Ridealong is our monthly feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This time, the 13-year-old urchin of Wurm Online who swore to become King and lived up to the oath.
The man arrives, riding a white horse and clad in splendid armour. When I hover my mouse over the man, his username is accompanied by the title “Dragonslayer”. But his rare title and treasured armour is misleading. This shining knight lives on a tiny farm in the countryside. The horse he is riding is described by the game’s text as “fat” and “old”. And it isn’t even his horse. He has “borrowed” it from the village next to his farm, along with another fat foal and an old bull, which follow along behind him on a lead. Some might say Wossoo is a sorry sight, for a man who used to be King.
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Wurm Online launched in 2006, when Wossoo was just 13 years old. Ten years later, he has agreed to return to show me around. This is not your average MMO. One part obtuse interface and one part total anarchy, it was ahead of its time in terms of handing you an open world in which resources dwindled and everything had to be made by players. You could set up a house in Wurm and hide inside. But someone else could just wait for you to come out, kill you and take everything you own. It built on the freedoms of Ultima Online and EVE Online before Rust or DayZ had even been conceived. It was also as ugly as a blobfish and just as difficult to understand.
I’ve been waiting for Wossoo on the harbour in Strongbox, the town at the heart of one of the game’s large continents. Walls surround the starter area, garrisoned by ghostly guards. This is where new players appear, through a portal from the tutorial island. I’ve just come through, dressed in leather rags. A huge player-built castle looms over the water, ringed by bridges and ramparts. A polygonal green giant stands watch over the town – an avatar of one of the game’s many gods – as well as a statue of the same deity.
Wossoo has not been here in years and he’s surprised by how much the place has changed. He walks around the harbour wondering out loud about the castle. He points out a square fortress built near the walls of Strongbox.
“I used to live there,” he says.
He starts trotting over to the building and reads out the name.
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“Blackmarket. It never used to be called that. It used to be called Leadmart…. I was breeding horses but then some enemy players came and broke in and killed all my horses. Because they’re mean.”
That was the end of his time in Leadmart. He moved out afterwards.
This was a recurring problem for Wossoo. He has been a brigand, a priest, and a champion in the game’s shifting political landscape. Once he served as another player’s ‘Information Minister’. Some people will remember him as a King. But the longest-running characteristic of this career has been that of an itinerant. He has never been truly settled, moving between continents and tribes with all the fickleness of a teenager caught up in cliquey drama. Which is arguably what he was.
“Either it was politics or players killing me… Wurm has changed a bit since then. Maybe I’m just being one of these old-fashioned kind of Wurmians I guess you could say, but Wurm was a lot more interesting back when there was much more of a sense of a balance of power, when there were more players. You fought for ground, you lost the ground, you had people defect, you had people who were leading things. It’s amazing really the effect it can have if you have one or two people organising people and stuff like that.”
But that was a long time ago. Wossoo looks at the population of the game now. Across our ‘cluster’ (a collection of four PvP servers) there are just 23 people playing. Only a couple of years ago, he says, this number was in the hundreds. And before that the game was populous enough that you could easily be killed while minding your own business, farming a vegetable patch or working in your own mine. Which is exactly what happened to Wossoo’s own brother all those years ago.
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“He was the one who introduced me to Wurm… He didn’t like the amount of time you had to put into [it]. You know, to build something takes quite a long time, to get the bricks and things…”
His brother was killed by other players, over and over and over. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the brothers soon became the victims of a notorious player known as Hamm the Thief.
“He used to harass everybody. He was the original Wurm griefer. You know, you had a little fenced-off field and he would just dig a massive hole in front of the fence so you couldn’t get in or out. And he’d kill you if he could… It was extremely annoying. I think that was what finished my brother off with Wurm.”
But the younger brother lived on, attempting to forge a life for himself in this countryside of griefers and murderers. They had killed his brother’s enthusiasm as well as his avatar. But Wossoo didn’t stop playing. And one day he got his revenge on the thief.
“I found out where they lived,” he says proudly, “and I dug up all their fields.”
“It sounds a bit like, ‘how on earth is that revenge?’ but at the time it really did feel like I was doing something nasty back. They had huge, huge fields – and I dug them all up.”
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This was just the start of Wossoo’s life as an in-game urchin, travelling between deeds (player-owned plots of land) and searching for misadventure. One day he found himself in the middle of the ocean, swimming between servers.
“This was before you could drown,” he says. “Basically, you’d swim out far enough and then there’s this event message that says ‘if you swim out far enough you’ll end up on a different server’. Then the game kind of refreshes itself… and you’re on the opposite end of the other server.
“At the time you didn’t have a map, you didn’t even have a map dump. It was the start of the game. You didn’t know the land, nobody could tell you where to go, not even the developers because the game mostly randomly generated its terrain, they just influenced it.”
This made long journeys like his migration across the waves particularly dangerous.
“You had to do it in one go and if you died, you were in trouble,” he says. “I didn’t die.”
We decide to go for a walk and leave Strongbox. He gives me a steel sword and shield “just in case we get attacked”. Then he hands me a rope and tells me to tie it around the bull’s neck and see if I can mount it. The game informs me that I am not good enough to ride a bull.
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But having tied a rope around its neck, the animal is now following me everywhere we go. We start walking along a landbridge, moving away from the town. I waddle slowly alongside the armoured man and his fat horse, trying to keep up, feeling like the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.
“Despite being around in the game for such a long time my skills have always been quite low because I’m not a grinder type, even though it is that kind of game. I just went around making mischief, making a kingdom, all this sort of stuff.”
It’s the first time he’s mentioned his old kingdom. I’ve already read about some of the details, in a long chronicle of Wossoo’s life on the game’s wiki, but I want to know about it from the King himself. How did this domain come about?
“Bascially, Wurm had an extremely rudimentary backstory and one of the kingdoms was Lomaner. It was defeated by Jenn-Kellon, which is the kingdom that we are in now. And I thought: ‘well, why did Lomaner have to be defeated?’ So I decided to make my own Kingdom.”
But it would be a long time before the self-proclaimed King of Lomaner was recognised by anyone. At the time of Wossoo’s idea (which the wiki chronicle claims to have to come to him “in a dream”) there wasn’t any functional way for players to actually create a kingdom. The young would-be-king petitioned the creators, Rolf Jansson and a pre-Minecraft Notch, to create a way to make these dominions. They said sure – if he could prove there was a demand for it. Get a certain number of players and they would consider “hard-coding” it into the game.
“Well,” says Wossoo, “I was 14 at the time. I wasn’t able to do it.”
But that wouldn’t be the end of the urchin’s ambitions. One day his dream would eventually come true.
We start walking down a cobblestone road by the water when a calf appears in front of us. Wossoo interrupts his storytelling – he wants to show me how combat works. He has instructed me to kill the calf.
“You want me to kill this…” – I hover over the animal with my mouse to see the full description – “this ‘Young Brown Cow’?”
“Yep,” he says.
I right-click on the animal and navigate the cumbersome user menu until I find the option to attack. Now, I’m told, it is simply a matter of standing there until the thing is dead. Your character will just keep attacking automatically. I look at the King as I dutifully stab the cow multiple times.
“This is how PvP works too,” he says. “Which is…fun?”
Eventually, the calf keels over, dead. I feel like I have learned nothing.
Wossoo the child king went from settlement to settlement, trying to convince players to join forces with him. He tried four times to set up the kingdom he dreamt of, convincing town after town to assist him before either becoming distracted by some new prospect or piece of land, or watching as the momentum and enthusiasm of his new followers “fizzled out”.
He called these failed attempts the “four incarnations of Lomaner”. One was established beside an already existing city. Another on a deserted island. The fourth was a town by a lake, where he convinced the players already living there to be his subjects and where he was forced to make a deal for protection from a local condottiere. All of the attempts eventually ended in failure or abandonment, running out of steam and forcing the nomadic child monarch to move on, back on the road.
Three years passed, in which Wossoo survived amid the virtual world’s turmoil. From an apocalyptic server crash he calls ‘Wurmageddon’ (and which reset everyone’s character) to countless PvP skirmishes, the child king had grown into a teenage warrior. He had established more settlements and abandoned more still. He had accrued plenty of titles and yet more scars. He had even killed three dragons, earning him the title of Dragonslayer which remains to the present day. He had come a long way from vindictively digging up fields. But he still lacked a crown.
Now, Wossoo is on his old, fat horse. We keep following the road. After a few minutes we come to a guard tower. It is overlooking a pair of gates and a layer of high stone walls. A big, impressive-looking settlement.
“I used to own this,” says Wossoo.
The settlement is empty. The walls are decaying, large cracks show that they haven’t been maintained by any players for some time. On one side, an in-game earthquake has torn apart the stone and wood – the walls have completely crumbled. Through the gaps in the decrepit blocks we can see the central hall of the deed. It is still called the “Hall of Lomaner” – the name given to it by Wossoo.
I ask him how he got the place and he tells me that he bought it. Money was something he knew how to collect – by a variety of means. Either he would catch fish and sell them, or craft tools for other players to buy. But he also wasn’t above joining forces with a gang of players and bashing down the walls of another settlement, stealing the money hidden inside. At some point in his mercenary career he had enough to buy this place.
“What do you own now?” I ask, looking up at the armoured man.
“Nothing,” he says.
It’s not totally true. He has a plot of land on another server where he owns a small vineyard. But it isn’t always occupied. Real life took over the life of a King a long time ago.
A troll comes out of the forest suddenly and chases us off. It looks like we too have been forced to move on. We escape the troll and start heading through a nearby forest.
Now that he was a PvP warrior, Wossoo chose to do something dangerous. He decided to become a champion. This was a special class in Wurm (no longer implemented) which, once accepted, granted the player special powers and huge bonuses against any enemy. But you had to regularly enter enemy territory, or else the powers would fade. Most drastically, it also limited your account to three deaths. If you died those three times, your account was lost. In other words, it was possible for a champion to die permanently.
Wossoo came close to dying “a few times” but he never did. At this point, he was well-known among the players on all sides. He took advantage of the power. He killed dragons, he helped destroy a group of outlaws who had once banished him, he ambushed and assassinated an old friend – a player who had become Emperor of one of the game’s three built-in factions. By this time he was snowed under with titles, all bestowed on him by the game itself or by the player leaders of various factions – Royal Herald, Defender of the Crown, Earl Marshall… Kingslayer.
But his dream hadn’t come true. He still didn’t have a Kingdom of his own.
We emerge from the forest and find another guard tower. These are the structures which seem to last the longest in Wurm’s player-made wasteland. We haven’t seen a single soul since we left Strongbox but these towers are populated by NPC guards. Reminders that there used to be something worth protecting nearby. In this case, the flat land is peppered with bed frames. It used to be a collection of houses. But none of the walls, roofs or chimney stacks remain. Only bedframes, abandoned and forgotten.
Wossoo finds an abandoned cart and hops off his horse. He ties his two horses to the yolk, takes the reins and tells me to get in.
“It’ll be like a tour bus,” he says. “Now we’re travelling in some sort of style.”
More abandoned places pass us by on the road. In places, the trees have simply grown back around player-built walls. Boats and ships lie derelict but upright on the shore, locked to all but the players who have long forgotten them. The whole world is a ruin. The only living things in the wilderness are cattle or horses, spiders or hellhounds – NPC enemies that chase our cart along the roads until they either get bored or die at the sword of the old King.
“It’s very sad. I don’t necessarily think it will always be like this. Wurm goes up and down…”
I ask if he really thinks it can come back from this drought.
“There are more and more MMOs coming out every week, Life Is Feudal was inspired by Wurm… games like that do take something away from Wurm… it’s difficult to keep players. The tutorial and the learning curve as well. It’s such a shock, it’s such a timesink. I can’t play it anymore. You know, working and all the stuff that I do outside of work. I just don’t have the time to be involved anywhere near as much as I was.”
We get out on a small harbour to see if we can commandeer a vessel but the boats are all locked. I see a coffin and open it in a state of idle curiosity. There’s nothing inside.
“They are usually used for storage, not for actually putting bodies in,” says the King behind me. “In fact, I don’t think you can fit a body in a coffin.”
My brow furrows.
“I know It sounds mad. It’s part of what we call ‘Wogic’… some things in Wurm just don’t make sense.”
We get back in the cart and continue down the roads.
Wossoo was crowned the King of Lomaner in October 2011, at 19 years old. A group of 150 people, some of them much older than himself, had come to recognise him as king of a new player-made kingdom. This feature, which the child king had suggested to the developers five years previously, had finally been introduced to the game and Wossoo wasted no time in getting his domain established. It was, according to him, the first player-made kingdom in the game. Not only that but the newly crowned monarch “kind of forced” three other kingdoms on the server to ally with his own, becoming the de facto ruler of their land too.
At the height of its power, Lomaner ruled over three-quarters of the continent’s territory. It had only taken five years of proclaiming himself king until people finally believed it. Now players were coming to Wossoo, to give him the best equipment they had crafted, to pledge their allegiance, to ask him for direction on what to build and where. He had a vast amount of personal control over the whole land.
“But now I’m here,” he laughs, as he drives the cart. “I don’t even control my own horse. I just stole these two from my village. I don’t have anything anymore. Which is just how it goes, I guess. And now Lomaner controls nothing at all.
“I guess the only person who calls themselves Lomaner anymore is me.”
The Kingdom of Lomaner, like all its previous incarnations, was ill-fated. But it wasn’t attacks from other factions or civil unrest or a scheming vizier that brought it down. It was Time. The child king had grown up. Wossoo, or more accurately, Ross – the player behind the avatar – was now in university. He was studying politics.
Without the time to devote to Wurm that he once had, the throne was often empty. With its ruler gone, the Kingdom started to eat itself.
“I wasn’t there a lot of the time, because I was busy with lectures and uni work… But my absence was starting to annoy people and they began to think that maybe somebody else should be in charge, and there was arguments and chasing around… and then people left and it kind of – oh look, a seal!”
Wossoo stops the cart. True enough, there’s a seal in front of us. Wossoo looks down and clicks on the seal. He selects an emote from the list of options. A message appears in the game’s log and there’s the recognisable sound effect of a kiss.
‘Wossoo kisses an old seal,’ says the game.
“I’ve not seen one before,” he explains.
He starts the cart moving again. I am suddenly aware that I left my bull behind when we got in the cart. I hope it’s okay. Wossoo continues telling me about the fall of Lomaner.
“I eventually decided that I’d had enough of everything in terms of all the constant messages all the time, it was just horrible. So I did give up the crown to one of my friends who was one of the people who was most loyal to me at the time… and most capable.”
His subjects weren’t going to complain. But even now they were going to voice their impatience.
“I gave him the crown and, for me, I role play a lot. I tried to make a big ceremony of it. And they were like: ‘just give him the effing crown!’ They’d had enough, they just wanted to carry on with somebody else.”
However, it wasn’t long before that player too gave up the weight of ruling. Under the third inheritor things in Lomaner slowly dissolved. People left or defected to other kingdoms, and the kingdom came under attack from “Blacklight” forces – one of the game’s religious branches. In the end, only one village remained under the kingdom’s control. When Blacklight players dug up an artefact on the server that allowed them to summon a dragon, there was nobody left to mount a capable defence. The last village in Lomaner was razed to the ground by a player riding on the back of a dragon.
“For a while I was a bit disappointed,” says Wossoo. “But everything in Wurm – you just have to accept that it’s temporary.”
We continue through the woods and down the cobbled roads. More ruins pass us by. Trolls impede our progress for 20 minutes. We have to cut through the forest. At some point the trees stop being trees and start being piles of logs. Someone has been cutting wood. We stop beside a tiny cottage with horses, cows and a piglet enclosed behind a fence. It is the first sign of life we have come across since leaving Strongbox. The owner is not home but he is ‘active’ says Wossoo. He can tell by the look of his crops.
“This is very similar to my farm on the other server.”
I get out of the cart and take a look around. We can’t go into the house or open the fence’s gate but we can admire the homestead. There’s a meditation rug on the ground outside, an item that, with enough meditating, will earn you powers, including the ability to transport yourself home. Wossoo can tell from this that the player knows the game well.
“It’s nice to see there’s someone left.”
We get back on the cart and start to travel again. Wossoo checks the server numbers again for our PvP cluster. There’s now just 20 players, and we are two of them. We pass more ruins. Here, an old river barrier that was built to keep out raiders. There, a keep on top of a mountain, useful for having a view of the whole land. All of them are empty and decaying.
It’s getting dark and Wossoo has taken out a red lantern – red is the colour of Lomaner, so carrying a lantern like this has always been a tradition of his. Despite the light it gives, the gloom soon becomes too dark for me to see anything. The sun is going down in Wurm. Time travels eight times faster here than in real time, the king tells me. He has taken his helmet off to reveal a white-haired man with a bent nose and deep wrinkles. Wossoo does some quick maths.
“My character is 88 years old.”
We continue down the road, bathed in red light, chased by spiders.