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Ten Commandments Of Descriptions

Room descriptions are not an easy thing to write from a cold start, especially if you have never written anything like them before. Exactly what constitutes a quality room description, however? Well, there are a number of things… they should be imaginative, descriptive, and interesting. However, these qualities are elusive and cannot be produced according to a formula. What it is possible to do is help you a little by listing some of the more important things to keep in mind when writing your descriptions… and to this end, I present to you the Ten Commandments of Descriptions. Traditionally, these would be etched in blocks of stone… but since my chisel is being sharpened, we'll have to settle for an HTML representation of them.

I. Thou Shalt Not Use 'You' In Room Descriptions

All direct references to the player should be removed from the description. This is especially true of descriptions that begin with 'You are standing in…', or similar. Room descriptions should make sense from all perspectives and all situations… what if I'm not standing there? What if I'm sitting, lying down, or hopping on one leg? What if I'm looking into the room from an adjacent room, or scrying into the room from miles away? In all these cases, the room description will no longer be accurate:

> look down
You are falling at great speed towards jagged rocks below.

> scream in fear
You scream in fear.

> shout Help! Help! I'm falling to my death and need someone to tell my wife I love her!

<several uneventful seconds pass>

> think
You think carefully.

> look
You are standing at the top of a cliff. It's perfectly safe, provided you don't take a wrong step.

> say Oh yeah!
You exclaim: Oh yeah!

II. Thou Shalt Not Assume A Course Of Action From The Viewer

A room description's purpose in life is to describe. Hence the name. What a room description is not there for is to dictate the action of the viewer, even for the holy purposes of narrative causality. 'You decide to try the door handle, but the door is locked'. 'You decide to follow the path to the north', etc. Let the player choose what they want to do, based on your descriptions… you're not here to play the game for them. Likewise, don't tell people how they think, or how they feel… they know better than you do:

This is a dark, scary trail through the forest. To the north is a horrible looking path, and you decide to follow it to…

> don't follow path

… to follow it into the depths of the forest where the horrible spiders roam with…

> stop following path

… roam with their sharp, pointy teeth and horrible eyes glaring…

> say I don't want to follow the path, I'm scared of spiders!
You exclaim: I don't want to follow the trail, I'm scared of spiders!

… horrible eyes glaring, and yet you feel unfraid, as if the spiders hold no fear for you.

> whimper in fear
You whimper in fear.

III. Thou Shalt Not Write Static Descriptions Of Dynamic Objects.

By dynamic objects, I mean those objects in a description that are likely to change during the course of the game. 'The door to the north is closed', for example, when the door may be opened by a player or NPC. 'The chairs are empty', when someone could sit in them. Likewise, when describing an object that is mobile, it is better to do this as a room chat. 'The bird is flying in the sky' in a long description makes the whole room look static, like an oil painting. If the bird flies across the sky occasionally in a room chat, this is less true:

This is a lovely tavern, with an empty stool at the bar.

Drakkos Wyrmstalker arrives from the south.
Drakkos Wyrmstalker sits on the stool.

> look

This is a lovely tavern, with an empty stool at the bar.
Drakkos Wyrmstalker is sitting on the stool.

Drakkos Wyrmstalker says: Hey sailor. Buy me a drink?

IV. Thou Shalt Not Use Relative Directions

Unless you're going to get very clever with code, you cannot assume a course of direction from a player. When entering a room with two entrances, in general you don't know which one they entered by. Likewise, in a room with only one entrance, you don't know if they arrived via that entrance, or if they portalled in, logged in there, or were dropped off there by mutant bats. For this reason, you shouldn't assume that a relative direction is going to be appropriate. 'The forest stretches ahead of you to the north'. What if I just arrived from the north? Wouldn't it be stretching behind me? Likewise with 'left' and 'right'… these will change dependent on what direction I have just arrived from.

This is the kitchen of a pretty house. The larder is to your left. The sitting room is to your right, the pantry to the south and the hallway is behind you to the north.

> south
It's the pantry.

> north
This is the kitchen of a pretty house. The larder is to your left. The sitting room is to your right, the pantry to the south and the hallway is behind you to the north.

> ponder
You ponder.

> north
It's the hallway.

> south
This is the kitchen of a pretty house. The larder is to your left. The sitting room is to your right, the pantry to the south and the hallway is behind you to the north.

> shout Help! Help! I'm trapped in the house that Escher built!

V. Thou Shalt Write (Mostly) Proper English

Although writing a description is not the same as writing a thesis, there are certain stylistic elements of formal writing that you should keep in mind when creating descriptions. One of these is that you should not write numbers as Arabic digits… instead, write them out fully. 'There are 2 large stone blocks here' should instead be 'There are two large stone blocks here'. This rule extends at least up to ten, and usually up to twenty. Beyond that, using the digits is acceptable, although using a general plural such as 'lots', or 'many' is perhaps a better approach. After all, who is going to count the exact number upon a casual glance at something?

Also with regards to writing properly: proper sentences have verbs, and so should all the sentences in your description. 'A large clearing' is not a sentence. 'This is a large clearing' is. However, don't worry too much about being too formal… in many cases, writing completely formal text will detract from a quality description. Use formal writing where appropriate, and whatever sounds good for the rest.

Finally, the standard of the MUD is for the British spelling of words. Terry Pratchett is an English author, and since the MUD is based on his works, we use his spelling conventions. So color, center, and emphasize, etc, are all wrong. Colour, centre and emphasise are correct. All your descriptions should conform to this standard. If in doubt, grab hold of a British English Spellchecker and run it over your descriptions.

VI. Thou Shalt Make Thy Text Easy On The Eye

A MUD such as Discworld is, I'm sure you've noticed, a text-based medium. As such, the presentation of the text in a clean and attractive manner is of paramount importance. Although the practice is falling out of vogue as variable width computer fonts become the norm, it is one of the standards of the MUD to double-space between sentences. The practice of double-spacing stems from the days of typewriters when each letter took up the same amount of space on a page. Many MUD and telnet clients still use fixed-width fonts to present MUD output, and using only a single space between sentences makes the whole description cramped and difficult to read for these users.

Related to this, you should avoid the use of colour in descriptions and shorts. Colour is a powerful method for emphasising particular words or sentences, but using it carelessly makes everything garish and detracts from the rest of the text. Additionally, it detracts from the consistency of the MUD in general. Why does your 'red sweater' have a coloured short description, when someone else's 'green sweater' doesn't?

Also, a number of users cannot see colours on their clients, and even those that can may find your choice of colour clashes with their client's background or their own defined colour schemes.

Finally, using colour also means people have to worry about stripping colour codes from your short descriptions when they reference them in code… an additional CPU and design overhead for something that is usually undesirable in the first place.

VII. Thou Shalt Describe Every Noun

If you mention a noun in your room, you should also make sure you have an add_item for it. This goes equally for nouns within the descriptions of add_items. There are few things more instantly indicative of a lack of attention in a MUD than descriptions that mention lots of things in the long description, but never provide items you can look at for them:

This is a nice stairwell. There are some lovely stairs leading upwards. There are frogs on the stairs.

> look stairs
You do not think that the stairs is here.

> look frogs
You do not think that the frogs is here.

> sigh.
You sigh.

Of course, you don't have to be too fanatic about this… describing the dew drop on the leaf of the stalk of the plant in the garden is unnecessary unless you really feel you want to. Most people will never look beyond a certain depth of add_item, but it's nice to reward those that make the effort by ensuring they have something to see if they're following your descriptions. Having a little joke at the end of a long chain of nouns is a nice touch too… it's the attention to detail that really makes a MUD special.

VIII. Thou Shalt Not Describe NPCs In The Description

If you have an NPC in your room for whatever reason, it should be a separate object and not a part of the room description. So rather than writing the wiry old shopkeeper with an add_item, he should be a separately coded NPC. If you don't do this, you get all sorts of inconsistencies such failing to find a match when you try to kill them, or being told they are not a living target when spells are cast on them. It's also inconsistent with how the rest of the MUD deals with NPCs… where there is a living creature, you should be able to interact with it as such in the same way as you can elsewhere.

This is a shop. There is a shopkeeper standing here.

> look shopkeeper.
What a clean old man!

> leer shopkeeper
You leer shopkeeper.

> ponder
You ponder.

> kill shopkeeper.
Cannot find "shopkeeper", no match.

> boggle
You boggle at the concept.

IX. Thou Shalt Not Put Command Hints In The Description

If you are describing a room with special commands within, it's very tempting to hint at these commands in the room description. This is Very Ugly, however, and should be avoided: 'This is a nice shop. You can 'buy' and 'sell' stuff here'. It's much, much better to put these command hints in a help-file. Most standard shops will already have a help-file, so you won't even need to do that… but if your room or shop does something unusual, it's always better to give the syntax in a help-file rather than in the long.. Partially this is to make the help system a homogenous, consistent thing. It's also to remove Out Of Character game information from the MUD.

Signs are also a valid way of providing information relating to how a particular room or shop works… but signs should always be in theme, prompting as to the use of a room, but never directly quoting the syntax. Signs are most effectively used as a means of conveying game information relevant to a particular room, such as exchange rates, cost for services, and so on:


Welcome To Bing's Bank!
We Give You More Bang For Your Buck!

You can 'apply' for an account here.

You can 'deposit' money here. The transaction fee is 10%.

Shop around! We guarantee you won't find a better rate anywhere else in this bank.


Welcome To Bing's Bank!
We Give You More Bang For Your Buck!

Apply For An Account Today!

We charge a low, low 10% on all deposits.

Shop around! We guarantee you won't find a better rate anywhere else in this bank.

Just think how the signs in your local store, bank or supermarket look… that's the way all signs should look on Discworld. Leave the actual commands and instructions for the help-file.

X. Thou Shalt Have Fun With Your Descriptions

This isn't just for your benefit… it's far, far more interesting and enjoyable to read descriptions written by someone who is enjoying what they do, rather than descriptions that have been mechanically churned out according to some rote formula. However, don't go nuts with this. It's all too easy to just give in and be silly or surreal in the hopes it will make your descriptions funny and enjoyable. What it mostly does, however, is make you look like a loon. In all cases, try and keep your descriptions in theme… but fun!

This is a large marketplace. Giraffes are bouncing on the stalls and pink elephants in tutus are waltzing gently around the villagers as they shop.

> look giraffe
There isn't a giraffe here… you're going crazy!

> look elephant
Why would there be an elephant here? It's a market-place.

> roll eyes
You roll your eyes.

Drakkos Wyrmstalker