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How to Build/Create Compelling Areas

I've been a wizard since 1994. At the time of this writing, that means I've been creating for a decade. Now, not all of that time has been productive. I've had months of idle time in there, but I've done a lot of building, as well, and on the MUD I hail from, the areas, non-player characters, and objects I create are very well-received. I've been asked over the years how I do it, how do I create such vivid areas as the Holm (in the domain Avenir, on Genesis). I am hoping to address that question in this article.

First, I'll start by saying that I am a top-down learner and a top-down producer. That means I need to have a handle on the big picture before I can get started. The problem with that is, of course, that the big picture is so big, that delving into what needs to be done to develop it can be overwhelming. If you are a bottom-up learner/producer, one of those just-tell-me-what-I-have-to-do, I'll-see-the-big-picture-once-its-painted types, I'm not sure how helpful this will be to you, but your team-lead might find it useful.

Step One: The idea, the theme. I usually start making 'impressions' notes. What does an area look like, feel like, smell like? I put myself mentally into the area. How large is it? How open does it feel? Who lives there? Why do they live there? What would it feel like to live there? I do free-form creative writing at this stage.

Step Two: Create a map. This is very important. You may change it later, expand it, or contract it, but you need to know how many rooms you are making. If there is a lot of geographical difference in the area you are creating, consider subdividing it into sub-areas, each with their own map, and their own idea files.

Step Three: Create the room objects. I just create empty rooms with the file names, inheriting an empty base file, and link the rooms up according to the maps.

Step Four: Visit the empty room. Map in one screen, impressions doc in another, room code in a third, I stand physically in the first room, and, imagining myself there, I start describing it. As I start writing the descriptions, I think about whether or not I will be using a certain item or description consistently, and if so, I put it in my base room, so that description will be available to all the other rooms.

Step Five: As I describe the rooms, I make notes in the header about objects and creatures I want to place there. I do not stop to make those things. I keep describing my area. I try to make sure that at least 3 out of the 5 senses are stimulated in each room, appealing not only to sight, but also to hearing and smell, and when I can, to taste and touch. This really helps to set the mood of the area.

Step Six: Walk-through, make sure all rooms link together correctly, both via exits, as well as mood and description. A walk-through at this time helps to detect inconsistencies or weaknesses in the imagery.

Step Seven: Brainstorm the non-player characters. I know where they live. I can stand in the area and feel the breeze on my face, smell the fetid odor, bask in the golden light, so now I need to imagine them. Who are they, what are they, why are they there? What do they look like? I sketch every detail I can think of with words: eye-colour, hair- fur- or skin-colour. Do they speak? Is it accented? How can I get that accent across to the player? What do they do that is special, that makes them unique? What do they wear, eat, drink, carry? Do they have tics? Do they have actions or greetings or chats in common with other characters? What are their names, titles, affiliations, sizes?

Step Eight: Create the characters, noting in the file headers what objects need to be coded to flesh them out. I do not create the objects yet, as I am focussing on making believable npcs that have actions, chats, and answers to questions.

Step Nine: Reference the headers on the room and creature files, compiling a list of objects to be created: benches, sconces, coins, armours, weapons, toys, etc, then start creating them. This part is obviously the most fun. When I find myself getting stale with creating the rooms or the npcs, I'll often take a break and just create a couple of these objects.

Step Ten: Once the objects are made, test them thoroughly, then modify the rooms and npcs to clone them. My domain has a tool for area-handling, and for me, cloning npcs and objects to rooms is a matter of editing just one file. I still did it this way even when I had to edit each room file, though.

Step Eleven: Get help with the tricky stuff. Try not to compromise your vision. In my experience, there are always some shit-hot coders who would love a chance to sink their teeth into something really difficult---all you have to do is ask for their help. So if you want to create a curse that makes life difficult for the wielder of the mace that was stolen took from the corpse of the high priest, but you don't know how to code it, ask for help. You don't get what you don't ask for.

Step Twelve: Notify your team-lead, lord, lady or whatever you call him/her, that your area is ready for testing. Run through the area. Listen to npc chats. Test secret entrances, cloning of objects related to player actions (get crystal from hole, search here for herbs, get torch from sconce, mine wall for gold, etc) and, of course, test the quests.

Step Thirteen: Once you get the green-light to open, pop the champagne and clear the exit. Your area is open!

Lilith dei Sisaer is the Lady of the domain Avenir in the lpMUD Genesis. She has lead the development of Sybarus and sybarite culture in Genesis since 1998. In real life she is known as Kelly Graham (email: homepage:
MUD: port 3011