Before Henry Cavill donned the white wig and introduced everyone and their grandmothers to The Witcher, and even before CD Projekt Red made Geralt into one of the most recognizable characters in gaming, a group of Polish volunteers brought the Witcher world to life inside a little-known fangame called Arkadia.
Arkadia is a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books and Games Workshop’s Warhammer franchise that first came online back in 1997. Players log in, create a character, and type text commands to explore the two different domains, based on The Witcher’s Continent and Warhammer’s World, along with other people on a single server. For the last twenty-five years, Arkadia has earned a dedicated community of Polish players, but outside of the country very few Witcher fans know it exists due to its status as a text-based game played entirely in Polish. Nevertheless, it was an important influence on later Witcher adaptations, with some members of the Arkadia team even going on to develop the first Witcher game at CD Projekt Red and create the official world map. I recently spoke to those who built Arkadia about how it started, the community of people keeping it alive, and its lasting impact on future Witcher games.
From Humble Beginnings
In 1996, Polish programmer Arkadiusz Lewy assembled a group of 10 volunteers to build a Polish MUD using the driver behind Lars Pensjö’s 1989 GenesisLPMud. At the time, there were a few other Polish MUDs on the market, but many of them were high-fantasy games and built using a combination of English and Polish.
Lewy and his team of volunteers — who were nicknamed wizards as is the tradition with most LPMuds — wanted to build a MUD entirely in Polish and create a low-fantasy world where magic existed but where it wasn’t an everyday occurrence. They named this new MUD ‘Arkadia’ after its founder. However, development didn’t get off to the best of starts. A key problem was their organization — or lack thereof.
“Lewy had a great gift of just being super enthusiastic and just being able to gather a lot of talented people around him, but […] he wasn’t the best organizer,” recalls Jakub “Alvin” Szewczyk, one of the original developers on the game. “He had no idea how to run it. […] We had originally decided to make it a hard-fantasy MUD, [but] Lewy said ‘Whoever wants to do anything, just take it, and do it.’ It was a happy-go-lucky approach, but after a year it turned out it wasn’t really working.”
The team became distracted from their original goal, and started developing domains based on their favorite works of fiction — similar to how GenesisLPMud featured domains based on Gondor and The Shire from The Lord of the Rings and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea. They based these locations on the worlds of The Witcher, Warhammer, Krondor, and Margit Sandemo’s The Legend of the Ice People. But they soon realized they had spread the team too thin, and they wouldn’t be able to finish everything without making some cuts.
According to Szewczyk, the team cut 80% of their work, scrapping all the domains they were working on, except for two: Ishtar (The Witcher) and Imperium (Warhammer). This helped to keep the team focused. But they still had some challenges to overcome. At the time, for instance, high-speed internet wasn’t as common as it is today; neither was renting out server space. So they came up with a plan to hide the server in various universities across Poland.
“It was completely unofficial,” says Szewczyk. “It was just sitting in the basement or just pretending to be a normal computer. The two first servers were organized by Lewy, so again it’s a huge credit to [his] resource finding skills. Then, later, it just mucked around Poland. Whenever there was a problem or we were caught red-handed, we just had to fold everything and move it out.”
On December 23, 1997, Arkadia came online for the first time, with two locations available to players — a spawning room and a second area containing a bulletin board. This was to allow players to get acquainted with the mechanics of LPMud. Two days later, the rest of the world opened up to players, introducing important locations such as the Redanian city of Novigrad (Witcher), Daevon in Kaedwen (Witcher), and the large imperial city of Nuln (Warhammer).
When players logged onto Arkadia on December 25, 1997, they started out in a small town, called Anchor, in Temeria. This was a location from the book Time of Contempt, where Geralt attacks and kills a group of assassins while searching for Yennefer and Ciri. Players picked from one of five races (dwarves, humans, elves, halfings, and ogres), and could then head out into the world to complete quests and roleplay with others. Interestingly, players couldn’t be Witchers, with the team understanding that if it were allowed, everyone would want to be one. Much like other LPMuds, the game had a lot in common with MMORPGs, with combat, skill levels, and loot mechanics.
Players could encounter monsters randomly in the world and attack their fellow players. The outcome of these battles relied heavily on your characteristics, equipment, and the terrain, with these individual factors shifting the odds for or against you. If you won, you could loot the loser’s body for their items or a trophy. But if you lost, you’d have to complete a game over story in order to return to the land of the living.
Initial feedback from players was mostly positive. Some criticized the changes from other Polish MUDs, but mostly fans were curious about this new game based on Sapkowski’s novels. Behind the scenes, the team size grew to approximately 30 people, with new volunteers like Piotr “Zabbas” Kacprzak, and Karol “Leim” Kowalczyk joining the ranks.
“I wasn’t there from the very start,” Kowalczyk recalls. “I remember my first contact with Arkadia was that I’d been playing MUD and I was approached like, ‘Hey, there’s a new LPMUD here in Poland, it’s in the Witcher world.’ I was reading all the books. And at the time, only three of the five books of the saga were out there. So I remember becoming a developer on Arkadia was very easy. I just went in and applied. My idea was I wasn’t very interested in playing a game [based on The Witcher], but I was very interested in making one. So because I was a big fan of Sapkowski at the time and not Warhammer, I joined Ishtar to help out.”
“We had roughly 20-40 developers working behind the scenes,” Kacprzak adds. “We had people like me who were just writing some code or some logic for the game itself, and we also had people […] who were more talented on the language side, writing descriptions and things like that. On top of that, we also had others who were responsible for coordinating developers. So, on top of each domain, you had like a wizard who said, ‘Okay, next we will do the city of Novigrad, or next time we will be doing this.’”
News of Arkadia spread over the next year, with word of mouth and an article published in Secret Service magazine called “Arkadia – kraina z sieci” (“Arkadia – Land from the web”) bringing more people to the game. As a way of dealing with this increased demand, the team had to place a cap of 120 concurrent players on the server, to ensure it continued to run smoothly.
All The World’s A Stage
The next few years of development on Arkadia were intense. The team created new roads and added areas like the islands of Skellige, which had appeared in the fourth Witcher novel, The Tower of the Swallow, in 1997. They also introduced racial guilds like the Dwarves of Mahakam and the human Foresters; and general guilds like the merchants of Novigrad, the Skellige berserkers, and the Scoia’tael commandos.
Players could apply to join these new groups for various advantages like emotes, bargains, and better weaponry, but you would need to prove yourself first before being accepted into the fold.
“Guilds gave you a lot of power, and you’d have way more power than other people,” says Kowalczyk. “But the guilds weren’t meant for everyone. You would have to be accepted by other players. It was kind of unbalanced on purpose. So only the players who roleplayed [well] would be accepted by others and would be more powerful than others. This was [the case for guilds] like the Knights of Sigmar’s Blood, the Scoia’tael, and the corsairs of Skellige.”
The developer’s wanted Arkadia at its heart to be a platform for players to be able to act out their own fantasies. And in many ways they succeeded. Players created their own unofficial guilds, fought bloody wars, and occupied desolate areas of the map to roleplay with others. While players could simply grind for experience or see what quests were available, that was only one aspect of the game and often not the most attractive.
“It could certainly feel like you were on rails and you had no freedom [playing the map alone],” Szewczyk comments. “But because there were other players, it created a whole new complexity to the game. Especially when you compare it to say massive RPG games that have a graphical interface. You can have this depth only when it’s text-based. Because then it’s all about imagination and not just your character walking somewhere, killing a dragon, and getting a new sword.”
It was this community, and the collaborative storytelling that it inspired, that set Arkadia apart from future adaptations of The Witcher, with the game boasting a rich history of player encounters. While there were scripted quests and player-versus-enemy encounters, the wizards in Arkadia were typically hands-off regarding the actions of players (or mortals as they were called), likely as a result of an incident where a small group of wizards temporarily broke the sea while trying to get some payback on some cheaters. Instead, they would simply provide guidance to steer things in the right direction.
When one player, for instance, gathered together some friends and formed an unofficial guild of sex workers, the wizards didn’t want to necessarily ban it. So they created some rough guidelines to make sure there was at least some moderation in place to avoid any potential problems down the line. Similarly, guilds were free to declare wars on whomever they wanted, but if a conflict didn’t make sense for lore reasons, a gamesmaster or wizard might have tried to dissuade them, in order to maintain the verisimilitude of the world.
Some of the most interesting stories to come out of Arkadia have emerged out of these conflicts. The Historia Arkadii, for instance, speaks of battles between the Scoia’tael and the half elves of Maribor and a Berserker invasion of Kaedwen in the early 2000s. During these conflicts, it was possible for guilds to ally or to remain neutral. But just like in the Witcher books, neutrality often came at a cost. Take, for instance, the merchants of Novigrad — a typically neutral faction of traders. They would often do business with everyone to try and maximize profits, which could sometimes involve supplying weapons to the Scoia’tael. Should they ever be discovered, this would jeopardize their neutrality and have repercussions with other guilds.
“The wars that are described [in Historia Arkadii] are maybe some really memorable times where many people, for some reason, took part in it,” says Paweł “Yarrid” Rościszewski, a player who later joined the development team on Arkadia. “But war is part of the game always and there are some guilds that are always at war with each other, like the Scoia’tael and the human factions. These guys never stop fighting. And it’s the same on the side of Warhammer where you have the team of light and the mutants of Chaos.”
A Lasting Legacy
Arkadia has been around for 25 years and has seen a lot of changes in that time. Developers come been and gone and new volunteers have stepped up to carry the torch. But what’s amazing about Arkadia isn’t just its longevity, but how the game has gone on to inspire other adaptations of Sapkowski’s work. The most notable example of this is Arkadia’s world map, which later appeared in CD Projekt Red’s Witcher games.
In the early 2000s, a group of six volunteers came together to hammer out the details of a map for Arkadia in a clinic in Warsaw. Sapkowski had never drawn a map of the Continent before, with the most widely available interpretation being the translator Stanislav Komárek’s sketch for the Czech editions of the books. The group of volunteers — composed of Galen, Hubert “Hub” Śmietanka, Greensun, Kowalczyk, Kacprzak, and one other person — wanted to see whether they could improve upon this drawing and simultaneously make Arkadia’s world more faithful to the novels. They ended up producing a hand-drawn sketch, which Kowalczyk took home and then made into a computer graphic.
“As far I remember we met at Galen’s student room in a clinic in Warsaw on Banacha Street,” says Śmietanka. “He was a student of Warsaw Medicine University. After a few [hours] of drinking mead and stuff, we made a sketch. As far as I recall, there was Greensun, Galen, me, Leim, Zabbas and someone else there.”
“When we started, the most popular of the Continent was the Czech map,” adds Kowalczyk. “But it wasn’t [accurate] enough. When Sapkowski released further books, he added more and more details to the world. So he didn’t really think everything through, and we had to make some compromises between what is written in one book and what’s written in another. Basically, what we made is our own map. We met at some point and created this map of the continent at 200 years for the leader of Arkadia. Which is a bit based on the Czech map, but which also incorporated other maps that were at the time released, and what we already had — what roads we’d already created for our world.”
This map was never meant to be made public. But when Kowalczyk left Arkadia in 2004, to work as a story designer and scripter on another adaptation of The Witcher at CD Projekt Red, he ended up bringing the map with him and using it for the first two games. It’s because of this you’ll find multiple references and easter eggs to Arkadia within the Witcher trilogy. This includes, for instance, a nod to Gwendeith Keep in the Blue Mountains, where the guild of free elves is based inside of Arkadia.
Arkadia may not have been an official adaptation, and it may not be as widely celebrated or as well known as the recent Netflix series or CD Projekt Red’s games, but it was and continues to be beloved by those who played it. It paved the way for later adaptations of Sapkowski’s world and is still a unique experience for Witcher fans, letting players step out of Geralt’s now-familiar shoes and become rebels, peasants, and wizards instead — provided they can read the original language of the series.