Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, an adventure into the known-unknown - back in time to a world of text that still thrives atop four giant elephants riding through space on a giant turtle.
Officially, the PC has had three Discworld games so far - two episodes of what can best be summed up as Rincewind's Scavenger Hunt (based on the novels Guards Guards! and Reaper Man, with the first not unfairly held up as one of the hardest adventures ever made), and the awesomely atmospheric Discworld Noir that pastiched The Maltese Falcon and HP Lovecraft. Beyond that, there's only been two others that I'm aware of, both based on the first book, The Colour Of Magic - one straight up text adventure way back on the Spectrum/C64, and a mobile phone top-down arcade thing that, ah, existed. Apparently.
Back in 1992 though, fans released their own take on the Discworld in MUD form - MUD of course standing for Multi User Dungeon, unlike the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who stands for nothing. And it's still running, because otherwise this would be a very short column. Join me for a quick visit?
To be clear, this isn't a game that I already know, so please pardon any silly mistakes or obvious omissions or moments where I say something that's long been removed from the game and replaced with the words 'Only a moron would think this was still here' in fifty foot high flaming letters whose every belch of acrid smoke sounds like the word 'Duh!'. We're also going to be not so much skimming the surface of Discworld MUD as landing the most glancing blow, not least because any game in development for over 20 years and based on a series of books with their own decades of history isn't the kind of thing that anyone can get the measure of in a few hours by wandering around like Twoflower and going "Oooh." This is a full on RPG setting with combat and guilds and magic systems and missions; mini-games and quests and crafting and religions to join, with skills ranging from basic things like weaving to mastering the Agatean Tea Ceremony. I do not pretend to be an expert on this one. At all. Really, I'm just pointing an iconograph at it and trying not to accidentally burn the city down around me.
To get started, you'll need either a MUD client or a TELNET one - the main page offers full 'getting started information' and a web client that didn't work for me but might for you. To connect, open your client and point it to 'discworld.starturtle.net' without the apostrophes. Touch wood, you'll see the main menu. Torchwood, a bloody awful Doctor Who spin-off. Do not get these two things confused!
The adventure starts in a special newbie area called Pumpkin Town, deliberately away from all the Discworld stuff specifically - though it wastes no time establishing a quirky tone. In the Equipment Emporium's weapons department for instance you'll find a sign reading 'If you must run with the weapons, please run towards the door'. This being a MUD, the parser isn't as advanced as you'll find in many interactive fiction titles, and there's a fair amount of lag between submitting a command and getting the response back - as well as short waits during passages. Not a problem , but something to be aware of.
Pumpkin Town covers all the basics of play, including fighting, an introduction to the guilds (though they can't be joined) and a chance to pick up some basic equipment like a sword. To leave, you go to the travel agent, who warns that you're not allowed back later on, and then it's time to head to Discworld proper.
At this point, you'd expect to arrive in Ankh-Morpork, effective power-centre of the Discworld and certainly the most important location in the books. And of course, you can! And almost certainly will! However, it's also possible to head for Lancre, home of witches like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, religiously obsessed Omnia, darkest Uberwald where vampires and werewolves roam, the traditionally isolationist Agatean Empire, and more - D'reg, Djelibeybi, Ephebe, Klatch, Brindisi, Istanzia (the Discworld's equivalent of 'Mostly Harmless' ), Tsort and Howondaland. You also choose a nationality, with the MUD recommending Ankh-Morporkian citizenship or the open port of Bes Pelargic in the Agatean Empire as a starting point. Of the two, the safer choice should be obvious. But let's be daring!
Going to Ankh-Morpork means starting out at the bar at the Mended Drum, which readers of the books will know is a little like telling a cow that they're going to start their exciting abattoir adventure on the killing floor. Luckily, things are a lot less dangerous here than usual, with the place gentrified enough to have brochures in a peanut tray and the troll splatter ("like a bouncer, but trolls use more force") just idly sitting by. If you want to know what chance you have, you can 'consider' an enemy - the origin of 'conning' in MMOs, fact-fans - and in this case the response is "You would have to be utterly insane to attack the splatter." This puts the splatter in an elite category known as 'damn near everybody at this point'.
For a Discworld fan though, even without a goal, wandering the streets of Ankh-Morpork is extremely cool. While Discworld MUD has a small population - at the time of writing, only sixty other players were online - it has a ton of characters and NPCs wandering around to give life to places and often far more in the way of writing than simply "You are in a street. The street is long." In the Thieves' Guild, a location we've never really seen inside in the book, we find that the Thieves keep a trophy gallery of frilly underpants stolen from the Assassins' Guild. The end of Chrononhotonthologos Street is described as the one where 'even the residents can't pronounce its name'. A small toy store cheerfully announces "All these toys were hand crafted by slaves in far off countries, so they should be reasonably priced," while not far away, a 'rich beggar' takes advantage of being highly placed in the Beggar's Guild to entreat passers by for a five course banquet. Yes, noble Ankh-Morpork! City of a million second hand dreams!
As you leave the Mended Drum, you don't have a specific quest to undertake or anywhere in particular you need to be, and so can simply hit the streets and explore. One of the neat things about MUDs is that time ticks along whether you do things or not, so there are always updates like "To the northeast, Old Tom, the tongueless and magical octiron bell of Unseen University tolls eight sonorous silences," or "A young thief kneels down and offers a newly stolen bracelet to the statue of Mazda," or simply "A skittish factory cat arrives from the south. The skittish factory cat hisses. The skittish factory cat leaves north." Sometimes there are even really clever little details, like a torch going out and a few ticks later a character showing up to replace it with a fresh one. There's a sense of life throughout.
The map is huge , covering both cities and more open areas of the Discworld with a 'journey' command that lets you cover several miles in a single step. From Ankh-Morpork, our start, the Rimward Gate beckons, complete with 'Thank You For Not Plundering Our City' sign, opening out on the Sto Plains. Wandering at random soon lead to the canonically-anachronistic-but-then-this-is-Discworld Holy Wood (still operational here, as opposed to very, very much not at the end of the novel Moving Pictures), where it was possible to hop into a free carriage to travel down to places like Quirm and Pseudopolis and then back to Ankh-Morpork in time for tea. Here's a map of just that small area of the game.
Impressed? Then check out Ankh-Morpork. The words you're looking for rhyme with 'foley schnitt'.
Actually getting stuff done is a little trickier, with learning the ropes in-game about as easy as learning to distinguish timid butterflies by kiss. You can pick fights with people if you like, and then die whether you like it or not - Death showing up to complain about this, but then leaving you alone on account of premature expiration. (It happens to many people and is nothing to be ashamed of.) He's more Marvin the Paranoid Android than the stern but human Reaper Man of the books, but Pratchett and Adams humour has always gone well together, so no matter. After dying, some helpful dwarves provide a book explaining what to do next and which characters can raise the dead, including Mrs. Gogol in Genua and a helpful priest at the Temple of Small Gods in Ankh-Morpork - and a slightly mercenary fairy godmother.
At this point, he said, quietly using Google but pretending to be speaking knowledgeably in the hope that nobody notices, it's time to hit out of game sources for a boost. MUDs are many things, but nobody ever accused them of being simple. The main one is the Discworld MUD wiki , which features full lists of things like commands and combat systems, achievements to shoot for, information on how player councils run, and a list of areas best avoided like a solidified chunk of the plague. In Ankh-Morpork for instance, you don't want to end up in the Shades. In Uberwald... well, it's Uberwald. Wandering into a vampire's castle isn't the best way of ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, and the forests both regularly confuse your bearings and have a tendency to have werewolves. Even the friendlier Sto Plains though get brigand infested, and breaking the rules in town can and will lead to NPC killers showing up to break a few limbs. Crimes include stealing without an official license from the Thieves' Guild, attacking cats in Djelibeybi (the punishment being instantly transported to the crocodile pits - a fitting one, if you ask me), and singing The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All, at all, anywhere the Guild of Musicians can hear.
( It's actually a combat skill as well as a reference, requiring the witch to be a little tipsy to use it, but making everyone around them dance. This being an example of The Dev Team At Least Appears To Have Thought Of Everything , it doesn't work on anything without ears. It can be defended against with ear-muffs. Not sure if the Wizards get an equivalent +2 to staff combat if it has a knob on the end.)
As far as getting started goes though, this is probably a good place , listing places to acquire missions. There's also this section on making money , and a fair amount of higher end stuff to look towards to, like joining the Genuan mafia and doing hit-jobs for the Coffee Nostra. Yes, really. They're a band of criminals who flourished during the Genuan coffee prohibition, with their leaders known as 'Cup 'O' Regimes'. Pity they didn't go into the ice cream business. Then the big boss could have been Capo di Tutti Fruiti.
While Discworld MUD isn't going to appeal to every Discworld fan, it's certainly one that should interest most - a really impressive achievement that like games like Nethack and Dwarf Fortress in other ways really shows off how much raw text can do and how primitive even advanced MMOs are in comparison. The sheer love that's gone into this game specifically is what's most impressive though, with its scale and commitment to covering as much of the world as possible really standing out. Even looking so briefly a few of the implementation details are a little odd, like having a Witches' Guild, and some bits of humour that don't really mesh with the books - Death for instance as a punning jerk rather than a sardonic lover of humanity - but far, far more is like actually being given open access to one of the best fantasy worlds around. If only this breadth is what the MMO genre could have shot for instead of worrying so much about raiding and loot chasing and everything else the genre now stands for. Oh well. Sigh.
To check it out for yourself - it's free - visit http://discworld.starturtle.net/lpc/ . Any TELNET client will do to access it, but there are dedicated MUD playing tools if you'd rather have something with, y'know, 'features'. Definitely have a web browser open too though, to access the wiki and maps. This isn't a game that benefits from trying to wing it.
Should you When you inevitably get lost though, remember that you can type 'help godmother' to summon a handy warp back to your start point to strike out into the world afresh. It's probably not however a good idea to see if you can murder her for XP and a free wand.
At the very least, it's not exactly polite.