BBS ANSI artwork of a man typing on a computer.
Benj Edwards

These days, social media gets all the attention, but the Bulletin Board System (BBS), a relic from a kinder, gentler time in computer communications, persists. Each BBS is its own retro-flavored community with messages, text-based games, and files you can download. And you can still connect to one today.

What’s a BBS?

A Bulletin Board System, or BBS, is a computer-based electronic community on which its members can read and write messages, play text-based games, and download files. They originated in 1978 in Chicago, and their popularity peaked around 1995, just as the internet began to go mainstream.

In the pre-Internet era, most BBSes were run by hobbyists on personal computers with modems connected to dial-up telephone lines. Usually, only one person could call and use the BBS at a time (although some multiline BBSes existed).

ANSI art from the Cave BBS of a red wolf howling at the moon.
Classic 1990s ANSI art from The Cave BBS. Benj Edwards

Today, because dial-up phone lines are scarce, and we have the internet, most BBSes utilize the Telnet protocol for connections (although some dial-up BBSes still exist).

In the U.S., there were once tens of thousands of active BBSes. After the internet became common, though, most went offline, but some transitioned to the web. Today, the number of BBSes is rising due to a growing nostalgia for the past. The Telnet BBS Guide lists almost 800 currently active BBSes, which is more than double the amount around in 2016.

Why Use a BBS Today?

Sure, you can just jump on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit to find a community. But if you want a blast from the past, you should try a BBS. Below are just a few reasons why people still use them.

Nostalgia

There are no concrete numbers, but hundreds of thousands of people might have used BBSes in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, many people are recalling their early online experiences fondly (and, perhaps, sharing them with their children).

Many would like to relive those times, so they head to a modern BBS. Some hobbyists even use vintage computer systems with a special serial-to-internet adapter to call a BBS.

The BBS Door Game Operation: "Overkill II."
Operation: Overkill II, a BBS door game classic.

One-of-a-Kind Gaming Experiences

Even in 2020, there are still some gaming experiences on a BBS you can’t get anywhere else. Classic BBS door games, like TradeWars 2002, Legend of the Red Dragon, Solar Realms Elite, and Operation: Overkill II, still attract a legion of players. This is proof that many people still enjoy the text-based delights of BBS retrogaming.

A text scene from the BBS door game "TradeWars 2002."
A heated game of TradeWars 2002 in action.

Unique Cultural Groups

Each BBS is a cultural pocket that’s usually insulated from the reach of Google’s indexing or viral intrusions from social media. You can’t get to a BBS through a web browser without logging in through a terminal emulator. This means, generally, you can’t reach the resources of a BBS openly from a website (although exceptions do exist).

As a result, each BBS feels like a private club that reflects the personality of the administrator, or Sysop (system operator). Each BBS is its own community. People leave messages for each other, play against each other in text-based games, and (less commonly, now) share files that are only available on that particular BBS.

How to Call a BBS

To use a modern Telnet BBS over the internet, you need a Telnet client. This is a program that simulates the computer terminals of the past and connects to a BBS.

Ideally, you’ll want a client that supports the full IBM PC character set, so you can see ANSI block graphics as they’re intended to be seen. You can’t go wrong with SyncTerm, which is available as a free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

After you download SyncTerm, run it. When you see an empty “Directory” window, press Enter. A popup will appear asking for the name of the BBS. We’ll type “The Cave BBS” (it’s run by the author).

In "SyncTERM 1.1," type the name of the BBS, and then press Enter.

SyncTerm will ask for the “Connection Type.” Use the arrow keys to select “Telnet,” and then press Enter. When it asks for an address, we type the following:

cavebbs.homeip.net

Type the address of the BBS you want to join, and then press Enter.

We then select “The Cave BBS” from the Directory list using the arrow keys and press Enter to connect. The screen will turn black. If the BBS is available, you’ll see a screen like the one shown below.

The Cave BBS login screen in a SyncTERM window.

Almost every BBS requires you to login with an account before you can use the system. On “The Cave,” you can create one for free. Simply type “New” in the “Login:” prompt, and then press Enter.

Type "New" next to "Login:" and press Enter.

You’ll be asked a series of questions to create your account; press Enter after you type each answer.

It’s customary on many BBSes to use a cool alias, like Red Wolf, Nukemaster, or Blue Dragon. On “The Cave,” you don’t actually have to type your real name, birthday, or address if you don’t want to—those are relics from the dial-up era. Some BBSes, however, are more strict with their rules.

Account registration for "The Cave" BBS.

You’ll come to a point where you need to type a “validation message.” This is a BBS tradition where you politely request access to the system and tell the Sysop how you heard about the BBS.

Type your message, and then, on a new line, type /s and press Enter to send it.

A validation message and "/s" requesting access to "The Cave" BBS.

After your registration is complete, you’ll see a few screens of stats, and then a main menu like the one shown below. The menu includes all the possible commands you can type to use the BBS.

"The Cave" BBS main menu.

To type a command, pay attention to the yellow prompt at the bottom of the screen. Type a command (like C to visit the chat area), and then press Enter. Generally, the menus are hierarchical. So, if you press a letter and enter a new menu, you can almost always go back one level by pressing Q to quit.

If you’re primarily here for the games, type a period (.), and then press Enter to check them out. If you want to read messages left by others, press N to scan through all the sub-message boards for new messages.

You’re free to explore the system however you like. The Cave BBS has four nodes, which means four people can connect and use the system simultaneously. Each person also has a (generous) daily time limit. This is also a relic of the dial-up era—you’ll be timed out if your account is inactive for too long.

Common BBS Commands

Each BBS software platform has different commands you can use. The Cave BBS runs software called Synchronet, which is configured to use legacy WWIV-style menus.

Below are some common commands that will help you get around:

  • ? (question mark): See the main BBS menu, which lists commands.
  • . (period): Access the online door games menu.
  • N: Automatically scan for new messages across all message sub-boards (subs).
  • * (asterisk): See a list of message sub-boards.
  • - and + (minus and plus signs): Navigate between message sub-boards.
  • [ ] (brackets): Switch between local and networked subs.
  • S: Read messages on the current sub-board.
  • P: Post a message on the current sub-board.
  • E: Read or send an email.
  • C: Visit the chat area to talk to people on other nodes.
  • T: Access the file transfer (download) section.
  • CTRL-U: See who else is connected to the BBS.
  • Q: Quit and go back to the previous menu.
  • O: Log off and disconnect from the system.

When you’re done using the BBS, type O on the main menu, and then press Enter to disconnect. Next time you connect, you’ll type the username and password you created earlier at the login prompt instead of “New.”

Other Popular BBSes to Visit

The Heatwave BBS main menu.

The Cave isn’t the only BBS out there. You can browse a list of almost 800 systems on the Telnet BBS Guide. Here’s a handful of well-known BBSes and their Telnet addresses, so you can check them out:

  • Level 29 (bbs.fozztexx.com)
  • Particles! BBS (particlesbbs.dyndns.org:6400)
  • Heatwave (heatwave.ddns.net:9640)
  • Black Flag (blackflag.acid.org)
  • A 80’s Apple II BBS (a80sappleiibbs.ddns.net:6502)
  • The Keep (thekeep.net)

Generally, each system will teach you how to use its custom messages and menus. As you explore, remember that each BBS only exists because a Sysop donates his or her time and computer to keep it running. If you’re always polite to the locals and obey the system’s rules, you’ll have a good time BBSing!

Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a Staff Writer for How-To Geek. For over 14 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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