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The Writer's Block

by Daniel McIver

It almost seems surprising that in games which consist entirely of text, the quality of the descriptions is often so poor.  Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that most mud builders tend to come from scientific backgrounds as opposed to the supposedly more literate arts backgrounds.  Often it seems that descriptions take second place to the code involved in area construction.  This is a shame, because the code involved in building areas is often quite repetitive and simple, whereas the descriptions offer a chance to demonstrate imagination and creative flare

It can be argued that many players don’t bother reading the descriptions, so there’s not much point ‘wasting time’ trying to write impressive ones.  But even players zipping through an area in fast walk mode catch brief snippets of the descriptions, and these help set the overall theme of the area for that player.  An area which is full of typos, hastily written descriptions, and poor grammar puts forward a very unprofessional image of the mud. Gandalf, being Gandalf

I have also noticed that those players who take time to read room descriptions are often the more ‘desirable’ players who frequent muds.  The players who bother to read the descriptions are often of the more relaxed variety, less interested in big numbers, abusing bugs, and more interested in role-playing, and are generally more pleasant to deal with.  Good room descriptions tend to attract these players, whereas players who consider reading descriptions to be a waste of precious xp-earning time probably don’t care whether the descriptions have the appearance of having been written by a two year old with a crayon.

The most common type of room description is merely a list of exits with any old line thrown in at the beginning or end simply to fill up a bit of space on the screen.  This gets very boring very quickly, and, since most muds have a line at the end of the room description listing the exits, it is rather pointless.  Since this seems to be such a common method of describing areas, it is little wonder that so many players don’t bother to read descriptions.

Large areas with the same description (even if it’s a very good description) repeated over and over again also become very boring very quickly.  They also suggest that a lack of care and thought has been put into the area.  Worse than this is when the same description is repeated over and over, slightly altered each time (which is often done in an attempt to make an area more interesting).  This merely means that the builder wastes time slightly changing each description, and the players all waste time reading the same information phrased in lots of different (and sometimes ridiculous) ways, that is if they bother to read them all.

Obviously, if a large area of around one hundred rooms has to be described, builders, quite understandably, run out of ideas for room descriptions quickly.  In my experience, properly describing twenty similar rooms is a tough task for any builder.  The best solution for this problem seems to be to break down the area into a number of smaller projects for a lot of builders to work on.  This way, the area should contain more variation in approach to the style and content of the descriptions, although keeping the theme of the area similar can be quite challenging.

Even writing twenty similar room descriptions is quite tough, as inspiration quickly runs out.  Luckily, good sources of inspiration are quite thick on the ground.  Numerous books on caves, ancient cities, towns, and landscapes have been published, some of which are full of beautifully phrased descriptions of locations and scenery.  Snippets of text from these books, suitably modified, can be easily lifted and placed in your own descriptions.  This is particularly useful if, like me, you’re not very skilled at creative writing.  Fantasy novels, particularly those that take great swathes of text to describe areas (such as ‘The Lord of The Rings’) are also wonderful sources of inspiration when building areas.

The style in which the room description is written is very important.  The number of ways the room is going to be viewed often places limits on the way the room can be described.  Will the room description only be viewed by a player standing in a room?  Can the room be viewed from an adjacent room?  What happens if the room is being viewed through a crystal ball, or through the eyes of a wizard’s familiar?  Will your description make sense when viewed from all these different perspectives?

So, what sort of phrases will not work under these conditions?  "You are in a..." is the first obvious one, as they may not be anywhere near that room, but still viewing it.  "You are standing on..." could also be inconsistent if the player is sitting or lying down.  The only way to really ensure that the description will make sense from all viewing points is to write them making no reference to the player at all.  This makes the job of describing areas even more difficult, as referring to ‘you’ seems to be the natural way of describing a room.  However, the greater flexibility is well worth the effort.

Another issue to consider is describing actions within rooms.  For example, if the description is of a location at the top of a tree, and describes the player scrambling up it and clinging to its branches, it’s not going to make much sense if they’re already in the tree, and type ‘look’ again, or if they’ve just teleported into the room without doing any climbing at all.

Telling the player what they think in a room description is also a bad idea.  Describe the location, and let the player draw his or her own conclusion as to what they think of the place.

The length of a description is also very important.  If it is too short, it will hardly hold the reader’s interest, and will not conjure up much atmosphere.  Then again, if it’s too long, a lot of people won’t bother reading it.  To effectively describe an area then, you may need to break your longer descriptions over a series of rooms.  This can be very difficult to do, as each fragment of the original room description must make sense on its own, and when passing through the area from many potential directions.  I find that around fifty to eighty words is often best, as then the description is short enough to be read quickly, and it shouldn’t scroll off the screen before it can be read.

Continued next month...

Daniel McIver is Gototh, Lord of the Ram domain on Discworld, although he admits to the occasional sheep and goat when plied with a strong drink.