Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has a long association with video games. Not only is the author himself a fan of Doom, Thief, and The Elder Scrolls, but his satirical fantasy world and video game ties can be traced back to 1986’s The Color of Magic—a reference to the popular Ratchett’s first text-adventure adaptation of Discworld. Later games based on Pratchett’s work include 1995’s Discworld, a notoriously difficult adventure game voiced by actors like Eric Idle and Tony Robinson, and 1999’s Discworld Noir, a 3D detective game where you Which plays the universe’s first private detective.
But the most ambitious Discworld game in existence is not officially associated with Terry Pratchett at all. Discworld MUD is a text-based “multi-user dungeon” – an early form of online role-playing game where everything from locations to in-game action is described in words. Created in 1991 by David “Pinkfish” Bennett, MUD has been in service for over 30 years and today provides the most detailed description of Discworld outside of Pratchett’s books. Not only does it have most of the key locations from the city of Ankh-Morpork to areas like Klatch and Ramtops, it also has seven guilds, player-run shops, and countless quests and adventures featuring many of Discworld’s most famous characters. It even Has its own newspaper.
Terry Pratchett. Photo: Joby Sessions/Future/Shutterstock
“I have a long, long history of inadvertently getting into trouble,” said Jacqui Greenland, one of six administrators overseeing MUD operations. Known in the game as Sojan, Greenland has been associated with MUD for most of its history, first logging in in November 1992 while at university. At the time, it was called Discworld 3 and was one of several Discworld-themed MUDs in the works. In fact, Jacqui first heard it when a friend told her: “Don’t bother Pinkfish’s Discworld , because it’s rubbish.”
Indeed, back in 1992, it was nothing like the massive and complex games of today. This is a small, unremarkable fantasy adventure set in Ankh-Morpork. “It doesn’t make Discworld Discworld anything,” Greenland said. “It’s pretty generic.”
But then, after the author announced his awareness of the projects via a UseNet post, it got Terry Pratchett’s favor and continued development. “He said ‘this is an offer, if you promise to never make money, then you write me an email and I’ll send you an email to give you permission,'” Greenland said. “David Bennett got that email somewhere.”
This license acted as a catalyst for another unique attribute of Discworld 3: a community interested in creating quests, characters, and storylines, just as it was in the game. In her 30 years at MUD, Greenland has only spent nine months as a player. “I had these ideas about what could be added, and at the end, someone just said ‘I’m too lazy to listen to you keep telling me what to do, so I’m just promoting you as a creator so you can do it yourself.'”
Since the MUD was created in 1991, more than 800 people have contributed to it as creators, writing new areas, character dialogue, quests, guilds, item descriptions, and more. Today, it has over 12 million lines of code. For context, The Witcher 3, considered one of the best RPGs ever made, has between 1 and 2 million lines of code.
The city of Ankh-Morpork, as depicted in the Discworld multi-user dungeon.Photo: Kefka’s Discworld MUD map
This is not the only indicator of the Discworld MUD range. One of the veteran players with the username Quow provided a quick tour. “There are about 20,000 individually crafted and detailed rooms, each with room items and room chats, and then about 16 million terrain rooms fill most of the Disc between those places,” he said. “We have Djelibeybi and Ephebe in Klatch desert, Genua, well described from witch books, Bes Pelargic in Agatea, Lancre and all the quaint little villages around it and Ramtops in general.”
Arguably more compelling than the size of the MUD, however, are the details players can read and interact with Discworld. “I remember the depth of its implementation that impressed me the most,” said Kake, one of the current founders who joined MUD in 2004. “If there’s a tree on a street, you can look at the tree and it might tell you something about its branches, then you can look at the branches, it might mention a bird’s nest, and then you can look Look at the nest and it might tell you it has eggs in it – no matter how far you go there is never an error message claiming that what you’re trying to see isn’t there.
This is a level of detail any fantasy game would be proud of. But Discworld is no ordinary fantasy realm. Pratchett’s work combines satire, parody, allegory and socio-political commentary, all in a characteristic comedy tone. It’s hard for anyone to replicate the style, let alone the loose collaboration between creative gamers. So how did the creators of the MUD deal with the tricky prospect of adapting to Pratchett’s style?
The answer is they don’t. At least, not specifically. While the MUD is set in Pratchett’s Discworld, it’s not meant to be a one-to-one adaptation of his work. For example, the layout is based on the officially released Discworld map. But there’s a lot more that you won’t find in Pratchett’s Discworld. “Our focus now is more on keeping the game fresh, fun, interesting and balanced,” Kake noted, “using our own imagination and ideas to see what new things players will like.”
Greenland said MUD’s humorous approach was as influenced by David Bennett as Pratchett’s own work. “The hilarious sense of humour, the odd bits and pieces, it all came from David Bennett,” she said. In fact, since Pratchett’s death in 2015 (arguably some time before that), the main source of inspiration has been the community’s own interactions with the games they built. A MUD is ultimately a role-playing game, and RPGs thrive on the overlap between gaming and creation.
A scene from the Ramtops Pub: This is what you actually look like when you’re playing. (Screenshot courtesy of Jenny)
Take two in-game newspapers. One of them is AM Daily, edited by a player simply known as Jeanie. “The Morning Journal is published monthly, and you can buy a copy of the current edition from the newspaper box and people, or subscribe and have it delivered every time a new edition is published,” she said.
The paper covers events happening in the game throughout the month, with stories ranging from game updates to guild events and player-hosted events. It’s similar to a community blog run by developers for any modern game. But the fact that it’s published in the MUD by the players themselves means that the story is often intertwined with the game’s own fiction. “There’s an excellent fictional series
As found on the MUD, it’s in the city of Ephebe,” says Jenny. “You can follow the protagonist of the story to find the artisan he meets or the tavern he goes to for a drink. “
Perhaps the most lasting impact of Pratchett’s work on MUD is the author’s progressive and inclusive views. For example, the proportion of blind players is relatively large, so it has been updated many times to be compatible with screen readers. The creators also keep updating some of the MUD’s old rooms, where humor or descriptions take the form of lazy stereotypes or punches. “Instead of trying to make an exact copy of the book, we created a world inspired by Pterry’s work,” explains Kake. “It’s clear from reading his books that he’s been learning and growing throughout his life, and I think as creators we better continue to work to eliminate racism, obesityphobia, transphobia and other biases from our games. “
It’s not an online utopia. Like any online community, it encounters issues of harassment and abuse, and fighting it requires a positive stance. “Most of my opinion these days is to be a genie that nobody wants things to escalate to,” Greenland said. I asked her how often questions like this came up. “Not that often. But even once a year is too much for me.”
Discworld MUD meetup in 2002, shot by MUD player Derek Harding.
Despite the tremendous progress and proliferation of video games during this period, player commitment to maintaining and updating the MUD is a big reason why it has remained active for so long. The community isn’t as big as it used to be, and its founder, David Bennett, hasn’t been involved in more than a decade. But you’ll still find 50 to 100 players exploring Discworld at any one time, and it’s still being updated, with day-to-day operations overseen by a new generation of admins like Aristophenes and Pit.
Greenland itself doesn’t play or create much these days. Instead, she keeps the lights on, running and maintaining Discworld’s servers where thousands of rooms, hundreds of player characters, and millions of lines of code reside. I asked her what kept her involved.
“I don’t know why I keep doing it, why I keep having this passion,” she said. “I did spend a full day abroad abroad, logging in remotely to start backing up a server online because it was dead. I have an attachment to where I grew up in college 30 years ago and never left.”