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Free for All: An intro to basic combat in MUDs

Free for All: An intro to basic combat in MUDs
Beau Hindman
Beau Hindman|@Beau_Hindman|May 8, 2013 12:00 PM
Gemstone IV artwork
Welcome back to the second installment of MUD May! Almost any time I write an article, I try to keep new players in mind. It's fun to see the reaction from readers when I talk about MUDs or other "classic" MMO models and how these games can pull in fresh blood. Many people seem to forget that there are new players coming into MMO gaming all the time, and MUDs should be no different. Over the next few columns, I will be pulling examples from five games: Gemstone IV, Dragonrealms, Threshold RPG, BatMUD, and Achaea to explain how some basic MUD systems work.

With that in mind, I'd like to use this week's installment to explain -- in a very simple way -- how combat might feel in a MUD. One of the biggest hurdles for a new MUD player is often the massive amount of information that is built from decades of development. MUD players often sneer at the thought of simplifying the entry for new players. To be fair, this unwelcoming attitude is common in gaming in general. I feel differently, however, and want to explain some of the basics of these fantastic MMOs -- simply -- in a way that illustrates just how cool MUDs can be.

Gemstone IV class selection
This week I'm going to use a specific example of combat mechanics. There are many differences between titles, but the great thing about MUDs is that many of the same commands or systems are common between many titles. If you get used to playing one MUD, you can probably jump into another, although you will have to learn some new rules and systems.

I'll go over the basics of combat by using Gemstone IV as an example. I have been playing on the Platinum server, a special subscription server that features hardcore roleplay and player events. When a new character is rolled, the player can pick from a specific class, but free-form development is common. I chose a Monk who uses his fists and small weapons to fight with, but I can easily use the skill points I earn as I level to make him into almost anything I want. If you're a sandbox fan, MUDs can be a perfect match.

During a recent GemStone IV session, I spent a few minutes exploring and looking for adventure. I moved from one "scene" to the next (imagine a room inside a dungeon) until the game told me that I "heard" a trumpet blast, calling the militia to order. I moved toward the center of town by typing directions like "north" or "west" (or by clicking a direction link) until a player was able to show me the rest of the way. Within minutes, I was standing in line with about 10 other citizens, including the Mayor, waiting for orders. I didn't have to roleplay my character's confusion because I had no idea what was going on, but the others were patient and explained that we were going through drills. Because I "joined" the group, I was able to be pulled through different areas until we found trolls, giants, and other mobs and started the fight.

Combat is relatively simple but can become much more complex depending on how you want to play. I could see as monsters moved in and out of the scene by watching the description window:

Gemstone IV screenshot
I could literally target a specific monster or type "attack" and hit enter. The game would automatically pick out the nearest target, and I would swing my weapon. I can also use a shortcut or link, depending on the game or client. A fight can be a seriously confusing mess of numbers and text unless you do what I do and set the game client to minimize the numbers that are displayed. Some players prefer to see every number possible, but I find it distracting:

Gemstone IV combat example
Honestly, I don't care how efficient my character is at killing monsters. If the goal of the game is to mimic reality, I want to grow organically, not by doing math. I can switch to brief room descriptions and the game will tell me only when I hit and what happened:

Gemstone IV brief combat example
As we fought monsters, I was kept alive by the higher-level players. They could target me and cast buffs and spells as I attempted to fight. As I gained experience, I also gained ability points. GemStone IV offers a fantastic web interface that allows players to put points into different skills. I waited until a break and put points into combat and defensive skills:

Gemstone IV skills window
If you enjoy tweaking the stats of your character until reaching perfection, MUDs provide the tools. You can measure attack strength, casting strength, defensive strength, and many, many other factors. I avoid the math like the plague, but not just because I prefer that my character stays somewhat mysterious, even to me. Much of the time, I literally cannot keep up with the amount of information that MUDs show on the screen during combat. One of the main problems with the MUDs I have experienced is that they have no ability to break local chat or "whispers" (private messages) into their own window. During my night of combat in Gemtone IV, I missed so many messages simply because they were washed away during the deluge of combat information. Even with my "brief" messages, I missed a lot.

Free for All MUD May An intro to combatThe good news is that most of the MUDs I have played have relatively informative newbie tutorials or at least a good amount of information on the game's official websites. But let's not kid anybody: MUD communities and developers can be some of the most unforgiving for new players. It's not a case of snobbery but one of natural human behavior.

After all, those players who have been MUDing for 10 years of more figured it out, so why can't other new players? While this is true, I have always said that the true survival of MUDs depends on the attitude of developers and players. Many of these community members are simply stuck in time, and they don't want to re-design a website or host a series of videos to explain these wonderful games to new players. It's a real shame because new players will be needed to keep MUDs alive as the older generation fades away... and they will fade.

If you have a question about MUDs, ask in the comments section. Hopefully we can get some answers over the next month, and I also hope that these articles get some new players interested in MUDs. The mechanics are actually quite simple, but figuring out specific commands and uses can be like finding the answer to a puzzle.

To close this week, I'd like to respond to a comment from reader Brainwright from last week's installment:
Geeze. You're making it sound like MUDs are uniformly something. They're not. They're a platform people have been developing on for 30 years. Every kind of game you can imagine has been built on a MUD.
That's a great point. I do not mean to discuss MUDs as though they are a genre; they are not. "MUD" is a description of how a player will interact with a virtual world, but I need to generalize a bit in order to get the discussion started. That's why I am attempting to mostly cover mechanics and not styles or settings. There are simply too many titles to try to be so specific. So for those who are calling on me to cover specific games, I can only say that I will use my favorites because I do not have the time to cover your favorites, thought I very much appreciate the ones you're suggesting to me. We have to start somewhere! It's important to remember that this series is not a history of MUDing but a look at its future.

Next week I will be interviewing Producer Eric Latham from Simutronics to discuss the sister title to Gemstone IV, Dragonrealms, and his company's controversial subscription plans. If you want to watch the interview and ask questions live, watch on the 13th of May at 5:00 p.m. EDT right here on our livestream channel! I will be interviewing players for the installment after that, so keep an eye out!

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 beau@massively.com!
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Free for All: An intro to basic combat in MUDs