A Guild Odyssey – Part 1 (NBI Talkback Challenge)

“Only those whose lives are brief can believe that love, is eternal. [pause] You should embrace that remarkable illusion.”

– Lorien, Babylon 5

I’ve gone through a lot of guilds.

Not, thankfully, because of drama, but simply because I’ve played many games and keep trying to find that mythical guild that is just right for me.

My first experience with guilds was in my old MUD, Realms of Despair.

Guilds were in-built institutions in the game, divided up by character classes. The idea seemed to be to form collections of likeminded people playing the same class that could share advice. In practice, social culture had a strong effect on who joined which guild and likeminded people hung together while developing whole stables of alts for max level mob “raids” instead.

For myself, as a newbie, I barely understood all this and merely took the route of trying to get into -any- guild as any of my characters hit the max level of 50.

I joined the Guild of Vampires, only to find them rather quiet and stand-off-ish.

So I joined the Guild of Warriors on another alt, and found them friendly enough, if serious and rather oldschool old-guard, preferring to lament lost glory days (yes, this was happening 16 years ago – the more things change…) than actively run anything or teach much to newbies (one actually wondered if they had the knowledge I was seeking at the time.)

Like a wandering Goldilocks, my third try finally hit a guild that was neither too hot or cold. The Guild of Clerics was a group of cheerful and quirky people, bolstered by a very friendly second-in-command (who later went on to become guild leader) that naturally made connections with people.

As a young newbie, enthusiastically participating in any contests she set up, I ended up learning a heap about the MUD (in those days, trivia contests were game-related and involved retrieving items from all over the world, identifying zones and rooms via descriptions, etc.) and becoming a favorite / recognizable name at the same time.

By additional stroke of fortune, she happened to be in-game married to one of THE premiere MUD players of that time. You know, the powergamer sort. The kind that naturally finds the optimal path, runs armies of multiple alts (legal in those days) and knows every darned thing there is to know.

My frickin’ idol. Someone who I aspired to become.

I didn’t really keep either admiration or aspiration secret, but tried to hang out as much as possible with them – since she was nice, while he may or may not have had time for me but tolerated my presence due to her – vacuuming up every scrap of knowledge that was dropped my way.

Eventually, as I started coming into my own, I ended up in-game adopted as their kid (which was cool) and used that connection to join the MUD organization they also belonged to – an Order.

Orders were what we would probably recognize as guilds now. A somewhat more elite affair, with a higher entry barrier in the case of the serious ‘raiding’ orders, while a few others were known to be more social or dedicated to roleplaying.

The Order I joined had an interesting history. It was a new up-and-comer, broken off from an old Order via a mass exodus after some political disagreement or other. In those days, every single organization was hard-coded by an immortal, so forming a new one was not something any Tom, Dick or Harry could do – it was an Event. It was News.

I missed most of the delicious gossip at the time, being all newbie and unconnected, but did join as part of their second or third intake to form the ‘next generation,’ so to speak.

And boy, were we elite. Did we have something to prove. It was a powergamer Explorer and Achiever paradise.

Nearly every person recruited was someone who had ‘shown serious promise or potential’ as a ‘raider’ in the Guilds we had connections to. Clerics was one of them, Druids was another, plus some others like Warriors or Mages.

We ended up naturally skimming the cream of the crop, like calling to like, assembling a medley of hardcore players who had tons of playtime, heaps of MUD mastery and the willingness to lead, follow, and organize exploration and raiding parties to the most inaccessible places to take down the most notorious multi-person mobs.

Some of my best memories of the MUD stem from those days, when our Order managed to discover the way to one of the most desirable ‘raid’ mobs AND keep it a secret only within our group. The way was kept so secret that for a while, my powergaming ‘dad’ was one of maybe two people who would map the way to the mob, the rest of us kept outside and away.

Being insatiably curious, I would keep peeking into the rooms he was in with a ‘scry’ spell while being honest and not moving a muscle from the room we were supposed to stay in, trying to cudgel my brain and figure out HOW he was doing it while being oh-so-close-and-oh-so-far-away from finding out. After the raid was over, I’d try out whatever theories I’d come up with, taking advantage of my characters being parked a couple of rooms away.

It took quite a while, weeks to months, and the secret had already leaked out somewhat (probably via social engineering, which I would not have stooped to) but I did eventually become one of the five to eight people who could map their way to this mob.

In the meantime, our Order had quite a number of uninterrupted weeks where we would regularly down the mob, holding a monopoly on all the loot that dropped from it. We had a lovely social time where the 8-10 people needed to take it down would camp out one room away and wait for the mob to respawn and engage in that weird waiting activity of chatting and being semi-AFK until the next fight.

At that time, all was right with the world. (Nevermind the angry naysayers who weren’t part of our Order and thus subject to our monopoly.)

We were kings. At the top of the world.

We would have been happy to freeze those glorious moments and have it last forever.

They never do.

Six months to a year in, one or two other Orders began managing to organize their own runs at the mob. More sporadically, and one of them was even more secretive than we, so things were still good, and nothing was common knowledge as yet.

Then more upstarts arrived. A group of players who weren’t happy with joining any of the existing Orders and formed an Order-less clique of their own was being led by a player who was pretty much as on top of his powergame as we were. (He turned into one of my rivals in competitions, actually. One of the few who could actually compete at my pace, and then started kicking my ass now and then.)

They cracked the code. They violated the prior sanctity of our personal raid mob monopoly and brought in… public nobodies! No affliations, just… people who were friends with them. They even tried their hand at persuading the MUD coders to make them a new Order (which was indeed created for a while, but short-lived in the long run.)

The next half-year turned into a sort of rivalry year. The two or three groups who could fight elite mobs were in bitter competition with each other. Plenty of hate, lots of drama. Us vs them.

But this too would pass.

Everquest launched.

Holy hell, a MUD with GRAPHICS. Who wants to read WORDS?

A good part of the playerbase took off for the new shiny. MMOs were in. MUDs were history,

All of our Guilds, our Orders, our organizations lost members. They simply stopped logging-in, leaving more and more bereft and bitter MUD stalwarts to restlessly complain about the snail’s pace at which the MUD was changing (being run by unpaid volunteers means development time simply doesn’t match up to a commercial company.)

When they did log in, it was to sell the fun they were having over there to their friends. Further attrition.

People who logged in for their friends and social fun came in to look around, but the place wasn’t the same anymore. All the people they knew weren’t there any longer. Logged right back out again and found something else to do.

The MUD communities in-game dwindled and grew ever more insular and protective of their preferred playstyle.

I went into a jaded funk that lasted a good four years. My self-image was threatened on all sides. I was no longer a winner – all these young upstarts were trouncing me, some with better reflexes and memory, some with the cyborg help of more sophisticated MUD database knowledge and mapping programs.

There was really nothing to fight for – nearly all my friends were gone, the MUD was in a development rut and ceased to improve or change despite vocal player efforts to volunteer time and creative manpower (enmeshed in a hierarchical bureaucracy, most of the immortal administrators were glorified button-pushing name-verifiers, highly reluctant to give players access to “secrets” like how to build areas for fear that this would somehow destroy either immersion or their perceived power – even if the codebase was freely downloadable and had already been scoured by powergamers for the most advantage,)

I was trapped by inertia and the fear of loss (of all my characters and “hard-earned” loot) even as my self-esteem was crumbling day by day.

I logged in out of habit and nothing more.

Eventually, I hit upon a distancing strategy in between bitter ranting to anyone who still remained and cared to listen on the MUD (which had converted into a chatroom for me.)

I had staunchly refused to try the newfangled MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft (now there was an even greater playerbase hit) because I had already been burned once. Sic transit gloria mundi. It didn’t last. One couldn’t win forever. One look, and I knew it was going to be the same elitist raiding game I’d already experienced with the MUD. Been there, done that, been hurt.

But I told my Achiever self, who had been running rampant for a long time, to go sit in the corner for a while and let the poor battered-down Explorer out of the basement it had been locked in. Before social pressure made me conform to what was expected of a “good player” in the MUD, I was a wide-eyed discoverer picking up anything not nailed down and looking under everything.

I’d explored this MUD to death. But there were -other- MUDs in the wide ocean – also beginning to suffer death knells from the influx of MMOs, but still lingering on.

I began MUD-hopping. Sampling any random MUD that caught my eye, and enjoying the process of comparing various game systems to another. How this one place addressed the same problem versus another.

This was naturally a guildless time. Nomads don’t need to form many connections.

The distance helped.

In 2004, after reading one too many reviews about a superhero MMO that had no loot but lots of fun and promise, I decided it was time for me to stop being a dinosaur and take the leap into graphical MMOs. The lack of a raid endgame made me hopeful.

One month later, after experiencing CoH’s forum and in-game community, I took a final symbolic step to cut the burdensome ties to the MUD that had trapped me past enjoying the game.

I traded off my most valued and treasured piece of loot, an heirloom that had been passed down from player to player, for a whole bunch of high-level currency (equipment sets from a high-level mob).

This was promptly fed into a lottery NPC as the last thing I had wanted to do in the MUD but could never bring myself to do (treat all that loot as disposable).

With the usual irony of RNG, I won the jackpot prize.

I gave it away to the first name that caught my eye – a casual player, someone who didn’t run in my same circles, but who had been one of the initial inspirations on my hardcore journey and who had quit and come back to the game. What they did with it was their business.

I wasn’t going to be trapped by bytes any longer – the illusion that these tiny numbers in a database had some kind of value that I had to keep logging in to maintain and prevent from deletion into nothingness.

I wasn’t going to leash any of my guilded friends down with it (which might have led to some initial disappointment at not receiving any stuff, but well, I was proving a point.)

I stripped naked one character, which I kept only to maintain social connections to the Order that had given me good memories, and let the rest (hundreds of them) filled with all manner of loot and trivially hoarded items alphabetically arranged into bags labeled A-Z be autodeleted by the unyielding code of the MUD that whacked any not logged-in after a few weeks to three months.

I was free.

I moved on to MMOs.