An introduction to MUDs and how to start playing them
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. Below, 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?
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 MUDs 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.
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 MUDs.
Most MUDs 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! MUDs 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 and how they got started
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 MUD acronym
These days, MUDs are often referred to as MU* games with a wildcard.
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.
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 MUDs 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:
I’ll explain each of these below.
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):
Some codebases are geared more toward hack-and-slash-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.
Another way games differ is by genre or fandom. There are many options out there, from fantasy to cyberpunk, Harry Potter to Star Wars, anime and more.
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 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.
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.
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 Saturday 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 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 MUDs free to play?
These days, MUDs 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, many MUDs were constrained by licenses attached to their codebases. These licenses prevented admins from making money off their games.
Although licenses have since expired, MUDs 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).
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 MUD resources, too.
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.
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.
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 suggestions.
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 a MUD, 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 a MUD, you typically connect to the game’s server using your browser or a downloaded MUD 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, MUDs rely on text descriptions instead of graphics to depict the game world, including items, characters, monsters, and interactions.
What types of MUDs are there?
MUDs 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 MUD is more focused on PvE, PvP, socializing, roleplaying, or graphics. However, most MUDs these days include elements of multiple styles.
What is roleplaying in the context of MUDs?
Are MUDs still popular?
While video games have gained immense popularity in the past decade+, MUDs continue to have a dedicated fanbase.
Many players appreciate the depth of storytelling, social interaction, and immersive roleplaying opportunities that MUDs 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.
MUDs also tend to be more accessible to screen reader users than video games, which makes them a good choice for players with blindness.
Can you play MUDs solo, or do you need to play with a group?
While some MUDs 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 MUDs, 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 MUDs are text-based and rely on text commands, whereas MMOs are graphical and often played with a keyboard and mouse.
If you’re interested in deep-diving into the history and evolution of MUDs, you’ll find some great reading material here:
- Raph Koster’s MUD timeline (see also: Raph Koster’s wiki page)
- MUD wiki page
- MUD1 wiki page
- MUD codebase genealogy trees
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!