The personal website of Chris Coyier

10 Years of Simutronics

It’s 19951, and my friend Jeff was showing me a cool game he found while logged in (via our telephone modems) to AOL. It was called Gemstone III, a text-based adventure/roleplaying game by a company called Simutronics. It was what came to be called today as a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game).

To play it, you issued commands into the game like a UNIX terminal. To travel, you just typed in N, S, SW, etc. as in “North”, “South”, “SouthWest”. If you were trying to get your weapon out, it might be like this:

> get my fal from my she
You remove a falchion from in your leather sheath.

To me and Jeff, this was amazingly fun. Even though we were at our own houses, we could play this game together. Literally chat with each other, hunt together (hunting is what we called leaving the safe confines of the town and killing creatures for experience and treasure), and roleplay together. I was hooked fast. We got our other friend Jeff into it too eventually. And here we were, on the eve of High School, playing an extremely nerdy text based role playing game rather obsessively.


The combat system was beautifully intricate. For physical combat, your “AS” was determined by skill with that weapon (trainable as you leveled up), the enchantment of that weapon, various spells on you, and other factors. The creature or player you were attacking had a “DS” based on similar factors and a “AvD” number was used as well. For example, a broadsword against leather armor would be high, while a broadsword against plate armor would be low. Random numbers were thrown in, crit and damage weighting of the weapons and armor factored, body locations determined, and ultimately you were told the result of the combat. 12 points of damage! A bonk to the head!. 36 points of damage and a limb chopped off! Magical combat had an entirely different system. All in all, there were probably dozens of different fighting systems, all of which could be used at any time and against any opponent.

You swing a falchion at a rolton!
AS: +46 vs DS: +37 with AvD: +35 + d100 roll: +99 = +143
... and hit for 34 points of damage!
You ripped a chunk out of the rolton's left leg with that one.
The rolton collapses to the ground, emits a final bleat, and dies.
Roundtime: 5 sec.

Injuries and Death

I remember calling up a friend in the wee hours of the morning, waking up his parents, making him log on and come rescue me as the situation had become that dire.

The injuries suffered in combat were very real(istic). If you didn’t have any legs, you couldn’t stand up. If you were injured in the head, you may be stunned an unable to do anything for many seconds. Hiding became harder. You might not be able to cast spells. Death was a strong possibility. In the event of death, only other players could help you to live again. No being randomly sent to the graveyard and you just walk back to where you were. An empath needed to heal your would and a cleric would need to resurrect you. Dying in the distant wilderness often meant a long wait time to be rescued. Your body decaying was serious bad news (you could even potentially lose your character forever).

Leaving it to the Imagination

Have you ever seen a movie you thought was better than the book? Hardly ever, right? That’s the same principal at work here. Text supersedes graphics when it comes to a game on this scale.

[Icemule Trace, Town Center]
The bustling town comes together in this square. Halflings dressed in varying fashions stand about, some chattering happily, others reclining on cloaks laid on the ground. One ancient halfling leans against the base of the large ice statue of a mule, snoring blissfully. A feeling of community pervades the area, putting you immediately at ease. You also see the Baelog disk, the Xiandrena disk, the Dunav disk, a disorderly snow spirit that is flying around, a billowing misty grey scorpion, the violet Treeblaze disk, an owl feather, a blanket of snow and a carved ice bench with some stuff on it.
Also here: Journeyman Jafaa who is sitting, Linji, Astari, High Lord Svardin, Crimzonfyre who is lying down, High Lord Baelog, Dunav who is sitting, Xiandrena who is sitting, Marliya who is kneeling, Archales who is sitting, Treeblaze who is sitting
Obvious paths: north, east, south, west
Suddenly, Searene appears in the area holding onto a ring she has just placed on her finger.
Speaking to Baelog, Svardin says, “You headin south? I need to be der shortly.”
Searene softly asks, “Anyone I can beg spirit spells from please?”
Jafaa asks, “So how is everyone this evening?”
Xiandrena gestures while calling upon the lesser spirits for aid…
Xiandrena gestures at Searene.
Searene suddenly looks more powerful.

The Cost

AOL back in those days had deals like “The First 20 Hours Free!” and then you were charged by the hour to use their service, crazy fees like $5.95/hour. I remember wracking up bills of hundreds of dollars a month and having my Mom freak out and me begging her to pay it so I could keep playing. She always did, god bless her. I kept a close watch on AOL’s pricing plan, and would always switch the the most cost effective. At one point they moved to something like a 60 hour free per month plan for a higher flat fee, and I was pumped.

The modems in those days were rather comical. I don’t remember the brand of my first one, but it was white and 14400 “baud” was the “speed”. I remember being an early adopter to the 28800 baud modems and then finally to the blazing 56600 baud modems. They made an awful noise when connecting. You could hear them pick up the phone, dial the numbers, and then go through this hideous sequence of sqeaks, squelches, and static to finally connect. I was like one of Pavlov’s dogs though, I drooled at that sound as it meant I was moments away from getting to play Gemstone III. I remember wrapping my modem in bath towels in the morning, so that the sound of it connecting wouldn’t wake up my parents.

Have you ever seen a movie you thought was better than the book? Hardly ever, right? That’s the same principal at work here.

Eventually Gemstone III was moved away from AOL and directly onto the web. The boom was over, the the gameplay was better because the people who cared stayed. Instead of paying AOL, you payed Simutronics directly. This is how it still works today. Gemstone is $15/month for the basic plan, with various upgrades to be had.

The Early Years

From 1995 to about 1997 (which were the first three years of high school for me), I played a lot Gemstone III. My best friends played it and I was pretty damn unashamed of it. It was nerdy, absolutely, but it didn’t make us into nerds. I played football and wrestled, worked at restaurant with some cool older folks, and used to party in cornfields with the best of them. Jeff and Jeff were also nerdy without being nerds as well. I don’t know how that happened, but we pulled it off. In 1997, we were heading into our senior year and we were having so much fun in the real world that our Gemstone days were fading away2.

In those times, Gemstone was booming with popularity and there were marketplaces “online” dedicated to buying and selling Gemstone silvers (the currency in the game) and merchandise. When I left Gemstone in 1997, I sold literally everything on my character (but not the character itself) and made nearly $1,000. A small fortune for a kid that age.

And… We’re Back

Fast forward to 1999, I’m in my second year of college. Things are fine but I’m not overwhelmingly happy about the whole college scene. I got nostalgic about my Gemstone days and just like that I’m back into it. I heavily regret the way I left the game last time, as of course I wished I could have all that awesome equipment and money back but oh well, I just started over from scratch.

This time, Jeff and Jeff weren’t with me. They had acclimated to college a bit better than I had and had not interest in our old text-based role-playing game. Oh well, too bad for them!

At this point the Gemstone world is still pretty booming, and my addiction to the game comes hard and fast. Until probably 2002 I was addicted to the core, playing in eight hour stretches a lot of times. I didn’t have a lot of money, nor did my parents help me out very much, so I needed to keep a job all during college, often nearly full time. Between this game addition and working, I barely had time for school. Grades definitely suffered.

For as negative as that sounds, this is the time I look back on most fondly. I had an amazing time during these years. The game was just so FUN. Because it was with other real people, I felt almost like it was a social activity. We all know how that goes, in some ways it is but in most ways it’s not. I was sitting in my dark basement apartment staring at a monitor, after all.

Eventually as my life outside of the game shifted and I got into more things in college, my Gemstone days came to a close again. I switched majors to Art. I was getting into activism. And that was that.

Online Friends

Despite never once meeting the people in real life I played with in the game, I consider some of those folks good friends. I knew a lot about these people. What they did for a living, their love lives, the family lives. In game, we never talked about it, we were our characters, but we chatted outside the game too.

The Memories

  • I remember having Lord Tsoran’s maps all printed out and all over my desk. Sometimes I’d put them in a binder but it would never last. Eventually, I didn’t even need them anymore. I had this whole world memorized.
  • I remember my first fel-hafted vultite waraxe, a 4x crit-weighted one-handed-edged weapon. Any my first crit-padded armor: forest green brig.
  • I remember when Whenimer’s Landing was the only major city. The opening of Icemule Trace a very big deal and very strange. Players could literally begin their lives in Icemule Trace, and have a completely different experience starting the game than use old schoolers had. Now there are many huge cities.
  • I remember traveling from corner to corner of this world could take all day. There was a boat from Teras Island to Whenimers’s Landing that literally only ran like twice a day. It was the only way there and back. If you want to go, you gotta plan for it.
  • I remember all the way from rats in the catacombs, to hobgoblins outside of town, to titans in danjirland, to castle darkstone, to the eye, and all the way to the rift. I understand there are hunting grounds beyond the rift now.
  • I remember merchants (game masters in disguise showing up to customize your stuff in awesome ways). The pennant chase, the god auctions, joining a house, the black net, playing multiple characters at once, setting up macros, training in the rogue guild, attending live auctions put on by players, helping newbies, finding uncut diamonds, tipping your empath, CoL bastards, Voln buddies, massies, Halloween invasions, stance dancing, the list goes ON and ON.

And… One More Time

A year or so after graduating college, now 2005, Jeff, Jeff and I were hanging out being nostalgic about Gemstone again. We all unanimously decided to give it a shot again. All three of us, back playing again, like nothing ever changed. We all started from scratch with a character profession that we hadn’t played before. We only played 4-5 months, but it was a good time. We all made it up into our mid-20’s (level) before petering out again.

But now think. 1995 to 2005, that’s 10 years of my life I played a game. During that time Gemstone III became Gemstone IV. PlayStations came and went. Graphical games became almost lifelike. And, Gemstone is still running today. 2010 will be the twenty second birthday for Gemstone. That kind of blows my mind.

I’d like to say I’ll never go back, but I’ll admit it, I just sent an email to Simutronics asking if they could restore my characters =).


1) Gemstone actually debuted in 1988 on GEnie.

2) We somehow managed to cram in a healthy addiction to Magic: The Gathering through these years as well, but that’s another story.