Free for All: Introduction to MUD May

Gemstone IV character description screenshot
For the month of May, I will be using this column to cover the world of MUDs aka multi-user-domains or dungeons. MUDs are text-based MMORPGs, and playing one is sort of like playing through a choose-your-own-adventure book with potentially thousands of other players. I'm not so arrogant to think that I could cover the decades of MUD development within the span of five articles, but I've had a go at it in the past and want to examine the topic more. Why?

There are many reasons, and to kick off this series, I'd like to talk about them. After today, my columns will concentrate on interviews with developers and players to explain how and why MUDs still work, and I hope that all of this will encourage many of you who have never tried a MUD to pick one out now. The recent buzz surrounding Twine-based games and interactive storytelling is perfect fuel for MUDs to come back into the spotlight. Unless, of course, many of the issues with the insulated community of MUDers sabotage the perfect timing.

Let's get started.

Achaea character artwork
Smaller communities

That insulated group I mentioned is like a religious sect within the larger MMO community. MUD players have specific ways of doing things and often look down on outsiders. These same players can be some of the most welcoming and informative players you'll find, but cracking the exterior of the MUD world can be a daunting task. From what I have experienced, the playerbase is generally older, tends to use AIM instead of other popular services like Skype, has played one or two MUDs for many, many years, and has never played another MMO! This is a dedicated, smaller and in some ways more passionate playerbase than you might be used to.

Threshold RPG artworkForced roleplay

Although I'm a recent convert to MUDing, I have explored around 10 titles. In each one, there are rules about roleplay. Even in the titles that don't force roleplay, roleplay is heavily involved with gameplay. Threshold RPG, for example, has an interesting system for chatter in and out of character. As you talk to another player in character, you can simultaneously have an out-of-character (OOC) chat in a separate channel.

Both appear on your screen at the same time, but it's not immersion-breaking because of the obvious separation. In fact I found that the separation between OOC and in-character talk to be stronger in games that allow for an accessible OOC channel. I have had chats with players in-character and out-of-character at the same time!

Roleplayers can be difficult to play with, but in a MUD that enforces roleplay, everyone is on the same page. It's a perfect example of how rules can lead to more freedom and creativity. MUD GMs, for example, will often reward players for fantastic roleplay. The rewards can be totally unique or something standard like experience points, something you will just not see in most modern, client-based MMOs. Can you imagine if a GM logged into World of Warcraft to hand out prizes on an individual level? I can only imagine the number of times the word "debacle" would be used to describe the situation by players who think that MMOs have to be equal and fair for everybody, even at the expense of live events or GM interaction.

Achaea map artwork
Complete customization

Another awesome possibility within many MUDs is the ability to customize your character to the point that no other character could ever be like yours. Gemstone IV GMs will log into the game to act as merchants and will sell customization options to players. I've met players whose character's descriptions are 200 or 300 words! Some MUDs will allow players to craft a completely unique character description as long as it fits within certain boundaries. Weapons can be customized in most instances, and players can brag that their weapon is like none other before it. In many cases these customizations are strictly for roleplay reasons, but players can also alter weapons or items to make them more powerful.

Threshold RPG artworkReading. As in words.

As I mentioned before, MUDs are basically interactive stories. Yes, you can roleplay in any game. How that roleplay is received depends on the title, but the text-based nature of MUDs seems to foster roleplay better because it puts players in the mood for paying attention.

After all, when we read a book, we receive information, but when we play a standard MMO, we are usually in the mode of attack and action. When I am inside my favorite MUD, I have to wait for the game, GM, or player to tell me what happens next. I have to read the words and respond in most cases with more words. It might sound tiresome or even boring, but I find it thrilling to have to come up with chit-chat on the fly while staying in character. It helps me think creatively and helps me explore character traits I hadn't before.

Achaea character artwork

MUDs are not dependent on powerful PCs. There are a number of ways to connect to a MUD, meaning that the player can pick out his or her favorite client or launcher. I can use my smartphone, tablet, laptop, Chromebook, or PC and have generally the same experience because the words are the most important feature. I prefer to use a good, solid client like MUSHclient or Gemstone IV's StormFront because I need to set the fonts and colors to help me and my aging eyes. If I need to, however, I can pop in to check in on my character from anywhere.

MUDs are also friendly to disabled players, something that has concerned me for a long time. There are even blind players in many MUDs, players who use tools that read text out loud and respond to voice commands. Imagine if you could listen to your favorite audiobook and give it commands. That's the beauty of MUDs. These games are also good for people with colorblind issues, mobility issues or for people who cannot afford gaming PCs.

... And beyond!

These are just some of the reasons MUDs are fantastic. But despite the fact that some MUDs still boast healthy populations, most are tiny. I find it amusing that the younger designers who are using text-based solutions like Twine seem to be oblivious to the presence of MUDs. There is some hope yet. Even though we joke about actual paper books, the popularity of Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Harry Potter shows just how popular reading still is. Can MUDs take advantage of this? I think so, and I hope that over the next few weeks, I can show how.

See you next week!

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.