Feast your eyes, my obscure gaming archaeologist friends:
This is a map to the long-lived, and sadly recently defunct, Tarmon Gai’don MUD.
Let me tell you about MUDs. Multi-User Dungeons. They were free, for starters. Oh, some of them charged money, but those ones were full of themselves. They were not, by and large, ways to make money, as their visual successors like EverQuest, WoW etc became. They were made by fans, for fans, and they were labors of love.
They were also, for me, laboratories for adulthood.
Tarmon Gai’don had a strict age limit. But with no credit card required to play, and no personal details whatsoever necessary for verification, there was no way for them to enforce their 18+ rule. How could they? This meant that, provided we played our parts well enough and didn’t get ourselves grounded for sucking up the phone line with our constant dial-up gaming, my seventh grade friend and I were free to move as 11-year-olds in this world fashioned by adults, modeling a fictional works of adults–Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series–which we knew as well as any 20- or 30-something fan.
Of the various WoT-themed MUDs around during the height of the books’ popularity, Tarmon Gai’don was by far the strictest. No OOC (out-of-character) discussion was allowed at any time–until they built a single room, an OOC tavern in the Aiel Wastes that, incongruously, had a hockey game on the TV inside. Except for that one zone, OOC talk–and l33t, when it became popular enough to ban, and modern colloquialisms–were strictly forbidden.
This, at least as much as the phenomenal coding by all-star worldbuilder Rhuarc (you did good work, sir, wherever you are!), is what drew us to this particular MUD out of all the others available. Its stringency. Its fixed adherence to the rules of role-playing–with the implicit result that what was on trial, what enabled us to exist there and thrive, wasn’t our lumpy stupid bleeding newly pubescent bodies. It wasn’t those awkward things everyone in our real life fixated on–usually negatively. It wasn’t even our grades, or our sociability, or how much we claimed to love Jesus in our evangelical part of the country. It was how well we knew this fictional world, and how well we could play a role within it.
And we were fucking good, let me tell you.
When we joined, the Aiel Waste was still very much in beta–which is why my Maiden of the Spear, Meindha, spent so much time in Caemlyn, which you see mapped above. (My mom taught me to map gamespaces, back when we played old Sierra hits together. I thought if she saw me making maps, just like for the games she knew, she’d be less worried about the online aspect of these new variations on her one-time favorite medium, the text adventure.) As soon as Rhuarc modded (heavily! so heavily!) the DikuMUD base, out to the Wastes we tromped, as we were instructed to: one should only inhabit the territory it made sense for one to inhabit, the rules said. If you were an Aiel traipsing through Whitebridge, you’d better have a damn good reason for being there–like an RP raid. Otherwise, gtfo.
So–when the game’s initially limited resources (Rhuarc ran the whole thing off his own server, as I understand it, funded by his own money and perhaps seeded a little by Amys, Nekaarin, and the fourth founder, named after one of the Shienarans, whose name I can never remember) allowed us to level up in territory we had business being in, we did so. Otherwise, we gallivanted around the zones that had mobs of the appropriate level for us–and, since most of the initial coding was in Andor, spanning north to Tar Valon, west through Whitebridge to Baerlon and south(ish) to the miserable cesspool of Murandy, we spend a lotttt of time in Andor.
Hence the map.
There was the Braem Wood, where things watched you from the dark, and eventually “*****DECIMATES!****” you if you ventered too deep off the road to Tar Valon. There was the conical tower west of Whitebridge and south of the road, where Whitecloaks stalked the trees. I never found a way in, but I took particular pleasure in hunting Whitecloaks, for what those who read the books will (hopefully) understand as good reasons. They were religious fanatics who could whip whole villages into a crusading frenzy. They also, generally, hated women, and as soon as my little Maiden of the Spear levelled up enough to handle them, I hunted them mercilessly.
This felt much better than the alternative: laying waste to innocent townsfolk and livestock. This was, after all, a MUD–not a MUSH or a MOO–and levelling via combat was the base mechanic of the game. Yes, this particular MUD pushed a heavy RP focus, but they didn’t hand out levels for that and besides, initially the userbase was so small that finding someone to RP was was pretty difficult. That’s why my RL buddy and I stuck together so often. That, and the fact that we’d been doomed to different middle and then high schools, and rarely got to see each other face to face anymore.
But I digress! Because eventually the userbase grew, and Amys–who, in real life as in the books, was married to Rhuarc, I believe–ceded control of what would become the Aiel guild to Gaul. Gaul, as I recall, was an upperclassmen in college, soon to graduate, when I met him. This only came up tangentially in the guild interview, as he explained why he’d had to reschedule it, but I filed it away as important information to keep in mind during the interview. I was, by this time, twelve years old, keenly afraid of screwing up during this intense RP session and revealing my real age to this cordial individual who, if all went well, would grant me access into the RP goldmine of this game: official membership with the Aiel.
An aside: I love the Aiel. I love them against all sense and better judgment. I’ve known six people in the real world who read WoT, all of them save one men. And all of them save the one woman have teased me for loving the Aiel best of all the world’s peoples. Especially the Maidens of the Spear. “Don’t you feel pandered to?” joked one. “Doesn’t it feel like you’re masking overt militarism with a thin veil of feminism?” over-analyzed another.
No, it didn’t, and you can fuck off, buddy. (The other woman, incidentally? The girl I played the MUD with? She loved the Aiel too.)
Look, I know the Aiel are a bit hack. They’re little different then the Fremen of Dune, or the Rohirrim of Rohan. The tough-as-nails fighters in a harsh land are by no means a novel concept. But the Maidens of the Spear, goddammit. They sleep with men but do not wed them. They look out for each other. They drink and swear and totally fuck up anyone who even thinks of sexually assaulting them. They’re awesome. They’re the sisterhood I always wanted. And you’re damn right I still love them. I certainly did at 12 years old.
Back to Gaul, then. As the newly-minted head of the Aiel, he gave me my RP guild test, and it lasted some 90 minutes. Again, no real-life details came into play here, so if I did it right I’d be accepted. And oh, did I work to get it right! I had copious notes on the Aiel laid out in front of me–and then I frantically cleared them off the computer desk when I convinced myself that was cheating. I kept a map of the WoT world open, though, in case I got the clan locations confused–which was closer to Shayol Ghul, Rhuidean or Cold Rocks Hold?–but it turned out that all the questions he had I knew already. Could I explain the concept of ji’e’toh? Could I respond with the appropriate ritual greeting when told “May you find water and shade?” Well, duh. These books were my escape from the pristine shittiness of being an 11 and then 12 year old girl. I knew the lore backwards and forwards.
I can just imagine a parent reading this and waxing poetic on the dangers of internet life. “My bayyybeees! They’re exposing themselves to dayyyyyngerrrr!” Yeah, you’re right. I was. Any of those roleplayers could’ve gone max creep real fast. But exactly how dumb do you think your average 12 year old is? You think I’d’ve responded at all to any OOC (or even IC!) advances? You think I, as an ardent espouser of this group of women who would cut to ribbons any man who thought he could have his way with them, would have the remotest interest in some basement-dwelling neanderthal trying to charm me into letting him paw me up somewhere in the real world? Cripe. Give kids more credit than that. Give girls more credit than that.
I passed my guild test with flying colors. I was only the second to take it, after Gaul was installed as guildmaster and created it, and he wanted to know if it was too hard, too easy; if there was anything I thought he should change for future entrants. The fact that he even asked–that he thought I was a good enough source of lore and knowledge to have an opinion worth knowing–thrilled me to no end. I walked around the house the rest of that day wreathed in smiles. I had made it. I had fooled them all. There they were with all their rules and regulations and their convictions that only Adults could understand this world; only Adults could be coherent and articulate enough to move in it. And I had made it. And they had no idea they’d been duped.
There are other stories I could tell–I played this MUD for years, after all. There was my abortive attempt to leave the fold of the Aiel and create an Illuminator–an effort which I still cringe at, remembering, for I had forgotten that one can only enter the Illuminators by birth (in my defense, they play a very minor role in the series, in the grand scheme of things!), and when in my backstory I described having “joined up,” the guildmaster in charge of the test left such a scathing response in my message box that I deleted my character immediately. There was the time (keep in mind that for the first few years there was a strict rule against having multiple characters) my friend and I decided to delete our first Aiel (not the ones that made it into the guild), and we dared to do a /yell announcing as much, and Nekaarin, one of the four mods with godly powers, came to watch us as we splayed ourselves out on rocks and listed all the reasons we had to, tearfully, delete these characters. We were just being bored and silly, but it was thrilling to have one of the mods take notice, because it wasn’t as though his character stood there saying anything. He was the only mod on at the time, and thus the only one with these powers, and so he…made the world react to us. He conjured up a thunderstorm to chasten us for our yelling; he made wolves circle and the trees whip in the wind. None of these scripts were in the actual code of the zone. He typed them in, real-time, while never actually stepping out and saying anything. It felt, I suppose, like it would feel to a Christian whose god actually bothered to answer them for once. We still deleted our characters, of course–because after a show like that, how could we back down? plus we’d committed the cardinal sin of speaking OOCly (about deletion) in a non-OOC zone, so we had to go. But we were giddy, doing it. We felt seen.
And now the hypothetical parent reading this is either in a high tizzy over my religous slander, or over The Foule Evils of the Internete, or both, right? Except, you shouldn’t be. Well, not regarding the evils of the internet part, anyway. Because my whole point is this. It is great to entertain the fancy that your kid will fit right into a new environment–especially one they first move to, when they’re old enough to have made friends and lost them, and to feel keenly the difference of culture in their new home vs. the old. It’s great to imagine that your kid won’t flinch under the casual cruelties of bus-stop bullies or locker room banshees. It’s great to think that your one special little snowflake is immune to all the miseries you yourself experienced as a pre-teen and teenager.
But if you believe all this, you’re full of shit. Life is going to suck, for your kid. All your love, all the love in the world, can’t prevent it. For a little while, at least, it’s going to suck. And there are, in this day and age, a plethora of ways to escape that. Was this game addictive? No. Did it change our bodies; warp them into parodies of themselves? Nope. Did our grades or our future prospects suffer? Far from it. I bothered learning to type properly–instead of the lightning-fast hen-pecking I’d been doing up till then–because of that MUD. I learned tons of fancy vocabulary words–because the people who wrote the zones were good at what they did. Most importantly, I learned that, even when people in the real world would water down a compliment with addendums like “good for your age,” or would put an embargo on your ability to understand a concept based on a stupid number attached to your birthday–even when the real world insisted all these factors mattered, it turned out they didn’t. Not to the extent we were told they did. We got in early on a small project funded, built and managed by a core group of ardent adult fans of an adult book series, and none of them were the wiser. They asked us for our opinions. Our advice. They gave us votes and treated us as though our say mattered as much as theirs, in the way our fledgling world grew.
Because we DID matter. In the same way they did. And as an 11, 12, or 13 year old–especially an 11 or 12 or 13 year old girl–there just aren’t a whole lot of people telling you that. The people who ran Tarmon Gai’don did.
Even if they didn’t, technically, know it at the time.