This document is not intended as a guide to the mechanics of building; that can be found in the documentation for whatever MUD is being used. Instead, this document is a generic guide to writing good descriptions.
Note that throughout this document the word object has been used to donate any distinct thing in the database, whether that be a room, exit/action, object, player, or whatever.
Good building encompasses more than just writing a description for every object that is created; it involves careful consideration of what the object is, how it fits in with every other object, and something else wot I haven't got around to writing yet. :)
No database object exists in vacuo, and it is necessary to keep this in mind whenever creating a new object. Everything created must fit within the framework established by the other objects in the database - not only the individual objects themselves, but also the atmosphere and world milieu.
There is an important distinction to be made between "realism" and "reality". The former term has no connection with the situation and conditions of our own world; the latter term means particularly the situation and conditions that we experience.
Descriptions are the means by which the players sense their surroundings, and as such are very important. Descriptions serve two main functions: to inform the player of what she senses, and to express the theme. Both of these aspects will be discussed below.
Since a character receives input about the MUD world in the most part from descriptions, it is vital that these descriptions follow certain guidelines, in order that journeying through the world is as rich and full an experience as possible.
A description, as well as giving the players solid information, such as what an object looks like, should also convince the player that the object is real. The first thing that needs to be done is to make objects mentioned in a description, particular a room description, actual objects. This allows the player to at least attempt manipulating them, and ensures that a player will never receive that most irritating of messages "I do not see <object> here." when in the description of the room clearly states that that object is present.
[Note: I do realise that the above paragraph implies that a program exists for creating or modifying room descriptions based on objects in the rooms. While, admittedly, this can be a non-trivial problem, it is also one that can be overcome, at least to the limited extent required for what I am suggesting.]
On a wider level, an object should fit in with the other objects in the vicinity. That is, create a reality out of the combined effect of many objects seen at once. For while each individual object may be a beautifully described creation, together they might create a confusing and conflicting image, rather than a coherent one. Care must therefore be taken that the overall effect suits what is wanted, in addition to each distinct object following the other guidelines set out in this document.
There are a couple of aspects to creating this coherence. One is the writing style. It is important to be consistent in the treatment of all the objects in an area, unless one or two are deliberately made to stand out - although the individual descriptions will not be the same, if they are approached with the same style, they will be lent a degree of coherence.
The second aspect is the use of detail to build up a coherent picture - that is, to include objects which fit in with the area as a whole. For example, a bedroom would clearly require a bed, and could reasonably be expected to contain a container of some sort for personal items, a wardrobe, and such like things. By presenting sufficient detail, not just in the descriptions but also in the actual objects included, a coherent and real picture can be created more easily in the minds of the players.
Obviously, if the objects are moved or destroyed, then the resulting scene is true to the reality of the world, and therefore perfectly acceptable.
A third aspect is more a coding requirement than a writing one. It is the selection of which objects are displayed (when there are lots of objects) and in what format they are listed. *Unfinished*
When writing descriptions, it is essential that enough information is presented so that the player can get a good idea of the main features of the object, while at the same time not inundating her with useless detail.
Try to think of what you would take note of if you saw the object, and what words you would use to describe it to someone who wasn't able to sense it. It might well be useful to actually do the latter for real, to get an idea of what is distinctive about the object. As a general guide, for actual objects, mention size, colour and shape to begin with, since these are usually basic to every object and a person's perception of them.
Beware of simply using an established, abstract noun to describe something - for example, "church". This is both far too bland, in that it does not give an accurate picture of the building, and yet also provokes a large number of (possibly) unwanted connotations from the mind of the player. Although this might help to make the scene more vivid for the reader, it is encouraging the player to see the world entirely from her own perspective, with little actual input from the description. It is better instead to use more and specific words to build up a picture which carries its own connotations, giving a solid framework which the players can adorn with their own imaginations.
However, descriptions should not overwhelm players through their size, nor indeed through an abundance of detail. It is vital that they have enough undefined or "grey" areas that the imaginations of the players can use to customise the description so that it becomes meaningful to them.
One good way of presenting lots of interesting details, without having them all overwhelm the player when she looks at the object, is to use multiple levels of scale. That is, using nested "levels" of detail which expand upon a certain part of the description given in the "level" above; in effect each level is accompanied by a reduction in scale.
For example, a statue may be described as consisting of a plinth and a main piece of sculpture. The character may then look at the plinth, and see a description of it, perhaps saying that there is some engraving on it, some text and a frieze. The character may then examine the frieze and the text in more detail, or decide to look at the main piece of sculpture, which might in turn lead to other levels of detail.
Using this technique, lots of information can be presented, without being obtrusive; any level of detail can be achieved. It needs to be said, however, that this method can be frustrating for the reader; if a number of options are presented in each level of description, and this is done for multiple levels, then the reader might end up spending large amounts of time simply rereading descriptions in order to remember which options she has not explored. The larger the "tree" of descriptions, the more of a problem this becomes.
At the opposite extreme, there is little point in presenting a level of detail which opens out onto only one lower level of detail; the two should be amalgamated, in order to keep the "tree" trim, and to save frustration for the players.
There is a tendency when writing descriptions to present exclusively visual data, remembering the other senses only when the object is in some way "special". It is also common for some objects to be given much greater attention than others. Not only is this unrealistic, but it also leads to the attitude among players that these objects are important, while those which aren't given such treatment are not important. Thus the author is imposing her own idea of what is important on the players, rather than letting them decide for themselves. This is to be avoided.
All descriptions should be well balanced, with each sense catered for (if information is appropriate - if information for a certain sense is not expected (for example, the smell of metal) then this should be omitted). Admittedly many inanimate objects have little or no smell that humans can detect, and do not of themselves make noise; however, where this is a part of the object, they should be included. Also, every object has a texture, and many will taste of something, even though it may be hard to define just what.
Never include anything in a description which draws on data other than that which can be gained via the senses of the players. Indeed, try to present only information that is minimally interpreted, or which most if not all characters can reasonably be assumed to interpret in the same way. By interpretation I mean the process whereby a person senses, say, writing, rather than unrelated blobs of black. This must be done, of course; however, it should be done to as minimal extent as possible, while still maintaining easy comprehensibility among the vast majority of players.
The intent of this approach is to force the player to be aware of her surroundings, and to ensure that the player does not gain information without expending some thought to do so. If it is possible to write a description from which information can be inferred, (either with or without additional character knowledge) then it should be written in this way, rather than presenting that information outright.
Not only is what is said in a description important, but also the way in which it is said. By presenting information in the way in which a resident of the world would have seen or described it, the players will be forced to adopt some of same paradigms of thought as those in the world have.