The Challenge of Avalon

Copyright Solontus © 2004

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"You've given up on finding something truly inspirational, multi-faceted, unique and difficult"

Why a MUD can still be challenging.

So, you think the MUDs (Multi-User Domains) are simply hack-and-slash. You've been to countless realms, each a cookie-cutter of the one before. You'd sooner give your dog a crack at coding you a game than some of these monkeys that have been let loose on the Internet. It is offensively puerile. Their descriptions are pathetic. The players are all whining prepubescents, aimless adolescents and whinging housewives. You've given up on finding something truly inspirational, multi-faceted, unique and difficult.

It is not so surprising that one of the very few (and hard to find) exceptions to the rule also happens to predate the mass production of MUDs. Avalon was created, originally, as a localised server with a few terminals. People would come over, have a drink, muck around and provoke each other, invent ever more cunning tissues of deceit, and, when they were tired, they slept in the other room.

Over its time on the internet, so much had been added to the game which was not originally intended, that the creator decided to split away a different version of Avalon. In December 1999, "Avalon; Legend Lives" (http://www.avalon-rpg.com/) spawned "Avalon: The First Age" (http://www.firstage.net/), a game with the aspiration of following the creator's original design. Both exist, running concurrently, blind to each other's presence, differing widely in their player base and pantheon.

The old slogan, "'ave a laugh, 'ave a lager, Avalon," has disappeared with those days of 'host play', but the game is still kicking (as well as some of the players!). On the Internet for more than a decade, it boasts one of the oldest, most refined and original environments. Its complexity, in fact, is too vast for me to merely list here. Instead, I'll attempt to give an impression through implication. My theme: making real the challenge of conflict.

The Avalon World

To understand the Avalon mindset, one must first discard what you know of role-playing games and MUDs (if you know anything about them in the first place). The divisions, statistics and systems are unique, though some may be deceivingly recognizable.

The first important aspect of one's character is profession. It is gained by finishing an apprenticeship in a guild, of which there may be more than one for each profession (e.g. the profession of Knight is taken in the Knights Guild, Warriors Guild and Cavaliers Guild). It is through profession, not guild, where one receives the professional skills, which come and go when you change profession (unlike the general skills like Fisticuffs, Scholarship and Riding). Lessons in a skill improve it and, with time, abilities appear in the skill. One has a better chance of survival with higher skills -- a universal concept.

The next consideration is the city that you inhabit and the guild of which you are a member. Each city has a different ethos and complexion, with its own player-run government and shops, just as each guild has different rules of apprenticeship, full membership, advancement and conduct, alongside its own heirarchy of guildmaster, deputies and so forth. As you grow older, your allegiance to city and guild solidifies and, most likely, it is on this battleground of opinions where physical combat will arise among player-characters.

Once you have settled into a complex of heirarchies, you encounter the importance of deities. Despite your initial priorities as a fledgling character, the pantheon of gods is the most inviolate. Leave city, betray guild, kill friends, but do not anger the deities. Their presence, like their Greco-Roman ascestors, is not meant to serve the players. The gods are up to their own tricks, often incomprehensible to mortalkind. And, while it is possible for a mortal to ascend into the pantheon, it is an arduous task indeed, as we shall presently discover.

Player-vs-Player Fighting

The concept of fighting in Avalon is simple, but for a hack-and-slash addict, it may seem overwhelmingly complex. There is an obvious reason for this: just hacking away at a person is seldom realistic. Avalon utilises a diversity of physical, psychological and magical afflictions, such as ricketts and rabies, confusion and forgetfulness, and being turned into a shimmering mist rendered helpless to fireballs. In addition to attacks with voodoo dolls, demons, daggers and dragons, the player must be ever aware of his own condition. The text comes thick and fast, so real-time reaction is vital.

In endeavouring to learn the system (which becomes much less daunting after a while -- the game has seen some good fighters even among the blind), the player pits his character against others in intense combat. Both sides learn, return to the fray with new ideas, and one of them dies. After riding the Ship of Death, the player is resurrected, maybe missing an item or two, and learns from his mistakes again, finds another niche of attack or improves his own defence, and challenges his foe once more. This cycle can continue forever, each battle proving more frenetic than the one before it.

But what is the point of all this fighting, you may ask. The powers within the realm, especially in Avalon: The First Age, all depend on a conflict between the mortals and immortals; peace is a time for tiring, nagging old men playing deaf just to be irritating. The life of conflict runs through every mortal effort to improve, struggling to reach eminence and, if truly ambitous, immortality. We need the contention with each other more than the solitary time gathering herbs or amassing huge stores of iron ore. The challenge of the realm now becomes as good as its players.

The Need For Balance

The balance of power is crucial to the enjoyment of a game. It encourages the variety of player imagination, innovation and exploration. There are, however, diametrically opposed perspectives on the way balance affects a player's development and life within the world he inhabits. Ambition and fairness do not always reconcile themselves neatly.

On the one hand, a player wants victory to be a dead cert. He wants a position, which is effortlessly maintained, though conflict may be constant. When looking into the eyes of his archnemesis, he needs the emotional satisfaction of knowing that he could utterly ruin him. But the archnemesis needs to be challenging -- what kind of personal foil or antagonist is so quickly swept away by a protagonist? We enter the dilemma of the powermonger, who must fight his way to the top and keep it, without resting on his laurels. He therefore requires a challenge in rising above everyone else and a challenge in maintaining his hegemony by ensuring that his aggressors are constantly striving against him -- but just that bit inferior. If he continues to conquer, it is because of his own self-evolution rather than the advantage bestowed by his high ground; if he slips, it is his own fault, rather than a bias against the dominator.

On the other hand, a player wants the reassurance that he is not in the wrong place at the wrong time. He needs the freedom to choose his style of role-playing without being penalised for it -- he demands the axioms of a meritocracy: "If I fall, it is because I am weak, inexperienced or ill-equipped, not because I am a Mercinaen, a Warrior or a follower of Thanatos, the god of darkness." Moreover, in a realm that is automated, it carries even more importance that one profession has no particular advantage of the other. The player will see the loopholes of an intricate system faster than any creator can remove them. There needs to be an underlying sense of fairness, beyond any aesthetic or stylistic differences. The dark palantir and shining blade must weigh the same... in the beginning.

Avalon addresses the issue of balance with a sparse methodology. An implicit balance avoids the pedantry of rules and complex interactions, and so a single law, which pervades everything, is more easily understood by the player as well as more flexible for the creator. The law in Avalon is simple, yet open to great embellishment: 'balance' (physical attack) and 'equilibrium' (magical attack), which are subject to timing, are offset by an array of preventative and remedial defences, which are instant. Therefore, the fighter must be aware of the remedy, which properly matches the poison, the prevention which properly matches the offense, the attack which undermines the remedy, the magic which circumvents the defence.

The Final Challenge

Not all players take relish in the battles with another of their kind. Maybe it seems inhumane, a break with the charm of the atmosphere, or a pointless gesture. In Avalon, the fight between players is a contest of wits. The faster you can innovate during combat, the more you understand what is going on around you, the more adept you are at avoiding or trapping your opponent... the greater you will be. Physical fighting is not mutually exclusive with the political system (which is equally detailed), the warfare system (another intricate aspect), the commodities and shops (a diverse topic in itself) or the exploration of the five thousand or more professionally written rooms.

But those who rise to the thrill of contest quickly realise that there is a challenge of role-playing and a daunting competition of ability, alone worthwhile, in this perfectly balanced combat system that contains seventy different herbs and poisons, thirty kinds of potions, hundreds of magical abilities in eleven manifestations, twenty kinds of traps and fifty demons, hundreds of defences, counterdefences, attacks and counterattacks, eighty curses and blessings, a whole slew of runes, Tolkien-like palantirs and a large serving of voodoo to make a pig's breakfast of the whole thing.

Addendum: While both games are pay-to-play, Avalon: The First Age is recruiting new quality seeding players. If you contact one of the deities and inform them that you saw this article, you will be given unlimited free access to play the game.