Sunday, May 19, 2024

Let's Dig Into: ArcticMUD

Since my late teens or early twenties, I've looked at text-based video games with a curiosity born of novelty. I was too young to play text-based adventure games during their heyday, so the idea of manually typing out your character's actions was always a strange one to me. It was like some lost artifact of a bygone era, so obscured by layers of electronic sediment that it wasn't even preserved in pop-culture's folk memory of what old school video games were like, what with all the beeps, chirps, joysticks, high scores and such.

Some of the first text-based games were mixes of exploration, puzzle-solving, wry humor, and occasionally bizarre logic, like Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure from the 1970s. They helped birth the adventure game and RPG genres, and their influence continues to be felt to this day, both in the inherited tropes and language of gameplay and in the continuous reference to old early memes like the Grue that have never fully died out in nerd culture.

Multi-User Dungeons/Dimensions/Domains/Detcetera (MUDs for short) are a multiplayer genre of text-based games that branched off from their single-player ancestors in the 1980s when enough nerds who weren't busy playing chess or Roguelikes got together and figured out how to use their college campuses' computer networks for video games. A MUD is basically a series of self-contained rooms that players can guide their avatars through independently of one another, each populated with its own NPCs, tasks, interactive objects, or flavor text. Under the hood, the game world is just a disjointed series of flowcharts, but with care and craft it can be presented as an engrossing, living world that knows how to get your imagination going.

MUDs started off limited to whoever was on a given internal network at an institution, but with the emergence of the Internet they began to catch on wherever someone could afford both a connection and a personal computer. MUDs were, in essence, the first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, depending on how strictly you define the word "massively"; dozens, even hundreds of users could be logged onto a MUD at a time, depending on how popular and stable the server was.

MUDs exploded in scope as their popularity grew. The first few were Tolkienesque fantasy or science-fiction in theme, but others soon came along that delved into horror, Westerns, film noir, post-apocalypse, erotica, and just about any other genre people experiment with when a new medium of artistic expression comes along. Many MUDs hosted user-generated content as well, which gave a game's fanbase real influence over the thing they shared an interest in. That bit might be the sharpest differentiation between old MUDs and modern MMOs, because rather than being a customer or consumer of the game, you were often a collaborator with it.

Countless ephemeral clones and spin-offs were born and died according to the whims of fate, community fracture, and occasional license disputes. The '80s and early '90s were a crucible of MUD creativity that is in many ways forever lost to those of us who didn't live to experience it firsthand: like pieces of tectonic plate subducted into the mantle and melted down to their base elements, most of these early games are for all intents and purposes gone forever, but little pieces of them exist everywhere in the bedrock and bones of online communities and gaming culture.

I've dabbled in a handful of MUDs over the years. Most of them were LotR- or D&D-inspired, as well as one Discworld-themed game I could never figure out how to finish character creation in. What they all have in common is that they stood the test of time long enough to appear on my radar, which means 20 or even 30 years in operation. Usually I'd either fail to get very far, or get into the groove until I ran out of easily accessible content to experience before one of the semi-regular server wipes hit, at which point I'd move on. Many of the MUDs I've played owe their existence and rhythms of gameplay to one particular MUD that had an outsized influence among its contemporaries: DikuMUD.

Diku, named for the computer science department at the University of Copenhagen where it was created in 1991, is in many ways the archetypal hack-and-slash MUD. You crawl through dungeons fighting monsters and collecting loot, with or without a party of friends, and it have stats, mechanics, and combat inspired by D&D, although technically the game uses a d100 behind the scenes. Diku was a massive inspiration for 1999's EverQuest, which some of the designers including Brad McQuaid played. It was so inspiring in fact, that there was a brief legal kerfuffle where the folks at Verant/Sony had to swear they didn't outright steal some of Diku's code.

The DikuMUD spinoff I'll be writing about today is ArcticMUD, a 1992 community project based on AD&D and in the Dragonlance setting. I played it fairly regularly between Summer 2022 and Winter 2023 the same way I play most MMOs: solo, and very poorly.

ArcticMUD starts with character creation, which is heavily but not completely based on character creation in AD&D tabletop. You choose from a surprisingly robust roster of species and classes, from kender and minotaurs to dark knights and scouts. Naturally, I rolled a goblin shaman self-insert named Furt.

You also pick your character's alignment, which is slightly different from the classic 9-point spectrum from tabletop. The game accounts for some amount of nuance and variance within the classic alignments, so Lawful Neutral and Neutral Lawful are separate options you can select, for example. I thought I was going cross-eyed the first time I read that. Alignment is limited by class and species, although not to the same extent as some other MUDs, so I considered myself lucky to get away with a Neutral alignment as a goblin. Better off grillpilled than chugging the Takhisis Kool-Aid, I suppose.

Unlike in AD&D, you don't roll your ability scores at character generation. Sure, the game rolls them behind the scenes, but the results are hidden from you at creation in order to discourage people from spending hours rolling and rerolling for the optimal stat array like some of us have done with the first few Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale games. You have to spend a bit of time playing and getting invested in the character before you can drink a potion that gives you full knowledge of yourself and all your stats.

I was a weirdly slim-buff gobbo.

Arctic actually hides a lot of the inner workings of the game from you. You rarely see a die rolled or referenced in-game, unless you do something like successfully identify a magical weapon at the shop, in which case you'll see the damage range but that's it. You aren't given a clear idea of your AC, saves, or really any statistic beyond the HP and Vitality points displayed down in the corner at all times. You are given even less information for NPCs and monsters, forcing you to approach potential challenges cautiously and with /consideration like in old school EverQuest. You don't even know for sure what your own variable spell effects are, which makes prepping them Fun™.

This constant, deliberate obfuscation of mechanics is part of the game's design philosophy, believe it or not. The designers don't want you to attain full knowledge and mastery of the game or its systems. They want you to always be in a state of guessing, whether those guesses are educated or truly blind. They want players new and old alike to have to feel their way through everything organically and authentically, like the entire game is under an aggressively enforced spoiler warning. They go so far as to delete posts on the forums that reveal too much about the game or one of its secrets- or at least, they did before they deleted the forums entirely a little while ago, apparently because the mods couldn't keep up with the number of spam bots flooding the place. The wiki and other officially-sanctioned gameplay guides are similarly sparse on details.

Assuming something does leak out and become common knowledge, even just through in-game player word-of-mouth, that thing won't stay the same for very long. Arctic does a yearly server wipe in which all characters are deleted, like many MUDs do to prevent too many characters accumulating at the very top of the game's content and ruining the ecosystem. Years before Diablo II was doing seasonal ladders, MUDs were coming up with their own multiplayer refresh mechanics.

But Arctic takes it a step farther by remixing pieces of itself with every wipe, changing small aspects like how a quest works or where to find a particular item. When I started playing for example, one wing of a low-level dungeon commonly recommended to newbies was completely sealed off and inaccessible, meaning I had to go elsewhere while it was under construction. This significantly altered the roadmap of my early playing experience, and pushed me into different areas at weird times.

I've never seen anything quite like this before or since playing Arctic. The game is in a state of perpetual New Game Plus, by and for the small handful of regular users who still play the game after 32 years in operation. The tiny trickle of tourists and new players like myself are expected to just kind of go along with it, or perhaps we're not really considered at all. It's a certain kind of charming to me, I suppose.

Gameplay begins with your newly-created character zipping down from the heavens into a city of your choosing, which for newbies is usually the town of Solace, forever frozen in time immediately before the events of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The game has a day/night cycle, but technically it's always the morning before the imperfect reunion of the Companions. You can even find Tanis Half-Elven moping around in the Inn of the Last Home, while Tika serves up some drinks and Otik's spiced potatoes nearby.

You're walked through a brief tutorial by an NPC who teaches you the basics of the game and guides you through Solace. Solace is a city that really needs a guide, even after the first few levels, because it is a very vertical and sometimes disorienting starting city, replete with multi-level vallenwood tree buildings and aerial walkways between them. I almost always had a .png of the official site's map up in the background while I was playing. After you've gotten your bearings as well as you can, you're encouraged to head down to the dump where you can muck about in the sewers for your first few levels killing vermin, but otherwise the game takes its hands off and leaves you to get lost in the world.

And it is a dang big world to get lost in. Huge areas of the continent of Ansalon have been rendered in-game, and I can only say that they didn't recreate the entire world because I couldn't personally reach every area during my relatively brief time with the game. You can spend hours wandering in any direction, and you're bound to run into towns and dungeons (as well as a few maddening dead ends or loops) along the way. You don't have to hoof it everywhere, though: an all-terrain caravan added in one of the content updates in 2004 regularly makes the rounds through every major city in the world for a reasonable fare. There are many ferries connecting the coastal and riverine areas of the world, too. It's faster than walking, and safer. As long as you don't say anything about the upholstery.

I read this just as we hit some rapids and I thought I was
being transported straight into "The Most Dangerous Game".

My personal journey saw me wandering around in the forest beyond Solace once I outgrew the sewers a few levels in. Mostly animals and a few of my larger cousins turned to banditry could be found out there, as well as some very random touches of personality that the game threw in. For example, every sign that isn't a big official road sign between cities tries to simulate the scrawl of an inexpert hand by using mixed caps, which leads to warnings like this:

I can't not read this in the mocking Spongebob meme voice.

Other times, looking more closely at a bit of wildlife will reward you with a surprisingly competent bit of ASCII artwork in a game that is otherwise completely devoid of visuals.

After I wandered too far out and got overwhelmed a few times, I made my way back to Solace and ground the sewers again until I made up my loss of XP and gear, which gets left behind on your corpse when you die, also very EQ-style. It was around this time that I actually met another living soul.

Sure, I'd seen a handful of other players in town or in the /who list, but up to this point I'd never interacted with any of them. They were all seasoned veterans doing their own circles and their own things by my guess, and even though there's a chat channel specifically designed for them to help newbies out, I felt too intimidated to approach.

But eventually at the surprisingly easy-to-reach level of 16, someone named Hippy reached out to me in PMs. They asked me what I was up to and inadvertently offered some good advice when they found out I was new. Turns out I was playing my class all wrong. Shocking, I know!

Or maybe you could be generous and say I was playing hardmode. To start off, my alignment put me at a disadvantage. You get more XP for killing creatures of your opposite alignment, because character alignment is mostly expressed through violence and magic in this game. Being neutral, my goblin was essentially running around with a permanent XP gain penalty compared to everybody else... also a lot like EQ. Wow, learning that tidbit really opened my eyes to a lot of things here.

I don't really begrudge that part, though. I couldn't start off good as a goblin, but I wouldn't have wanted to go evil either. Especially once I learned that a lot of what constitutes evil character XP grinding is just slaughtering townsfolk wholesale.

Butchering them into meat was just for fun, apparently.

The other major inefficiency was in my loadout.

Up to this point I had been spending all of my steel coins on whatever weapons and armor I could afford off of either basic vendors or the shared market auction house style thing which I currently forget the name of. Sometimes I'd live long enough to turn a profit on those pieces and sell them in favor of upgrades, but usually I'd lose them from death or forgetting to repair.

Shamans don't need weapons, though. They can make their own, as the other player explained. I was aware of the Bone Shape spell they were talking about, which creates a club, staff, bow, or arrows out of the bones of a slain creature (even if the creature doesn't have bones, amusingly). But because of the paucity of details given by spell descriptions and the very low level I had tried the spell at, I assumed that the weapons created by the spell were low-damage and completely nonmagical; weapons of last resort to be quickly replaced by 'real' weapons.

I was very wrong. The weapons made from Bone Shape scale with caster level, and actually outclassed anything I could buy with my half-empty wallet. What's more, the weapons' power stacks with the Ancestral Blessing spell that buffs a weapon with scaling hit rate, saving throw and healing bonuses, and a chance to make extra attacks every swing. In essence I had an uber-Shillelagh sitting in my back pocket at all times, and all I needed to cast it was to have a dead centipede handy. This was on top of a plethora of other self-buff spells I hadn't been taking full advantage of, because I was spending most of my memorization slots on healing and status effect cure spells for when my weakness inevitably caused a fight to drag on too long.

This was that moment of mechanical satisfaction that I was waiting for. The synergy hit, and what followed was one heck of a dopamine rush. Which is ironic, because I can't write any accurate description of my next few levels of gameplay in a way that doesn't come off as incredibly boring and grindy.

What I did was make my way into the higher-level dungeon located in Solace; a burned-down school filled with the restless ghosts of the students and teachers who died there, only visible and hittable with the aid of magic items or spell effects- spells my shaman just so happened to have, but which I couldn't really do much with before I had the DPS for the task.

So I started clearing out the rooms of the school again, and again, and again, wielding nothing but a centipede bone staff and presumably wearing only a loincloth, because I began selling every single piece of armor that I could. Once I was finished whacking ghosts and nuking the area's unique enemies (a renegade mage, a pit fiend, and the wraith of the man who caused the whole mess) with a health-leeching spirit blast, I went back to central Solace to deposit all my earnings and occasionally check in with the eccentric shaman class teacher Foghorn for a shot at spell and skill upgrades.

You don't lose money that you have set aside in the bank, and so that's what I began to judge my true success by: an ever-growing bank account that I could eventually invest into something meaningful and more permanent once I reached a high-enough level.

Once I had outleveled the school I struck out west into the wilderness, skirting a lake until I reached an old copper mine filled with kobolds, myconids, rats, giant crawdads, a giant snake, an owlbear, and a very deadly giant spider at the bottom of a hundreds-of-feet-deep pit of no return that is frustratingly easy to accidentally walk off when your mental map of the area is just 1 room off. There I got used to the new rhythms and finally started to use scrolls of recall to cut down on travel, before settling into the grind all over again and soon surpassing 20th level, at which point I began acquiring a secondary advancement resource called Rank Points, used to purchase small permanent boosts separate from character level, yet again like in later expansions of EQ.

In essence I turned a party-centered game about socialization and exploration into the least compelling elements of a roguelite mixed with a dash of sigma grindset.

Yet I was having fun, and every level where I didn't fail my rolls to learn new spells, I gained new tricks that made my cup runeth over with options from moment-to-moment in combat. On top of all of my self-buffs and curses, my shaman could also hex a target, cause fear, enter a berserk rage like a miniature barbarian (pun intended), and bind the spirits of slain foes to myself or my weapon as combat minions/buffs. The only thing that stopped me in combat was my ability to type fast enough.

Which did become a legitimate issue for me, later on.

After a certain point, combat on a caster has so many moving parts, and can involve as many as a dozen participants at once, depending on the dungeon. When this happens the text scrolls very, very quickly and it was easy for me to miss important details like what had died, when a buff ran out, or what special attack an enemy just used. I would often try to cast a healing spell only to realize I had been sitting on my butt for the past few rounds after someone roundhouse kicked me off my feet. And then when I did stand upright again, I'd lose another precious few seconds misspelling the spell shortcut.

The game does have an answer for this, but it's not something I ever brought myself to use.

In most modern programs that run MUDs, there are options to create aliases, highlights, substitutes, and triggers. These are tools to allow you to navigate and respond to the game easier and faster, such as by condensing long typed lines of text into very short macro commands, highlighting or changing the language of important notifications, or just outright automating certain parts of the game by setting the program to run background commands that activate when X event happens.

It's enormously useful for standing up when you're knocked down, resting and preparing spells, and doing busywork like looting corpses after battle. And as long as you're not completely automating your character or turning them into something like a healbot, you don't run afoul of any of Arctic's policies. But it's a hell of a lot of coding for a tourist like me, so I never committed to it, and eventually that led to me hitting a skill ceiling of sorts, where if a battle was too hectic I just couldn't keep up and only pulled through thanks to lucky crits.

I wonder if combat was easier back in the '90s when everyone had dialup and you had more time to think in between ticks?

I also had a few unpleasant run-ins with people who did use all those commands, or at least that's what it looked like to me. Arctic is a server with PvP enabled, although you're discouraged from using it to grief specific players. But out in the world you're always vulnerable to attack from other players, and I was PK'd a few times during a run. Invariably, what would happen was I'd be engaged with a monster when the other person or party entered the room, evaporated me and everything else in the room into a red mist with AoE spells and crushing melee attacks, rapidly looted anything of value, and then moved to the next room like a tornado of death and avarice. Within 10 seconds I'd go from having a handle on a slow, tedious fight to sitting on the menu screen wondering how I'll pay off the new XP debt.

That would usually kill my motivation to pick back up where I'd been, and revenge was as impossible as it was undesirable, so I took frequent breaks and then went off in some other direction instead. I took advantage of the transportation system to find some of the more far-flung areas where I would be the only player-controlled soul for miles. I wandered the Plains of Dust in the shadow of Icewall Glacier, got extremely lost in some mountains, ran from trolls in Thorbardin, visited Pax Therax and other locations from the trilogy, undertook a vision quest with a Qué-Shu shaman, discovered tiny out-of-the-way hamlets that probably exist in one of the other hundreds of Dragonlance novels, and even stumbled upon a war crime or two.

I no longer feel so bad about the kender-skin sofas.

Eventually my wandering in search of secrets stranded me far from home with little to show for it, though I probably could have paid my way back to someplace more familiar thanks to the weirdly globally-connected banking system Krynn has in this game. But by that time it was getting late in the year, and the server wipe was on the way.

Nothing, not your bank account, character, or rank abilities, survive the great reset, so I was faced with the prospect of restarting from scratch, or not at all. I took a lengthy break and picked back up early in 2023, at which point I was able to smooth out my early leveling experience considerably using all that I had learned the first time around- and I finally got to access that part of the sewers that I'd been barred from entering. But I was still enough of a noob to forget that part of the Inn of the Last Home is an anti-magic safe area, so I spent a good fifteen minutes fizzling my hunger spell while angrily shouting "SATIATE!" at the wall- which is weirdly true to life when lunch rolls around and I don't want to spend so much time and effort feeding this carcass of mine.

I ended up focusing on Bridgetown for much of that year though, so I played little beyond that, and in time another wipe came. I've yet to partake in 2024.

I don't know if I'd recommend ArcticMUD to anyone who isn't already pretty into MUDs in general, which I imagine is a pretty small segment of people who read these posts. But my time with it has been entertaining so far, and if you are interested I'd recommend jumping in during one of the occasional special events that they host throughout the year, which often involves unique quests or bonuses to XP and other stuff. Sometimes they're purely focused on in-game lore, other times they commemorate real life events in some way.

Hey, maybe monarchs are good for something!

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