I have the background more or less whipped into shape, and the rest will come as we build and the builders make the stories of their little piece of the world. This part of creating a MUD has a very strong narrative flavour, but the narratives are not written out in the MUD but expressed as the end result: the areas, the objects and the quests.
It's frequently possible to reconstruct the narrative behind a well-built area through these things: a ruin of burned wood and scorched, fire-damaged stoned where orc arrowheads are lodged in the spines of human skeletons tells a story of bitter defeat. Add a small, shallow grave, and some survivor used their last strength to bury a child. Put an overgrown garden of exotic herbs in the back, and the people who lived here were healers, mages or perhaps even assassins, growing what they need for their poisons, depening on the herbs. This is storytelling through indexical signs: putting the story together from its effects.
For a player to be able to get these hints, they need to be pretty obvious though. There are different ways to do this. We can create a complex history of the world, and insist that the players read it. This is common in MUDs: the immortals make complex, elegant creations, and the ideal players spend their time reading rather than just jumping in and go hacking through the universe. This gives you players who are devoted to reading, who like details and who get impressed with complex emotes and subtle turns of phrase.
Or we can rely on cliches, depend on the typical fantasy fare and hope that everybody have read the same books about orcs and elves. This gives you hack'n'slash world where orcs carry uzis and elves drive magical motorbikes to battle. High coolness factor for the individual - not so much coherent development of mutual plots.
I want to be somewhere in the middle. Salmagundi is a typical high fantasy world, and it contains the standard fare: elves, orcs, dwarves, trolls - as well as some different ones. It relies on board-gaming and D&D for a lot of the statistics, as well as the rules of role-playing. But at the same time it is original and has a few features players need to read up on, such as the history of the shards and the faith of small gods.
One thing I am looking for at the moment is a conflict. I need an underlying conflict that is clear enough that the players can use it to create their own characters, but open enough that it won't be solved anytime soon, since that would be the end of the game. It has to be important, so the collapse of the world should be one option. But why should anybody want that to happen? It's still a mystery to me. I'll be back when I know more.