After purchasing a few supplies in town, you meet-up with your dwarf friend and decide to try your luck in the Barrow Downs. The first few levels of the dungeon are easy - a few molds, an insect swarm, and a pack of wolves. One door was trapped, and your strength was drained for a little while. Another door was locked, but you bashed your way through - perhaps you should work on your lock picking skills. You found some loot, but nothing special yet - so, you decide to delve deeper. A trap (that you also didn't notice) destroys your last flask of oil, but your lantern still has some juice left. Your dwarf friend rounds a corner and screams - "Back! Snotlings - lots of them!" That means there's a whole den of the little creatures - a den full of loot as well. What luck! You support from the back with your crossbow and the dwarf chops the snotlings down as they round the corner. Things are going well, and you drool as you watch the pile of loot amass on the floor. Then, a snotling shaman teleports behind you and blasts you with arcane magic! Where'd he come from? You turn your attention to the shaman, which leaves the dwarf alone to dispatch the still-rolling mass of snotlings. You wound the shaman with your sword and he teleports back in the direction you came. Chasing him down, you position yourself against a nice, sturdy rock wall. That's when the orcs climb right over that sturdy wall! A hill orc descends upon you and you're doing well - until your lantern goes out! As death comes, you wonder how the dwarf fared against the snotling horde. Perhaps you shouldn't have followed that shaman...
Each level of a TomeNET dungeon is random, though you can estimate the average enemy level based upon your depth. Some levels could be light on enemies, maybe a few natural predators lurking around. Other levels could feature several monster "vaults" or clusters - great risk and great reward. Unique enemies (with better loot) are also scattered about. Traps, secret doors and teleporters add to the mix to give you a unique, unpredictable experience every time you dive into a dungeon. Things can quickly get out of hand as you are working to clear one enemy group, and another group decides to attack your flank. Some foes can teleport or move through impassable terrain to give you a nasty surprise. Other enemies are invisible! Swarm-type enemies reproduce at a massive rate and could quickly get out of control. Unique bosses may summon hordes of minions. Pure joy.
As you probably guessed, TomeNET is about more than your ability to swing an axe or spell. A high perception is needed for spotting traps and hidden enemies. Some spells and magic devices can destroy dungeon walls/doors. Stealth is required if you want to sneak. Other skills affect your ability to flee, endure poison, stay sane, avoid falls, swim and survive various other nasty dungeon surprises. Graphical MMORPGs have "secondary" skills too, but they usually only affect combat or crafting. TomeNET offers you the skills to survive your environment, which is just as dangerous as a berzerking orc. Of course, one fundamental skill is also constantly challenged as you delve the dungeons - your own! Nothing here is scripted or designed to ensure your success - that must be gained by actually playing the game. Classic.
Your character is a combination of race, class and skills (and loot). Some races are vastly more powerful than others, however they level slower. Add your class & race together to determine most of your vital stats. The classic fantasy fare (with a Tolkien slant) applies here. During character creation, you can choose your difficulty. So, if you are averse to perma-death, you may want to try "everlasting." Though you can still perma-die as an everlasting character, it's not as common (especially at the early levels) - so this is a good way to learn the game... and learn you will.
The total sum of the parts is what stands TomeNET's gameplay apart: perilous & interactable environment, random dungeons, unforgiving enemies, earned permanence, fast-paced action, real risk which equates to real rewards, and the absence of any grinds. Add to these things the foreboding that you feel when you decide to push farther rather than head back to the safety of town, the quickening of your pulse when you see a new group of enemies advance upon you, and the tangible sense of accomplishment you feel when you survive against overwhelming odds - and I think we start to see something special... something we cannot find in today's predictable graphical MMORPGs.
With such a small userbase, how can I consider TomeNET an MMORPG? Well, for some of us, we rarely see the "massive" part of these games. Instead, we are content to play with our friends and/or families. The rest of the online population may as well not exist. If that is how you play MMORPGs, then TomeNET can certainly qualify as a game worthy of recognition by the MMORPG community. True, you won't be doing any twenty-man raids in TomeNET... but, some of us see that as a good thing.
What is the "endgame" for TomeNET? Certainly, PvP in today's MMORPGs offers far more challenge and replayability than TomeNET's random dungeons? Well, PvP does offer more challenge - if you are allowed to participate. By that, I mean most current MMORPG's PvP requires you to have top-end gear or run with the best guilds. For some of us, the days of competitive MMORPG PvP are in the rear-view mirror simply because we choose to not participate in that grind. So, PvP aside, TomeNET's endgame is comprised of viciously hard dungeons. Sure, you're not collecting titles, widgets, or other grind "rewards" - but you don't play TomeNET to have the fanciest mount or loudest shoulderpads: you play for the challenge and fun. No two dungeon dives are the same - how's that for replayability? Even better - roll a new character class and see how it works. Since you gain experience quite fast, you are spared the usual grind to reach the upper levels. I daresay TomeNET has near limitless replay value and endgame content - it just might not be what you're used to.
If the ASCII characters aren't enough to drive people away, then perma-death probably will - and this is a shame. The core gameplay is so impressive, so eternal, so damn fun - that most people don't know what they're missing. Luckily, some game developers recognize the gold under the ugly ASCII rock. Through the years, numerous graphical versions of the Rogue-like games have been available for download or purchase. I feel it's important to point-out that these types of games still have a devoted following. Recent examples of complete remakes/tributes include Shiren the Wanderer for the Nintendo DS and Chocobo's Dungeon for the Wii. However, none of the older graphical versions or completely new offerings are available as persistent multiplayer online games (Shiren does have a feature that allows other DS players to help you recover the items on your corpse - brilliant!) TomeNET is online, free, and based upon one of the more simplified Rogue-like platforms (which is good for those of us trying to learn the ropes, frowned-upon by old-old school purists who are crankier than me). While TomeNET remains a microscopically small online game developed by volunteers, there is no denying its place as a reminder to all that has come before - MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and Rogue-like games. TomeNET will provide you with a fighting chance, and then patiently wait for you to overextend yourself. Once you know your way around the "interface" (I suggest a fighter-type character to begin), you might find modern MMORPGs a feature-rich but mostly predictable "tour" of a fantasy or sci-fi world.
Okay - can I really be serious? I mean - millions of subscribers to hundreds of online games cannot be mindless mobs going through automated motions for years on end. Far from it - I believe MMORPGs present fun challenges in some very social and dynamic settings. Heck - I still subscribe to a mainstream MMORPG (sometimes two)! However, there are games out there which just have "something else." When you find you are no longer willing to dedicate most nights to grinding or "character maintenance," and you are looking for a challenging game with the same sense of permanence in your beloved MMORPGs - try looking around. The dinosaurs are still out there - you just need to wipe away the dust of misconception and take a leap of faith...