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I've played a fair number of muds (mostly LP-muds) and I've been building areas for several years. Throw into that pot the results of discussions with several other creators about what makes a good area. As a result of this research, I have come to some conclusions. An excellent programmer and visionary named Truilkan (John Garnett), whom I met at TMI, was the one who first got me thinking about all this.
You can get more than one sort? Scary.
In the guidelines that follow, I assume you know basic mud programming concepts. If you don't, then this essay may be of little use to you.
Use proper grammar and spelling
As a domain lord, I've often been frustrated by my creators' unwillingness to check their grammar and spelling. Sloppy descriptions put the game in a bad light. When I first visit a mud, if the descriptions have many errors, I assume the logic also has numerous errors and I search for another game. Logic bugs and typos are inevitable, but gross sloppiness seems to breed them like rabbits.
Please use complete sentences in your long descriptions. "A big house." is not a complete sentence. "You see a big house." is.
Another common error creators make is to confuse "its" with "it's." "Its" is a possessive, while "it's" is the contraction of "it is." Use the search feature of your editor to search for all occurances of "its" and "it's" and make sure each one is used properly. This is pet peeve of Deutha's (Andrew Millard), who is an administrator at DiscWorld; he even refers to it in his finger information.
Speaking of possessives... Please don't forget the required apostrophe in other possessives. The word "dogs" means more than one dog, while "dog's" tells you that the following object belongs to the dog.
Don't use names in descriptions
Please don't put names in short descriptions and be careful of how you use them in long descriptions. In real life, when we walk into a room, we don't see:
This is Marshall's study. ...
There are other ways to let the player know whose room it is:
You see a modest room decorated in early computer geek. The bowels of ancient disk drives decorate the walls. A pile of unopened envelopes from various charities gathers dust on the desk. They are all addressed to Marshall Buhl.
The short for such a room should be something like "A cluttered study"--not "Marshall's Study."
When we meet a stranger, we have no idea what their name is unless they are wearing a name tag or badge. My short should not be "Marshall," but something more like "A man." My long description shouldn't start out as:
You see Marshall Buhl. He is a wind turbine engineer.
Instead you should say something more like:
You see a middle-aged man. By his casual dress, you suspect he may be involved in some sort of technical field like engineering. He is wearing a badge with his picture and the name "Marshall Buhl" on it. The badge indicates he works for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The beanie cap with propeller he's wearing makes you wonder if he studies wind turbines.
Add extra room items to look at
I've visited many a mud where almost all information is put into the rooms' long descriptions. I really hate it when I go into a room with a description like:
You round the bend in the trail to find yourself standing in front of a huge waterfall.
and then when I "look at waterfall", I get: "You do not see a waterfall." Huh? This is quite disconcerting and an indication of laziness by the creator. Whenever I create a room, I make sure I've added in as extra items anything mentioned in the room's long description. I also add descriptions of anything mentioned in the any of the extra items. Yes, it takes a lot more time, but it makes the difference between a quality area that encourages players to browse around and a boring area with nothing to do but hack-n-slash. This brings me to the next topic:
Give players a reason to do searches
In addition to creating areas with interesting things to look at, I enjoy adding in little microquests. These are just various odds and ends that I leave lying around. Except for roads and businesses, I rarely create a room without something hidden in it. It could be a useful tool, a treasure that's exchangeable for cash, or something as useless as a used tissue stuffed between the cushions of a couch. I also like to leave small amounts of change in my couches and stuffed chairs.
There's another reason for doing this in addition to just adding a little extra interest to the game. It's very unfair to create an area with nothing to search for, but for a single quest item. If a player enters your area, does some searches and extra looks and never finds anything, (s)he is unlikely to do a search when it is really needed for a quest. If some sort of search is necessary for the solution of your quest, you must make sure players make a habit of searching in your area or they will have to resort to cheating to solve it.
Give players things to interact with
I usually put a working sink in my kitchens. As an extra bonus for players who take the time to explore, I usually give limited healing powers to the water that comes from a faucet or pump. Some of my interactive items have just the opposite effect. I once put a forge in a smithy that gets really hot and reduces your health slightly if you pump the bellows too much. Maybe someday I'll modify it so that it will also dry you. On Discworld, you get wet and "squelch" a lot if you stand unprotected in the rain.
Don't assume direction of travel
This one really drives me nuts. Really now? Doesn't it seem rather silly to have a room that says: "As you go deeper into the forest, the trees become more gnarled and twisty."? Unless your mudlib has a feature that knows which way you enter a room (and unless you use that feature), there's no way to tell whether a player is going deeper into the forest or leaving it.
A little humor doesn't hurt
Maybe my bent for putting humor into my areas came from reading the Discworld novels, or maybe it came from exposure to Discworld's wonderfully outrageous founder, Pinkfish (David Bennett). Sometimes, my humor takes the form of a real groaner like leaving a dinner fork at a fork in the road. Many times, it is subtler. An ignoramus might rail in a chat that "Them thespians should be locked up for committing them unnatural acts!" I also like to anthropomorphize many of my objects. Chairs stand guard around a table. A house glares down at you from the top of a hill. Little things like that add a nice touch to the game.
Don't unfairly penalize a player for being inquisitive
Creators spend a lot of time creating their areas. Given that, it seems rather foolish to put in features that discourage the players from exploring. As a player, have you ever innocently walked into a room and are suddenly struck dead by a high-level non-player character (NPC)? Such a thing is only fair if the creator gives the players clues to let them know that they really shouldn't be nosing around unless they are very tough.
Some muds I've played had signs on a road that said an area was for advanced players only. I find this, although useful to the players, a bit lazy. Wouldn't it be better to have some sort of guard check the players' levels to see if they are up to snuff and then bar their entry if they are not?
I've never done that, myself. As players approach one of my tougher NPCs, I generally give them a feeling of foreboding, which increases as they get closer. I also like to put in lesser NPCs that one must pass first. In order for this technique to work, you can't make a place look scary and then put in wimpy NPCs. This can give the players a false sense of security. Hopefully, none of the other creators on your mud will do such a thing.
The same holds true for interacting with objects. Don't leave "hand grenades" lying around that can kill players just for trying to manipulate them. If you do create such objects, give the players hints that maybe they should think twice before pulling that lever.
This is really more of a job for the supervisory creators. It's wrong to have a little bunny in one area be tougher than a dog in another area--unless it's the killer rabbit from Monty Python. When you create NPCs, think of existing NPCs that should have similar abilities and copy their stats.
The same holds true for weapons and armor. A small knife, no matter how sharp, just can't do as much damage as a two-handed sword unless it has magical abilities. If so, there should be some sort of indication that it is magical. Boots can't protect you as well as body amour; you're just not going to die in combat if someone attacks your feet. Well, you might eventually bleed to death, but...
Feburary 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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