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Use Your GDI!

by Aaron "Ajax" Berkowitz

Or: Please Madam! It's only a room description!

Preface: Before I begin, I should point out two things. Firstly, this article is a direct result of the author's reading of a Commentary written by Natalia for her fabulous online 'zine/Mud resource Game Commandos. Said Commentary, entitled "Fix Your Room Descriptions", is very well-written, as are most (I dare say all I have seen) of her works, and most definitely worth a look.
Some trees in the Hoh Rainforest

A forest path in a dark, not that gloomy, forest.

Secondly, no disrespect to Natalia or her viewpoints is intended. The author merely happens to disagree with a few of her objections/opinions, and through the use of humorous exaggeration and/or parody, hopes to show you just exactly why.

Part I: Um, So How Exactly Do I Write a "Good" Description?

Natalia points out eight "distracting" factors to be found in many areas. Briefly, they are:

  1. Typos

  2. Addition of Emotion

  3. Time of Day

  4. Wrong Word Choice

  5. Built-in Actions

  6. Implied Direction

  7. Seasons

  8. Incorrect Exit Descriptions

Of these eight, I will freely admit that three are inexcusable. There is no reason to have a typo in an area that's been played in for awhile. We all make mistakes, and grammar isn't always the strong point of an otherwise imaginative and clever builder, but sooner or later those typos that your (hopefully thorough!) final run-through does not catch will be reported. Fix them!

Wrong word choice basically amounts to a typo as well: "there swords" instead of "their swords," or "Is getting darker" instead of "It's getting darker." These are also often reported and go unfixed, despite the ease of doing so. Even if grammar isn't a big deal to you, it's just as easy to do it right as it is to do it wrong when someone is telling you how to do it. So do it right!

Incorrect exit descriptions! "The trail leads north", when the exits to the room are east and west. The less said about this the better...make a hard-copy map of your area before you start building, so you know what goes where before you start writing the descriptions.

This leaves five "distracting" factors: Addition of Emotion, Time of Day, Built-In Actions, Implied Direction, and Seasons. Of these, Time of Day and Seasons basically amount to the same thing: the builder includes a phrase like "the sun shines brightly on the lush green grass" in the room description, whereas the mud currently believes that it's the middle of the night in the dead of winter. An inconsistency, to be sure, but perhaps not a major one.

Addition of Emotion amounts to the inclusion of phrases that indicate what your character is thinking or feeling. "You recoil in fear as a drop of blood falls on your armor", "The lengthening shadows make you glance warily about for unseen presences", or "You feel relieved as you stumble back onto the path, glad to be free of the forest and its perils." The argument here being, "who is this builder to tell me my fearless orc warrior recoils in fear?! It's my character!"

Built-in Actions refers to the presence of words in the room description that indicate that one of the occupants is doing something when the character enters. A mild example of this is "the shopkeeper glances up from his inventory sheet as he notices your presence". It is unusual, but still believable that a shopkeeper might be looking at an inventory sheet at any time of the day or night; however, if the next line is "The corpse of the shopkeeper lies here," things get rather strange.

Implied Direction is the use of phrases like "As you enter the crypt," or "You have finally emerged from the depths of the forest" in a room description when the room is accessible from more than one direction. Obviously, adventurers on their way out of the crypt after killing the beasties would not see things the same way as when they entered, in a perfect mud-world.

Part II: I'm Just a God, I'm Not Superman!

Inconsistencies such as these are indeed common to many mud-areas, largely for a single reason: very few muds have implemented Dynamic Room Descriptions (DRDs hereafter) which can change what is seen depending upon any of dozens of factors: time of day, weather, character's race, etc. In fact, DRDs can completely eliminate just about all of the above "distractions" except for Implied Emotion.

The problem? There are basically two: firstly, DRDs are rather uncommon, since many mud-administrators see them as a "cute feature" rather than an earth-shattering enhancement to their game. Secondly, I have yet to find a mud-builder of any stripe who will tell me that room descriptions are his or her favorite part of building. Why in the names of all the gods would someone want to write twelve (or more) times as many room-descriptions per room? Even one room description of decent quality per room can be a challenge, especially if you are doing a large area. Covering all the bases of time, weather, race, direction, etc., would drive most builders to gibbering madness, and at the very least would add a lengthy period of "busy-work" time before a zone is ready for opening if the mud-administrators was strict about their use.

A common rule of thumb for the inclusion of any feature in a mud is:

if benefit > effort, Implement; else 'thank you for your idea!'

Simply put, given the fact that a sizeable fraction of a given player base has to be coaxed into reading room descriptions at all, DRDs don't provide enough benefit to the few who would appreciate them to justify the tremendous amount of effort required to code, debug, and use them. And without DRDs, it is very difficult to come up with a room description that can be all things to all people while still being engaging and fun to read.


A Forest Path

You've come across a wide, wind swept path that is covered with dead leaves from the overhanging oak and maple trees high above you. A sudden gust of wind sends a chill down your spine, and you shiver slightly and peer ahead, suddenly alarmed at how quiet it is around here. The path continues to the east and west; to the east you spy the dark and gloomy Forest of Fear, and westward lies a grim and forbidding castle, awesome in size and sinister in appearance.

Dead leaves? But it's the middle of summer, there shouldn't be that many dead leaves on the ground...and where did this gust of wind come from? My "weather" command just told me it was calm! And who says a chill runs down my spine, anyway? I'm running a Yeti Necromancer who likes cold, dark, quiet places!"

OK, OK, settle down there, Zhaskwu, we'll try to include your perspective too. Hmm, allowing for any kind of weather is a challenge, but let's give it a try. Take Two:

A Forest Path

You've come across a wide, wind swept path(1). There are trees above you(2). It is quiet around here(3). The path continues east and west; to the east you spy a dark forest(4), and westward lies a castle(5).

  1. dead leaves eliminated...suggests fall/winter months.

  2. oak/maple eliminated; not all characters know plant biology. "High" above you eliminated; some characters might be nearly as tall as these trees.

  3. wind eliminated...possible conflict with mud's weather. Lengthy Implied Emotion passage eliminated; not all characters are alarmed by cold or quiet.

  4. "gloomy" eliminated; suggests an emotion in many people which may not apply to their character. Name of forest eliminated; not all characters will have visited the Forest of Fear before coming here, because of the "teleport" and "summon" spell.

  5. Lengthy Implied Emotion descriptors eliminated from "castle," may not apply to Evil-Aligned characters or characters who are unimpressed by big castles.

We've followed all the we have a better description? I don't think so.

Part III: Use your GDI!

All that said, it may be that certain players are still bothered by textual inconsistencies such as the above, even to the point where their enjoyment of the game is lessened. To these people, the author offers the following suggestion: Use your Gosh-Darned Imagination!

Remember, the game does not take place on the screen, it takes place in your head. The builder is probably not trying to give you an item-by-item list of the contents of a room when he or she writes a room description; he or she is trying to evoke a certain feeling in you as a reader, along with impressions that allow you to fill in the details in the comfort of your own head. Back in school, you were probably taught that evocative writing involves as many senses as possible: sight, hearing, smell, and so on. Well, those nasty "Implied Emotions" are a shortcut to evoking the proper mood in a room description. Character-Knowledge conflicts aside, the player knows what the builder is talking about when "a chill wind sends shivers up your spine." Rather than complaining that the character would not be alarmed by a sudden hush, or astounded by the size of the building, the player should improvise, inside his or her head and in the game-world. Your Yeti Necromancer likes the cold? Use an emote: "Zhaskwu bares his fangs in a contented grin as the chilly breeze ruffles his fur." Now nobody can accuse him of being a feeble human, no matter what the builder wrote in the room description.

Implied fear of (or concern for) things in the room also ruffles some people's feathers. Calm down! It's only a room description. Nobody's going to assume Zhaskwu really got "choked up with homesick longing" upon looking at some village children at play in a room description unless he does something about it, like sniffles or starts to cry. If he behaves in a far more likely manner (such as slaughtering said children and eating them), this is the impression he will leave on anyone who matters (i.e. another player character in the room). In other words, a room description isn't taking anything away from your conception of your character through Implied Emotion: it is merely suggesting a mood, to aid you the player in your conception of the room, and thus to help you decide what your character would do in such a situation.

Finale: And Put it in Perspective!

Honestly, aren't a few implied emotions, seasons, directions of travel, and times of day a small price to pay for a room description that excites the senses with its evocative language? Why complain about a chilling wind or a thrill of fear sending shivers up your spine, when all too many muds feature areas full of one-line descriptions like: "The cave is very dark. Exits are east and west"? To me, if a builder has put enough time and effort into an room description to tell me how I might feel about what I see, or supply an extra tidbit of knowledge my character might not "realistically" have had, said builder is doing a damned good job. Even if I want to eat those kids.

Ajax, also known as Dyrewulf, can be found building away at Questionable Sanity ( 4000)