Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Secret History of MMOs -- MUDs and MUSHes

Sorry about the lack of updates—August has been crazy for me this year, possibly one of the craziest months ever. Not an excuse, just background. My father was kind enough to give me some incentive (i.e., “I’ve read enough about Gen Con, time for something new.”) so get ready for more blog goodness here on Rogue Warden.

Today’s blog post is about Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs… but not in the way you’d think. Currently, MMORPGs in the video game industry seem like they’re suffering—good examples include City of Heroes and SWTOR—and the business model is in the process of change. It’s possible that MMOs as we know them may be on the way out. However, rather than talking too much about the present and future, I’d like to focus on the MMORPG’s distant past… a world of text-based adventures on the early internet known as MUDs, MUSHes, and MUXes.

An MMO By Any Other Name

If you can’t already tell, dear reader—this post is chock-full of acronyms. Don’t worry… I’ll explain. A MUD is a multi-user dungeon—these online games generally were the closest to modern-day MMORPGs in that they weren’t really about roleplaying. Instead, MUDs centered around the player taking his character through a series of dungeons, slaying enemies, and taking their stuff. There were also guilds to join, characters could get married, shops to buy things and bars to get virtually drunk.

It's not that kind of mud.

By now, this should all sound very familiar to any World of Warcraft player. Of course, the major difference here is visual—everything in a MUD (and by extension every other MU* game I’m discussing in this post) is entirely scrolling text on the computer screen. Scenery, actions, battles, monsters, gear… literally everything in the game was described through text, with the player’s actions being entered in a series of commands. Typing “L” for example, meant that your character looked at his surroundings, and a description of where your character was would then appear on the screen. This was usually followed by the command “kill orc” and then “get gold.” In fact, the first MMORPGs started out with the label “Graphical MUD.”

The Wikipedia entry for MUD contains a lot more detail about these games, so I won’t re-state much here about that… instead, I’ll tell you about my experience with them. I first encountered MUDs at the University of Wyoming in 1992. A friend of mine introduced me to MUDs after discovering we shared an interest in roleplaying games. (Side note: I was one of those nerds who took every single rpg book I owned with me to college. Yeah. I’m that guy.)

Thus I began my exploration of Shadow MUD (there’s currently another game of that name, but I don’t think there’s any relation to this earlier incarnation) and I was instantly hooked. As I was a writer, this was right up my alley—it was using all the typing skills I’d developed in high school and putting them into practice online. I could play any time of the day or night, and I could even play with some of my friends, including my then-roomate.

Keep in mind this was twenty years ago, so my memories are a bit fuzzy… I think my character’s class was a Shadow Mage. I remember that the character could summon shadows to devour the bodies of the slain and gain health. Shadow Mages were also unique in the game in that they could heal other characters that were not in the same virtual “room,” no matter where they were in the game. When I reached a higher level, it was common for me to grab a few virtual beers in the tavern while casting heals on adventuring parties out fighting dragons and whatnot! Drinking beer, in that game, helped restore a character’s magic and hit points at the same time.

As much as I enjoyed MUDding, I grew tired of it quickly and sought out a new challenge. Fortunately for me, I had made several friends online, and one of them pointed me towards another online game that would prove to be a huge impact on my life. This game, he told me, was ALL about roleplaying.

Read more (a LOT more) about MUDs and MUSHes after the break!

Is It Time For My MUSH?

The place I was directed to go was a game known as TwoMoons MUSH. MUSH stands for Multi-User Shared Hallucination. There are various other kind of MUSH, such as a MUX (multi-user experience), MUSE, and many more. Eventually, the shorthand became MU* to indicate that you were talking about the general category of MUSHes. 

Just add elves!

In stark contrast to most MUDs, the majority of MUSHes are focused nearly entirely around roleplaying. Several MUSHes, for example, have no actual coded commands for combat. Instead, all conflict (yes, ALL conflict… even “I swing a sword at you!”) is handled by storytelling and mutual consent. This is not to say that all MUSHes were like this. Some MUSHes (such as many of the World of Darkness and Shadowrun MU*s—see below) did have plenty of conflict resolution coding present so that characters could resolve combat, skill uses, and any other reason for rolling virtual dice.

However, TwoMoons was of the first type; it was definitely all about the storytelling, all about the characters, all about the experience. TwoMoons was based on the ElfQuest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini, a series that I had read and enjoyed greatly in my younger years. I was instantly attracted both to the theme of playing in the world of ElfQuest and in the idea that everything happening in TwoMoons was in-character roleplaying. I did have some difficulty adjusting at first, but I’m a quick learner when it’s something I’m really interested in… and in no time it seemed like I was an old hand helping out other newbies learn all about TwoMoons.

A tale of adorable pointy-eared short people and their pet wolves.

I could write an entire blog post just about this game. I played a number of characters, my two favorite (and most well-known amongst TwoMoons players) being the wolfrider Truestrike and the underworlder Melendrian. I did some of my first world design with TwoMoons: I was the main designer for Ravenholt, which was a large, detailed region in the game that characters could explore and at the same time, a tribe and group identity for players to use in their backgrounds and storytelling. 

TwoMoons was a very long-running game that was in operation from 1991 until only a few years ago, and players came to the game from all across the world. I myself met many players from Norway, Sweden, Australia, the list goes on. I made several lifelong friends while playing the game, and nearly got married (yes, married in real life) to a woman I met on TwoMoons. My best friend whom I have known over 19 years was once a curious player who wandered into my character’s home on TwoMoons and struck up a conversation while playing the game. A fellow TwoMoons player that some of my readers may recognize is the novelist C.E. Murphy, who had a very memorable character on the game.

Playing TwoMoons was the opening of the creative floodgates for me as a young man. Not only was I telling stories in a way I never had before, I was interacting with people on a whole new level and building dynamic relationships both in and out of the game. I wrote songs, I wrote poetry, I wrote entire stories about my character and others, I commissioned artwork of my characters. It’s fair to say that playing TwoMoons changed my life.

However, I would not remain in this idyllic realm of pure story and imagination forever. There was a slightly darker side of online roleplaying that was calling my name and seducing me into the shadows.

Beasts and Bloodsuckers

The RPG scene in the early 90’s was dominated by the World of Darkness games from White Wolf—Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse being probably the two biggest and most influential. The world of online text games like MUSHes were no exception, and once Vampire hit the marketplace, there was a veritable explosion of World of Darkness-themed MU* games. One of the first of this breed was simply called Masquerade (shortened to Masq by many players), followed by Elysium, Texas Twilight, and many, many more.

Alas, poor storyteller system. We knew you well.

Unlike TwoMoons, these MU* games had quite a bit of coded gameplay. While, for the most part, storytelling and roleplaying was still freeform, there was now a way to roll virtual dice to determine an outcome. Each game had staff members (commonly called Wizards or Wizzes) and a site owner/operator (commonly called the God/Goddess of the MU*). 

When a character playing the game was in need of getting a die roll adjudicated (for instance, if the character was attemping to pick a locked door, there was no option to simply go through the door), he would contact a staffer who would then arrive on the scene to handle the situation. Often, this involved throwing down an object called a “timestop.” This object was important, since what would happen if a staff member was around is that it would naturally draw bored players like moths to a flame. In our example, the poor guy trying to pick a lock would suddenly have a dozen folks “just happening” to be in the area once the staff member showed up.

This is the opening screen of a typical MUSH

The timestop fixed this by establishing a basic boundary—no one could enter the timestop except for the staff member and the players involved. This limited (and in most cases, outright stopped) any interference from other players. Once the area had been “roped off,” the staff member would then observe as the player rolled his virtual dice and then make a ruling on what happened next.
Since coordinating efforts between multiple players can be problematic, even through the near-instantaneous medium of the internet, often a timestopped action scene could take hours in the real world to resolve. These kinds of situations only grew more complex by adding in more than one player into the mix. Similarly, anytime two players were attempting to attack each other, things got even crazier.

So now, gentle reader, you may understand a bit more about what things were like on these early World of Darkness MU*s when I tell you that timestops and player-versus-player combats were happening constantly.

Since the MU* was operating 24/7, plenty of action was occuring even when a player was logged off. Other players could steal his stuff, kill his girlfriend, or set him up as a criminal in the eyes of the police by the time he logged back in—although generally, this was fairly rare. Most times, players would prefer to settle things when their targets were actually online inside the game.

Despite all this chaos, I found the World of Darkness MU*s to be fascinating. Now, in most World of Darkness games, the players take on the roles of vampires, werewolves, and other such supernatural creatures. However, in the World of Darkness online realms, the MU*s commonly chose to limit the number of supernatural creatures present in the playerbase. So, if your game had around 150 players, only about 30 would be supernatural in origin… all the others would be normal people (although, granted, we’re talking about roleplayers here… so many of those “normal people” were certainly not normal, although they were mundane humans, just with bizarre lives that you’d only find in fiction).

My first character on Masquerade was Rand, a fairly normal Irish-American jewelsmith who’d wandered into town in order to get away from a clingy girlfriend. Rand quickly got involved in some creepy stuff with a local business owner who was tracking a kidnapped girl. Rand volunteered to help and ended up following a blood trail through the sewers that led straight into the basement of the local hospital. I could my feel my neck hairs lifting up while I was playing through this scene, since it was genuinely creepy… and I knew that I was just a normal guy poking his nose into a situation that involved some real monsters.

Rand’s life became very complicated soon afterwards, and his jewelry experience was put to the test making silver bullets for a group of vigilantes seeking justice against the supernatural monsters infesting the city. Alas, Rand poked his nose into one situation too many, and he was betrayed, arrested, and assassinated in jail by werewolves working for a vampire clan (I told you it was complicated)!

Ultimately, few plots and storylines in the World of Darkness MU*s could pack the same impact and meaning—in fact, I found many of the storylines to be fairly mundane, even with the supernatural trappings. The fact of the matter was that these games were so popular and so oriented towards a certain demographic, that the playerbase turned out be much like the early days of internet fanfiction… mostly amateurish and fumbling attempts to present an “artistic” story.

World of Darkness MU*s actually had a bit of a reputation for such melodrama, and these games were also full of other internet issues of the decade, like cybersex and identity theft. Often, the only way some staff could get their player’s attention towards a story was to throw a seemingly-random adversary at them and then breadcrumb the players (usually bickering between themselves!) towards the set-piece where some resolution would be planned (but only rarely achieved…).

One website described playing on a World of Darkness MU* as very, very unlike a typical tabletop RPG. “Instead,” the website explained, “imagine that all the players around the table are either fighting each other, screwing each other in the closet, or huddled whispering with each other in the shadows. After a few hours of this, the GM jumps out of the hallway and shouts, ‘A scary monster attacks you!’ That’s kind of what it’s like.”

Should you want to investigate further the internet drama of online text games like the ones described here, check out the forum known as When Online Roleplaying Games Attack, or WORA for short.

The Cyber Generation

I dropped out of playing online games for a while to join the US Army. After training and a memorable deployment to Korea, I returned to the United States at Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1996. I was definitely ready to get some more roleplaying going! Wandering around online, I happened to locate Shadowrun Seattle, the original and longest-running MUX related to the Shadowrun RPG by FASA. In checking things out at Shadowrun Seattle (hereafter simply called SR Seattle), I discovered that this MUX was quite a bit different than others I had encountered before. SR Seattle was part of a new movement of MU*s that had chosen to become “elitists,” focusing on quality in writing, character concepts, and ability to roleplay. This was often described as “Less angst, more story please.”

Like others of its ilk, SR Seattle required several steps in order to successfully build a character and join the game. Central to this process was an application. The player would need to fill out a long form of information about the character he wished to play, including backstory, personality, and story hooks that could potentially be used to create further stories in the game. The implication was that Staffers would read these and create stories just for your character at some point… but this promise was actually rarely fulfilled. However, that didn’t really matter—what was important about the application process is that a member of the game staff (sometimes folk of lesser authority or volunteers) would review the application and flag it either for further review or for someone of higher authority to check over and then grant access to the game. 

SR Seattle was unapologetically elitist about this approach. It was entirely intended to weed out casual players and retain only those were very passionate about the game, passionate about their character, and had a modicum of talent at being able to write and get across ideas that could grow into stories.

The chargen model embraced by SR Seattle and other places like it resulted in generally smaller playerbases than the World of Darkness games, but the people who did play did so in much more stable manner. People stayed around, and since you had spent so much effort on your character in the first place, character death became much more meaningful. Weeding out the casual folks also resulted in generally higher quality of roleplay, in that you could generally enter into any ongoing roleplaying scene with your character and expect to find some interesting stories to get involved in. Juvenile behavior and anything that didn’t match the genre was discouraged.

This is not to say that SR Seattle was some mecca of perfect roleplayers and writers… but it was certainly a step up from the MU* scene I had left behind a few years earlier. The 24/7 schedule of the MUX meant that I could log in and play anytime of the day or night, and the generally high level of roleplayers involved meant that my time was spent getting into some very rewarding stories. This period of time was right at the end of Shadowrun Second edition and extended into much of Third edition’s lifetime as well. I spent several years playing Shadowrun online, from about 1996 to 2003. My most well-known characters are probably Alita (Mouse), X’ian, and Reason, the latter two having been developed on Shadowrun’s sister game set in Detroit. If playing on TwoMoons had improved my typing skills and gave me a basic ability to write well, Shadowrun refined both these skills to the next level. Writing a single pose for Shadowrun could be quite a challenge, and there were times it seemed like there was quite a friendly competition in the game to see whom could write the most descriptive action for their character.

Unfortunately, the latest build of SR Seattle closed its doors in 2012. Farewell, old friend—you will be missed.

The MMO Connection

In case it isn’t clear from the rest of this article, there are many, many similarities and patterns in modern-day MMORPGs that have their roots solidly in the days of MUDs and MUSHes. Many influential designers in the MMORPG industry were once players, designers, and staff members of MUDs. I myself am a video game designer who’s done some MMORPG work, and I definitely credit my background in the textual realms for much of my own skills and development as a designer. I suspect I’m not alone—I believe that there’s quite a few people out there… dozens, maybe hundreds, possibly as many as thousands… who once upon a time, lived and breathed through words on their screen and adventured through the worlds of MU* games.


  1. when I was in college, I played on HeroMUD. :)

  2. I played 'NannyMUD' for 10 years - it's still actually up, in fact. I started in 1995, from our SINGLE internet computer in the highschool library.

  3. Played Cityof heroes fun fun, got started buy playing a Mud based one 1st.. =]

    Now Im playing Shadowmud. It's BAck!!!