What is a MUD game? A beginner’s guide to multi-user dungeons and how to start playing them

ko-fi Written by Andruid
A dungeon entrance and the text: What is a multi-user dungeon??
A dungeon entrance and the text: What is a multi-user dungeon??

Just what is a MUD game? And what does that mean, multi-user dungeon? Are all of them set in dungeons? Find out in this post!

Table of Contents

    Just what is a MUD, anyway? And what does that mean, multi-user dungeon? Are all of them set in dungeons? Speaking of dungeons, is there something kinky about the MUD community?

    Well, maybe! But that’s not what today’s post is about. In this beginner’s guide, I’ll walk you through the definition of the term MUD and explain what is meant by “multi-user dungeon.”

    I’ll also teach you how to find free games to play – if you’re up for it!

    What is a MUD game?

    A MUD is a type of text-based roleplaying game that is played by multiple users at the same time. It encompasses a virtual world where players take on different roles and go on adventures together.

    Among the MUD community, it’s generally accepted that the acronym is short for “multi-user dungeon.” The “D” can also mean “domain” or “dimension.”

    If you’ve ever played an online RPG, you’ll notice that MUDs use many of the same concepts and slang words. You can think of them as chatrooms with special commands you enter to get things done.

    Instead of clicking on a goblin to attack it, as you would in a video game, you might type something like attack goblin or kill goblin instead.

    Command: smile Output: Andruid smiles. Command: wave Output: Andruid waves.
    MUDs are played by entering text commands, which are processed by the game as character actions.

    Typically, characters have score sheets with their stats, skills, and other qualities listed (see these screen reader-friendly examples), and characters move around from room to room fighting monsters and making friends. It’s all just done with text instead of graphics.

    In fact, MUDs were the precursors to modern MMORPGs! Many features and concepts present in contemporary MMORPGs can be traced back to older text-based games.

    Most multi-user dungeons are free to play and are maintained by volunteers who put in the time and effort because it’s fun for them.

    Do all MUDs have dungeons?

    Definitely not! They encompass a wide variety of settings, which is why “domain” or “dimension” might seem more appropriate than “dungeon.”

    So why the word “dungeon,” you might ask?

    A brief history of multi-user dungeons

    According to the lore (this happened a bit before my time), the acronym came from an early text-based adventure game, MUD1, which was created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in the late ’70s.

    Both Trubshaw and Bartle are said to have enjoyed a version of the interactive fiction game known as Dungeon (Zork).

    In the years that followed, other trailblazers created MOOs, MUSHes, and MUCKs using different approaches. (Have you noticed the pattern, yet? Mud, mush, muck, moo…) The acronyms actually aren’t all that important, so don’t worry too much about those for now.

    The important thing to know, and what all of these games have in common, is that they’re inherently multiplayer. Unlike Zork, they’re designed to be played by multiple users at once.

    The evolution of the MU- acronym

    These days, MUDs are often referred to as MU* games with an asterisk(*) that serves as a wildcard.

    The term MU* encompasses all the different styles of game, not just dungeon crawlers or adventure games.

    Individual games may also self-identify as MU* or MUX (multi-user experience) to get away from the other acronyms having to do with dungeons or goo.

    For simplicity’s sake, though, it’s generally okay to use the term “MUD” to refer to the whole genre of multi-user text games. People only tend to split hairs when talking about specific games or styles of play.

    For example, what counts as an “RPI MUD.”

    If you’re interested in deep-diving into the history and particulars, check out the additional resources at the end of this post!

    How do modern MU*s differ?

    Given the influential and decades-long history of MUDs, you might be wondering about the qualities of modern games.

    In my opinion, there are 3 major ways that today’s games differ from each other:

    1. Codebase
    2. Genre
    3. Culture

    I’ll explain each of these below.

    1. Codebase

    The term “codebase” refers to the code that makes up game’s underlying program. The program (server) runs on a computer somewhere, and players use a client to connect and log into the game.

    Codebases are written in a variety of programming languages. For example, CoffeeMUD is written in Java, whereas TinyMUD is written in C.

    For a more comprehensive list of available codebases and the languages they’re written in, check out my MUD Resources page.

    Different stock codebases offer different capabilities, including default commands, systems, and maps. These systems dictate how combat works or how players communicate with each other.

    Many long-running games today are so heavily modified that their code barely resembles the initial codebases they were created from!

    A game’s codebase is usually credited on log-in, right after you connect to it but before you enter your username. Here’s an example from a game I have handy in my client (note the DikuMUD, ROM, and Merc credits):

    Alter Epoch's intro text, shown when connecting to the MUD.
    A game’s codebase is usually credited in its intro text / login screen and under its “credits” helpfile.

    Some codebases are geared more toward hack-and-slash (H&S) style gaming, meaning they focus more on killing monsters to level up and gain sweet loot. Other codebases are designed for socializing or roleplaying.

    (For an overview of the differences, see my post on MUD styles.)

    Ultimately, you don’t need to know about a game’s codebase before you play, and most games are built on heavily modified code, but if you find that two games seem really similar, it’s probably because they share some common ancestry!

    To sum it up simply: the codebase provides structure. It provides the environment and commands that allow players to interact with each other and the virtual world inside the game.

    2. Genre

    Another way games differ is by genre or fandom. There are many options out there, from fantasy to cyberpunk (or fantasy AND cyberpunk, as in the case of Shadowrun), Harry Potter to Star Wars, anime, supernatural horror, and more.

    Dune's intro screen with ASCII art.
    Many popular MUDs are based on books and movies.

    Naturally, the genre of the game has a big impact on the types of NPCs and zones you’ll encounter, as well as things like available spells and abilities.

    In a medieval fantasy game, you’re more likely to encounter sorcerers and magic spells, for example. In a cyberpunk game, you’re more likely to encounter modded-out enforcers with guns.

    Zones and areas

    A zone is a mappable area usually dedicated to a particular city, region, theme, or set of puzzles and quests.

    Section of Alderaan mapped out in LOTJ MUD (using Mudlet).
    A section of the Alderaan zone map from Legends of the Jedi MUD, a game based on the Star Wars universe.

    It’s similar to a zone in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs.

    In MUDs, these areas are made up of multiple rooms that players traverse in order to talk to NPCs, fight monsters, gather items, and complete quests.

    3. Culture

    Last but not least, games differ in their culture and the communities that surround them.

    Two games can share the same codebase and genre but have completely different expectations about how players will interact with each other!

    For example, some games are roleplay-enforced (RPE), which means players aren’t allowed to talk about out-of-character (OOC) things using in-character (IC) speech and channels.

    Other games are much more relaxed and don’t care if someone talks about Sunday night’s sports game in the faction chat.

    Policies and prohibited gameplay

    Culture also includes a game’s policies around things like metagaming and harassment.

    For example, how admins handle disputes or whether and to what extent they allow adult themes are both part of the game’s culture.

    Games typically include their rules early in the character creation process and will require you to read and abide by the policies in order to play.

    Most RP games have a list of topics they prohibit players from writing about or engaging in during roleplay, such as sexual harassment. This is generally true for other types of writing games, as well.

    Why are so many MU*s free to play?

    These days, multi-user games are run by hobbyists for fun, similar to how a GM might run a regular tabletop game, but in the early days, many MUDs were created as educational projects and hosted at universities.

    It’s also worth noting that in the past, games were constrained by licenses attached to their codebases. These licenses prevented admins from making money off their games.

    Although licenses have since expired, MU*s continue to be a niche for creative hobbyists who would rather do it for fun than as a full-time job.

    For a lengthier discussion and more views on this topic, check out this thread in r/MUD.

    Where can I find a free game to play?

    I haven’t scared you away, yet? Good! In my experience, most games are staffed by friendly volunteers and hobbyists – ordinary people with day jobs and/or families.

    If you’re open to the idea of text-based RPGs, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find a game you like, supported by a community of decent human beings.

    To find a game to try, you can start by browsing a MUD directory. There are several to choose from. At the top of my list is Grapevine.

    Unlike some of the classic directories, it doesn’t include a voting/review system or advertisements. It presents games in a nice clean format, has a working search feature, and shows you whether a game is currently online (available) or offline (unavailable).

    Grapevine's MUD listing with filtering options.
    Grapevine is a user-friendly MUD directory / listing site with a clean look.

    Aside from Grapevine, there’s also MUDListings, which includes reviews, available staffing opportunities, and links to Discord and Reddit.

    Other directories are listed on my MUD Resources page. Just be aware that some listings haven’t been updated to use SSL (they have http:// in the URL instead of https://), so your browser may yell at you about them being unsafe or not secure. Use them at your own risk.

    Okay, I found a game! How do I connect?

    Hooray! If you’re using Grapevine to look for a game, you’re in luck: it has a built-in web client. Just click on the Play button, and you’re good to go!

    If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also try the Surprise Me & Play! button. It’s located just under the filter options.

    I pressed the button and was taken to… Iberia! Iberia gets some free advertising. 😂 Actually, if you have time, it’s worth swinging by Iberia’s website, as they do list some pretty good MU* resources, too.

    Iberia's intro screen.
    Grapevine’s built-in browser client allows you to try out games quickly and easily.

    If you’re using a different directory to look for a game, it may or may not have a functioning browser-based client. Some do, some don’t. Some games even have their own custom-built web clients!

    You may just need to poke around and explore a bit until you find something that strikes your fancy.

    If you decide to try a roleplaying MUD, you may find my Beginner’s guide to roleplaying helpful.

    MUD clients

    When you’re ready to level up, you’ll probably want to try out a full-blown MUD client that you download to your computer. A client isn’t always required, but using one does offer a few advantages.

    For example, a client will allow you to customize the game window and set up shortcuts that will make connecting and playing easier.

    Two of the most popular free clients are Mudlet and MUSHclient.

    Screenshot of Mudlet's home page.
    Mudlet is a popular downloadable MUD client that is lightweight and highly configurable.

    Personally, I use Mudlet on a Linux machine. It’s lightweight and superfast. It’s now also accessible to screen reader users!

    Mudlet can still be a little intimidating if you’ve never done things like coding, scripting, or setting up macros. Also, the stock mapper in Mudlet isn’t quite as intuitive. If you enjoy writing your own scripts and building your own little databases of things, though, you’ll probably love it.

    I also use TinTin++ sometimes when I’m out and about or want something lightweight and old-school.

    Is there an app for that?

    There sure is. I could probably write a whole blog post on desktop MUD clients and smartphone apps, and maybe I will. But for now, I’ll leave you with a tip: search your phone’s app store for “mud client.” Read the reviews, look at the features they offer, and try one out.

    You can also check out my MUD Resources page for a couple of options.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What does MUD stand for?

    MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon or sometimes Multi-User Dimension or Multi-User Domain. MUDs are a type of online text-based virtual world where multiple players interact, explore, and go on adventures together.

    What is the basic concept of a MUD?

    In this type of game, players take on different roles (commoner, combatant, healer, merchant, noble, etc.) and navigate through a virtual world represented by text descriptions. Players can interact with each other, solve puzzles, engage in combat, and roleplay as characters in the game.

    How do you play a MUD?

    To play, you typically connect to the game’s server using your browser or a downloaded client, such as Mudlet. Once connected, you create a character, enter the virtual world, and use text commands to interact with the environment and other players.

    Are MUDs similar to modern graphical online games?

    MUDs were the precursors to modern MMOs, so they do share some similarities. However, they rely on text descriptions instead of graphics to depict the game world, including items, characters, monsters, and interactions.

    What types of MUDs are there?

    Too many to list! They can be classified into different genres, such as fantasy, sci-fi, historical, and even themed around popular books or movies (fandoms).

    There are also 5 basic MUD styles that describe whether a game is more focused on PvE, PvP, socializing, roleplaying, or graphics. However, most games these days include elements of multiple styles.

    What is roleplaying in the context of MUDs?

    In this context, roleplaying occurs when a player assumes the identity of a character within the game world and speaks and acts as that character. Players do this to immerse themselves in the story and setting.

    Many games welcome roleplay, but most do not require it.

    Are MUDs still popular?

    While video games have gained immense popularity over the years, multi-user games continue to have a dedicated fanbase.

    Many players appreciate the depth of storytelling, social interaction, and immersive roleplaying opportunities that text-based games offer. Others like the ability to create automations and triggers that can help them progress in the game without having to type in commands by hand.

    Text-based games also tend to be more accessible to screen reader users than video games, which makes them a good choice for players with visual impairments.

    Can you play MUDs solo, or do you need to play with a group?

    While some games can be played solo, the full experience often involves interacting with other players. Joining a community can make it easier to get help and progress faster.

    For roleplaying MU*s, interaction is often essential to moving a character’s story forward or gaining experience (XP).

    How do MUDs differ from massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs)?

    MUDs and MMORPGs both involve multiple players interacting in virtual worlds, but the former are text-based and rely on text commands, whereas MMOs are graphical and often played with a keyboard and mouse.

    Additional resources

    If you’re interested in deep-diving into the history and evolution of multi-user games, you’ll find some great reading material here:

    These pages were compiled by people who were making and studying MUDs while I was still wearing braces and figuring out what I wanted to do when I grew up. Definitely worth a read if you enjoy exploring rabbit holes full of trivia and history (I do).

    If you’re looking for a community where you can ask questions and find more resources, check out r/MUD on Reddit.

    BONUS: If you want a blast from the past that goes even further back, try playing a version of Zork!

    The beginning of Zork, which shows the game's credits.
    Zork is an early single-player text-based adventure game that you can STILL PLAY. That’s pretty cool, right?

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    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.”