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Putting the "Game" in your RPG

by Aaron "Ajax" Berkowitz

Many times a discussion about class and level systems on muds turns into a mere listing of their bad qualities. They're too limiting, they're bad for role-play, they're unrealistic, and so on. In my opinion, muds are indeed "role-playing games," but the best kind of mud is one that gives attention to both the "role-playing" and the "game" aspect of that description. Too much role-play, and you've got theater, with everything consent-based and largely pre-arranged. Too much game, and you've got Quake, and the world is a flavorless collection of point-hounding players, who don't care if they're wearing "a Hawaiian shirt" on their body if it's got +damroll.
Lovely Hawaiian shirt

A lovely +100 Hawaiian shirt.

Let's go over a couple of the classic objections to class/level systems:

"Classes are too limiting - characters should have access to much wider areas of expertise, like in real life."

One can make the argument here that classes realistically portray life during the "medieval" period many muds attempt to simulate. In a time before widespread literacy, knowledge was just as powerful as it is today - but even more precious. The various trades all formed guilds to protect their livelihood and advance their own interests, as well as protect their trade secrets. In the classes available to most muds, these secrets would be even more precious due to their great power. Training in the skills of your class would be entirely in the control of your master or mistress, who would no doubt include a hefty dose of indoctrination along with the practical lessons, to ensure that you would act to the benefit of the Guild. Different classes might very well act in common cause, but it is doubtful they would share Guild secrets (especially classes like thieves or assassins!). People often forget that the Dark Ages were different from today, where you can simply pick up a book or sign up for a class if you want to learn something. Back then, your trade was your livelihood, your social role, and your legacy to your children.

From a game-play perspective, classes allow players a variety of roles to play, but also encourage diversity by providing different areas of expertise to different types of character. A well-designed mud has several classes that include both advantages and handicaps: classes with strong fighting skills usually lack magical abilities, and vice-versa. Creating a well-defined place for each character class in your mud world aids in maintaining both game balance and variety among your playerbase. Keeping "heal" away from warriors ensures that clerics will have a place in the party, and allowing only thieves to "pick lock" makes them indispensable for that purpose.

"Experience levels are unrealistic. A 17-year-old might kill a veteran warrior with one lucky swing in real life - he wouldn't have to keep hacking at her. And real people learn skills at different rates too, not at some arbitrary point in their career."

The role-playing argument asks that you get a little abstract about the nature of "experience points." Since the center of the mud (admit it) is combat, all classes become involved in it sooner or later. In most muds, achieving enough experience causes you to gain "levels," which in turn increase your hit points (i.e. keep you alive longer in combat), and your chance to hit. Skills do not necessarily increase when one gains a level, but combat ability does. And thinking about it, this is as it should be. Every fight you survive will teach you more of what to expect from the next one. Your character's hit points aren't all just flesh, either - as a player character, they represent your defense strategy as well as your general toughness. (This doesn't always have to hold true for non player characters, though.) A 17-year-old might indeed be able to kill a veteran warrior with one lucky blow; but if the warrior is experienced enough, that blow won't land. Even in combat, one would expect a veteran of many fights to the death to prevail over a youth, no matter how gifted or well-trained. The veteran has learned more about staying alive - she has more experience. Thus, experience measures your ability at staying alive in combat, while skills are used for expertise in specific fields.

Skills, as intimated above, are taught at the pleasure of the master in a guild system, and thus the readiness of the student often has little to do with it. The guild might have a standard set of practices for all students, designed to ensure that even the least gifted has learned enough to move on safely. This would hold doubly true for guilds of magicians, where mistakes can be quite unpleasant for all concerned. Also, the master would wish to be sure the student had committed himself or herself to the guild before passing on more precious knowledge.

From a game-play standpoint, levels are the reward for learning the rules of the game. They increase your power and your versatility, and are the single most important standard of measurement between characters. They give you access to more skills, enable you to survive tougher encounters, and on some muds, to use better equipment. While getting levels is not the only joy to be had from a mud, it does create a sense of accomplishment and pride in the player, in a way nothing else can.

Some argue that this is all well and good, but what happens when you reach the maximum level? Start over? My response is, well, why not? A good mud usually has many different possible character types; once you have mastered one, why not try another? As noted above, any mud offers other possibilities for enjoyment (besides getting levels) for characters who have achieved all they can through combat; but that sense of achievement is an endlessly renewable resource, since each class has its own fascinating wrinkles to be explored. Making a fresh start gives you another angle on your favorite mud, and more opportunities to appreciate it. Plus, if you like your mud enough to achieve the maximum level with your first character, it's a good bet you'll be willing (even eager!) to do it again with a new one.

A good mud has to pay tribute both to its role-playing and its game aspects, allowing players to make achievements for game-based knowledge, as well as have the freedom to interact with the world in many different ways, from many different perspectives. Choosing to go with classes and levels will not destroy role-playing on your mud: creative role-players are very good at working within almost any sort of limitations. They will, however, give players a sense of place, accomplishment and involvement in your game, and bring them back again and again to pursue their own personal quests. What more can one ask of a mud?

Ajax, also known as Dyrewulf, has served as an Immortal on several muds throughout the years, including JediMUD, where he worked with Jeremy (Ras) Elson, and Realms of Imagination, where he served as Head Builder and Co-Implementor for over two years. His current stomping ground is Questionable Sanity ( 4000), where he has refused any number of promotions, since he is content to run the mud from behind the throne.