Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs): What Are They? And How to Play

Log-in screen for Forgotten Kingdoms, a MUD based on Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms® campaign setting and D&D 3.5’s rule set
The log-in screen for Forgotten Kingdoms, a MUD based on Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms® campaign setting and D&D 3.5’s rule set

Before the days of 40-man raids, flashy cosmetics, and server firsts, the MMO players of the world embarked on quests in another way.

Inspired by text-based ‘dungeoncrawls’ like Zork, a team of researchers at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth developed an open-source code base known as AberMUD. Named after the town in which it was developed and an acronym of the phrase ‘Multi-User Dungeon’, AberMUD allowed multiple players to connect and adventure with one another in real time.

Soon after, many similar code bases were developed to support their own games, ultimately paving the way for the modern MMORPGs we know and love. The players of everything from Ultima Online to Everquest and even World of Warcraft and Elderscrolls Online can all thank these early pioneers for inspiring the developers of their favorite games.

Today the Multi-User Dungeon genre is alive and well, with many games to choose from, but what are MUDs? What do they have that modern games don’t? And how can you take part in this key piece of gaming history?

At their core, MUDs are text-based games not unlike a chat room. Most often connecting through telnet clients, users take on the roles of their character in a virtual world where every room, object, and creature is described as one might find in their favorite novel. Unconstrained by the need for graphical assets, the locations and denizens of these worlds are limited only by the imaginations of the game’s creators and players.

In many ways, this shared experience is similar to the one found in popular tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. As users explore their world, the game’s coded systems take on the role of the Gamemaster in order to bring their adventure to life. Some MUDs, like Avendar, might feature a wide variety of class and race combinations for players to choose from when customizing their characters. Others, like Ithir, a variant of MUD known as a MUSH, choose to focus on a more free-form system where players can develop any skill or ability they set their mind too.

The game play found within MUDs can vary immensely from one to the next. Just as different MUDs may feature different options for creating and developing characters, each offers different forms of game play as well. Some may focus on the ‘hack-and-slash’ genre where characters delve into dungeons and do battle with monsters, while another might place an intense focus on world-building and collaborative storytelling.

Whatever sort of game you may be looking for, you are likely to find a MUD that suits you.

Screenshot: A group of players in a MUD do battle with demonic forces
Screenshot: A group of players in a MUD do battle with demonic forces
A group of players in a MUD do battle with demonic forces

Ultimately, however, the major distinction between certain sorts of MUDs lies in their focus on roleplaying. The distinction here might be compared to the difference between a very large game of Dungeons and Dragons and a World of Warcraft server.

In roleplay enforced MUDs, players are expected to act in-character at all times with the exception of certain channels of communication. These MUDs often, but not always, feature permanent character death where players are required to start from scratch if they are defeated in battle.

Yet even in the most violent of these MUDs, the focus remains on collaborative storytelling, with systems in place to describe everything from a character’s appearance to their equipment, and sometimes even player-owned housing. Some MUDs of this type do not feature coded combat at all, instead preferring to leave the outcome of confrontations up to the players writing the scene.

In MUDs that do not enforce a roleplaying atmosphere, players instead pursue quests, engage one another in player-vs-player combat, and delve into dungeons together in search of experience and loot. These games often feature more nuanced combat systems, as well as the option to begin anew with bonuses on reaching maximum level.

This ‘new game+’ system is frequently referred to in the community as a ‘remort’ and creates incentives for players to frequently return to earlier content in order to assist newer players.

Whether it’s throwing new players into the thick of an on-going story, or incentivizing more experienced players to return to earlier content through permanent death or a remort system, most decently run MUDs these days have some method of getting newcomers quickly involved with the experience. The reason for that is a simple one.

Above all else, the most important feature of all MUDs, and the thing that gives them their staying power, are their communities.

It’s right in the name, after all. Multi-user.

Even the most mechanically intensive MUD allows for time to chat and get to know your fellow players. Very few are designed in a way where one can hope to succeed without working alongside others. Even in a player-vs-player focused game, people end up getting to know another, developing friendships as they work alongside or against each other towards a shared goal.

The relationships formed while exploring these fictional worlds are often lasting. It isn’t at all uncommon for two players to recognize one another’s usernames years after they had both played together, and begin to reminisce and share stories of their past text adventures. In a way these communities go a step further than the guilds and clans of more modern MMOs, and many users play solely for the social aspects of the game.

The low barrier of entry helps a great deal with this. You hardly need the world’s best graphics card, after all, and the vast majority of them are free to play. This results in eclectic and vibrant communities where you might find yourself playing alongside people from all walks of life.

These differing perspectives united towards common goals is what truly makes these communities shine. Players bring their personal skills and hobbies to the table in order to create a robust experience that simply cannot be found in modern games. Together, they create art, poetry, works of fiction and more.

Another reason for the genre’s continued draw is its accessibility to visually impaired players. Using screen readers, audio cues and other tools, blind players are not just able to play these games, but they are able to meet other players on an equal footing. While the level of accessibility can vary from one game to the next based on its underlying code, the genre is by-and-large open to these players where games with graphics simply are not.

From assisting with accessibility issues or simply helping new players learn the ropes, MUD communities tend to be welcoming of newcomers. A shared experience is only as good as the people you have to share it with, after all. Despite the archaic-looking interface, joining a MUD is much easier than one might think.

All one really needs to start playing is an internet connection and a client. While recent releases in the genre, like Ravencroft Academy, have begun to break convention by allowing players to access the game from their browsers, the majority of MUDs are still accessed through telnet clients. You only need to install a single client application, after which you can connect to as many MUDs as you would like.

Visually impaired players will want to use a client that works well with screen-readers. VIP Mud is a client designed from the ground up with accessibility in mind, but it does charge 30$ in order to use all of its features. An alternative is MUSHClient, which is both free and one of the most recommended clients available. However, it does take a bit more effort to set up for screen readers.

Instructions for getting MUSHClient to work with screen readers can be found here.

It is possible to play by phone, and a number of free applications, such as Blowtorch, are available for that purpose. Some of these can be set up to utilize the screen reader on a mobile phone as well. However many people find it difficult to both type quickly on their phones and keep track of what is going on in-game, and it is often easier to play on a desktop or laptop computer.

The MUSHClient World Configuration screen. Featuring fields for Name, TCP/IP Address and Port Number.
The MUSHClient World Configuration screen. Featuring fields for Name, TCP/IP Address and Port Number.
The MUSHClient World Configuration screen

Once you have installed your client, the next step is to connect to your MUD of choice. All that is needed is to input your chosen MUD’s TCP or IP address and Port number in the fields provided. This information can be easily found on the MUD’s website.

We will cover the ways in which one can find a MUD momentarily.

After you input this information, the client should begin to connect to the game. The information on the screen should then guide you through the account creation process, as well as generating your first character and joining the game. Just as every MUD is different, so too is the account creation process, so be sure to read carefully and follow all directions.

An example of a Help File for ‘Help Say’
An example of a Help File for ‘Help Say’
The ‘help say’ Help File from Portland Echoes, a MUSH based on the Chronicles of Darkness tabletop roleplaying game

Once your character has been created, there is often a brief tutorial explaining the commands of the game. You can also access further information by reading ‘Help Files’, in-game documentation on various commands, game lore, and mechanics. To do this, you only need to type ‘Help’ followed by a search term. For instance, ‘Help Say’, ‘Help Newbie’ or ‘Help Combat’.

On your chosen MUD’s website, you may also find links to forums or chat rooms. These days, MUDs are increasingly using Discord in order to assist the player base in communicating with one another outside the game. It isn’t a bad idea to join these chat rooms and forums in order to meet your fellow players. They’ll also likely be more than happy to answer any questions if you find that you’ve gotten stuck.

With so many different games to choose from, finding the right MUD can seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, there are a variety of resources available to help you do just that.

If you would prefer large and heavily populated MUDs, then your best bet is to begin your search on Top MUD Sites. Top Mud Sites serves as a directory of MUDs ranked by the number of votes they have received from players. Naturally, the MUDs with the largest player base receive the most votes. If a MUD listed here interests you, you can simply click on its name in order to visit its website and learn more.

What if Top MUD Sites doesn’t have what you’re looking for? The MUDs with the largest player base tend to be in the hack-and-slash genre, or otherwise fit along specific lines. In order to narrow your search to specific genres and game features, you can visit The Mud Connector.

The MUD Connector is probably the best resource for finding a game. It will tell you whether or not a MUD is roleplay enforced, whether it uses a class system, whether it features remort or permanent death, and so on. It also provides reviews, written by the players of those MUDs.

While many MUDs are free and run by volunteers, these reviews are never-the-less product reviews. If nothing else, users are paying with their time and creative energy. It is important to keep this in mind while reading reviews.

Even popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft receive negative reviews from distraught players. At the same time, like any community, MUDs can see their fair share of rotten eggs. If a MUD is seeing a mixture of good and bad reviews, it’s probably better than the naysayers make it out to be, but if it’s only receiving negative feedback it might be best to steer clear.

Another great resource for finding MUDs is on the MUD subreddit. Here you can ask for suggestions on specific MUDs, as well as find discussions surrounding the many games in the genre. In addition, the moderators of the subreddit hold a monthly “Let’s MUD” contest in order to shed light on different games in the genre.

With these three resources, it should be easy enough to find a game that appeals to you. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just jumping into the first game that looks appealing, either! If the first one you try doesn’t hit the spot, you can always try out another. They aren’t going anywhere.

If, however, you don’t feel like going through the process of searching for your first MUD yourself, here are two great suggestions for beginners:

Those interested in a hack-and-slash experience should almost certainly try out Aardwolf. Aardwolf features 28 classes in an original fantasy setting, with an in-depth and realistic world to explore, filled with puzzles and quests. It is also most frequently recommended to new players, thanks to its supportive community and dedicated ‘newbie’ channel.

For a roleplay enforced game with a strong storytelling experience, prospective players should consider After Earth. Set in the year 2300 and featuring a mixture of Science Fiction and Cyberpunk elements, After Earth boasts a robust crafting system, player owned spaceships and a setting with a player-run government. As well as having a dedicated ‘newbie’ channel of its own, After Earth also has a friendly community that can be counted on to help new players learn the ropes.

MUDs inspired the MMORPG genre, and, thanks to their dedicated communities, they will be around for decades to come. The next time you’re looking for a new game to play, for a fictional world to explore, or for a new community to be a part of, give MUDs a try.

If you’re already a MUDder, what advice do you have for prospective players? What moments in gaming left a lasting impression on you, and what games do you suggest they try? Let us know in the comments.

Fred Williamson is a freelance content writer and author of horror and fantasy fiction.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store