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3:31pm on Tuesday, 27th April, 2010:

Lost Lives


I haven't written anything anecdotal about MMOs for a while so here's a story of how MUD's combat system developed.

Reminder: the program known as MUD1 was actually MUD version 3. MUD version 1 was a test program written by Roy Trubshaw in October 1978 that (being a proof of concept) was discarded as soon as it ran; it was replaced by MUD version 2 which was playable a few weeks later (before the end of November 1978); MUD version 3 was started in late 1979 when version 2 got too unwieldy, and I took over control from Roy around Easter 1980.

OK, so obviously v1 didn't have anything you could call combat in it. V2 did, however it wasn't quite how Roy planned it. He wanted the too-and-fro exchange of blows that we know and love in today's MMOs, but he was too busy implementing other things that he didn't get round to it (indeed, I vaguely recall it might have been attempting to implement combat that broke the camel's back and made him abandon v2 to start on v3). As Roy didn't put combat into v2, I did it myself using MUDDL, the language Roy had built into the game. It was pretty simple, though, because this early version of MUDDL was pretty simple: basically, you attacked something, a die was rolled, and either you won or you lost. The loser died and was deleted (permadeath), but it didn't really matter because all possessions were transient anyway and there was no character advancement — that didn't arrive until I put it in v3.

So, when it came to combat in v3 the way Roy originally saw it was that I tried to hit you, then you tried to hit me, then I tried to hit you, and so on until one of us made contact and killed the other. Yes — one hit and you'd be dead. This is a reasonable approximation of how combat works in the real world: minor cuts and bruises and then one, incapacitating blow. However, while discussing this design, Roy mused that he did think it was perhaps a little harsh, and that maybe he should give characters a number of lives so they could run away before they got killed forever. You might have 3 or 5 or 10 lives, say.

I suggested that we should go with something more fine-grained. Give characters 100 lives, only don't call them "lives", call them "stamina". Give them another property, "dexterity", that determined how often they'd hit (based on their opponent's dexterity) and a third property, "strength", to decide how many stamina points they'd knock off their opponent should they make a hit (affected by weapon used). Put in some randomness and some scaling, and the fights would be more exciting: if you were on low stamina then you wouldn't know for sure if you'd be hit, and if you were hit you wouldnt know for sure it would kill you, so you might hang on in the hope your opponent would chicken out first.

Now it's often assumed that MUD's combat system came out of Dungeons & Dragons, but it didn't. Roy hadn't played the game, but I had — quite a lot, too. The original D&D rules were framed to work with the Chainmail system, which I've only ever seen one copy of (at a GenCon stall in the mid-1990s), but they did come with an "alternative combat system" and it's this that everyone used. In this system, characters rolled a number of dice to calculate how many "accumulative hits" they had at their level. For example, a level 1 fighting-man would get one six-sided die plus 1, giving a total number of "hit points" between 2 and 7. In combat, the way you calculated whether you hit your opponent or not was embodied in a table based on your level and your opponent's armour class (from 2 to 9). The figures cross-indexed to give a number, which was what you needed to roll on a 20-sided die to hit. For example, a level 1-3 mighting-man against an armour class 2 opponent needed to roll 17 or more to hit, but against an armour class 9 opponent they'd only need a 10 or above; a level 7-9 fighting-man would hit armour class 2 on a roll of 12 or above. As for how much damage each weapon did, well it was the same for all weapons: 1 point. This changed with the arrival of the first supplement, Greyhawk, which modified the chance to hit by weapon type against each armour class and gave a table for damage inflicted by each weapon. We were horrified to discover that a sword would do 1-8 damage, especially as the dice rolled to determine your hit points had also been altered (8-sided for what were now called fighters, 6-sided for clerics, 4-sided for magic-users and these new "thieves" they introduced). This meant a magic-user would likely be one-shotted in a fight. Still, we played by the rules...

So that's how D&D combat went. It's not how MUD combat went. Even today, the core of MMO combat is closer to that of MUD than it is D&D — large numbers of hit points chipped away at by variable amounts.

Interestingly, it's the same in other computer RPGs, too. These aren't descended from MUD, so the chances are that it's just one of those ideas that several people had independently as it looked like it might be more fun. In D&D it may be a pain stopping combat to calculate what 16 points off your 73-point total comes to, but computers are built to do that stuff.

I sometimes wonder if the concept of permadeath would still be is use if we'd stuck with Roy's original framing of (what we now call) hit points as "lives"...

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).