The Inexplicable Allure of MUDs

Posted by on Tuesday, 21st September, 2010

In an age of high-definition graphics, motion-sensory game controllers, intense FPS shooters, and 3D interactive worlds, it may seem ridiculous to sing the praises of an ancient repetitive text-based game. But I have been a MUD addict for several years, and it’s time to break the silence.

MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon (or, sometimes, Dimension). They saw their heyday in the early and mid-1980s, when games like DOOM were just a pipe dream, and no one imagined we’d play them online. Using mere text (and ANSI color — oo, fancy!), these Zork-esque worlds gained a massive cult following. MUDs (and variants like MUSHes and MOOs) of all sorts sprang up and attracted huge swarms of eager gamers.

Today MUDs are obviously less popular, but a few of them still have significant active player bases. Aardwolf — my MUD of choice — usually has 200-300 players online at any given moment. Achaea is another active MUD, focusing more on role playing and character development. There are lively MUDs set in Middle Earth, the Star Wars universe, Discworld, and dozens of other well-known environs. The best MUD directory is TopMudSites.

WTF?

I can hear some people gnashing their teeth and/or sighing with pity for me. Some of you are surely asking: “Why would anyone spend time on these low-rent wastelands?” (When I first got into MUDs several years back, a friend scoffed: “The only people still MUDding are losers who want to bang an elf, and other losers pretending to be elves.”)

Actually, there are several reasons why I like to MUD. (Yes, it’s often used as a verb — this caused great confusion and ridicule toward me, when a student tried explaining his love for driving his truck through wet dirt and I thought I had found another fan of online text RPGs.)

Here’s why I love MUDs.

1. The Power of Words. While I love a good visually-appealing video game, there’s something uniquely attractive about text descriptions and linguistic visions. Just as books offer something special that movies and TV can’t provide, so too do MUDs tickle the brain in their own way.

2. No Money, No Problems. Most MUDs (including Aardwolf and Achaea) are totally free. Donating money to the developers (or immortals, as they immodestly call themselves) can bring special perks, but this is by no means necessary for success in the game. Considering the amount of love and work that goes into good MUDs, it’s quite impressive that they’re free to play.

3. OS: Original Sandbox. 20 years before GTAIII, the classic online game MUD1 was offering an open-world RPG environment that allowed users to explore, experiment, and expand. Those who showed skill and interest were invited to create new areas for the game, keeping content fresh. The MUDs of today have only gotten more involved. Achaea has 130 different areas to explore, many of them filled with unique quests and challenges. The cities are filled with NPCs (and PCs) who may offer a mission or adventure. Or, if you just want to get stronger, you can go out and bash orc heads to your heart’s content.

4. First MMORPGs, Too. MUD1 came out 24 years before WoW; MUDs have offered deep RPG elements (and online player-to-player connections) for decades. Aardwolf has 230 combat spells alone, each affecting monsters (and sometimes other players) in a different way. Chat channels like “Newbie” and “Question” provide instant help, and players can team up for advanced combat. Equipment auctions, social channels, and — when disaster strikes — corpse retrieval all add a superb layer of community as well.

5. Je Ne Sais Quoi. There’s something ethereal about the best MUDs that I can’t quite put my finger on. Aardwolf has an autoquest system that really makes me happy for some reason. (You go to the QuestMaster, he tells you to go kill a certain monster in a certain area. You get special points for special items, then wait 30 minutes to do it again.)

There’s also a part of my imagination activated by MUDs that doesn’t come alive with any other game type. As with stories and books, the reader is more involved with creating each scene, since it’s not all visually defined by someone else.

Obviously MUDs aren’t for everyone. In fact, I won’t be surprised or offended if everyone at VeteranGamers and G4TE and TCM and elsewhere considers me a total weirdo for spending so many hours in these arcane worlds.

But if you’d like to give it a shot, check out Aardwolf’s Introduction to MUDs. Once you get set up, be sure to FRIEND SCARTOL and we can team up for some orc bashing.

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8 Comments

  1. Aryianna says:

    I love that text based games are still alive after all this time. Immersion like no other graphic game can offer. I personally have played Avalon: The Legend Lives for 19 years now although it celebrated it’s 25th anniversary last year and is still going strong. It doesn’t matter if you’re there for intense PVP fighting, intricate algorithm legion warfare, commodity collecting, making life time friends and more! http://www.avalon-rpg.com

  2. Joshua Barrett says:

    What about the tinyMUDS?

  3. davedogg says:

    as far as i remember the mud at notts uni was called the wonderfully inventive name of “The Mud”

  4. DukeSkath says:

    Yeah the rogue games were ace, too.. I spent many many hours on one called Angband. Classic!

  5. Quanrian says:

    I’m not sure about every person wanting to “bang an Elf” but surely people need to have a strong desire for fantasy and enough imagination to not require graphics beyond the simplest form. At this time I believe the pinnacle is Dwarf Fortress, which not only has a sizeable and often fanatical following but has also spawned several iterations that often add that graphical goodness the more common folk desire. The key thing to remember about this particular sect of gaming is that the lack of restrictions because so much is pure imagination does open the door to concepts that might otherwise be unrealized. In other words, some of the most creative people I have known have been involved in a creative process such as a MUD. For a single player variant of this sector of gaming one can google Rogue games, which offer a veritable cornucopia of options at the expense of a punishing difficulty.

  6. Surface_Lizard says:

    Grand memories of MUDs. In my university days, we used to play a Call of Cthulhu MUD, in which I was either massacred, or went insane, with every character. As the library IT suite was open all night, it lead to some very prolonged MUD sessions indeed.

  7. Dave Dogg says:

    i can remember in the 80’s using an accustic coupler modem (watch the movie war games) and playing a MUD at nottinghamu university via a service called prestel it cost me aabout 10p/16c per min prestel fee the same for the phone call and if i remember right it was around £5 a month subscription as an outsider and i could only play at night. it was sheer bloody magic (at the time)

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