Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Lanfear Effect - Ruminations on the Discworld MUD experience system

So, I've been MUDding lately, which is a bad sign. Multi-User Dungeons consumed my entire college sophomore year, more or less. I'm still managing to eat meals and go to work and function, so that's encouraging. My addictive personality's not what I'm interested in at the moment. What I'm interested in is Lanfear, and player-generated game economies.

I don't know her real name, but she plays on the Discworld MUD, or more precisely, logs in to the Discworld MUD and lets experience come to her. Players log in to the game, wander around as warriors and wizards, among other professions, in a goofy fantasy realm based on the books of English author Terry Pratchett. I'm a big fan of the books, and the game nicely captures the whimsy and wit of the series. The code of the game has been around for more than a decade, and volunteer programmers, called creators, have accreted around the basic shell of the game a huge system of skills, quests, amusing conversations, and mythology. This produces a wide variety of possible play avenues and styles of play, from assassinating other players to becoming a brewer of exotic teas. No, really.

What attracted me to the game, beyond the longevity (which breeds complex interaction), the wide player base (which makes for human interaction and electronic cameraderie), and the stability (some MUDs crash frequently, Discworld is up almost all the time for weeks on end), is the skill system. If your character attempts a skill, there's a small-but-definite chance that your character will learn something as she uses the skill, producing a happy message "You feel like you've learned more about using a heavy sword" or the like. There's something delightful about winning the skills lottery and "TM'ing" (for taskmastering). Students of Pavlov will also recognize this as intermittent reinforcement, key to making a response more ingrained than consistent reinforcement.

What I learned as I began playing, however, is that there are two economies, one of money and goods, the other of skills. Money's self-explanatory, you kill things and steal their stuff (or do jobs and get fair wage, write books, run a shop, cast healing spells, and other more reputable means of earning a day's pay) A person with a higher teaching bonus for a particular skill who teaches a character of a lower bonus saves the lower person experience as they train, and the teacher gets a small experience point boost as a bonus for being such a nice person. Indeed, a teacher with very high skills can get quite a bit of experience, as it turns out, and his/her students can get large discounts, to the tune of 20% or more, on the advancement of their knowledge.

That takes us neatly back around to Lanfear. She's a warrior, but she rarely logs in to wander around. Instead, she's in the Hall of Heroes, not far from the Mended Drum, central point in the ridiculously-dirty city of Ankh-Morpork. As near as I can tell, she's logged over two real-world years of playing time since creating the character in 1997, and she's the best teacher, by far, for many skills. There are other teachers, and indeed I'll patronize them as well, but if Lanfear's around, I'm headed there to learn fighting skills from her, period.

The math is both hard and simple. There are a number of calculations that one can perform, or indeed, the Discworld MUD aficionados have created a number of helpful websites that have built-in calculators. The upshot is this: when you save experience, you're saving time. If you save more experience than the time expended in getting to Lanfear, Scouter, Rig, or other teaching notables, you're getting ahead. Since the best teachers are far beyond the abilities of the automated guildmasters, it's almost always better to learn from someone good if you're under a couple hundred days old on Discworld.

It's hard, for me at least, not to get locked into a quest for better skills. The players call it "numberchasing," selecting an arbitrary skill goal and playing singlemindedly to that end. The opposite, simply ambling about as the mood strikes, is known as "wombling," a Pratchett portmanteau that involves be wandering and rambling simultaneously. Players form small war-bands to explore, share tips, and help in the vast landscape of the MUD.

Wombling aside, better skills can bring many rewards: warriors dodge better, healers get more proficient in binding wounds, thieves become better shoplifters, and wizards are less likely to have painful or fatal spell failures (this is no joke, I had a spell backfire with a new character and met HE WHO TALKS LIKE THIS, as Death is known there). Beyond that, the vast variety of trade skills and miscellaneous skills needed to access special areas or complete quests (e.g. the traveling potter in Anhk-Morpork has been mugged and needs some pots manufactured), mean that the in-game chat during the wee hours of the night are filled with requests such as "I'm at the Drum, anyone good at teaching pottery?"

It seems strange to me, that a woman I've never met face-to-face is teaching the virtual me how to be a better virtual blacksmith, and stranger still that I need to know this in order to fix up "acquired" virtual jewellery before fencing the jewellery. Nevertheless, Lanfear and her ilk shape the way newer players experience the game. Many of the Discworld MUD's best items can only be acquired by characters with particular skills, so reducing the time and experience necessary opens up new avenues and new considerations. Is it better to train now with Scouter since Lanfear's not online? As long as Scouter's teaching crafts and magic, what's he good at? The decision tree is as wide as you want to make it, with a fan's adjunct website that tracks player skills, and ranks them in order, for your numberchasing delight. To quote one enthusiast, "I'm the sixth-best heavy-sword user on Discworld!"

Being even second-best can be fatal, of course. Death causes you to lose some or all experience, depending on how you are revived. Add to your equations the likelihood of dying before Lanfear happens to log in, and it may make sense to bank some experience, even at the cost of pure efficiency.

In conclusion, I'm grateful to Lanfear for provoking this train of thought. More grateful to her than my real-life insurance agent (which is odd, because I actually like the fellow), because Lanfear and Scouter's help, among others, have turned the Discworld MUD into a richer place for their existence. Teachers changed how and why I play, and that's a virtual lesson that I can take back to the real world.