The RPG Scrollbars: Night Never Falls On Discworld*

So, this week sees the publication of the final Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. I’m not going to talk too much about that, or the tragic death of Sir Terry Pratchett earlier this year. I doubt I’ll ever be a good enough writer to express even half of what I’d like to say about his work or passing, and I don’t think it’s my place to even try.

That being said, it only seems fitting to try and grapple back a little joy from the bastard grip of sadness – as another wise writer once said, shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased. This week then, let’s refute a little entropy by taking a visit to the Discworld MUD – a glorious living tribute that deserves to be known for its own merits too.

(* Except when the sun goes down, obviously. But only for a while, so it’s fine.)

For those joining us in the last decade or so, MUD stands for ‘multi-user dungeon’. They were the proto-MMORPGs, with the likes of Everquest once referred to as ‘DikuMUDs’ after a particular flavour. They’re a bit like playing a classic text adventure, such as Zork, with a few major differences – they run in real-time, are generally roleplaying games full of stats and with combat systems and the like, and of course, there are other players. Kind of in the name, that one. Pretty much every major developer in MMORPGs started off playing MUDs, and much of the terminology stuck. ‘Conning’ monsters for instance, to see how likely they were to turn you into a splatter of goo if you picked a fight with them, stems from the command ‘consider’. When we call enemies ‘mob’s, it comes from the term ‘mobile’ – self-moving NPCs of old.

While not really talked about any more, many MUDs do still tick along. Skotos has been running a set of commercial ones since 1999, and you can find lots of others on sites like this one. Probably best not to search for ‘MUD play’ though, that’ll give you very different responses. Generally, active modern MUDs have very small but devoted communities that are generally open to new players, but expect them to respect rules when it comes to things like roleplaying characters and not, for instance, just grabbing a sword and trying to kill everything. Not that this will usually work anyway, as a new player will get splattered faster than an annoying fly. It’s worth spending some time reading the rules and getting an idea for what each is trying to offer before jumping in.

On the one hand, the Discworld MUD is easy to get started in. There’s a lengthy, not-very Discworldy tutorial at the start, which you really, absolutely, no-kidding need to follow if you’ve never played one of these games before. At the same time though… well, how to describe the scale? I know. Picture Ankh-Morpork in your mind. Imagine how it might be presented in game form. You’re probably thinking of a few key locations, like Sator Square and the Mended Drum and the Shades and the Tanty. But that’s okay, right? You know your way around. How big can it be, really?

This is just part of the Ankh-Morpork map.

And here’s the thing. Ankh Morpork is a teeny-tiny little scrap of the game. Over the years, the Discworld MUD players have built pretty much the whole damn thing. There’s a lot of empty bits that aren’t covered of course, but if you want to hop on a coach from Ankh-Morpork to Lancre, you can do that. You can visit places not even seen in the books, like Bes Pelargic and Howondaland. You can head to Genua, where the Coffee Nostra will send hitmen after players who offend them, and baristas will refuse to serve coffee if you’re rude. You can even… if you’re particularly suicidal… opt to start the game in Uberwald, not far from Dontgonearthe Castle, where vampires and werewolves roam. Just about everything you expect from the books has been added at some point, be it Holy Wood (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, canonically, but sssh) or the cheery Thank You For Not Plundering Our City sign by the Ankh-Morpork gates.

Somewhat inevitably, the scale of it means you’re not likely to bump into many people by accident. At the time of writing, there were only about 70 players online. That’s not a huge problem though, thanks to the very active NPCs. If a torch goes out in one of the guilds, someone will be along shortly to relight it. Each guild and area has its own set of characters, reacting and responding to what you do. In Genua for instance, the people get annoyed with you for crimes like tomb raiding or sitting on the wrong benches. Elsewhere, singing the Hedgehog Song can be a broken-leg worthy offence (as well as a weapon against characters without earmuffs). You’ll also find a lot of familiar faces while exploring, and achievements for doing so – tracking down all the Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler variants in the different cities for instance. Quests too, if you’re into that kind of thing, you helpful or avaricious soul, you.

Finding all of this isn’t easy, to put it mildly. Luckily the main wiki is excellent, with guides to all of the content and useful extras like the Accessibility Guides that focus on navigating and finding key landmarks. It’s also possible to call up on your fairy godmother for assistance at any time, who will warp you back to your starting location (the Mended Drum in Ankh-Morpork) or return you to life if you die and can’t find any priests around. In one of the biggest deviations from standard Discworld lore, resurrection is easily had (and Death a bit of a git, honestly), but it’s not something you want to do on a regular basis. As well as costing a lot of character progress, past a certain point you have to buy lives and will die for real if you run out.

Even with a wiki, and some handy features like being able to see an ASCII map of each area, getting started isn’t easy. Discworld MUD offers a vast amount of freedom and flavour, but you’re often left fighting against that and the parser to get things done. This isn’t a criticism so much as a casual warning; it’s a game that expects you to type exactly what it expects rather than one that will bend over backwards to get what you mean. In the Mended Drum for instance, there’s a bulletin board. Type ‘read bulletin board’ and you’ll get the message “A bulletin board [40 notes] does not have anything written on it.” You have to type ‘look at bulletin board’ to read the content. This is a big reason why it’s worth spending some time in the tutorial area, where the NPCs explain everything in great detail, even if it is a bit bland and not remotely Disc-y.

Once in the main game things pick up immediately. A little like Death’s personality, not everything in the game rings particularly true to the Discworld style. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Granny and Nanny Ogg talking in terms of magic ‘taliswomen’ for instance. That’s being pretty picky though, and overall what stands out is what an amazing job the MUD does of not only recreating but breathing life into the world. It’s almost embarrassing to look at how much NPC banter there is, how much the world reacts and how much of it there is in comparison to mainstream MMOs where characters have nothing better to do with their time than stand around. In addition, while some of the broad strokes are diluted by the needs of the MUD, where possible the implementers have pulled things back. The idea of a Witches Guild for instance is clearly nonsense given how witches work, but in deference to the characters, it works a bit differently to the others – in particular, with no ranks. Instead, the only way for a player to check a witch’s power is to look closely and count the number of warts.

Locations vary heavily in terms of detail, but in general Discworld MUD goes out of its way to try and give everywhere a sense of place and lavish description. There’s so many wonderful little touches in there, from the Thieves Guild having a collection of stolen underwear from the Assassins, to the tongueless bell of Old Tom regularly rippling its silences over the city and watchmen reacting with cries of “Uh… many o’clock un’ all is well!’, to being able to visit the Dysk on the Isle of Gods and take in a show written by players and performed by NPCs.

At this point I want to break up the text with a picture, but that doesn’t work so well with all-text games. Instead then, for no particular reason, here’s a shot of the time Eye of the Beholder III invented the goatse. No, no, it’s okay. You’re welcome.

If you’re willing to deal with the kind of learning curve that would make Dark Souls cry, or simply feel like taking a poke around some familiar haunts in a way that none of the official games ever came close to, you really should check the Discworld MUD out. It’s one of the best fan projects for anything that you’ll find, and may it live until at least the robots rise and kill us all. Ideally longer, if they have good taste in fantasy.

You don’t need a dedicated TELNET client to play (though one won’t hurt, clicking Play Now on the main page will pop up one in your web browser) and creating a character is as easy as picking a name and password. Definitely keep the wiki in a browser window, though at least the odds of your tourism burning the city down are, it seems, pretty low.

33 Comments

  1. Thurgret says:

    It’s a couple years since I last played this – my MUDing time now goes to one based on the Harn setting – but I return to it every now and then, and it’s just splendid. For those interested in checking it out, I would quite recommend getting MUSHclient first (it’s free). It’s an easy to use telnet client, and generally just made Discworld easier for me.

  2. Llewyn says:

    How delightful to see this here. It’s been a long time since I’ve played actively (9 years & 185 days apparently) but I still have very fond memories of the place, and of the real life drinking and travel that surrounded it. Not to mention a few staunch friendships that have survived the intervening years and my general social apathy. Good gods, nearly 10 years!?

    There’s a great deal to admire in what’s been – over the 24(?) years the place has been running – created, torn down, re-created, built on, re-written and endlessly tinkered with. But there’s a lot more to admire about the people who’ve done it – not only the legions who’ve written all that content, but also the hugely dedicated smaller number who’ve built and refined some wonderful systems on top of the original basics, and who’ve kept the whole thing evolving in a largely consistent direction.

    Only 70 players though? That’s somewhat saddening. I remember login queues.

    One last thing, part of the class of Pterry was that instead of having this thing shut down, he used to play occasionally at least in the early days.

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      Harlander says:

      We live in the twilight of the MU*. I bet 70 players is one of the higher turnout numbers for these kind of games these days. A shame…

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        Qazinsky says:

        Now, it was a few years since I last played Aardwolf, but if there is one mud that could have more than 70 players still, I’d guess Aardwolf would be it.

      • udat says:

        Three Kingdoms, the MUD that I spent most of my waking hours at university playing, still seems to be doing ok. In the hours when the USA is awake it often has over 100 players. http://www.3k.org if you want to take a look. It’s got 3 “realms” of Fantasy, Chaos, and Sci-Fi and guilds/character classes associated with all 3, so you can have cybernetically enhanced guys fighting alongside necromancers.

        • malkav11 says:

          I didn’t spend as much time on 3K as many (in part because I never really got very close with the community, in part because I was obsessed with trying to solve the quests and they were brutal), but that’s definitely one of the MUDs that deserved to still be a thing. So many cool ideas. Like the Juggernaut Guild, who were insanely tanky, had almost no offensive capabilities, and really didn’t care that much because the guild experience came from taking damage (and GXP was way more important most of the time than regular XP). And if you did need to actually kill things in a reasonable time frame, well, not too many people gonna turn down a power-armored tank.

  3. MrFinnishDude says:

    Terry’s death wasn’t really that “tragic”, he died in his own home with his family after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He wasn’t a man who was afraid of Death, instead he greeted him like an old friend. Saying that his death was tragic would be unfair to the man. A great loss to the world, yes, but not that tragic at all.

    • PancakeWizard says:

      The Alzheimer’s makes it pretty damn tragic. He didn’t die that old, and his mind was one of the keenest we had. How is that not tragic?

      • trn says:

        Agreed. If he’d been 95 and died of natural causes it would have been a lot less tragic. Alzheimers is a horror and any death it causes, directly or indirectly is a tragedy.

      • MrFinnishDude says:

        Well, the Alzheimer was tragic. His death, however, was not. He was diagnosed with it in 2007 I think, and when he died he still had his mind mostly intact. If he had survived even more years his mind would have probably deteriorated to a point where he would have gotten an euthanasia. He saw death as a natural thing that should not be feared. “Don’t fear the reaper” was his motto.

    • theblazeuk says:

      EVEN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE THINGS IS A TRAGEDY TO THOSE LEFT BEHIND. *cough*.

    • rondertaker says:

      ACTUALLY

  4. Chiron says:

    Sounds amazing, my hat is off to those who’ve put such hard work into it.

    Sadly the parsing errors and exact terms needing to be written has always held me back from text adventures so I’ve always bounced off them.

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      Harlander says:

      Hmm… makes me think about tab completion as a feature of MUD clients.

      I’m sure I’ve seen custom ones for various MU* that give you a set of graphical buttons for commands, too.

      • Llewyn says:

        Yes, there were certainly UIs (I think as extensions to Mushclient and the other popular one whose name escapes me) towards the end of my MUDding time, though I’ve no idea whether any are still developed/supported.

        DW (and I assume other MUDs) also support aliases and nicknames (as do most clients), including at least some support for variables. It’s not necessary to deal with long-winded commands on a regular basis if you’d prefer to shorten them. For example as a Thief something I might do regularly in combat is “abscond and ambush” to try to duck out of combat and lay an ambush in an adjacent location. No-one wants to type this while fighting in real-time, so “alias aa abscond % and ambush” would allow me to lay future ambushes with “aa e” or “aa d” for example.

        It’s a text-heavy game, there’s no getting away from that, but it was built to be as accessible as possible.

    • Thurgret says:

      MUDs tend to have pretty standardized commands for a lot of stuff, and the helpfiles in this one are, as I recall, extensive, in case something does trip you up.

  5. theblazeuk says:

    I will never stop being moved whenever I see a brief glimpse of the clacks every now and again at the top of my browser. I would dearly love it if RPS kept the name alive. link to gnuterrypratchett.com

  6. Gilead says:

    I used to be on the Discworld MUD quite a lot, although towards the end it was mostly to use the chat channels so I could talk to the people I’d got to know over the years.

    Maybe I should go back, but it would be kind of depressing to return and find no familiar players online.

    I wonder if they’ve released proper wizard staves yet. Or horses.

  7. gwathdring says:

    I loved Discworld MUD to pieces. I have a laminated map of Ankh-Morpork from it becasue I frequented that place enough.

    There was also this rather brilliant touch in the Unseen University library where in instead of going North, South, East and West … you went Left, Right, Forward and Backward. The result being that if you didn’t write it down or doodle a map or have a very clear mental image of exactly what you were doing, you’d quickly get lost. If you go left, you return by going Backward whereas going Right takes you further into the maze. Incredibly simple and incredibly lovely. Just by adding facing and making directions suddenly relative they made the place feel properly mysterious and entangling.

    • Josh Grams says:

      Not only that; if your direction skill wasn’t high enough, sometimes you would get turned around and end up facing a different way than you thought you were. And the effect got worse the further into the Library you went…

  8. davorable says:

    Sounds really interesting!

  9. Malagate says:

    Hoo boy, every time I get a reminder that Pterry is gone, I still get sad :-(

    Also the idea of going on to the Discworld MUD only adds to my melancholy, although it’s not really melancholy as I do know the cause of my sadness, as I would miss both Pterry and my old MUD stomping grounds of Sharune – seeing those posts of text gave me flashbacks to running around Kolbold camps, so many hours of reading descriptions for secrets, and trying to type the crazy names of hardcore roleplayers when the chips are down (you try tying Tloiaeruo in a pinch, that silly faun was always in need of a rescue or twenty…).

    Shame as Sharune is also gone, far less tragically of course, but still personal to me, even if the worldmap doesn’t seem as impressive as the Discworld one it felt like it was mine in a way.

  10. Joe The Wizard says:

    I might be the only one, but is anyone else getting strong Goatse vibes from this image? link to rockpapershotgun.com

  11. death_au says:

    I remember attempting to get into this a long while ago (a really long while ago, really), but never quite could. I wish someone would put even half as much love as went into the Discworld MUD into a total conversion for Skyrim or something.

    • death_au says:

      … But then again, half the joy is in the writing, which would get lost in a non-text game. So, alas, I shall never be fully satisfied.

  12. malkav11 says:

    I kind of bounced off Discworld MUD, back when I still played them, but it’s always looked like an amazing place to spend time for the right sort of player.

  13. Puppaz says:

    I never tried the Discworld MUD… I did get addicted to BatMUD though.
    http://www.bat.org
    It allows you to reincarnate your character keeping most of it’s experience points, and I’m an addict of character creation I guess.

  14. jrodman says:

    Having now put some real time into this MUD, I will say it’s good and bad.

    There’s a lot of neat things to find in it, and if you view it as a sort of weak Sim of discworld, it can be amusing. But as a game it’s quite bad. So many confusing commands that don’t quite work right, a rock introduction, high and unpleasant grinding requirements. All the interesting stuff is well.. maybe you’ll find it. Which is fine and all but there’s far too much not-interesting stuff in between that.

    Just look at the scale of the map above. How many streets have something interesting on them? Maybe 2%? SOme of the easily locatable interesting stuff involves forms of timed fetch quests where you’re trained to run around in the world reading nothing. Sigh.

    • jrodman says:

      Oh and don’t get me started about the age-old LP-behavior where if you have slightly too many things you randomly drop a lot of them at some point.

      Example, go buy something to deliver to someone. Walk there. When you arrive, discover you are missing the thing to deliver. You’re also missing your weapon. And some valuable item. They MIGHT still be somewhere in the city and/or world and if you search your scrollback you MIGHT have a chance to find them.

      How about just “you can’t pick that up because it’s too heavy”? Not player-punishing enough?