We’re rerunning Richard Cobbett’s classic Crapshoot column, in which he rolled the dice and took a chance on obscure games—both good and bad.
From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. 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 several Discworld games: 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 atmospheric Discworld Noir, which 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 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 50-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 decades 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 going “Oooh.”
Behold, text! Compatible with the greatest processor ever built… the Intel i7.
This is a full-on RPG setting with combat and guilds and magic systems and missions; minigames 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 can either play in your browse or by downloading a clientThe main page (opens in new tab) offers full ‘getting started information’. The web client that didn’t work for me but might for you. I used one of the downloadable ones instead. Touch wood, you’ll see the main menu. Torchwood, a bloody awful Doctor Who spin-off. Do not get these two things confused!
Hey, don’t look down on banged shins. They’re up there with killers like stubbed toes, leg cramp and man-flu!
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 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.
Going to Ankh-Morpork means starting at the bar of the Mended Drum, which readers of the books will know is a little like telling a cow they’re going to start their exciting abattoir adventure on the killing floor.
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’ (opens in new tab)), 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!
Uberwald! No, wait. No. Not that daring…
Going to Ankh-Morpork means starting at the bar of the Mended Drum, which readers of the books will know is a little like telling a cow 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 fan—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 along with ‘damn near everybody at this point’.
For a Discworld fan, even without a goal, wandering the streets of Ankh-Morpork is extremely cool. While Discworld MUD has a small population, 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 books, we find that the thieves keep a trophy gallery of frilly underpants stolen from the Assassins’ Guild. 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. This is noble Ankh-Morpork, city of a million secondhand dreams.
The Thieves’ Guild is open to join, but their charges are daylight robbery. Between working hours.
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 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 leads to the canonically-anachronistic-but-then-this-is-Discworld Holy Wood (still operational here, as opposed to very, very much not so 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.
Impressed? Check out the map of Ankh-Morpork (opens in new tab). The words you’re looking for rhyme with ‘foley schnitt’.
Rolly wit, indeed!
Actually getting stuff done is a little trickier than aimless wandering. Learning the ropes in-game is about as easy as learning to distinguish between timid butterflies by kiss. You can pick fights with people if you like, and then die whether you like it or not. Death shows up to complain about this, but then leaves 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.
The Hedgehog Song is actually a combat skill
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, 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 (opens in new tab), 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.
Ankh-Morpork as seen in another game, 1995 point-and-click Discworld. (Image credit: Psygnosis)
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 contain werewolves. Even the friendlier Sto Plains 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 while not carrying an official license from the Thieves’ Guild, attacking cats in Djelibeybi (the punishment being instant transportation to the crocodile pits—a fitting one, if you ask me), and singing The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All anywhere the Guild of Musicians can hear.
(The Hedgehog Song is actually a combat skill (opens in new tab) as well as a reference. A witch must be a little tipsy to use it, which will make everyone around them dance. In an example of The Dev Team Thinks Of Everything (opens in new tab), it doesn’t work on anything without ears. It can be defended against with earmuffs. 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, try this list of places to acquire missions (opens in new tab). There’s also this section on making money (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab). 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.
WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT THE BARELY CONCEALED CONTEMPT OF THE REAPER MAN?
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 Nethack and Dwarf Fortress, 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 it is what’s most impressive, its scale and commitment to covering as much of the world as possible really standing out.
Even looking so briefly a few of the details are a little odd, like having a Witches’ Guild (opens in new tab), and some bits of humour that don’t really mesh with the books (Death 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 the Discworld MUD website (opens in new tab). Definitely have the wiki and maps open in some other tabs. This isn’t a game that benefits from trying to wing it. Should you When you inevitably get lost, remember that you can type “godmother help” 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 the fairy godmother for XP and a free wand.
At the very least, it’s not exactly polite.