Resurrected Entertainment

Introducing CircleMUD

July 7, 2007

During the early 1990s, the Internet was fairly new to most people. At the University I attended for a time, we were using a PC-DOS based environment which had Novell’s Netware stitched on top of it. At the time, I had a small number of Usenet news groups I liked to read every morning, and I stumbled across a post by an individual in alt.rec.gaming or the like. This was before the days of spam and prolific pornography, so when a person posted a message with a subject line like “Check out this cool site!” You had no reservations whatsoever about following the link.

The link he provided wasn’t a URL which could be viewed in a web browser, but looked something like this:


Until I started paying to go to school, the only experience I had with a public network in the late 1980s was through local Bulletin Board Systems. I could e-mail people on other BBS systems through something called FidoNet. Those systems would use a BBS mailer for the users to create their message (or it could be uploaded using a pre-formatted text file), and then copy it over to the FidoNet servers for transmission using specialized protocols. The mailing address was rather complicated and needed to have a series of names, symbols, and numbers affixed to it if you ever expected it to reach its destination. Due to my own inquisitive nature and two very understanding parents, I was able to set up and experiment with computer communication. As a result, I was somewhat more experienced with networking before entering University than your typical freshman, but I had never used a telnet client before. It was certainly a mystery that needed solving. Little did I know what worlds waited for me on the other side. Nowadays, there is a bare-bones telnet client on virtually every desktop. Under the Xandros operating system, the program is called “telnet.” Likewise for Microsoft Windows and MacOS X.

After a bit of research, I discovered what I needed to access the site, so I started poking at the client program. A friend of mine saw what I was doing and thought it looked interesting, so he pulled up a chair and logged into his own terminal. What we saw was disappointing at first. It was essentially a blank screen with a small title surrounded by credits centered in the middle and a login prompt near the bottom left-hand corner. I knew neither of us had an account, so I thought our little adventure would probably end right then and there with a message like “Invalid login” or “Permission denied.” Instead, we received a prompt asking “Are you sure you want to use this name?” Tentatively, I declined and sat staring at the screen for a few seconds. I was familiar with the concept of a “handle” or nickname from the BBS systems I frequented. I remember not wanting to use the name I had entered, which was probably something unoriginal like my first name. I don’t remember the name I chose and it’s probably for the best. Little did I know, the interesting questions would soon follow.

The server accepted my new name and prompted me for a password. It then asked if I wanted to be “[M]ale, or [F]emale?” During my role-playing sessions, I had never considered being a woman, even though friends of mine tended to flip-flop between the sexes just for fun from time to time. I guess it just wasn’t something I even thought about. My teenage philosophy was black and white: how could I be a fearless knight of the realm with breasts? However, faced with the same opportunity on my computer, I did pause for the briefest of moments. Anonymity is not somethings easily overlooked by most people. Not wanting to appear unmanly in front of a friend, I quickly pressed the ‘M’ key. To this day, I have never played as someone from the opposite side of the gender coin. I eventually realized it didn’t really have an appeal for me. If I was going to invest the time creating a character in this new world, I needed to take it seriously and not go galavanting around the realm trying to fool everyone into thinking this body is real and I know how to use it. Besides, I really don’t think I would be able to do a very good job of it. I would probably end up over-acting and annoy everyone in the game while fooling no one at the same time. And then there’s the whole psychological impact of sustaining an Internet female persona…

Depending on the site you visit, the questions don’t necessarily end after you choose your sex. There can be questions about your race, occupation (warrior, cleric, mage, or dentist), attributes, and a description for your character just to name a few. Before you start hammering away at the the keyboard, it’s important to realize these details will be visible to other people. The site I visited that day was classified as a MUD which stands for Multi-User Dungeon/Dimension. There are many other classifications of multi-user software environments such as MOOs, MUCKs and so on, but I have only been interested in dungeons. A MUD is a world tapered in such a way the user will feel like their transported into an interactive book. All of the details in a MUD are described by words; there are no sounds, graphics, or vibrating joysticks. The illusion is helped along by talented authors and other player characters. Just like actors and actresses, most people who enter a MUD want to remain in character while they’re on-line, so information about their personal lives are usually not revealed. If they want to elaborate on their real life, then they usually initiate a private chat or use special abbreviations to illustrate they are speaking out of character.

The software hosting the MUD is stateful. It knows when you’re logged in and when you’re not. When you’re naughty and when you’re nice. By your command or when you log off, it can record vital details about your character like the equipment you’re carrying, the money you’ve accumulated, and other pertinent details. Anyone familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons will feel right at home in this universe. In fact, it’s often a fun alternative to playing face-to-face, especially when you’re role-playing amigos live far away. Muds essentially run by themselves, but they can also be directed in real-time by controlling characters often called wizards, gods, or heroes. These characters have permissions to modify the world and initiate quests. Ordinary players can sometimes attain these positions by achieving a very high-level character ranking and then be offered a promotion, or simply participating in its day-to-day operations by becoming more involved. Sometimes it’s just easier to befriend one of the wizards and beg for an opportunity to prove yourself worthy. Just try not to cry if they refuse.

Wizards are usually programmers who typically interact with the MUD on a technical level. They usually have a character which is used to logon to the server in order to test the deployment of a new feature. It’s inadvisable to anger these people because they can eject you from the MUDvery easily. Their characters on the MUD are not ordinary players; they usually cannot be killed and they often make themselves invisible to ordinary mortals. This is a kind of power one can abuse. Do what you like on your own server, but I can guarantee no one will want to visit your realm if you abuse your abilities as a Wizard.

Back in the heyday’s of MUDding, there were literally thousands of these servers up and running on the Internet. And as a player, you had your pick of the litter. Low and behold, though, the majority of those servers were rehashes of existing worlds. There were a few bright stars amoung them, but it was a challenge to find a truly original MUD with a decent up-time. If you’re going to spend the time to create and manage a MUD, then I suggest you think of an original theme first and then come up with an interesting environment. It could be used as an interesting spot where you and your friends and family can hang out instead of the typical chat room.

Interaction on the MUD is accomplished via text commands you feed to the server hosting the game. These commands and transferred over the Internet via the telnet protocol and then the response is sent back to your client in a timely manner. So, what commands are available for you to use? It depends on the server software, but they are very similar to the commands used by many classic adventure games. At some point in their history, games like Leisure Suit Larry and King’s Quest all sported a command interface where you typed what you wanted the character to do. For example, commands like “take bottle” or “look at painting” were commonplace. MUD commands were pretty much the same, except they could usually handle more complex sentences and contained a larger set of available commands. There is also the multi-player aspect to consider. A MUD needs a much more extensive set of commands used for communication like “shout,” “talk,” “whisper,” or “emote.” These all have different effects based on your permissions and proximity to other players. For example, some MUDs do not allow just anyone to shout a message, since it will usually be heard by everyone currently logged into the MUD. Players in the past have used this feature to be very naughty.

Due to its popularity, you would expect there to be a lot of MUD software available on the Internet and you would be right in thinking so. From this point onward, we’ll be studying an implementation called CircleMUD. CircleMUD was created by a man named Jeremy Elson in 1993 and is a worthy extension to the DikuMUD codebase which was written by Katja Nyboe, Tom Madsen, Hans Henrik Staerfeldt, Michael Seifert and Sebastian Hammer in 1990. It is stable, well programmed and documented and certainly one of the more popular servers available today.

Before we delve too deeply and greedily, I think it’s worth talking about the software license. You can use the software free of charge, but you must comply with the license agreement, which basically has three requirements. First, you can’t make any money off of CircleMUD. That also includes soliciting funds or accepting donations. Second, you must give the authors credit for their hard work. And lastly, you must comply with DikuMUD license. All of these details can be found in the documents accompanying the distribution.

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