Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) have long since fallen out of favor as a gaming medium, but in their heyday they were fertile imaginary playgrounds that influenced hundreds of authors, including Dresden Files creator Jim Butcher.
Update: I actually found the original transcript from my infamous conflict on AmberMUSH. The text you see, with edits for readability, is how it appeared when I played.
Butcher played Bassor Thanlis on AmberMUSH. According to Wikipedia AmberMUSH, sometimes abbreviated Amber, was a Multi-User Shared Hallucination (MUSH) based on The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny and, to some extent, the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. Founded in 1992 by Jennifer “Jasra” Smith and several associates, it operated until 2009, remaining online for 17 years.
The Chronicles of Amber features two worlds: Amber and the Courts of Chaos. All other worlds are mere shadows of the “true” worlds and Shadow is the stuff between worlds. Royals of Amber can control the Pattern of reality to create magical effects.
AmberMUSH was, like other MUSHes of its type, a collaborative game. Combat was possible, but it was handled by comparing numbers, with the primary random factor being ignorance of the opponent. This means that if one character is better at something than another character, the outcome is never in doubt – it’s just that the weaker character has to find it out the hard way. The excitement isn’t in winning, but in role-playing the outcome.
MUDs are still around. I’m still an administrator on RetroMUD, which has been around for over a decade and encompasses six different worlds. Much of the role-playing system we use for that game, which involves role-playing points voted on by other players, was inspired by AmberMUSH’s system.
I played Deren Usher on AmberMUSH, who will feature in my upcoming fantasy novel from Three Ravens Books, The Well of Stars. He was a one-eyed prince with a terrible secret – he was actually a were-beholder. Deren, a reformed villain with amnesia, knew nothing of his horrible past until it all came crashing down around him. Much of Deren’s history is retold in my upcoming novel, The Well of Stars – and no, he’s not a were-beholder in the book.
The Well of Stars has another feature in common with the worlds of Amber, Rebma. In the Amber series the city of Rebma is a reflection of Amber. In The Well of Stars Rebma Rakoba is the name of the necromanceress who helps Deren save the world. Her name was actually inspired by my wife’s name.
Playing in AmberMUSH was an educational experience because, while it was certainly about the story, there were also out-of-game politics. Joining a House in AmberMUSH was a big deal; I foolishly chose the house of Usher because they were an appropriately macabre group, but in doing so rejected the players who made “me” the offer. This was the beginning of the Deren’s downfall, because I fell in with the “wrong” people who were not well-liked on the game.
In a game where there’s no independent means of verifying an outcome like dice, winners and losers are determined by a shared consensus. I found that out the hard way when Deren crossed Bleys at the Worlds’ End Bar (which, if I remember correctly, had a shoggoth drinking at the end of it), an official character who was part of the series canon.
Carpetted in soft red, its heavy, polished wooden tables and comfortable, leather-backed chairs tinged sepia beneath the light from stained coach-lamps on the smokey rafters, this bar does not at first seem out of the ordinary. It is only when you notice the enormous variety in food and drinks here, or the diverse speech of its patrons, or the fact that nobody here ever seems to pay, that you begin to realise that this is no ordinary shadow bar. For this is the Worlds’ End Bar, and it drifts unanchored, through shadow. It is a place where Amberite Princes mix with the lowest of shadow-rats. A place where Law and the Lords of Chaos wheel and deal beneath a thin layer of conviviality. A place where lives and nations are bought and sold, where secrets are buried or revealed over tea, or a glass of wine. A place to enjoy yourself, but warily. The bartender on duty is Harvey, and the servers are Joan and Claudette.
Deren was in the middle of a brawl, attempting to defend his ally Eldrik. Things went poorly almost immediately.
Bleys slips his glittering blade out of it’s sheath, the Pattern etched into its surfaces flashing gold.
Alexxis slips off his stool at the long, mahogany bar. Alexxis walks over to stand behind Deren.
Eldrik eyes Bleys.
Alexxis whispers “Who ees da good person here, ma friend?”
Deren smiles, his eyes facing the fight.
Bleys says “I believe my rule is to not ask questions, and just start in on all the participants.”
You whisper “Eldrik is fighting that vampire over there. I’m watching his back.” to Alexxis.
Eldrik backs quickly up. His eyes on Bleys.
Alexxis whispers “and Ah dont deen dat girl ees an elf…Ahh…I see…”
Bleys pretty much joined in the brawl for the sake of brawling, and Deren stupidly pointed his walking stick in Bleys’ direction with an angry retort.
Deren levels his walking stick at Bleys. “My rule, sir, is to make sure you don’t go doing anything rash.”
Bleys reaches over and pulls out his dagger with his left hand. “I find that fair. No one can complain.”
Deren nods at Sebastian and Alexxis. “And I believe my two companions will agree
Bleys flicks the dagger at Deren, hard.
I genuinely thought it was a dramatic gesture, not a threat (I imagined my character was across the room, but again, consensual reality). Bleys took it as an attack and retaliated. And that’s how I learned the hard way how AmberMUSH’s rules comparison works.
Bleys is comparing his Warfare with your Warfare.
Bleys’s Warfare has a major advantage over Deren’s Warfare.
Bleys reaches behind his back, and comes out with a handful of shuriken, which he flicks at Deren.
Bleys pages: Just took a bunch of Shuriken, I expect. Out to break your concentration…
Bleys is comparing his Psyche with your Psyche.
Bleys’s Psyche has a noticeable advantage over Deren’s Psyche.
After comparing the results with Deren clearly being the weaker of the two, Bleys’ player explained that he threw several throwing stars and “he should be dead, but that’s up to you.” I dramatically played Deren’s downfall but didn’t kill him.
Bleys pages: Then you get thwacked bad with the Shuriken. Major Advantage means I could kill you…
Bleys pages: But that’s up to you.
Deren twists his body to the side.
You paged Bleys with ‘I’ve no intention of dying, but wounding up to that point is quite appropriate. >:)’.
Bleys pages: It was a number of Shuriken in the face.
Deren screams as the shurikens make some sickening thudding sounds. He crumples.
Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. On MUDs and MUShes, all you had was the written word. As an English major who could write nearly 100 words per minute, I was far more nimble in virtual worlds than I was in real life. As Butcher explains in the New York Times article:
He recalled the old writers’ adage that “you’ve got to write your million words” of bad prose “before you’re writing good stuff, and I once estimated that I was writing 5,000 words a day, mushing,” he said. “We were all practicing storytelling every day.”
AmberMUSH spawned many writers and gamers, including Cam Banks of Margaret Weiss Productions and Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions. And although I’m not nearly as prestigious or prolific as they, I hope to add my name to that list in November.