On my nineteenth birthday, I made my first character on AmberMUSH. My then-boyfriend had been playing for a little while, maybe a month, and since he was suddenly spending all his spare time in the campus computer labs, and I wanted to spend time with him, I figured I might as well be doing something interesting while I was in the computer lab too.
I had no idea the changes this character, and the game I was entering, would have on my life.
AmberMUSH was based on the Chronicles of Amber series by fantasy author Roger Zelazny. They revolved around the travels of Prince Corwin (and later, his son Merlin) and the political machinations of his siblings as they fought to control the throne of Amber, a realm that represented the purest expression of Order in the universe. Between Amber and its opposite, Chaos, lay infinite reflections called shadows. Only those who carried the blood of Amber or Chaos could navigate or manipulate reality among those shadows. It’s the perfect setting for a roleplaying game because virtually anything is possible, and interpersonal relationships are the heart of the action.
Now for the ancient history. MU*s (MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, etc.) were text-based platforms for real-time interaction among multiple participants, all logged in to a common database. No pictures, no avatars — all words, and nothing but. Players coded elaborate chains of connected “rooms,” in which only the inhabitants at any given moment could see. If you wanted something better than a raw Telnet connection, you needed a UNIX account so you could compile TinyFugue (other MUD clients would come along, but to the best of my knowledge, TF was the first of its kind). As a humanities student at my university, I had to ask my Computer Science major friends for coaching on how to ask for that UNIX account without admitting it was for gaming.
My character’s name was Selwyn, and she started as a shameless imitation of Tarma from Mercedes Lackey’s Oathbound books. She was six feet tall, with a long white-blond braid that swung down past her waist, and she carried a long sword. She had a pet lion named Rex that went everywhere with her; I actually went to the trouble of coding Rex as a puppet, reading carefully from the TinyMUD manual.
If I’d coded a flashing neon sign reading “NEWBIE” to float in the air over her head, I couldn’t have made it much clearer that I didn’t know what I was doing.
But I could type about 70 words per minute, and I knew how to spell and punctuate, and that seemed to buy me some grace from the other, more experienced players. I hung out in the Worlds’ End Bar — a saloon that served as a common destination for characters of all types to meet — and waited for Things To Happen.
And among all the things that happened, the most important was when I was got tapped to join TooMUSH, the out-of-character, invitation-only hangout. Imagine the ultimate cool kids’ table, where people commented and snarked on events from the other side of the mirrored glass. I was hanging out with the founders and wizards of AmberMUSH — wizards served as chief coders, editors, and arbitrators for the game — and the best roleplayers on that site, or any other. Too was also the intellectual laboratory for characters and plots of every size and shape, and soon I acquired another character, an odd little girl named Rebekah Aspnes.
But the really good play always involved features, or characters from the books, so that became my next ambition. I settled on a character who’d gone long unplayed, a minor human from the oft-maligned second series by the name of Julia Barnes. Julia was a computer science student at Berkeley who became Merlin’s girlfriend and a sorceress; the application I wrote played on the connection between programming computers and spellcasting. Apparently, the wizards liked it, and I became Julia’s player.
As such, I also controlled a not-insignificant plot device which could confer the ability to walk across shadows to non-Amberites. It’s funny how completely voluntary and utterly frivolous things can become serious responsibilities to young people, and I took control of that feature and her Broken Pattern very seriously, making myself available for regular (and large) chunks of time. But the role came with compensations that more than made up for the “responsibilities.” And the best compensation of all were the hours of scenes with the incredibly gifted writers who had become my friends. Some became internationally bestselling authors. Some went on to write and publish award-winning roleplaying games of their own. And one came to America and married me.
All told, I probably logged somewhere around ten thousand hours on AmberMUSH between 1993 and 1999. So what did I get, to show for it? I got my typing speed up to 100 wpm. I got a (VERY) little coding experience. I got to help write scenes that made me laugh out loud, and sometimes cry, even in the middle of a sterile university computer lab. I got some of the best friends I’ve ever had, folks who’ve stood by me through thick and thin for almost twenty years now. I got to meet the love of my life, and I got to watch other friends find theirs.
I tell people that getting together with my Amber friends is as close to a high school reunion as I ever care to get. I think that feeling is intensified by the fact that we don’t just have memories of shared life experiences — we have common memories of many lives’ experiences. We lived whole existences in the endlessly scrolling lines of text, walking through the pages of the collective novel for which we were all authors. We brought so many characters to life, gave them families and friends and habits and foibles, and sometimes we brought them to death, too. The very best roleplaying games help us live life more fully, more clearly, no matter how fantastic their premises seem. They magnify the themes, amplify the emotions, focus the images that define humanity. They let us practice the important choices, play out the potential consequences, rehearse the reactions before we come to the real crossroads from which there are no retcons.
The more we played this game, the better — the more human — we became.