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Roleplayability in Muds

by Tommi Leino

In the beginning of the computer-era, all output was plain text running up and down on a dumb terminal without any fancy control characters for positioning the text in the screen. At that time came Adventure, possibly the first adventure game ever, which was a single-user text-based game. It was much like a mud. It was room-based but it had no multiplayer capability. As the first of its genre it became quite popular.
Live Action Role Playing

The ultimate in character interaction.

The game was usually running on a server to which multiple dumb terminals were connected. An obvious question arose: what if all those who were playing the game simultaneously could see each other and interact? This idea was probably enough to lead to the birth of the first ever mud, a multi-user dungeon -- indirectly at least.

The Adventure game and others of its kind still share the same user interface with muds. Everything is text-based and centered around "rooms". A room can lead to various directions and it can have objects you can pick up, monsters you can kill or puzzles you can solve. The only difference between these games is that muds are capable of having multiple simultaneous users and thus lack a linear story or any kind of story at all. A good story always has a beginning and an ending. In a mud, if there would be an end to the story, it would also be the end of the mud which is not at all suitable for a multi-user environment.

Because of this, muds are usually divided to individual areas that have a linear story that can be "solved", but as there are other players in the game, they might want to solve that area's story too and thus the story must be reset after a certain period. As there can't be endless amounts of these stories, players may have to go through the same areas and stories more than once, otherwise they won't have anything to do any more. Because of this there has to be an advancement system as a carrot for keeping the players in the game, doing all these areas over and over again. Also, the areas must have variable difficulty levels. One has to do a certain amount of easier areas in order to survive in the harder areas. This introduces "newbie zoo"-like areas that can't even be called a story but just a training area from which players get the points needed for advancement by killing innocent rabbits and so on.

Without being able to interact with the other players, muds wouldn't have survived this far. They would have been consigned to history like Adventure is now. The interaction is not however the only point keeping the players playing, as explained above, they need a system they can play.

The definition for role playing varies depending on from who do you ask it. It may mean only a game where you control a character that is someone else than you in real life, but that would contain almost all the games in the industry thus we have to clarify the line a bit: A game where you can improve your character's skills instead of improving your own skills in most cases. This definition would however contain most of the muds, even when they say that they aren't role playing muds. That is because in these muds the emphasis is on improving the character's skill, not on the actual role playing in the definition in which it was first introduced.

The first role playing games ever was those you played using pen and paper, or even without those. They were practically only an improved form of story telling, in which you could participate in other means than just by listening. You could affect the direction of the story as it is told. This is the true definition of role playing.

Now, can you really shape the areas, the individual stories as you play them in a mud? Do you really even care to read the descriptions? You only see the carrot ahead, you must get your experience points or else it would be pointless to go through the same story once again.

There has been a lot of wannabe role playing muds out there. They have tried to hide the carrot ahead by converting numbers to verbal description so you would speak "I have above average STR!" instead of "I've got a STR 14!". This doesn't really solve the problem, it only may affect the way the people speak, but still the carrot is ahead and you really can't shape the story as in the real role playing games.

Trying to hide the numbers is a way of trying to force the players to role play. It doesn't really work as the players do not have any need to do so. Such games can only become painful to play as you have to think carefully what would your character say and try to role play well just in order to keep up the atmosphere even as you know the fact that you are only trying to get experience points and that is what all the others are doing around you. It is like hiding the truth, just wanting to do it in an another way because running around and killing monsters sounds just too stupid way how to teach your character to be a better fisher or whatever. This might be really the fact why the "Role playing Is Required" muds are not so popular as the ones purely concentrated on the actual playing without any excuses.

Removing the carrot doesn't work as does not work hiding the truth and forcing the players to role play instead of just playing the game. So what will work then? The only ways I can think of are just forgetting about muds and playing real role playing games in the IRC or in muds where you can talk in peace without getting yourself killed or the another way would be to simulate the game master needed in the role playing games correctly and not only trying it.

The way to simulate the game master is to make a world that is changeable and changeable by the players themselves. We must forget about the resetting areas, reboots and pre-defined stories as well as pre-defined character classes. There shouldn't be anything artificial. All should be controlled by the natural way. We do not need to make pre-defined and static stories as they will develop in time in the influence of the players if the world is made correctly. For this to truly work, everything must be changeable for real so in practice you would need to be able to burn cities or make new ones. Then here would be stories such as wars between two of the cities, trading, making alliances and such at the higher positions and if you would be just a beginner you would do things for the players in the higher positions or just for yourself, like being a mercenary, a messenger, a thief or whatever you would ever want to be. That is the only right way!

Tommi Leino is one of the developers of the Magik 3d gaming system.