MUD HITS THE FANBored with ordinary adventure games? So was Steve Mansfield. until one dark night ...
Dying in mud isn't everyone's way of spending a pleasant evening. But to keen adventurers, mud - or rather MUD - is something they would kill for, and frequently do. I've even killed people myself.
Before you call the cops, let me explain. The Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) is an online adventure, a strange and fabulous land on the other end of the phone, available to anyone with a suitable micro, modem, comms software and healthy bank balance.
In fact, there are several versions around. The one we're mainly concerned with here is a version known as MUD2, run as a commercial enterprise by a company called Multi-User Entertainment Ltd (MUSE).
The game started on a mainframe at Essex University. Intended mainly for the students, it soon became a favourite of hackers, and many bulletin boards still carry message sections - often called The Swamp for reasons which will become apparent - dedicated to hints and tips on the game.
The same version has also appeared on Compunet (for Commodore users). But for the MUSE MUD the original authors enhanced the game, with more locations and more features.
The main attraction of the game is indicated by its name. As you travel around the lavishly described locations you will often meet other players, or rather their dramatis personae, with names ranging from the amusing to the ludicrous, and most sounding like refugees from Lord of the Rings. And although the majority of the characters you meet are real, or at least invented by real people, there are also computer created characters called mobiles.
If it's a live person behind the persona you can take the opportunity to talk, plot or, if you're feeling less than sociable, score points by killing him, her or it. Wholesale slaughter isn't recommended, however. Many tasks require the help of another person. And you never know when your opponent is going to turn out stronger than you - or is carrying a particularly nasty weapon.
Talking is easier. Anything you type between quote marks is heard by everyone else in the same location. If you think your words are so important that everyoneshould hearthem you can shout, and so make your thoughts known to everyone playing the game. Too much shouting isn't recommended, though, as it can upset some very powerful people.
PRICE AND CONTACT DETAILSMUSE runs frequent special offers. At the time of writing, a starter pack costs £4.95 which includes ID, password, manual and three hours free playing time, with follow up credits lasting 12 minutes instead of the normal six. Normally credits cost £10 for 50 but get cheaper if you buy in bulk. For details of MUD subscriptions, contact MUSE Ltd, 6 Albermarle Way, London EC1V 4JB. Tel: 01-608-1171.
WHAT YOU NEEDMUD can be accessed at a variety of speeds - 1200/75, 1200/1200 and 300/300 - although the faster speeds are recommended if you want to keep up with the other players. As well as a modem, you will also need scrolling terminal software (as opposed to the Prestel-type viewdata format), and an account!
What's the point of all this wandering and mayhem? Well, it's to score points by killing and collecting treasure, making your way up through the ranks from novice to Wiz -Wizard or Witch, depending on the sex of your character.
Each player is allowed up to three personae, each of which starts as a novice fighter. As the points build up you are promoted to ever more exalted ranks with increasing powers.
Should you perform an heroic deed you change from a fighter to a magic user, with the same battling abilities but increased magical powers.
There is one level beyond Wiz - the rank of Arch Wizard - but that honour is bestowed only at the discretion of the people who run the game.
Some players have already made it to Wizard by playing all night every night. And they have tended to play in the small hours of the morning when there are fewer competitors for treasure and fewer people to kill them.
Wizards and Arch Wizards have interesting powers. They can examine other peoples' screens, help them or hinder and generally do what they want. As a novice you may find yourself being summoned by a Wiz to carry out some menial task. It's really hard on the ego, I can tell you.
Wizzes are also immortal, which is all very nice for them but not so good for you if you find yourself fighting one. But above all they are useful, if you treat them right. On one journey I met an Arch-Wizard who made me glow. It came in very handy when I was searching around an unlit cellar.
If a Wiz really takes a fancy to you, he or she may decide to kiss you. Don't worry. It doesn't mean you have to get married. It's just a pleasant Wiz's way of bestowing gratuitous points on you.
The other main Wiz function is to police the system. Any Wiz can reset the game if the treasure is running low. And anyone shouting abuse or obscenities, or generally making a nuisance of themselves, can be thrown out of the game or into jail - the only way out of which is to turn off your modem.
Magic is the most important ingredient of MUD. Everyone can cast spells. You can summon other players to your location, silence players, force them to do your bidding, spy on them and, as the ultimate sanction, point the Finger of Death. However a novice and those lower down the scales have fairly limited powers with little chance of spells succeeding.
Those all-important points are scored by killing people and other creatures, many of them computer-created figures. I scored my first points by fighting a raven that insisted on flapping around my head. Having given the instruction to fight, remembering to specify a weapon, if you have one, the computer weighs the odds between you and your opponent and then starts throwing the digital equivalent of a dice. If the decision goes against you, your stamina is reduced. This can happen many times before one character's stamina reaches zero and he or she dies.
If you're lucky the odds will be in your favour and you'll win without expending too much energy. If you're unlucky you'll be killed. Many causes of death allow you to restart from where you left off, although any treasure or weapons you were carrying might be irrecoverable. But being killed by other players or mobiles usually puts you beyond reincarnation. You lose all your points to date and it's back to being a novice.
The more sedate way of scoring is to collect treasure. This is scattered around The Land and is often found in the most unlikely and unromantic places - like potties. Once you have the treasure you convert it into points by dumping it in a place known fondly as The Swamp. This is comparatively easy to find - instead of typing the normal directions, like North, South, Up and In, you just repeatedly type Swamp until you get there.
Unfortunately life is not always so simple. Apart from the fact that you might be killed by an ogre that got out the wrong side of The Swamp that morning, the treasure might not be where you think it is. Just because you found a jewel in a potty one day does not mean it will be there the next time. Someone may well have beaten you to it.
That's one of the main differences between MUD and an ordinary adventure game, and it's what gives the game its extraordinary realistic feel. Nothing in MUD is ever predictable as you are always competing with other players.
When most of the treasure has been collected the game is reset. It means that you're thrown out while the system sorts itself out, but when you go back in again there is all that treasure waiting for you.
It can cause a few frustrations, however. Several times I've started playing the game only to have it reset after a few minutes, sometimes after I've collected some hard-earned treasure but haven't had the opportunity to get to the swamp. And unless you feel like hanging around for a few minutes, doing nothing except run up a phone bill or chat to other idling players, the only course of action it to log off and try later.
Every time you score your current status is saved, but not your location. Indeed, you always start the game from the same place - an Elizabethan tearoom, where you can sip tea and laze around (much to the delight of British Telecom) before entering The Land proper. It's only when you're in The Land that time charging starts.
When you do venture into the game, there's no telling exactly where you'll find yourself. What you can rely on, if you're a beginner, is that much of the treasure will already have disappeared into the hands of more experienced players. It's tough to get started!
Outside the game there are other interesting areas. There is a Post Office where you can send electronic mail to other players, and hopefully get some back. And there's the saloon bar where you can chat to others, using similar conversation techniques to those in the game, while waiting for the game to reset.
All of this didn't happen without a struggle. MUD was launched at the PCW show last year with the promise that it would be running shortly afterwards. As it happened it was some weeks before eager people like me, who'd bought starter packs at the show, could access the game. When we did we found it was exceptionally slow, full of bugs and prone to crashes.
To their credit, MUSE made the game free to the original players while the main bugs were being ironed out, and even when charging started it was at half rate for a while.
You pay for the game by buying credits, which can be done by post or online using a credit card. These are time credits which normally last six minutes.
It's taken a long time for the speed bugs to be completely erased. It was around June when software engineers were called in to track down the bugs that were thought to be in the Pascal code's garbage collection routines. After that the game has speeded up to the point where responses are almost immediate.
Even with the technical glitches solved there are still problems with the game - just ask the spouse of any high-ranking player. It's so damn addictive. You can almost sense the BT executives rubbing their hands with glee as another poor soul spends four or five hours on the phone one night trying to reach Wiz, only to be killed half way.
If this has whetted your appetite and you decide to join, I'd appreciate it if you would avoid killing a character called Lono. It's me, and I hate dying, even in MUD.
OTHER GAMESMUD isn't the only multi-user game around. There are others run on smaller computers, sometimes with only a few telephone lines attached, but often much cheaper - even free in some cases. Some of these games are in the development stage and will become more expensive when fully up and running.
21st January 1999: msxoct86.htm