land. This is the room in which a new persona should make a 'vow' to be eligible for protected status. Fighting is not allowed in the tearoom although getting drunk is, as I found out at an impromptu birthday celebration.
Leaving the room places you in a random location; near the road if you are an inexperienced persona, a spot in a forest which is free of creatures otherwise. Richard Bartle said of his design of the land: [I]n order to get players used to the idea of being attacked, I carefully graduate the perils which they meet at different points. Novices in MUD all hang around at the narrow road, so monsters there never attack, or are complete wimps and even novices can kill them. Treasure is easy to find, the room descriptions cheery, it's sort of a 1930's setting, all is well. The further you stray, the bigger and meaner the mobiles get, the further back in history the setting, the greater the rewards. The big treasure is all some distance away, where merely getting there is a dangerous prospect, the descriptions are full of references to arcane, ancient magics from the distant past. Players are left in no doubt that their lives are in constant peril!
The land is made up of a collection of rooms (nearly 900) which are textually represented by a short name and a long description, a description of the state of any doors (open, shut or locked), a sentence on each object in the room and others on players or creatures. Various commands are available to display varying degrees of information ('brief' — only short names, 'verbose' — always short names and long descriptions) although the default is only to display the long description for rooms visited for the first time and the short name thereafter. The default mode was a very handy indication of when I was walking around in circles!
I was rather impressed with the commands available to aid mapping. A room's long description will include information about what's in sight (although there are other senses you could make use of if you have to), but issuing the 'exits' (or 'x') command results in a list of the (short) names of rooms in accessible directions (there are 13 main directions). MUD supports the concept of light, dark and full rooms, and the listing reflects this. To see the listing after every move use the 'auto exits' command (although the game advises you of this if you use the 'exits' command often enough). 'unauto exits' disables automatic listings. The 'swamp' (or 'zw' ['sw' is taken by 'southwest']) command takes you a room closer to the swamp — this command made my Top Ten list.
----* MUD creatures
The creatures (or mobiles) in MUD are a source of points when killed. They can do many things that players do (drop and steal objects, fight, flee, cast spells and talk). Richard told me that they can also open doors (since they will find and use keys), use the best weapons at hand, umm, paw, pick up and consume things to regain stamina and also swamp treasure. They also have planning capabilities and so will, in effect, take decisions and extricate themselves from difficulties. I know I was very surprised (and impressed) the first time I was in a fight with a mobile, who'd dropped some object to increase its strength, ate a wafer when its stamina was low and then staggered off when it'd had enough ...
There are various kinds of mobiles: some occur in groups (e.g., rats and zombies), some seem fairly harmless (Butterfly) whilst others not so harmless (Vampire). There are a few human mobiles such as the Thief. Mobiles can block your path: the undead block in all directions while others will block you randomly whatever direction you move, depending on their size.
Perhaps a good way to introduce objects is to explain how I got so drunk at the birthday party in the Tearoom. I was holding two bottles and a glass of cider [blush] and entered 'drink glass', intending to drink from the glass (which had a unique name). 'Glass' is the general term for glass objects so I drank the lot [hic!]. There are general names for most objects and include other general terms (for example, in standard object-oriented form, 'object' encompasses all objects, 'plant' all flower, vegetable and herb type objects, and 'flower' all flower objects).
Classes include: food (includes wafers and vegetables), flowers (treasure), vegetables (to produce certain effects), bottles and glasses (contain alcohol), phials (contain medicine for curing poisoning), vials (contain potions which have positive or negative magical effects — one summons recently-killed mobiles — vials are not always labelled), treasure (referred to as 't'), weapons (although almost anything can be used as a weapon), furniture, hints in the form of maps and books, keys (although not all keys fit all locks), brands (wooden sticks for lighting to see in dark rooms, although they burn themselves out in time) and containers.
Containers are a very useful way of overcoming your level's carrying capacity. Some containers can be closed and some are transparent. A container can be shaken so that you can find out if they're empty (if anything rattles or breaks). An inventory containing a sack-like container will reveal whether it is empty or non-empty but not what's inside it. Being able to open and close containers means that if someone steals one from you, you may have time to steal it back while they are trying to see what's inside.
In order to reference an instance of a class, objects are named by their class name and a number. For example, you might be confronted by zombie5, zombie6 and zombie7. You could fight all at once with 'kill zombie' or pick one out: 'kill zombie5'. I'd prefer not to use numbers, but I confess that I can't think of an equally convenient naming convention to replace the current one.
The land also has weather changes; if it's raining you can't wade across the rivers and if it's snowing you can't tell the time on the sundial. Talking of snow, I met Santa Claus, reindeer and holly during the festive season.
I can't really say much about magic from personal experience in MUD since I didn't manage to work up my persona to a high enough level. However, it's probably impossible to survive as a high-level character without some magic at hand, and you have to be a magic-user to be able to become a wiz. Magic is available through certain objects and through spells. Spell-casting consumes magic points and has a percentage chance of success depending on your, and your victim's, level.
Spells include 'wish', 'glow', 'change' (gender), 'blind', 'cripple', 'deafen', 'dumb', 'force' (someone to perform an action), 'invisible', 'site'/'resite' (for teleporting to the place of your last 'site'), 'sleep' (other player), 'snoop' (copy another's screen output to yours), 'summon', 'where' and 'fod' (finger of death). There are opposites to most of these spell commands (e.g., 'unblind').
Commands you should try early on are 'help', 'info', 'hints' and 'commands'. I would have liked to have been able to call up help on individual commands. The on-line Beginner's Companion and De-Mystifyer were a very useful source of information and hints. The command 'synonymise' (or 'syn') is used to rename an object (or creature or player) which overcomes the problem of people with hard-to-type-fast names. As with other games, one can talk, use telepathy or shout to communicate with other players.
A player told me that he expects a game to 'know' about the real world in the sense of seeming to understand whatever one may enter. He said that Richard seems to have anticipated this by including many words into the vocabulary even though some may only result in a message in reply. The parser comes close to what one finds in single-user adventure games, which was nice to see.
So, you may be wondering, what happens when all the treasure has been swamped, the creatures slain, puzzles solved and all the wine consumed? Do swordswomen, mages and sorcerers spend the rest of eternity in the Inn, gathered around the fireplace, poking the dying embers to keep the flames of their memory alive, talking about the good old days? No, there is a reset. This is when the land is ressurected to a starting state. There is a mad dash to find the best tools, weapons and magic objects then to, perhaps, a leafy glade which may be visited by a burbling brook and strewn with the faint colour from the wild flowers ruffled in a gentle breeze, so that the swordswomen, mages and sorcerers can try to kill each other.
After I finished this article last year, MUD and the other MUAs were taken off BT's system. At the time, there was much talk about the various ways to keep MUD going and I spoke to Roger Harazim who later became the person responsible for making MUD available again.
Even though he had been amongst the many who'd been made redundant last year, Roger managed to form Wizard's Guild which put MUD back on-line under license from MUSE last November. Richard had rewritten MUD in C to run under Unix, allowing for the opportunity to deal with the outstanding bugs (yeah, okay Richard, I mean counter-intuitive implementation derivatives), improve program behaviour and make changes to the game itself.
Roger has enlisted the help of the ex-wizards to manage the game and they are consulted when new ideas come up. As for the changes, Roger told me that because the game is now running on a dedicated 486, it's much faster. The mobiles are much more crafty; they will now steal containers for useful objects and then discard the remainder. The land has not changed except for the addition of rooms from the original MUD-1 and a temple complex (of 120 rooms) which is in progress.
The starting locations of treasure and weapons is now more randomised in an effort to thwart experienced players who used to go directly to weapons. Treasure value is affected by the amount already swamped instead of the time since the last reset; the number of players still affects treasure value. Roger said that of the regulars, most of them were players from last year, some were original MUDers and that MUD had callers from North America and New Zealand.
I asked Roger why he had so much faith in MUD seeing as pioneering ideas usually date quickly and are soon overtaken. He said that MUD wasn't standing still and that MUD's competitors don't have Richard Bartle who has something unique to offer. He believed that no other MUA today was as sophisticated, for instance in the way that MUD dealt with liquids, smells and sounds.
As for me, well I had a good time on MUD and I was sorry to see it go. I had a few adventures, met some nice people and laughed a lot. Some people spent time showing me around and most made me feel part of the community. I had intended to only spend a few hours on MUD to research but this is based on several month's play. One of the last changes I heard about means that I needn't get drunk on MUD again; one can now perform actions on objects using qualifiers such as 'a', '1' or 'smallest' (like, 'drink a glass'). 'expect' and 'but' have also been implemented (for example, to drop all the flowers except the rose).
The land is described beautifully and cleverly, and the game includes many useful commands that relieve the player of a lot of the drudgery that comes with any text-based MUA. I am also aware that I only saw a small part of the game and so this article really only scratches the surface.
There hasn't been enough space to do justice to the other options available when you connect to MUD, expect to say that there are options on the main menu to enter a multi-way chat and an extensive library system which includes bulletin boards and magazines.
If you haven't already, you may want to check out the 2nd edition of the Hacker's Dictionary (edited by Eric S Raymond) — it includes many MUDisms.