The Free Zone: inclusive RP culture by design

ko-fi Written by Andruid
A horde of shambling zombies in the background, and the text: The Free Zone MU* Inclusive RP culture by design.

Ash and Famine introduce their new MUD, The Free Zone, and discuss some of the changes they made to create a more inclusive, welcoming RPI.

Table of Contents

    For today’s post, I invited Ash and Famine, two longtime text-based game enthusiasts, to talk about the progress of their new roleplaying game, The Free Zone (TFZ), which is currently in open beta.

    With 4 years of experience running their first multi-user dungeon (MUD), plus many more helping out on other games, both staffers have valuable lessons and advice to share with the community – not just about what’s worked well for them, but also what didn’t and why.

    In addition, I wanted to highlight their take on inclusivity, RP culture, and game design, which resonates well with the roleplaying community that surrounds TFZ.

    If you’re thinking about running an RP-focused game or are currently in the process, you’ll find some good food for thought below.

    UPDATE 6/3/23: Ash and Famine have decided to close TFZ in order to pursue a new project. I’m sure they’ll carry forward the lessons they shared in this interview, as well as those learned while running TFZ. I wish them all the best with whatever they do next!

    What is The Free Zone?

    The Free Zone's intro screen upon accessing the game, screenshot.
    The Free Zone: Another damn RPI (zombie?!) MU*

    “The Free Zone is a post-apocalyptic zombie roleplaying game set in the region of Hays, Kansas in the early 1990s,” said Ash, the owner.

    “The primary drive and purpose of the game is the roleplay, but I wanted to lean into a stronger focus on PvE than what I’m accustomed to, including:

    1. survivalist aspects, with the world itself posing the main threat to player characters, and
    2. ensuring most things people want or need in character come from tough-to-reach or dangerous places.”

    “The Free Zone is our first attempt at a PvE-focused game,” agreed Famine. “We’ve always had a shared love for apocalyptic settings, especially in the zombie/horror genre. I’m excited to see what we can pull off when it comes to player versus environment aspects. Not just mobiles and fighting them but dealing with the environment in general.”

    For example, when weather conditions in the game are poor, there’s a small chance for a tornado to develop.

    When that happens, an in-character warning goes out about 15 real-life minutes before the twister touches down. Anyone who isn’t underground within that timeframe can suffer damage.

    “The design premise we’re trying to stick to is ‘the environment is the big bad,'” Ash explained. “We’re a lot more familiar with designing systems to facilitate roleplay than we are designing systems that make the world come to life mechanically, so it’s been a major adjustment in approach.”

    She added, “We’re definitely not there yet, but I’m excited about the progress we’ve made and have enjoyed the shift in thinking. It’s also been fun to realize that features that were too survivalist for our last game fit really well into the gameplay of TFZ and are desired by the people who play it.”

    Quote by Famine, pulled from the body of the text.

    Motivation to build a new MUD

    Anyone who has helped manage a MUD before knows that it can be a lot of work, especially for something offered up for free and on a volunteer basis.

    I asked Ash and Famine what motivates them to continue building their own games.

    “World-building and creating things that I get to see people enjoy are both majorly addictive to me, but if I had to pick one motivator over the other it’s probably the latter,” said Ash. “There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a project and seeing people have fun with it, be it a room, an area, a silly mini-game, a craft, a system, or a plotline.

    We’re lucky in that we have a community that’s really open to pitching ideas and providing actionable feedback, so for the most part we don’t run into situations where we spend a lot of time on something people are going to hate.

    You work on something, release it, and then get to see folks digging into whatever it was and making use of it. It’s a great feeling and has always been what keeps me invested.”

    Famine described running a MUD as having a home to come back to at the end of the day:

    “When you have regular players who return to the game, they become your friends and sometimes feel like family when you’ve played and interacted with them for long enough.”

    He added, “It’s great to see people experience those things you’ve built. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone find enjoyment in it or even relate criticism because they care about it enough to do so.”

    Famine’s point about criticism was unexpected and insightful. People often find criticism to be demotivating, rather than motivating.

    In Famine’s case, however, he recognizes that when returning players offer negative feedback, it’s because they’re invested and think the game’s worth improving. The key is to not get defensive but to look for something constructive that will support the game and its development.

    Quote by Ash, pulled from the body of the text.

    Prioritizing the work and ensuring follow-through

    In multi-user dungeon lingo, the terms “wiz” and “wizard” can sometimes refer to an admin-level user – someone with the ability to create items, NPCs, and areas.

    The Free Zone doesn’t use aggrandizing titles like “immortal” or “wizard”, but Ash really is something of a magician in the number of things she can get done in a short period of time, often to the awe and amazement of her game’s playerbase.

    I asked her and Famine how they prioritize the work that they do and ensure that they follow through on those tasks.

    Building a MUD is a hobby, not a full-time job

    For Ash, she said it’s about enjoying what you’re doing and making sure that MUD development doesn’t turn into a full-time job:

    “You aren’t dealing with customers at a business, you’re dealing with acquaintances in a shared hobby,” she said. “I keep in the front of my mind that it’s not a job, it’s a hobby. Hobbies are a lot simpler to step away from than jobs when they stop being healthy or fun. Your experience should largely be enjoyable, and if it’s not, it’s okay to move on.”

    That said, Ash also admitted that prioritizing tasks can’t always be done in order of what would be the most fun for me right now.

    “Often, it needs to be done in order of what the game needs, not what you feel like doing,” she explained.

    “We prioritize things that pose a direct barrier to gameplay first – things like crashes are always first in line, followed by major system or combat bugs, then material availability. New features are able to be prioritized when those other things are sorted. We use an in-game board system to organize the queue.”

    As for ensuring follow-through, Ash said it all comes back to enjoying what you’re doing: “Even if the task itself isn’t especially fun, if the outcome will be happier people and you’re invested in that as a baseline, you’re a lot more likely to want to finish it.”

    Famine also admitted that treating the MUD like a job doesn’t work well for him.

    “I’ve found that if I force myself to work on something that I don’t currently have the inspiration for, the end result is very lacking,” he said. “MUD building is in its essence a writing project outside of the mechanics.”

    He added, “Typically, I’ll have one project that I’m focused on, but if I have multiple, I’ll keep a list in notepad files that I’m working through, whether it be mapping for an area or a list of information on items, templates, etc., to keep my thoughts organized.”

    Even if he doesn’t treat the game like a job, Famine still recognizes the importance of getting things done in a timely manner: “I try to set deadlines for myself, as well for timeframes to have something done in, so that players aren’t kept waiting.”

    Lessons learned from implementing Alter Epoch

    As The Free Zone is Ash’s second foray into MUD ownership, I asked her if there were any lessons she learned from her first game, Alter Epoch, that she carried forward into The Free Zone.

    “I learned a lot from our last game,” admitted Ash. “There’s simple things like ‘it’s okay to say no’ and ‘establish clear boundaries’, but I think if we zoom out and look at things less personal to me as an individual game owner and focus on broader game design, the lessons become more relevant.

    The biggest lesson I learned from our last game is to embrace the playstyle of the people in your community rather than be in conflict with it.

    Our players largely don’t enjoy PvP conflict, for example, be it social or physical, and will generally work to maintain in-character cohesion – even when it’s the harder path! – rather than tear each other apart.

    When you’re trying to run a game that makes that behavior unthematic, it becomes a struggle between theme and the roleplay your community wants to partake in.

    After I closed Alter Epoch the thought occurred, ‘Why was that struggle necessary?’ And the answer was, ‘It wasn’t.'”

    Screenshot of Alter Epoch's intro text, shown when connecting to the MUD.
    Alter Epoch was a sci-fi/cyberpunk-themed RP MUD that was active from 2019 to 2022. The game was originally called “After Earth” but was renamed during its open beta.

    Putting it another way, she said, “You don’t design a setting for a tabletop game that almost everyone at the table wants to play the exception to – you design the game for the people playing.

    With that in mind, what was the purpose of doing just that with a MUD, which at the end of the day can be boiled down to a digital table?

    It’s better to make the setting suit your people than to try and shoehorn your people into the setting.

    Quote by Ash, pulled from the body of the text.

    In contrast to the previous game, TFZ’s setting requires player characters to maintain working relationships with each other and set aside even significant differences in the name of survival.

    “It’s a community of survivors who all rely on each other to stay alive,” said Ash. “Toss in that it’s also a community founded on the ideal of maintaining their humanity in an inhuman world, and it’s an approach that I’m hoping will feel more natural for our group’s playstyles. There’s a lot of darkness in the world, but they’re working together to succeed against it.”

    Inclusive RP culture by design

    Zombie apocalypse aside, The Free Zone’s theme diverges from real life in a few important ways. I asked Ash and Famine to talk about the differences and why they chose to modify the theme while the game was still in alpha.

    “We chose the late ’80s and early ’90s for our setting because it was the vibe we wanted,” said Ash.

    “Specifically, we wanted to work in a time before the Internet was mainstream. There’s a lot of charm in these decades that lends itself to world-building – the slang, the fashion, the businesses, the music that would have been popular when the world ended; all sorts, really, that just make a setting feel more colorful than present time.”

    (Imagine: holing up in an abandoned Blockbuster while trying to evade a hungry zombie horde, or laying waste to shambler after shambler while AC/DC’s “Welcome to the Jungle” blares in the headphones of your Walkman.)

    Quote by Famine, pulled from the body of the text.

    However, Ash admitted that there’s also a lot about that time period that wasn’t very charming, such as the increased acceptance of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and transphobia.

    Choosing community health over historical realism

    During alpha, Ash brought up these less-than-charming aspects about the time period with the community, and they had a long discussion about it over Discord.

    As she saw it, the game had essentially two options:

    1. an “authentic” ’80s-’90s experience where bigotry was more socially acceptable, or
    2. an alternate timeline where it wasn’t.

    “It wasn’t a tough question, really,” said Ash. “None of us wanted the former. There’s enough bigotry to contend with in real life without dragging it into our game.”

    For that reason, Ash and Famine decided to exclude racist, misogynist, and other such themes from The Free Zone entirely.

    Something else they opted not to include in the timeline: Kansas’ American Indian Boarding Schools, which were used to “civilize” Native Americans throughout the last century.

    “People typically prefer a degree of escapism in games of this sort – whether it’s into a happier fictional world or a worse fictional world,” said Ash. “Integrating real-life horrors and tragedies is rarely a good decision.”

    Famine agreed, adding, “Diversity and inclusion are important to maintaining a healthy community. While the changes we’ve made don’t necessarily fit the time period, we ultimately decided that it was in the best interest of the player experience.”

    For these reasons, Ash and Famine made ‘people are people and all people are equal’ part of the baseline theme.

    “What matters in our setting is how much an individual contributes to the group, be that with supplies, food, arms, morale, and so on,” said Ash.

    “It also helps that in an apocalyptic setting like what we have, everyone has to work together or nobody survives for long,” Famine said.

    Pronouns, sex, and gender in The Free Zone

    Another way in which The Free Zone differs from Alter Epoch is that it completely separates gender from biological sex, which has made it much easier for Ash to introduce they/them pronouns.

    For those that aren’t too familiar with MUD codebases: games historically have only 2-3 coded genders: male, female, and sometimes a third option reserved for ungendered NPCs, like monsters or pets.

    There’s usually no way for players to differentiate gender and sex, either.

    When I asked Ash why she made the shift to separate the two, she said, “It sucked to tell somebody they couldn’t play entirely reasonable concepts without accepting some dehumanizing code quirks.”

    For instance, being referred to as “it” instead of he/him, she/her, or they/them.

    Ash explained: “ROM (the codebase we are a derivative of) has baseline settings for 0, 1, and 2 when it comes to sex, which is neutral, male, and female respectively. Neutral wasn’t designed for people, so it uses it/its as pronouns.

    Consequently, we had a player with a gender-neutral character in our last game who had to deal with being called ‘it’, as the game used third-person (he, she, it) messaging rather than second-person (you).

    I made attempts to try and catch individual instances and add checks for neutral, but the sheer quantity of gendered language in the code meant it would probably never be complete.”

    As it turned out, the answer to this problem was to separate gender from sex in the game’s underlying code.

    “I don’t recall who suggested it first, but it was a player and they have my thanks,” said Ash. “By doing this, we were able to change the variables that print pronouns to parse gender instead of sex for players, which updated almost every use of gendered language in the game from the back end.”

    As a result, The Free Zone now has 3 gender options to choose from, and players can select a different gender at any time. The game will automatically use the pronouns associated with the active gender, which means characters can present however they like, whenever they like, regardless of their biological sex.

    “Our belief is that if someone is coming to play our game, they should feel welcome to play something that they’re comfortable with,” said Famine.

    Ash added about the updates, “The reception was really positive!”

    Quote by Ash, pulled from the body of the text.

    What’s next for The Free Zone?

    Finally, I asked Ash and Famine to name one thing each that they’re looking forward to tackling this year in The Free Zone.

    “Mob/combat balance,” said Ash. “We’ve never had to worry about this sort of thing before, as mobs have for the most part been requisitioned to flavor pieces in our areas previously. I’ve never done any hack-and-slash building myself, so balancing areas to make them playable while suitably challenging is a brand-new concept for me.

    I would like to delve into this, develop working templates, and create some commands for builders to automatically stat their mobiles to suit the difficulty they want.

    The first step is going to be figuring out what the templates should include, which is what I hope to accomplish early this year. Live Discord integration for our help channel is a close runner-up.”

    Famine’s answer was in sync and similarly focused on balancing combat and mobs:

    “Combat updates, balancing mobs, and expanding current areas to make them more interesting to explore and play in,” he said. “The balancing aspect is more difficult than it initially looks and has proven to be an interesting challenge.”

    About Ash and Famine

    Ash (also goes by the handle Niamh) is the owner of The Free Zone, which marks her second foray into MUD development. Previously, she ran the Alter Epoch, a sci-fi game that took heavy inspiration from cyberpunk. She’s been MUDing since she was about 13, when a friend in school introduced her to The Two Towers MUD.

    After that, she branched out into ROM derivatives, MUSHes, and eventually RPI MUDs, which have held her attention ever since. She does everything from coding to building to handling player requests.

    Famine is the head staffer on The Free Zone under Ash. He’s been MUDing since he was 12. Super into Star Wars at the time, he was looking for games to play online when he came across Legends of the Jedi, which is still in operation today.

    From there, he branched out into a Circle-based game called Age of Chaos. He’s been playing and staffing on various games ever since, typically as either a builder or story runner.

    Thank you so much to both Ash and Famine for being willing to share their perspectives on MUD development! TFZ has since been discontinued, but there are many more games out there to try.

    Also, if you haven’t read it yet, check out my post on building a better MUD for screen reader users. It features an earlier interview with Ash and how she tackled various issues in order to make Alter Epoch more screen reader-friendly. Many of the same improvements introduced in AE were present in The Free Zone, which used the same codebase.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is The Free Zone and what is its primary focus?

    The Free Zone is a post-apocalyptic zombie roleplaying game set in Hays, Kansas, in the early 1990s. The game’s primary focus is on roleplay and a strong emphasis on player versus environment (PvE) aspects, including survivalist elements where the environment itself poses a threat to player characters.

    How does The Free Zone differentiate itself with a PvE-focused approach?

    Unlike traditional roleplaying-intensive games, The Free Zone places a significant focus on PvE elements, making the world itself a major threat to player characters. This includes factors like environmental dangers and challenging locations for essential resources, contributing to a unique gameplay experience.

    Why did the creators prioritize community health over historical realism in the game’s theme?

    While the game’s setting draws inspiration from the past, the creators chose to create an alternate timeline that excludes real-life bigotry and historical atrocities. This decision was made to provide players with a more positive and inclusive gaming experience, aligning with the values of diversity and community well-being.

    Did you get value from this post? If so, please consider supporting the site by linking back to it or sharing it with your friends:

    Linking to the site is important for helping it get noticed, both within and outside the text-based gaming community. Your support means a lot!

    Smiling blonde woman wearing glasses.
    About the author

    Andruid is a writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. “Be excellent to each other.”