Escape from the Dungeon

... This is VERY draft, at the moment. I just wanted to get some substance in whilst I was in the mood to type and then correct it all and make it readable later. So please don't complain yet.


In 1991, I wrote an article called "Confessions of an Arch-Wizard" which has become the seminal guide for Arch-Wizards and multi user game managers ever since. I didn't think people still took much notice of it until I was asked by Sony if they could use it in their new game, Star Wars Universes.

The problem with Confessions is that it is very firmly aimed at Arch-Wizards and people who run their own games. Most people who are interested in the traditional level based Multi User Games usually end up as Wizards without much hope of ever becoming an Arch and there seems to be little of any sense written for them. There is also a problem that modern Arch-Wizards are very much a product of the new age and I suspect are incapable of even imagining a situation where Confessions could be set which means they have no context at all in which to understand it. With luck, this article will set a more concrete scenario and maybe make Confessions a little more easy to understand.

Richard Bartle wrote a very good article called "A Voice from the Dungeon" where he describes how the concept of a Wizard came about and it is with this legacy that the level based games usually end up stuck. Since this article is about the Essex University games, I thought it may be interesting to follow it up describing what happened next. I originally intended this to be more of an article about game-play and how I took over Essex and what led to me developing the "endgame" and the role of the wizard but I think that a lot of personal history and context may well be required to make this work... So let's see how it goes.

One Moment in Time.

In 1986, Essex University ran MUD on its DEC-10 computer. Not only was Essex MUD the only free MUD in the world, it was also the first, the original and by far the best. On weekdays, the free account opened up at 2am, British time and closed at 8am; at weekends you could play all day. Even given these restrictions, guaranteed to make its players look (and act) like antisocial vampires, it would be something of an understatement to say that Essex was popular. Because there was a shortage of lines into the DEC-10 it was usual for players to grab a line at about midnight and sit there typing "HELP" every 5 minutes until 2am so they didn't get disconnected. If they lost a line it could literally take hours to grab another unused one.

There were other multi user games though. Neil Newell had created a game called Shades one Christmas when MUD was closed that now ran on BT's Prestel/Micronet network and Compuserve ran a very slow and archaic version of Essex MUD called "British Legends". These were very expensive to play unless you used "hacked accounts" (which most players did!). There were some other pioneers that had written their own Multi User Dungeons as well, I wrote my first which was called MUCK (Multi User Computer Kingdom) in 1984 with a chap called Neil Burgess and a guy called Pip Cordrey had an online dial-up multi user game available for free that had its own small but loyal following.

All that aside, there was no mistake that Essex University's MUD was THE MUD. An Essex Arch-Wizard was the holy grail of MUDs. It always has been and it always will be. In these days where there are thousands of games available it is hard to envisage a time when there was only one free game that everybody wants to play, and even the ones who say they don't do really.

The Abyss.

I came to Essex MUD quite late. I had looked at it in 1983 to try and get some ideas for MUCK; I worked out how to login (not easy), I worked out how to load the game and... I got killed. I tried again, I got killed again and eventually, when people were bored of killing me, I tried to talk to a wizard about how the game worked and was told to bugger off and then killed again.

This was most people's initial experience of MUD and although at the time, I got disillusioned and spent the next two years running up a small fortune on my college's Prestel bill so I could play Shades... I always really wanted to be a MUD player. MUD was "real", Shades was nice, twee and somehow seemed very false and empty. I like Shades, don't get me wrong... But it was never a patch on MUD.

In 1986, I tried MUD again. I once more worked out how to login (this time it was a bit easier since I was on the same University Network) and proudly entered the game declaring to the world that I was back.

    * Someone tells you "Who cares?"
    A finger of death from Rick the Wizard has terminated you.

I re-evaluated my position and realised that perhaps nobody had missed me much in the last three years so I entered the game under a different name and kept my head down. It didn't work, I was killed within 2 minutes. THIS time though, I wasn't going to give in.

After a few days, people either got used to me or got bored of killing me. I learned to hide from Rick and I started to explore. It was fun but it wasn't easy. People didn't help that much, they had their own cliques and I wasn't part of one of them. After a while, I made a few friends and I got to know how things worked and I figured that rather than killing new people as they came in, I may actually talk to them and be nice, and perhaps, I could make my own clique full of new people. We wouldn't be a very formidable force but at least we could co-operate and talk. This approach worked well to the extent that quite a few of my "gang" started to progress well - Some even avoided being fodded by Rick.

I was still more interested in how the game worked though. I looked around on Essex and realised that MUD wasn't the only game. There were three others too. A game called ROCK, that was based on Fraggle Rock and didn't work at all well. A game called MIST that had been written by some students and was full of bugs and a game called UNI that was a multi user game based around Essex University. UNI looked to be the most interesting to me in that it used a lot of weird features and I could learn a lot more about the actual way the game worked. I was generally the only player ever on so that meant I rarely got killed too which was a good thing. It was on UNI that I met a MUD wizard called Rognog, a 15 year old boy who had been playing MUD since 1983 on a 300 baud modem; he taught me a lot about how the games worked whilst at the same time still being aloof and reasonably distant. In those days, Wizards didn't talk to mortals, and I was still somewhat in awe of the whole thing.

Meanwhile... On MUD, my gang was doing reasonably well, and I left them pretty much to it, talking mostly on bulletin boards and things whilst I learned my way around the other games. This went on for quite a few months, until one day in late 1987 we were told that MUD would shut down on the 30th of September. Richard Bartle had written a game called MUD2 that would be run by British Telecom and he was getting pressure from them to close Essex MUD. For a lot of us who considered getting a degree from university to be somewhat secondary to getting our MUD fixes this was somewhat devastating news.

October of 1987 was chaos. The MUD account was deleted, but the guest account on Essex University remained open. I guess it wasn't causing any trouble so they simply left it. ROCK, UNI and MUD all ran from the MUD account so they had gone but... MIST ran from a student account and it was still playable. The old MUD players didn't know this of course, they had never looked much outside of their own game and when MUD went, so did they. My little "gang" by then was quite large, and we talked on bulletin boards outside of Essex so, I told people how to access MIST. I eventually learned how to put a notice up on the GUEST account telling people how to play and within a couple of weeks, MIST had become an alternative to MUD but without a lot of the old MUD players who no longer had their wizards and intimate knowledge of the game. In fact, the only person with a reasonably good knowledge of the game at that point was me, and MIST was not very good as a game in its own right.

MIST was a game, roughly set in a Medieval England where small accidents of time had left the odd modern weapon lying around. It was designed to be a nasty game, where combat was important but some degree of co-operation was also required. Whereas MUD was a game in which you could, in theory (though rarely in practice) simply amble around the game, exploring and learning, MIST was a game where if you stopped to stroke a rabbit it would probably eat you. Fundamentally, it was great... It had all the elements if a good multi user game and it had been written quite well however, the people who had written it were guessing a lot of what they were doing and because there had been very little actual testing of it as a game, it was by no means at all perfect.

It didn't take long for the flaws in MIST to become very obvious. Using various bugs, you could quite literally make yourself a wizard in a couple of minutes. In MIST, you dropped treasure into a pit to score points and in my favourite bug, you could actually get below the pit, and pick up everything that people had dropped and then continually drop it and re-collect it to score points. It was lovely really. Eventually all of my little gang had Wizards and I started to learn whole new aspects of the game. Because I had been the first person to befriend a lot of the current players when they started as novices on MUD, I was considered to be the "elder" now; despite the fact that there were much older MUD players around, they had very little respect due to their "better than all of you lot" attitudes. I was faced with a game where anybody could make wizard in a few minutes and people were looking at me to try and tell them what to do. Well... What else could I do, I got myself a crown from the wizards store, and proudly declared myself king; whereupon somebody forced me out of wizard mode and shot me with the shotgun and I came back as a novice, without a crown. As a small aside, my wizard on MIST was called Rmstar, and not Lorry - The reason for this was that Rick (remember him) had fodded Lorry a long time earlier and set a new password on it just so that I couldn't play. I think my habit of logging on as Prick upset him for some reason.

The accidental advent of an End Game.

Over the next few months I got a little better at protecting my crown but there were much bigger problems than that. I wanted a game back and not just an anarchistic free-for-all as MIST had become. It was now two distinctive games; the mortals who didn't know how to cheat (or in come cases, didn't want to) played their own game, without any interference from wizards at all and the wizards played their own game of politics backed up by force and "gangs". It would take a few minutes to cheat a wizard but, you had to do it without being spotted... You could be forced out of wizard mode and killed with one of the one hit weapons (usually the shotgun, the chainsaw or the poleaxe) so if you lost any attention you were likely to die. This is where it helped to have friends to back you up... If anyone shot me, they knew they would be killed by 5 people within 10 seconds and I would be helped straight back up. It wasn't perfect, but it was workable. Despite what you may read in Confessions (which is written from a very aloof and lofty standpoint) this concept of an end-game where wizards were players as well became the central ethos of MIST.

In all other games, once you made wizard, the game pretty much ended for you. You were one of the immortals, you could sit safely on some cloud watching mortals play away and help or interfere as your whims took you that day. In MIST, if you sat on a cloud, somebody would have set fire to it.

These early days of MIST coloured my view for ever. I honestly don't see the point of being a wizard in most games that followed except to stand there and say how wonderful you are. People played MUDs for the excitement, the exploration, the fighting and the fun and uncertainty and when you look at MUD or SHADES or the other games, you simply have a bunch of wizards sitting around doing nothing, getting so bored at times they end up having the equivalent of a "quiz" to keep them and (they assume) the players amused. It's meant to be a game set in a barbaric land, it's meant to be about power and killing people - you don't just stop and have a bloody quiz about pop songs in the middle of all that!

A few things happened in 1988. I made a deal with Rick Blake at Essex that if I made sure that people were generally good we could keep the guest account and MIST and finally somebody came along with access to the MIST code base. This was Simon Smith and together, we started work on what was to become MIST2. I mended all the bugs and Simon added a lot of new rooms. I started playing as Roy the Arch-Wizard because we didn't have the code to compile in new ones and we finally removed the complete anarchy from the game. What I firmly decided not to remove though was the end-game. I wiped the MIST personae files and everybody had to start from scratch except for a few in my original clique of MUD novices and later MIST wizards who I needed to run the game. Some people who knew the game made wizard, I watched them, I worked out places where it was too easy and I rewrote lots of the game again. I then killed them all over again and did this until I was happy that MIST could stand up against MUD as a real game in its own right. Then... I sat back and watched to see what would happen.

What happened, was not what I intended. The good players made wizard and at first, they spent a while being a tad evil but then, inevitably I would catch them in home discussing who won the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest so that they could pop it in as a question in their next quiz. They started to treat the mortals as people to be looked down on and basically they became MUD wizards. This wasn't what I wanted at all, by this point MIST was developing its own personality and reputation making it one of the best multi player games there was and my wizards were about to destroy it all by having pop quizzes instead of nightly blood-fests. They needed a severe kicking, and after a while, I decided to kick them.

I changed MIST so that there was a gap between mortals and wizards, the Arch-wizards were told to make sure that it wasn't that easy to make wizard and I doubled the number of points required and at the same time made the game harder to play as well. I also made sure that players would really have to have been around a good few months and played well as a mortal to make the rank of wizard. Then... I started on the wizards. Although the wizards didn't have to go around collecting treasure and scoring points any more, they did have to "play the game". MIST became a game where wizard's intervention was part of the game, a required object may not even be in the main game any more if it was more amusing to let the wizards sort out who should get it in some mischievous way. Although I was not a fan of role playing at all, the wizards by necessity became a cross between dungeon-masters and intelligent mobiles. Although MIST had no written rules, it was generally known that if a wizard didn't play the game as I wanted it, they wouldn't last very long. Of course, it wasn't all as simple as that, to make it more "fun" for them I had to inject a huge amount of power politics and randomness but that was all part of the end-game. Ultimately, their aim was to make it to the level of "Maintainer Wizard" which was the highest rank anyone could play to and was given mostly for being a good wizard who understood well how MIST worked and differed from anything else.

Reading "Confessions of an Arch-Wizard", the game sounds far more random that it really was. Most of what I did was done to make the game playable as both a mortal and a wizard and by doing that ways I effectively ended up running two games with the people on one of them managing the people in the others. As an Arch-Wizard I was mostly concerned with the mortals - A new novice in the game was my most valuable player and over time a lot of the code in MIST became geared towards protecting their first few days experience. The wizards were "advised with extreme prejudice" to keep an eye on them. I would rather lose 10 wizards than have a single novice share the same experience as I did in 1983. At the same time, I had to maintain the whole ethos of MIST as a violent and "unfair" game - It was an interesting juggling act that most people managed to completely miss.

Escape from the MIST.

MIST wasn't the only game I ran. Although not heavily advertised I bought MUD1 back to Essex in about 1989 and ran it for a couple of years for a dedicated few. I was surprised personally that given the choice, people would rather play MIST than MUD. My management style in MUD wasn't appropriate so I basically ignored the game. I finally got my revenge on Rick, the Wizard who fodded me years earlier in MUD by making him an Arch-Wizard and letting him run it. I also ran a really old version of MUD I found on a DEC-10 in Sweden. I very rarely saw anybody ever play it, but it was nice to have a "legitimate" copy of MUD running somewhere.

By this point I was also nominally managing a game called VAXMUD in Lampeter, and I had also taken over a new game called AberMUD that two of my wizards, Anarchy (Alan Cox) and Moog (Richard Acott) had originally written at Aberyswyth University and Alan was now converting to Unix at Southampton University. Alan ended up taking a year out so I took on AberMUD and roped in a couple of programmers in to help keep the thing maintained and expanded. AberMUD ran at different times than MIST and was generally shut down at 2am so that people could then go to Essex but somehow the management style from MIST never quite managed to translate properly to AberMUD. I think my problem with AberMUD is that it felt too much like a single-user game that had been converted to be multi user whereas MUD and MIST were very firmly written to be multi-user from the very start. In 1991, I sent a copy of AberMUD to Vijay Subramaniam and Bill Wisner (our only two American MIST wizards) and as far as MUDs being generally available to the world, the rest is history which oddly isn't true for the credits in AberMUD since a huge amount of the original authors were removed somewhere. If nothing else, I have always tried to give credit when it is due.

Essex had also acquired a couple of new games. I had bought ROCK back for Rognog (who was still around, but now a little older) and two students at Essex (Bret Giddings and Richard Thombs) had written a new game called LAND from Scratch. It was actually quite a good game but it was unfortunate that it had to compete with MIST. Some of the players who didn't like my management style played it for a while but they soon got bored.

On January the 31st, 1991, Essex University closed the DEC-10 and with it, MIST and MUD1. MUD1 had a worthy successor in MUD2 which by now was doing fairly well and I had to take a decision about MIST. I had some Unix software that somebody had written years earlier to run MUD1 and I had a VMS driver that could easily have run MIST as a proper game but, times were changing. AberMUD was spreading around the world and following it, TinyMUD and various other oddly named versions of pretty much the same old thing. The days of a single, huge and centrally managed game were over and MIST was firmly a relic of those days. People didn't want to play MUD at Essex and even in the last months of MIST people were leaving the game to play some new game that had popped up and would be dead within a week and if a game of MIST's strength was starting to lose its grip then what hope was there for it a few years on when it was already nearing its tenth Birthday. I eventually took the decision to shut down MIST and not bring it back again.

It is now nearly 13 years on from me shutting down MIST and although I haven't been too closely involved with anything to do with muds for years it is interesting to see how things have changed. I have yet to see a traditional game that has adopted MIST's idea of an endgame.

I am not too sure where this article went. It was intended to fill in some of the gaps from Richard's "Voice from the Dungeon" and also to explore a little more about the concept of a wizard's game. With luck it achieved that and with luck I will get around to tidying it up soon!

Michael Lawrie. 2003.12.03


Since this seems to have become a history of MUDs, I should also mention CornMUD. CornMUD was the most advanced game of its kind ever written. It ran at Cornwall Agricultural College on their large VAX systems and it was loosely based on a feudal Baronial land with Knights, Serfs, Kings and a full blown class system. The game was run by Lorry the Arch-Farmer and jam packed with the latest in artificial intelligence driven mobiles. A lot was written about CornMUD and a lot of people talked about how they were doing but it has to be admitted, 18 years on that there never was such a game, and as far as I know there is no such place as Cornwall Agricultural College and if there is, they certainly weren't on the Academic Network. The amusing thing about CornMUD was just how well the legend spread in academic circles, despite there being no more to it than occasional discussions of tactics on bulletin boards and the rare posted log of an Arch-Farmer burning down somebody's small-holding.

To this day, when I am in a cynical mood, I consider CornMUD to be my greatest contribution to the world of Multi User Games and I still defy anybody to write a better game than it was!

I also once also wrote a Footnote to Confessions of an Arch-Wizard which may be of interest.

This page is looked after by Michael Lawrie.