MUDs : Encouraging Role-playing

Following the great success of traditional role-playing games (RPGs) over the last few decades, some administrators of MUDs are trying to design virtual worlds for those players who are interested in role-playing to play in. Some players have always been interested in giving the character they play a suitable persona, but have been only isolated cases. Now, with new "dynamic" MUDs appearing, role-playing is being encouraged, and in some cases enforced, for all players. Despite this, there is still a great dearth of good role-playing in MUDs, and this article seeks to address that problem by presenting strategies for both administrators and players to aid in role-playing.

Environment is undisputedly a great contributer to personality, and consequently it is vital that an administrator have a world which is realistic in as many ways as possible. If the players cannot understand the world and see it as a consistent whole which works according to sets of rules, (although there is no necessity for them to be those of this world), then they will have difficulty in truly living the lives of their characters. To achieve this consistency and realism, it is necessary for administrators to carefully judge the applicability of ideas (whether in the form of areas, items, or abilities) to their world. Everything should be in strict accordance with the theme - any break from this, unless with a suitably `in-theme' justification, destroys the concept of the game world being distinct from, and yet no less real than, the world we live in.

Obviously, much of role-playing hinges on interacting with others, and so it is necessary to encourage such interaction. This is not best accomplished, I feel, by having such commands as tell/page and shout operative in the MUD; such abilities (unless the shout is ranged) are rarely justified in terms of the game world, and because of this detract more from the atmosphere than they add to the ability to communicate. They also concentrate only on speech, which is only one aspect of interaction and communication.

One major positive method of encouraging characters to interact with each other is to limit the size of the world. Where the emphasis of a MUD has moved away from killing monsters and gaining treasure, there is no need for vast areas of virtual landscape. Even MUDs which were specifically role-playing designed, and which regularly had forty or more characters connected, have suffered from too great a world area. It is my belief that even a small `village' and its immediate environs could provide an adequate stage for at least twenty characters, if not considerably more.

Hand in hand with reducing the size of an existing MUD, or starting with a small area, goes a need to integrate the characters into all aspects of the world. Although this may rob some degree of freedom of choice from the players, it is a good idea to ensure that they occupy as many different occupations, social positions, etc, as fit in the world area. Thus a village might contain characters who were farmers, shop keepers, merchants, a mayor, blacksmiths, and so on. Having a preponderance of one type of character reduces variety and the possibilities for interesting interaction.

Many players probably have little idea of what is involved in role-playing, and it is quite clearly necessary and helpful for the concept to be explained to them before they begin playing the game. For those novices who, although understanding the concept, have difficulty starting, a list of questions designed to help them visualise their character might prove useful. Such questions might range from those on physical matters ("What colour are your character's eyes?") to more `personal' issues ("What does your character want to achieve in life?"). Although it is usually not possible to give complete answers to some of these questions at the start of conceptualising the character, thinking about possible answers should give players a better idea or outline of their character. After having played the character for some time, it might be useful for the player to go back and answer the questions again, to see if and how their character has developed.

Another necessary part of character creation is the development of a background and history for the character. By fleshing out details such as where the character was born and raised, what his or her parents did for a living, and notable events from childhood, the character becomes a part of the game world, with many links to it. Subsequently, because all characters have such links, they themselves are connected to each other. Where the area of the world is small, this will be a significant aid to role-playing. How could bakers make their living if they did no business with millers? How in turn could the millers grind wheat into flour without having some sort of relationship with farmers who grow the wheat? It is simple relationships like these which can form the first bonds on which to base role-playing.

What has been presented here is of course no more than a small introduction to the various means by which role-playing may be encouraged in MUDs. There is no doubt different techniques suit different players, and it would be foolish to think that anyone will become a good role-player by following the advice given here (or indeed anywhere). Nonetheless, I hope that this will prove useful for some, and provide the help that many people new to role-playing need.


realism: Many people seem to have great difficulty with the concept of `realism'. Perhaps it might be better expressed by the terms `believability' and `internal consistency'. In any case, its aim is to ensure the "suspension of disbelief" so necessary for any true immersion into role-playing.

interaction and communication: I do not feel that page-poses can be easily justified in most MUDs.

world area: It would in many ways be foolish to measure world size in terms of the number of rooms; a MUD may have many rooms but cover only a small area. What is most important is the intimate connection betweeen all of the rooms which comes through geographical (and consequently social) proximity. Thus seemingly far-flung rooms will be seen as an integral part of the MUD world, rather than as distant, unimportant locations.

adequate stage: It is of course important to remember that often not all of these characters are logged on concurrently. Nevertheless, twenty characters should not prove to be too much of a burden in an area of this size.

MUDs : Roleplaying
Last updated: 16 July 1998