A post about MUDs.

Full disclosure: I am not a game developer.

MUD stands for Multi User Dungeon. MUD’s are basically multiplayer text adventures, often bearing similarities to early roguelikes. Remember your favorite choose-your-own-adventure books when you were a kid? It’s like that, but with other people. No graphics, just text.

I’m going to preface this post by describing basically two core game mechanics for two different types of games, roguelikes and… whatever the hell genre Dwarf Fortress is.

Roguelikes, of course, are coming back into popularity these days. They often have elements of permadeath, which injects a sense of ‘risk’ in every session. In Escape From Tarkov (not a roguelike, ofc) you drop all of your loot on the ground when you die in a raid. With a persistent economy outside of actual gameplay, this loot you’re trying to escape with has value. It makes dying mean something.

Similarly, in roguelikes, you often lose your loot (from now on I’ll refer to loot as resources, because it means different things in different games) when you die. In souls-like games (Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Elden Ring) you drop your resources on the ground, and have an opportunity to retrieve them on your next playthrough. This idea creates the emotional and mechanical system that encourages play. Scarce resources that can be gained or lost based on perceived fair gameplay.

I note fair here, but I don’t think that that means fair all the time. I think occasionally if you inject unfairness for the purposes of surprise, or augmenting the emotional investment of the player, you can do unfair things that improve the gameplay experience.

Remember, any emotional change in a person is often a good sign you’re on to something. This holds true across disciplines.

All of this to say, this genre of games is able to produce interesting interactions with players. Limited resources taken away or given based on gameplay. You really don’t want to lose. If I just make it to the next save point, phew, I’ll be able to level up and all of this will be worth it. Damn it I died, I have to try again and get my resources back.

Being able to produce these emotional responses in a player is very interesting to me.

Second, the holy grail, Dwarf Fortress. If you haven’t heard of Dwarf Fortress, it’s the hardest most interesting game you’ll ever play. Part of that difficulty stems from a nearly unusable UI. Zach and Tarn Adams, the creators of DF, said that they’d address the UI at a later time in it’s development. They said “perhaps in twenty years”. And indeed, the original release of DF was on August 8th, 2006. 15 years ago.

An incredible amount of time, given the churn and burn of modern gaming. It often feels like a game is released and dropped from support within the first few weeks.

Oh yeah, it’s also been inducted into the MOMA.

If I had to play only one game for the rest of my life, I would choose DF. The amount of detail in this game is incredible. NPC’s don’t have hitpoints, they have vital functions. Hearts and legs and eyes and eyelids.

DF can do something that not a lot of other games have ever done: surprise me.

You see, all of these individual systems that they’ve built, they can interact in unexpected ways. The first few minutes of the following video does a great job of illustrating the mind-numbing complexity of Dwarf Fortress.

One time, one of my dwarves went crazy, locked himself in a room with a child dwarf, killed it, ate it, and then produced a masterwork legendary wooden chest.

What the fuck.

And so, what does this have to do with MUDs and why am I talking about game mechanics and why does it all matter at all just play whatever games you have fun playing.

Well, that’s sort of the point. I’ve started working on a MUD. But I decided that I really wouldn’t want to play a game that I can’t enjoy myself. I don’t want to play something that can’t surprise even me, the creator. So how do you design a system with roguelike elements, that can surprise even the author, with emergent gameplay elements? What does that look like?

Let’s find out.