A (Very) Introductory Guide to Online Gaming

By Emily K. Dresner

Art by andi jones

It's three o'clock in the morning, and you've been sitting in this black, stinking sewer for the last several hours. But time doesn't hold any meaning for you -- and for that matter, neither does your electric bill, your rent, human contact, or even direct sunlight. Because it has come down to yourself, your small, mangy, yet proud group of adventurers, and the red dragon in the next room, which has been giving you fits all night long.

So after due consideration, and another bag of Doritos, you confer with your team, your cohorts in adventure, and decide that yes, everyone has their hit and magic points up to maximum. Now is the time to strike. Now is the time to see what you're really made of if you're really that 17th level Elven mage you claim to be or just another wanna-be. Now is the time to see if you can make that next level.

With sweat beading on your brow, your trembling fingers reach down to touch the hoary keyboard, the slickness rubbing between the pad of your finger and the plastic casing of the key. Your fireball spell is ready, and hotkeyed.

 > e
> You walk east.
> A large cavern. The sides of the cave have been melted by intense
heat. Scattered about the floor are the remains of those foolish enough
to trespass. In the center of a room is an enormous pile of treasure,
the type which can be considered at the outside as "large".
> Exits: w
> You see a large red dragon.

Time to kill, or time to die.

The Online Experience

Welcome to the wild world of online gaming, where elves are elves, dwarves are dwarves, and that cute little adventuring partner with the big eyes is really a 300-lb. man in Albuquerque. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the world is definitely in character.

At the most basic, playing online games is about logging into a service or a server somewhere and playing a name in a computer game. This is reminiscent of the old Infocom games of yore: it is the same text-based game with the same generic interface, with a few bells and whistles added in for flavor.

But online gaming isn't just about reading text when it scrolls on the computer screen and occasionally responding to it like a part of a Pavlovian experiment. It's about logging into an entire world that has been constructed for the purpose of playing a character and being part of the electronic universe. It's about interaction with human beings in a completely new universe that exists entirely in cyberspace.

In a tabletop, traditional roleplaying game, all of the players physically occupy a room, manhandling their dice and grinning maniacally. There is plenty of opportunity for talking out of character, interrupting game flow to get a bag of chips, or stopping a major climactic battle for phone calls from Mom. The game goes away at the end of the night, and doesn't resume until it's time to play again.

The online world is different; the online world is persistent. The game doesn't go away at the end of the night. When a player logs onto an online game, he's no longer himself, as he would be in the real world. He no longer has to affect a funny voice or talk with a strange accent to differentiate the character from the essential human being. The only information given to the rest of the electronic universe about the player is the character: a name, a set of descriptions, and any statistics it might be carrying around with it as baggage. The character acts as the player would wish the character to act, exactly as imagined in the player's head. Except in specific conventions built into the system for out-of-character reactions, every act, every pose, every bit of speech is in character. There is no perceptible break in the game when someone needs to get a sandwich, or answer the phone. Even when the player logs off the world to deal with their real life, the game world continues onward without end.

Immersive Roleplaying

The online world changes constantly. It's an evolving setting peopled with picturesque characters. There is no perceptible break between the world and the character -- the world is always there, and your character is ready to play. This lends itself into one of the greatest advantages of online roleplaying games: immersive roleplaying.

A player is immersed in the world when they begin to emotionally identify with the world and the reality the character inhabits. The difference between a roleplayer and a character who is immersed is like different depths of water. An immersed character might say:

"I am this character in this world."

While a roleplayer might respond with:

"I am this character who plays in this world -- which is a fantasy/medieval setting."

While there are chances for this in intense tabletop gaming sessions, it isn't as common. There is a difference between being able to say what your character does and being able to describe ever move, every comment, and every thought, and this influences play.

The biggest advantage to online gaming is the ability to get into the character's head in a way that is never possible in normal tabletop. It's taking the reaction to the world and the people that inhabit it to a whole new level of intensity. In tabletop gaming, it is rare that every move, every thought, every pose, every gesture or comment is played out in full. On the other hand, this is extremely common in online gaming. And since the responses do not need to be uttered instantaneously, there is time to sit and really think, "What would my character do?" These poses, especially in intense situations, are written out in full, with care.

As an example, here is character named Aleister, who is a mage in some unspecified system. He is facing a hostile mage, who is another player character. In a normal game, the conversation between two players might go something like this:

Jack, playing Dweezil, says, "Al, I have a personal problem with your inability to dress. What is the deal with the plaid pants, flower print shirt, and top hat? My god, what lack of taste."

Em replies, "Al takes this as a personal insult which requires retaliation. Aleister raises his hands and casts the spell of silly string at you." And then she reaches down to roll the dice to see if the spell of silly string does its damage.

The same exchange on an online gaming world would look something like the following:

 > Dweezil looks annoyed, and then slightly disgusted. He says to
Aleister as he picks off bits of bright pink silly string from his Oscar
de la Renta designer tweed jacket, "Al, I have a real personal problem
with your inability to dress. Can't you even make an effort?"

> Aleister laughs evilly at Dweezil, and mocks him openly. He prepares
the spell of Raspberry JELL-O. With a wave of a hand and an arcane
incantation of the worst sort, Dweezil is suddenly doused. "Take that,
Bill Cosby boy."

As seen above, there is a definite difference in interaction between the two characters. The ability to truly express each pose and motion of the hand breathes life into the character in a way no face to face gaming can really simulate. The player has time to really put life and thought into the character's motions, their feelings, their opinions, and occasionally in the way they dress.

The player can even react to the world, when something occurs. And instead of simply saying it, they can do it. In conventional gaming, it might be:

Em says, in response to being told there is a troll in the room, "Al uses his Anti-Troll Device."

On the other hand, the online world is more immersive and colorful. The world might react more like:

 > You walk out onto the large bridge. It looks stable enough, except
for the family of trolls which lives beneath it. Goats? Goats? Who
has time to find goats?
> Exits: nw se
> Contents:
> BigTroll

> BigTroll says "Rar. You'll be tasty marinated with a light barbecue."

> Aleister says "Hold on a second, don't eat me." At the same time he
fishes around in his pocket for the Troll Eradicating Twinkie.

Sometimes, this is considered to be cooperative storytelling, and takes the game one step beyond the conventional sense into really getting into the character's head.

The Other Advantages

Online gaming offers several additional advantages over traditional gaming. First of all, it gives access to those who would never be caught dead buying a copy of the newest, hottest sourcebook in the local hobby and comic book store. They come for the roleplay, not the rules or the system.

Another great advantage of playing online games over the traditional tabletop is that the game is available from any computer that can log into the net. Stuck at Aunt Martha's over Spring Break? Can't find players for your Vampire campaign? Can't sleep at 3am? No problem.

The game never goes away. Not even the most mundane play-by-post game disappears when there are no players about or the sun is just about to crest the horizon. Online gaming is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week experience. Since the games are accessible to anyone with a connection, the largest and most active worlds are inhabited by people from around the world, so there is almost always someone on at all times of the night. It's a blessing for insomniacs.

Another advantage is the countless ways to play. From IRC to playing through email accounts, it is almost unlimited. It doesn't require any special access except for specific pay-for-play games; it doesn't require any magical hookup or any special clients (although in some cases these are recommended.) There are hundreds of worlds to join, and even more players out there looking for someone to game with. All it takes is a little bit of effort and voila, in no time a game is found and gaming commences.

Additionally, there is nothing in the real world to break the flow of roleplaying. When it's time to cast a spell, there is no scurrying around for dice, or looking up tables in a book, or trying to find damage charts. In many games, there is no game master present to maintain the rule set for the world. The programmed engine takes care of the maintenance of monsters, combat, and miscellaneous minor world needs. This is not to say there are no Game Masters -- there certainly are. These take the form of Gods, Bartenders, Wizards, and other arbitrators to maintain order, pronounce judgments, and keep the story going. Sometimes the GMs are major plot characters, charged with generating story line to keep the world moving.

The final big plus to online gaming is the simple fact that it's on a computer hooked up to the net. One can be, at the same time, reading email or reading newsgroups, or writing a paper for class. Additionally, the web is one giant encyclopedia and character details or technical plot points can be worked out with a few minutes with a search engine. The information needed to enact a voodoo ritual or figure out when Napoleon invaded Egypt is just a click or two away.


Ah, but it's time to talk about the disadvantages. There has to be some sort of down side to all this great roleplaying and interaction with the fellow gamer. And there is a big one: addiction. This is not the casual everyday addiction to eating donuts or laying around in bed until the afternoon on a Sunday. This is the drug-like, ignoring-the-real-world, can't-remember-what-the-sun-is-except-when-it-rises-electronically, not-moving-from-the-computer-for-48-hours-not-even-to-hit-the-bathroom addiction.

Immersion takes its toll. There is a time when the player is so immersed in the world of his character that the world is all that matters -- not the computer, or the television, or the fact that someone just crashed through his front picture window with an SUV. Addiction can get so bad that the player has trouble deciding if he loves the real world better then the online community in which he has become a part. The player just doesn't want to stop. There's always someone neat to talk to and interact with, there's a part of the world that is unexplored, there is always another move to make in the online game, another fidget, another piece of plot. There is always something else, because just like the real world, the online world doesn't stop for the gamer when it's time to go away.

And frankly, it's much more enjoyable to be an online persona who is a 17th-level Elven Mage who can wipe out red dragons with the tap of the F9 key then it is to go to another day of work-induced drudgery. When the choices are between being the head of Clan Talamar on an electronic world or being Joe Schmoe in the medical records department, the choice is simple: taking on the dragon wins every time.

This becomes even more of a problem when the player carries electronic gaming problems into real world relations. A story goes a bit like this:

"I came upon this little female elf thing, and I killed her and took all her equipment. Hey, I had just joined the guild of Really Evil People, and that was what they told me to do. A few days later I was at the local comic store playing mini's, and this huge guy with an odor comes stalking in demanding to know who played so-and-so. It was me, of course, but I shook my head no. He figured it out pretty quickly from the guilty look on my face. How was I supposed to know that he was playing the elf?"

People tend to take what happens to their characters a little far, especially when they can no longer separate reality from fantasy. All gamers are, to some extent, guilty of carrying over their gaming stories into real life. Who hasn't heard the story about when your best friend was the dwarf and you were the cleric and you stormed the impenetrable fortress 15 years ago? But this is beyond all that, this is when the player starts to believe they are the character, and takes every slight and every gaming reference personally.

What to do when this happens to you? Quit. Go do something else. It's not real.

And All Those Other Problems . . .

There are some other disadvantages which are less problematic than addiction but just as much of an annoyance as getting a phone call in the middle of a really big, important gaming scene.

For instance: in the middle of a really deep, important scene, the character has just posted a long, elaborate pose, filled with depth, emotion, and turns of words which would cause Shakespeare to weep. It was beautiful, it was fabulous, and then your lover replies with:

 > Jon says "Kewl."

Talk about a great way to kill a scene. This occurs more time than one can count -- even using all fingers and toes. Occasionally, just to make things worse, the player has spent a half an hour preparing a long, graphic pose and something in the scene has killed it in the last second. Nothing kills a mood faster then poor grammar, bad spelling, or just really bad wording. And unfortunately, it happens all of the time. Sometimes this is merely typos, and a player has fat-fingered a key:

 << OOC >> Hitherby says, "*Belial*. Not Denial. Darn it."

In some media it is more common than others, but it plagues the online community like a virus with no cure. The only solution is to bone up on one's English language skills, and apply them. The golden rule applies here -- if the player wants people to hang around his character, he should learn to communicate in the medium he has selected.

And it isn't just the ability to communicate in a written sense that can be a problem. A game that is freeform, without any hard and fast rules can bring about its own crop of problems: powermongers and munchkins. For example, many MUSHes and IRC based games don't have hard coded enforced rules on combat, but will enact it through the use of poses and biting commentary. But the powermonger might take advantage of this. For example, instead of a pose that suggests an attack, the character will carry through the attack to the finish. So, using a standard character type, instead of:

 > Dvar the Conqueror wields his axe and BO and grunts.

The character poses, instead:

 > Dvar the Conqueror pulls out his axe, cuts through your defenses, and kills you.

Ouch. Now that isn't too enjoyable. But it happens, and it happens all the time. Dvar will argue that he's the most powerful man on the MUSH because he's, well, Dvar, and you should have known that before you told him that his mother looked like the bottom of your shoe. (Luckily for the community, there is someone in charge who can boot someone like this if it happens too frequently.)

This is also called playerkilling, the act where one player character kills another player character without the victim's consent. In general, this is a very wide and touchy subject in the online gaming community, and every single world and game has a different set of rules regarding this particular policy. Some worlds endorse it and encourage it through the use of assassin guilds and point boards to see who has killed the most, and some explicitly forbid it on the game and will treat all offenders with a permanent ticket right off the game. In general, most games fall in between, where playerkilling is appropriate if it is in context of the game but wanton playerkilling is frowned upon. The best thing to do before picking up a sword and cleaving through ever-weak, doe-eyed little elf thing in sight is to read the rules or ask one of those who are in charge of the game for the game policy.

You're Doing WHAT Online? -- Identity, Gender, and the Unspeakable

Yes, it's true. That girl you fell in love with on your MUD is really a guy. And not a young guy, either. His name is not Esmeralda, his name is really Harold. You're in shock.

The only thing that the community of players sees when they encounter a character on their online world is the name and the description of the character being played. Sometimes the character has no interest in revealing true-life details about the real human at the keyboard. This is not uncommon: The person at the keyboard is playing a character and they don't want to be bothered with real world detail.

With the ability to mask identity, someone is going to be playing a gender switch. While it is more common for a man to play a female character, sometimes women get into the act and do a little gender switching themselves. This is not, in fact, a sudden phenomena associated with the sexual revolution. Playing an online game is a freeing experience, which allows gamers to try out options that would not normally be available to them in a normal gaming situation. It is completely natural to try and find out what it is like on the "other side of the fence". Sometimes, the character in question is either looking for more attention, or wants to make it on their own in the world the hard way. Occasionally, the revelation that your fellow character is not who she claims to be, comes as a bit of a shock.

Sometimes, the game becomes more intense, real life emotion begins to creep into the environment, and relationships bloom. First comes the occasional dragon hunt on Friday night, or maybe the looting of a few treasure hordes on Saturday afternoon. Soon, one thing leads to another, and the characters are hiding behind bushes in the main downtown area, or are renting out some small, out of the way room in an inn for some activities of the more dubious sort. The unspeakable happens, and details are, as usual, left up as an exercise for the reader.

This is all part of the online experience: it's gaming taken to a new level. It's an important part of being online, and being part of the game. But it's neither a surprise, nor a rarity. It all happens, and it's all more common than one would think.


By this time, those who are still interested in playing and have survived the pitfalls are asking the most important, the essential question: How the heck do I do this?

Luckily, there are many ways of getting online, and it's all relatively simple. Most of the information is posted on the web.


Called "Play by Email" and "Play by Post", these the easiest to access. All that is required is either a functioning email account for PBEM or web/Usenet access for PBP. They work very simply: someone sends out a posting and the players respond to it, much like a progressive story. For example, the game might be full of gritty cop scenes, and the sequence of postings might look something like this in email:

John writes:

 > > The perp comes running out of the building, armed with a customized,
loaded, fully automatic AK-47. He has the coke shakes going on, and it's
clear that he's loaded down with drugs. He opens fire at the passing

George writes:
 > Greg Stannish whips out his police issue .45 S&W and kneels behind
the brown '88 Oldsmobile with the cracked back window. He yells, "Halt!
Police! Put down the gun and step back!"

PBEM runs anything from online cooperative story writing to large, multi-player Risk-like games to chess. They run the entire gamut of types of games that are available, and there are mail lists or web pages dedicated to finding players.


Short for "Internet Relay Chat", this is the replacement for the old CB radio operator networks of the past. Spanning giant networks with dozens of servers and thousands of users at any one time, IRC is very large -- although there are much smaller, private IRC networks that run on only or two servers. Access to IRC is almost always through a client, a small piece of software that accesses the game and formats the text. This might be a text-based client with few features or a graphical client with user lists and options available on pull-down menus.

IRC is a huge collection of private rooms, called "channels," which are dedicated to various topics, from government politics to religion to gaming. There are two kinds of gaming on IRC: pub-based gaming and private channels.

Pub-based is a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week game which is run like a normal channel. It has operators who maintain order and a constant stream of players wandering on and off at all hours of the day. Often, there is a secondary channel for combat, an automatic dice-roller, and a few other scripted perks via the channel's resident robot. The game is real-time, and the activity can scroll quickly.

Private channel gaming on IRC is quite a bit like tabletop gaming. Everyone decides on a meeting place and a meeting time. There is a robot that facilitates dice rolling and character sheets. One person, the operator, is the GM and controls the game much like a normal game master. With other online gaming, the players have a chance to work out their poses and put their emotions into the game.

For example, IRC gaming looks quite a bit like this:

 * Aleister sits down at the back most table.
Hey. I'm looking for some intelligent discourse and
commentary on Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises".
* LadyVixen gets up and moves to a different table.

Additionally, there are IRC-like chat rooms that are available for both AOL and Compuserve. Both of these provide the same services as IRC-based gaming.


This stands for "Multi-User Dungeon." MUDs have been around for a long time. The first one went live before 1980, called MUD1, and they've been running strong for over 20 years. From the first MUDs, they've broken off into dozens of derivations, from LPMud to AberMUD to Diku.

They offer a complete world with themes that vary from MUD to MUD -- everything from fantasy to science fiction to heroic. These are concentrated on hack-and-slash roleplaying, where the world and the NPCs are all part of the automated environment. There are literally hundreds of MUDs available for play at any time, of all different sizes, landscapes, and feel.

While effort has been put into the games in the last years to make them more roleplaying intensive by adding in guilds and quests, the game still revolves around killing a monster, getting gold and experience, and trying to climb levels to the point of becoming Immortal. On most MUDs, becoming Immortal allows the player to contribute to the building of the world.

Gaining access to a MUD requires straight telnet access, or the use of a client. The address of a MUD looks something like:

 telnet lego.mcit.med.umich.edu 4000

The game becomes much like a text-based adventure game, with descriptions scrolling over the screen and the opportunity to go questing with various different people from all over the world.

 > Midgar Town Square
> You are in the middle of a large town square. It is tiled with cobble
stones, and framed with flower beds. All around are shops. Streets
stretch out in all directions.
> Exits: n e s w
> Contents:
> Mara
> George
> Town Guard
> A large lance of DOOM!
> George says "Mara, did you kill the troll under the bridge?"
> Mara says "Not yet."


From the original MUD base came dozens of derivations, including roleplaying intensive worlds. Based on TinyMUD, these are called MUSHes, short for "Multi-User Shared Hallucination." Without a combat system or automated NPCs, these games are based entirely on the setting, with the characters taking a part in the world. The biggest difference between a MUD and a MU* derivation is the ability for any player to start creating their own homes, artifacts, and items without having to become a Wizard. Wizards also take on a different role: instead of being administrators who occasionally deal with troublemakers, hand out starting equipment, and build on areas, they are now Gods, Kings, rulers, and major characters which drive the plot of the game and keep the MUSH in motion.

These games are the biggest roleplaying bang for the buck and offer dozens of themes: from the land of Pern to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, to Amber Diceless, to various White Wolf based MUSHes. Often, these games require a character submission before being allowed onto the game.

Access to a MUSH is not much different then accessing a MUD. In this case, because of the nature of the game, a client is highly recommended. Without a client, one can telnet straight to the game:

 telnet hoopy.foo.com 2477

Much like the MUD above, the interface is the same graphical text adventure with the scrolling text. The difference is in the game engine, which is character based instead of monster and object-based. But the general player mechanics are very close to those of a MUD.

 > Aleister balances his top hat on one hand and his cane in the other. 
He grins at Dweezil. "I see you're not looking any better. I hear milk
of magnesia helps."

> Dweezil gives Aleister a withering glare.

There are many derivations of the original TinyMUD engine, and most of these are simply in feel and usability of the game. A few engines have been tweaked for different purposes -- PernMUSH has been written explicitly for Pern, for example. Some derivations are:

MOO -- MUD, Object Oriented
MUCK -- Multi-User Chat Kingdom
MUSE -- Multi-User Shared Environment
MUG -- Multi User Game
MUX -- Multi User eXchange

Specialized Services

There are many services out there which host online games, but many of these are "pay for play" services, including TEN (Total Entertainment Network), and Kali. Included in this catch-all topic are games like Ultima Online from Origin Games or Meridian 59 from 3DO which require accounts. These bill either by flat rate or by the hour. Also, there are services, like BattleNet, which require a paid for product, in this case by Blizzard Games, but is free for use.

Not all of these games that fall out of the normal categories are "pay for play." There are many specialized chess games, new action games like ARC, and dozens of casino games which are free.

Helpful Links

Presented here are a handful of helpful links to get started gaming immediately. WebRPG -- A play by post hosting service, along with gaming bulletin boards, online community, and basic online eZine. http://www.webrpg.com.

Mud Connector -- The Internet's single best source for MUD based information. Thousands of links, 1000+ MUDs annotated, FAQs, clients, and mud reviews. http://www.mudconnect.com.

DALnet -- One of the most popular IRC networks, along with EFFnet and UnderNet, which supplies nickname and channel services. http://www.dal.net.

TUCOWS -- Source to links, with ratings, to all the interactive net software. Includes not only MUD/MU* clients and IRC clients, but clients for chess games, online war games, and other goodies. http://www.tucows.com.

Emily K. Dresner is a long time online gamer -- 9 years. She has been everything from a plebe on the streets of Midgar to a MUD Administrator.

Article publication date: March 19, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to webmaster@sjgames.com.