The Game Archaeologist plays with MUDs: Your journeys, part 1

Updated ·10 min read

What a long, strange trip it's been back through the heyday of multi-user dungeons and the many, many spin-offs and variations thereof. We've looked at the history, talked with Richard Bartle, and promoted a few of the best titles out there -- but we're not done yet! The Game Archaeologist will not hang up his hat and call it a day well-lived until your stories are entered into the history books.

Throughout this month, MUD and MU* players have deluged the inbox of the Game Archaeologist Institute for Text-Based Virtual Worlds, impressing us with hefty paragraphs of passionate experiences. These stories are so good, in fact, that we have little desire to choose between them, which is why we're going to annex the first week of May so that we can share all of them. May won't mind -- May's cool like that.

So hit the jump and read the testimonies of the word warriors who were there on the front line of parser combat and grammatically correct roleplaying. These are their stories. This is your lunch break.

Wes Platt: The developer

I have very fond memories of my experiences on a MU* inspired by the original Star Trek television series and called TOS TrekMUSE. It's where I got my first taste of the chain of actions and consequences in a real-time online environment and where I had a character that experienced an epic adventure.

The cause-and-effect incident came early on, when my character, Gavalin Brody, was assigned as a Starfleet cadet to the USS Yorktown. We were able to create objects and program them as part of our cadet training. I created a "holocube" with images of my character's family. After I learned that it was possible to use the ship's transporter to actually beam objects from the ship to the surface of Earth, I gave it a try. I beamed the cube down to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco and then beamed it back. I was impressed by this functionality. Satisfied, I returned my character to his quarters. The next day, my character was summoned before the commander for using the transporter without authorization. They had records of my usage and suspected that my character was a spy. This got me kicked out of the Starfleet Academy cadet program!

My character then went on to build the Federation Merchant Marines into a powerful civilian spacefaring organization before rejoining Starfleet as captain of the USS Excelsior. We made a lot of jokes about a certain long-term plot that involved an alien race known as the Ikarans. These were basically savage psionic descendants of Cuddles the fabric softener bear. They would seize control of character's minds, and we would be used as puppets by plot-runners, either sending ships off course, changing speed, or saying crazy crap. They seemed impossible to beat. Then, after months of chasing possible solutions to this problem, we launched a massive assault on the Ikaran homeworld. My character participated in the climactic raid on the queen's hive and helped to destroy the heart of the menace that had been bothering us for so long.

Those adventures helped inform the foundation of the approach I took in developing my own MUSH, OtherSpace, with an eye toward providing opportunities for actions and consequences as well as trying to supply people with memorable epic moments. Our crowds aren't as big as they used to be, but we're still at it and not looking to end anytime soon!

Brian "OddjobXL" Rucker: Obsessive roleplayer

I kinda think I have done it all. I was playing D&D by the late '70s. The '80s saw me finally messing around with computer games and moving away from D&D to more (then) modern RPGs and more in-character roleplay. I was on BBSes playing door-games and roleplaying in forums by the late '80s. By 1995, I'd hit the internet mainly because of an article in the Washington Post on AmberMUSH. The story was a sad one about a kid who'd become obsessed with his online roleplay and the community there. But it ended on a different note as his initially resentful father came to see how important, even special, his kid was to his friends online and how supportive that community was.

Me? I was mostly attracted to the obsessive roleplaying idea. Door games and forum roleplay in BBSes were OK, but they couldn't touch the kind of roleplaying experience we were having in tabletop sessions with games like Amber Diceless (like AmberMUSH set in Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber setting) or World of Darkness. This MUSH thing might be pretty cool!

And it was. Even for an experienced player like I was, it wasn't always easy learning all the commands, learning the social etiquette of online roleplay, and getting a handle on how to be expressive and responsive in as muscular -- but truncated -- a way as possible.

Flowery crap didn't cut it on AmberMUSH. It was all about dialogue. Interactions between characters. Not necessarily even adventures and very rarely longwinded speeches or matters of exposition. Then there was the joy of building your own content and bringing other characters into it. AmberMUSH was exceptionally handy because the Amber setting made use of a concept from the novels called Shadows -- not real places but real enough for those powerful enough to imagine or discover them. They ran the gamut from grungy cyberpunk cities to White Wolf-inspired worlds of shapeshifters to Tolkienesque fantasylands to even a wild west version of California. I built part of a shadow called Gaslight (aka Albion) which was a magical, and often dark, version of Victorian London.

I got extremely addicted and spent huge amounts of time immersed in the stories and intrigues going on around me. I think Bartle's right about the ability of text to speak directly to the imagination, and there's a reason MUSH stands for "Multi-User Shared Hallucination." When a few of us got going, just riffing off of each other's live improvisations, and everyone adding in little details or diversions, we would step out of our skins and inhabit those characters and those places for a while. This could cause extra drama, of course, because people could get very attached to characters or storylines and places linked to those characters.

Over time I became distracted by other MUSHes -- an alternate Amber-themed MUSH here, a World of Darkness one there, an original one over yonder (lookin' at you, OtherSpace) or a grand time in a Firefly MUSH called IntoTheBlack. Then it was MMOs. Frankly, based on everything I'd read about them and my sort-of disdainful view of text MUDs (as I was much more vested in roleplaying than hack-n-slash), I'd avoided them. Really? Lines queueing up for quest objectives? Player killers and corpse camping? And you do this for... fun?

But then I ran into Star Wars Galaxies. That's a story for another time, but suffice it to say that I was so impressed by the scale of the roleplay that went on with the Starsider server that MUSHes now seemed quaint and old-fashioned. The fact that SWG (and other MMOs) also have things to do besides just roleplaying also became attractive to me just as a gamer.

Seth Brown: Fully immersed

I don't think there can be an easily described favorite memory from the MUD I played predominantly: Lusternia, an Iron Realms Entertainment MUD. I played it for roughly five years nearly every day and the best experiences were often caused by playing in a real, living world rather than a single notable event.

The best thing about MUDs, in my opinion as a dedicated PvP player, is the notoriety that comes with being an experienced fighter (and let me tell you, if you're looking for a challenge in PvP, play an IRE MUD or the upcoming Lithmeria MUD). Simply being seen can cause people to panic, literally. Ask anyone who has been in a tight spot and he can tell you about the "combat shakes."

I appreciated that your actions had a serious and permanent affect on the world at large, and this includes people who filled all types of roles in the game, not just combatants. IRE MUDs allow players to govern entire cities with minimal administration interaction, from writing laws, drafting constitutions and amendments, setting fines, declaring wars, and creating amnesties and treaties. You make the game. MUDs are incomparable when it comes to immersion.

John Gardner: FarSider

I discovered MUDs by accident my freshman year of college (1994) in GOPHER of all things.

I only went to the link because it was called "FarSide," like the comic -- and then I was hooked. The MUD was located somewhere on the east coast, if I remember correctly, and I was going to the University of Minnesota in Duluth. I played a lot of FarSide that year and made a lot of friends.

One day, after questing with another player:

Me: I have to bail, gotta go to class.
Him: Yeah, me too! What are you going to?
Me: Calc 2
Him: What a coincidence, me too! Where do you go to school?
Him: Is that the University of Maryland? or University of Minnesota Duluth?
Me: Duluth

It turned out that there was a whole bunch of people that went to UMD that played FarSide, and they all found it the same way I did: Things on GOPHER were listed alphabetically, and at the time, every nerdy person knew the FarSide comic.

The two of us then started our own MUD at UMD, and last I checked, it's still running today (although neither of us is associated with it anymore). A few of the FarSide MUDders roomed together the next year, and most of us are still friends today.

Gardner Denver: Waving the standard of MajorMUD

I was somewhat surprised to see no mention of MajorMUD anywhere in your listings. MajorMUD had/has a fanatical fan base that exists to this day. In its prime in the '80s, there were hundreds of Major BBS (and later World Group) systems that offered MajorMUD. An entire cottage industry sprang up around this game. People developed their own utilities for the game, from scripting clients to SysOp & MUD-Op programs to assist the operators/owners of MajorMUD systems.

Sadly, today only about 30-odd BBS systems remain online with MajorMUD, and the numbers drop every year. There is a project currently trying to recreate MajorMUD called GreaterMUD. The project has been in development for a few years now. It hopes to address the many errors and bugs that exist in the final released version of MajorMUD and to allow future growth for the game that was loved by thousands of BBS users. It was and continues to be a very enjoyable game to play.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.