The roots of Dungeons & Dragons have long been a part of the development of text-based online games like Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and Multi-User Shared Hallucinations (MUSHes). Bruce Cordell, formerly research and designer manager at Wizards of the Coast and currently senior game designer for Monte Cook’s Numenera, revealed that he was originally hired by TSR (before it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast) to create a D&D-themed MUD. As I explained in The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:
With Dungeons & Dragons so popular on campus and the rules ever-evolving from the relatively niche art of miniature wargaming, it was perhaps inevitable that college students would adapt computers to handle the complex rules. For players who were not statistically inclined, these rules were necessary evils. With a computer doing all the work, the players could enjoy the less math-heavy aspects of the game.
In the early days of MUD development, personal computers were not yet ubiquitous. The only large group who did have access to computer mainframes was college students. The earliest computer role-playing games (CRPGs) and MUDs emerged from these systems. A cat-and-mouse game metagame ensued as students sought to hide their games from faculty who didn’t want to see their considerable resources used for purely recreational purposes. Many of these early games have been lost to history as a result.
Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle first discovered the single-player game known as ADVENT in 1979. His interest piqued, Bartle craved a more participatory experience similar the Dungeons & Dragons. After college, he created the first MUD. MUD, or Essex MUD or MUD1, ran on the Essex University network. After Bartle licensed MUD1 to CompuServe, Essex MUD was closed. This left only MIST, a MUD derivative, which would go on to become very popular until 1991 when it closed. The fascination with MUDs remained a chiefly British phenomenon until the 1980s when personal computers with modems became widespread. The popularity of Bartle’s MUD1 soared, leading to the creation of MUD II. By 1989, MUD II had thousands of players.
TSR noticed. As Bruce explained in an interview on ENWorld:
Fast-forward to me and my first job out of college: A technician charged with providing a research lab a huge variety of complex biomolecules. To synthesize RNA and similar molecules in the early to mid ‘90s, a lot of computer horsepower was required. Which meant my synthesis room had access to the fledgeling internet in spades. And as I discovered when the synthesis machines were idle, that was the era of MUDs and MUSHes. These text-based multi-user games totally sucked me in, so much so that I learned to code them.
Unfortunately, the MUD didn’t come to pass, as reported by Abstruse on AICN:
I put in my name, went out for an interview, and they hired me to write a Multi-User Dungeon. But then when I got out there, they said, “Naw, we’re not going to do that.” I said, “I just fucking quit my job in biotech!” So they said “We’ll put you in print.” So first thing they put me on was GATES OF FIRESTORM PEAK.
In the end, it wasn’t TSR that launched the first commercial MUD. Legends of Future Past, designed by Jon Radoff and Angela Bull, was released in 1992 and ran until 2000. This was not the last time the D&D brand attempted to embrace the online gaming phenomenon it inspired. Wizards of the Coast tried to enter the virtual tabletop space with the eventual goal of transitioning to a MMORPG, but due to the poor reception of the 4th Edition of D&D and the murder/suicide of its senior manager of digital technology projects, the project was scrapped.
Atari would eventually snap up the rights to D&D, but even that was in dispute until Hasbro settled with the video game company. Recently, Wizards of the Coast has clawed back the rights to digital Dungeons & Dragons as part of its transmedia relaunch of the 5th Edition of the tabletop game.
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