FAQ: Writing Outstanding Room and Mobile Descriptions

Author: paralyse
Last updated: 27.02.06

Abstract: This guide is intended to help first-time and veteran
MUD builders get the most out of their zones. It focuses on creating
outstanding, attractive room and mobile descriptions that will capture
a player's attention and reflect positively on the class and image of
your MUD.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

    a. What is the purpose of this FAQ?
    b. What makes a description "good"?
    c. Why are descriptions important?
      1. Telling a story
      2. Capturing a player's attention
      3. Imagination and realization

2. Storytelling

    a. What are the basic premises of a good story?
    b. What are the most common techniques?
    c. What are some things to avoid?
      1. Verbosity/terseness
      2. Over- or under-describing
      3. Spelling and grammar errors
      4. "Wasted" text that does not advance the story

3. Formatting and indentation

    a. What are the acceptable methods of formatting?
    b. What are the accepted conventions for descriptions?

4. Mobiles

    a. What are the differences between mobile and room descriptions?
    b. What are the limitations of mob descriptions?
    c. How can I make my mobs seem more realistic?
    d. How much information should I include in a mob's description?



(1) Introduction


a. What is the purpose of this FAQ?

    Generally speaking, the intent of this FAQ is to answer some common questions about building descriptions for mobiles and rooms in a DIKU or CircleMUD environment. However, many of the basic underlying principles can be applied to any MUD's codebase.


b. What makes a description "good"?

    There isn't really a right answer to this question. In my opinion, a "good" description is one that captures the reader's attention and allows the reader to see, in their "mind's eye", a mental picture of the mobile or room. In effect, the goal of a good description is to make the player feel as though they are in a realistic environment.

Unlike online graphical RPGs, in most MUDs there are no graphics or sound to help a player "visualize" their environment. Therefore, MUDs rely heavily on text to convey their environment to the player -- that makes a good, well-written and imaginative description a "must-have".

For the most part, good descriptions will be long but not overwrought or verbose; descriptive, but not all-inclusive; correctly formatted, with no grammatical or spelling errors; and relevant to the zone, the world, and the MUD's theme.

As a first time visitor to a MUD, would you rather find yourself in a room like this:

    > look
    You are standing in a room.
    Exits: North South (locked) West


It's not imaginative, it's way too short, and it's totally blah! If I was a new player to this MUD I'd feel as though I had entered a hostile environment.

On the other hand:

    > look
    As you slowly open your eyes, you find yourself in a
    large, poorly-lit room on the starship Enterprise.
    Overhead, a harsh strobe light flashes on and off,
    revealing your surroundings one second at a time.
    Grimy metal walls with exposed electrical pipes,
    strange slimy mold puddles on the floor, and an acrid
    smell permeates the air. Dazed, you shake off your
    stupor, and attempt to figure out what's going on.
    A small corridor opens up in front of you. Looking
    to the left, you notice another hallway, more brightly
    lit than the one to your north.
    Behind you, a large metal door blocks the way.
    Exits: North South (locked) West

Intrigued yet?

c. Why are room descriptions important, anyway?

    1. Telling a story

As stated above, YOU, the builder, are responsible for delivering your story to the player. Since he or she is limited in their knowledge of their surroundings to what you can convey to them in your text, it's critical that you deliver a setting that's creative, well thought out, and imaginative. Most zones tell a story -- and the way the plot is advanced is through your room and mobile descriptions. Even the largest, most well-laid-out zone is little more than a linked group of empty rooms without good descriptions! No one wants to stumble around through 100 rooms, each with the same dry, boring description. We've all seen too many of these zones: lazy builders making entire sections called "The Dark Tunnel" or "Inside the Hangar", etc., each with the same description: "You are in a dark tunnel. It's dark. It's a tunnel.", and so on. BLEH!!!!!

Bottom line: If you're not telling me a story, why should I bother coming to your world?

    2. Capturing a player's attention

    The goal of any MUD is to attract the most players possible to experience the delights of your particular slave labor, err, project. If your worlds are bland, poorly written, filled with spelling mistakes, not formatted well, and just generally miserable, your players' attention spans are going to be occupied with these distractions. Unable to focus on the story, they will surely grow frustrated and decide they've got better things to do than waste time on your MUD!

    On the other hand, if you can capture their attention with well-written descriptions, you'll find your playerbase expanding as players become "involved" in the game and its storyline(s). They'll want to find out more about areas and worlds, and they'll feel as though they are a part of the story, rather than a bystander.

Bottom line: If you can't capture my attention, you won't find me playing on your MUD.

    3. Imagination and realization

Text can only go so far in reproducing reality. It's important, however, that you take every effort to make sure your players are not suffocated with drab, dreary cloned rooms and cookie-cutter mobiles. Well-written descriptions let your players put their imaginations to work, and with this, they will be able to "realize" their fantasies.

Bottom line: Anyone can make 100 "Dark Tunnel" rooms with no imagination. Therefore, a zone built with imagination in mind will attract players, not only to your zone, but also to your MUD!

(2) Storytelling


a. What are the basic premises of a good story?

    Stories have several main thematic elements that are common in any mode of communication: a book, an e-mail, a MUD.
    - A good introduction is critical to capture your player's attention and get them interested in your zone.
    - You absolutely MUST come up with a plot or main theme and CONSISTENTLY PURSUE IT THROUGHOUT YOUR ZONE. Nothing is more trying and frustrating than a zone which seems to have no theme or plot; 50 rooms, each with something unrelated going on, does not bode well for your zone's chances of succeeding!
    - Once you have your plot or story line, STICK TO IT and DEVELOP it like any other storyline: an exposition, a climax, and a resolution.
    - Your story line does not have to be linear! It's perfectly acceptable to jump around in time or space, as long as there's a consistent thematic link that connects everything together: a literary "glue".
    - In order to keep the players' attention spans focused on the story at hand, try to keep distractions to a minimum as stated above; time spent discerning typos and linked room errors is time not spent enjoying and imagining the environment.

b. What are the most common storytelling techniques in MUD building?

    - Linear progression: This technique has the player passing through your story in an orderly, sequenced manner. They might be walking through a castle, strolling through a dangerous dungeon, navigating a challenging maze, or solving a quest. There will usually be one main thematic element, and it MUST be adhered to for this technique to be effective. This technique is MOST useful for making areas that must be explored one room at a time.

    - Real-time progression: This technique has the player passing through your story in any manner they wish. Players can freely roam between story elements without needing to go through a regimented set of areas. Examples of real-time progression are towns/villages/forests, space and water areas -- places where players can encounter "multi-threaded" story lines at different points. Most good areas will inevitably use both of these techniques at varying times. You might have the player proceeding linearly through a dangerous dungeon, then emerging in a small village, where they can wander about and journey to different areas of the game, castles, more dungeons, space, water, NPCs that give them quests, etc. Think Final Fantasy III.



c. What are some things to avoid when writing room stories/descriptions?

    1. Verbosity and terseness

You don't want to make your room descriptions so long that players get bored. At the same time, they have to be long enough to capture the player's attention and convey useful information and storyline elements.

Learning how to balance the two is tough and only practice will help you out. As a general guideline, if it takes you more than a few seconds to UNDERSTAND a room description, the player is likely to skip it entirely (brief mode) or ignore it. On the other hand, players don't have much interest in rooms with one-line, terse descriptions that shed no light on the environment!


    2. Over- or under-describing your room/area

It's great to get players involved in your story, but they need to feel as though they have a ROLE in the story!!!!!!


You can over-describe a room:

    You find yourself in a well-lit room, the light
    provided by a black metal five-foot-tall floor
    lamp with a black lamp shade and a 50 watt halogen
    bulb. There is dust all over the shiny chrome
    base of the lamp, and the cord has a slight
    cut in the insulation approximately 5 inches from the
    wall outlet.

You can also under-describe a room:

    You are in a lit room.

But the best choice is something in the middle:

    You are standing in a small corner room.
    A floor lamp in the corner has been turned on
    and is providing enough light for you to see
    your surroundings.

IF THERE ARE OBJECTS OR MOBILES IN THE ROOM, DO NOT INCLUDE THEM IN YOUR ROOM DESCRIPTION!

When the player comes in, if your room description talks about a rusty nail and an old man...if another player has already taken the rusty nail and killed the old man, your room description will seem silly and stupid!

    3. Spelling and grammar errors

So often, it's the little things that make a big difference in writing good descriptions! If your players have to sort through mounds of typos and run-on monstrosities, odds are they won't be paying attention to your storyline. Therefore, IT IS 100% CRITICAL THAT YOU SPELL-CHECK and PROOFREAD all your room descriptions. Learn the difference between "your" and "you're", "there" and "their", "'s" and "s'", etc. Avoid run-on sentences, split infinitives, dangling participles and all that good junk you learned about in your English classes.


    4. Wasted text

The beautiful view through your window is suddenly shattered by a piercing demonic scream from just outside your door! It's 50 degrees in Kahlia right now, and Sparta is at war with Athens. You can use a rusty nail to pierce the voodoo doll and gain 5000 experience points. My Nissan is white, and it's pretty fast.


HUH?!

Keep your descriptions RELEVANT, please! No one wants to sort through 50 lines of JUNK to find the ONE LINE that actually relates to your zone's STORY! How are they supposed to pay attention to your demonic scream when they're reading about the weather in Kahlia or the color of my car?

(3) Formatting and indentation

This is a short section.

    a. What are the acceptable methods of formatting?

In CircleMUD there are two:

1. Maximum 80 characters per line with minimal ANSI coding and carriage return/line feeds at the end of each line.
2. Four-space indent (use the /fi command) automatically formats your room and mobile (long) descriptions properly.

Please remember to use two spaces after every period (.) and indent the start of every new sentence.

There is a limit to how long your room descriptions can be!

    b. What are the accepted conventions for descriptions?

See above.

(4) Mobiles

a. What are the differences between room and mobile descriptions?

In CircleMUD, mobiles have three descriptions:

    1. Alias/keywords: What the player types to interact
    with the mobile.

    2. Short description: What the player sees when they
    type "look" in a room where the mobile is located.

    3. Long description: What the player sees when they
    LOOK AT the mobile.

Rooms only have one description, and that's what you see when you type LOOK. Exits can have individual LOOK descriptions but these aren't really separate. There can also be EXTRA descriptions added to rooms for "Fake" objects/mobiles.

BOTH descriptions aim to tell a story or provide details to the environment.

b. What are the limitations of mob description?

Unlike rooms, mobiles' short and long descriptions are severely restricted, space-wise. Your mob can have about 25-30 characters in their short description, and maybe 300-400 in their long description. Therefore, detail and conciseness become more important than fully describing.


c. How can I make my mobs seem more realistic?

    - Load them with objects representative of their
    character: Knives for smugglers, a Lightsaber for a
    Jedi Knight, etc.

    - Give them descriptions from books/novels or their story of origin.

    - Provide information about their physical features: height, colour, race, etc.

    - Give them interactive procedures using DG scripts or specprocs.

    - Include them in the area's story lines.


d. How much information should I include in a mob's description?

It's up to you, but I would recommend using at least their race/class, their name, a bit of history about them if you'd like, and something linking them to the zone's storyline!



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