The Few, the Proud, the Builders - What is a Builder?

A builder is a term usually used to describe a person who designs MUD areas for other characters to explore. Any player with motivation, ideas, and good writing style can be a builder as well as a player. This document is suggested reading for anyone interested in creating areas for TBA or any MUD.  Building a great zone takes many things, a few of which include time, patience, good grammar/spelling, knowing how to balance your zone, and a lot of work.  Now this all may sound like a lot to do, but I can assure you that with this document, and others help, you can do this with out any problems. 

Building was once explained to me as writing a story for the mortals of the mud.  As you go through the zone, it unfolds into different twists in the plot.   Try imagining writing a small book when writing the descriptions for your zone or even imagine yourself actually there and write what you see. Do whatever works for you, everyone has their own style of writing zones. As a Builder, your job is to create the virtual world in which players can roam around, solve puzzles, find treasures, and gain experience.  Different MUDs stress different ideals. From "Hack-n-Slash" to enforced "Role Playing" only. Find a MUD that matches your interest and building style. Otherwise you might get stuck creating a World you would not want to play.

A Builder creates the rooms, objects, and monsters with which players will interact, defining their textual descriptions, stats, abilities, and other special properties. A Builder should not be confused with the MUD's coder, whose job it is to modify the ANSI C code that makes the MUD actually run.  A Builder does not need to be a programmer, and building is not programming; building is done by writing text into various menus in the game, which this document describes in detail.

 

Are you ready?

Do you own a dictionary? (this is a bit outdated now, keep Merriam Webster or your favorite dictionary webpage open in another tab) Can you write in complete sentences? I expect everyone to be able to write decent descriptions. I feel like the kettle calling the pot black saying this, after all my grasp on the English language is mediocre at best, but zones that are grammatical nightmares will not be implemented. Our goal is to develop the best MUD possible, part of this requires professionalism. If you think you can't do this then either go to a MUD that has no standards or feel free to play as a mortal and submit ideas until your grammar skills improve. On TBA I've made several exceptions to this rule for builders that are learning English as a second language.

Writing an area requires inspiration and imagination before all else. Ideas for areas often come from literature; for example, Dante's trip through the Inferno.  Areas should always start out on paper long before they reach a computer; a general map of the region can help to solidify the idea and a specific map of each individual room is ideal so that the rooms can be linked together in a way that makes sense geographically.  Taking notes on ideas for which monsters should be encountered in the area, their descriptions, and in what location the monsters should appear can also help when planning an area.

Do you know the MUD you wish to build for? Do you know the environment and style of the MUD? Have you looked at the zones others have built? I would suggest playing a mortal before attempting to build anything to get a feel for the realm. Most importantly have you read the background story? Now I was amazed at how few people read the background story. Most MUDs have a theme, and it will have to be followed.

A good way to get your foot in the door is to prove that you are worthy of the title builder. You should propose a small (about 5-20 rooms) addition or modification to the MUD. Examples of a small addition might be: a new street in one of the cities, a multi-story inn in a popular city, or a new scenic path on a mountain trail. The idea is to propose something simple and low-key. Don't try to add or modify a popular, complex, or important set of rooms. Projects like these will come later. You need to start small and work your way up. If you are serious about becoming a builder it will take time and patience. If you have made it this far down this behemoth of an article congratulations and keep reading, it will help.

Draw upon your extensive knowledge of the existing World to come up with an idea for your modification or addition. Send a note to the head builder or one of the implementers explaining your idea and your intention to become a builder. Once your idea has been approved you're *almost* ready to start implementing it. Before you get your feet wet with builder commands, however, you need to work your way through TBA's builder tutorial. The first step is to fill out the builder application form.

Once complete login to TBA at tbamud.com port 9091 and notify any staff (level 32 or above) and they will advance you and assign you a trial room where you can begin building. You should completely read this document to avoid making all of the common "new builder" mistakes.

We'll review your trial room once it is complete and may make suggestions to rewrite parts. This is perfectly normal and should not in any way be interpreted as an insult. The comments you receive may include a lot of nitpicky details but once you're a full builder we won't be going over your work and editing it as closely. Try and learn as much as you can from this test-review process and keep it in mind as you work on future projects; it's the most direct and concrete way for us to tell you what we're looking for in terms of area writing. If your work is approved, do a dance and proceed to the next section. If for some reason it isn't approved try and figure out where the problem is and how you can fix it next time around. MUDs need builders, but they also need standards as well. I would rather see one good area than ten mediocre ones.

The remaining part of qualifying to be a builder is not as difficult, but may take more time. At this point in the process your character will be given OLC (On-Line Creation) privileges and you will be expected to implement your addition/modification proposal in a reasonable amount of time. When you finish constructing your test proposal let the immortals know that it is complete.

When it is approved let this document be the first to say, "Congratulations! You are now a full-fledged qualified builder!" Where do you go now? You now know how to tackle revisions or minor additions to current areas, but most builders want to build a new area. If this is what you're interested in, the rest of this document will explain how. 

There are many, wide-ranging mistakes builders can make when starting new areas. We find that areas work out best when they are planned ahead of time. The point of writing up an area proposal is so that we can catch some of these mistakes early on, before you've spent weeks working on your project. Believe us, this situation is no fun for anyone involved. An area proposal consists of a simple MUDmail or email to the head builder or implementers of the MUD. 

The MUDmail can be informal, but should cover at least six things: the location, level and alignment design, concept, plot, and size of the area you would like to create. Detailed descriptions of these items and some thoughts on how to avoid common traps follow below.

It's very important to know where an area is going to fit in with the World before it is written! This may seem very obvious, but it is a painful truth that many people make areas without regard for where they will be placed on the MUD. A character shouldn't be walking around in an idyllic happy forest and suddenly come upon an arctic wilderness. Likewise a character shouldn't venture a couple steps outside a main human city and find themselves in an ancient elven homeland. Figure out where your new area is going to go and make sure it doesn't grievously conflict with surrounding terrain, climate, politics, mythology, and races. Of course a simple portal can make location unnecessary.

If it's a city, the main gates probably aren't going to open into the middle of a forest. Give some thought to using a few rooms to link the "main" part of your area to a spot that's already in the MUD (be creative - as well as roads and pathways, there are waterways and other means to reach places ...) If it's more of a wilderness-type area, then the way it links might be a bit more vague, and it might link in more than one place - when was the last time you saw a forest, field, or desert that could only be reached in one way?

As important as where the area should begin is where it should end. A city or even a village might have walls and a logical "edge," but if you're working with wilderness or even just the surroundings beyond the city itself, it's hard to know where and how to draw the boundaries. Natural formations seem like the perfect answer -- rivers, mountains, and so on -- BUT (and I think this is a huge but) the problem with these is that they are extremely prominent geographical features and are not a good "throwaway" solution. If you're writing forest room upon forest room and think you'll never get to the end, don't just write in an insurmountable mountain range or a gratuitous river. That'll lead to questions like, "What's on the other side of the mountains, and why can't I approach them or even see them from anywhere else?" or "Why did this river suddenly come to an abrupt end as soon as I left this forest?" Far better is to do something on a smaller scale like: "the trees just get too dense to move on."

Even better is to integrate your area seamlessly with the rest of the world, rather than allowing for one connecting point and sealing the area off from its surroundings in all other directions. It's not easy to do this and it's not always even possible, but it's worth spending some time working on the rooms that link the "area" as you first conceived of it with what's around it.

If you haven't noticed by now, this is a particular obsession of mine, and not only will I be especially impressed by a proposal that includes thoughtful, innovative suggestions on the area's place in the world, I'll be sure to get on your case if, after all this, you write a gratuitous river into your area. Be forewarned.

Give us an idea of what levels your new area will be geared for. Many good areas stick to a defined range, such as 10-20, 25-30, or 5-15. Don't try and make your new area cover the entire range of levels. Every area should have its moment in the sun. Conversely, it would be nice if there was something really unique and challenging to do at every stage in a character's history. Don't build areas for levels higher than those you've actually attained with your character(s). Your area might be the most successful if you can gear it for a range of levels that people believe is otherwise "boring".

Tell us whether your area is mostly good, neutral, or evil. If it's mostly good or mostly evil, is it strongly good or evil or just weakly aligned? In any case try not to make your area completely homogenous. In neutral communities there's going to be some evil and good elements, and likewise with other communities. To some extent this goes along with the question about area level; consider what seem to be "gaps" among the areas in the world as far as good or evil aligned areas for a particular level range, and try to fill those needs.

People's first tendency is to build to the extremes. The ultimate evil hell area, or the blindingly good paladin fortress. Keep in mind that there are many layers in between, and these are often more interesting.

The "concept" for an area is its reason to be. This is where you tell us what's so interesting about the place. A concept can be a simple statement like "I want this area to be the homeland of a few loose-knit families of storm giants." or "This area is a part of the sea where a merchant ship from Anon is engaged in battle with a pirate ship". Concepts can also be much more elaborate and include insight into the history of the area, how its society and economy work, current plots or conflicts going on in the area, and how other people in the World view the place. The more work you put into the concept the better it will be, and the better other areas will be that build off of it.

Feel free to discuss concept ideas informally as well as other aspects of your proposed area before handing in the full proposal. The immortals will be glad to help you out, you might even get some ideas you hadn't thought of before.

The size of an area is measured by its maximum number of rooms (also called virtual numbers: VNUMs). One of the most common mistakes a new builder makes is to misjudge the amount of time it takes to build. What typically happens is that the unsuspecting builder starts a grand project only to find himself over his head with work after two weeks. The result is almost always a sloppy, hastily finished product or a perpetually unfinished one. Either way the builder ends up discouraged and their area is unusable.

Don't let this happen to you! If this is your first area, keep it under 50 rooms! You'll soon see this is a fair amount of work and gives you quite a bit of room to accomplish what you have in mind. Once you've completed something of this size and are proud of your work, you can always add on to it or make a larger area next time. In your zone proposal tell us how many rooms you think you'll need (a preliminary map or sketch of your zone may help you figure this out). Even if you have a 500-room center-of-a-thriving-civilization concept in mind, try to divide it up into sections and work on them one at a time. A cluster of small areas that get phased in gradually is much better than one gigantic area that never gets done. Trust us when we tell you a 500-room area will never be finished without Herculean effort of which most of us are incapable.

 

Building

Most people underestimate how much work it takes to build a good area. Don't expect to finish everything to perfection in one week! Here are some steps you can use to keep your project going for extended amounts of time.

Try and build in a mini quest into part of your area so that characters can do something active rather than feel like aggressive tourists. If you're building a wilderness area, perhaps include some kind of hidden/trapped treasure one can find. If you're building a populated area, think about having some mystery that a player can uncover. Built in quests make a good area great. Make the World as interactive as possible. With the use of triggers you can make a zone come to life.

"Game Balance" is a term that brings a different thing to mind for every person that hears it.  What is most important about game balance is to keep in mind for whom each zone is designed. For example, high level players, newbies, or small groups.  The objects and monsters found in the area should match the level, abilities, and needs of the players expected to use the zone.  Most players do not like to be given vast treasure with no difficulty in getting it, but on the other hand, nobody likes to fight the most difficult mobile on the MUD and get nothing.  Areas should not be impossibly hard or absurdly easy.

Understandably, builders want their zones to be popular, but they sometimes attempt to achieve this goal by purposefully making their zone unbalanced, adding powerful weapons or armor with no harmful side-effects or mobiles that are easy to kill yet give massive numbers of experience points. Such zones are destined both to become very popular and invariably to bring about the death of a MUD. Every zone, every room, every object, every mob, will be checked before being implemented. Do not waste everyone's time (ours for having to recheck your zone, and yours for having to fix any problems we find). Keep the balance.

 

Keep it interesting

An interesting area will always attract more players than a bland one. There are many ways to make an area interesting.  Try to be as descriptive as possible; don't hold back on writing extra descriptions.  Players are so accustomed to not having richly described areas that finding an extra description can often be a real treat.  Also, one oft forgotten thing to describe are the door exits. Describing all of these can give a feel of standing out in a field and looking off to the north and seeing something like:

The fields stretch off towards the large hills on the horizon. Far to the north you see what appears to be a plume of smoke.

With door descriptions like these, an area will feel more fleshed out to the player.  Many players (both experienced and first timers) read the descriptions carefully the first time they walk through an area, and having many extra descriptions helps them fill out their idea of what things actually look like.

One thing that should never be done is to have generic room descriptions like "You stand in a big room.  It is very dark." Descriptions like these detract in general from the rest of the World, and if they are found room after room can bore a player to tears. Such a description could be changed to:

A massive room stretches out to the East and West. Shadows cower along the smooth walls and almost seem to be moving. The floor is made of heavy stones which are very dark in color. The ceiling towers overhead with chandeliers suspended in the darkness.

Another way to make an area interesting is to create some sort of plot line for it, or a coherent theme, rather than a collection of haphazardly related rooms.  The plot can be complex like infiltrating a castle to garner the war plans of the evil Lord Zygol, or simple like ridding the caves of goblins, or anything in between.  Often the plot in an area can be advanced by some fairly simple puzzles or descriptions. 

With the help of triggers a zone can be turned into an interactive experience that will draw in a player and really immerse them into your World.

 

More ideas.....

First you visualize a story that happens in your area, lets say a princess is captured somewhere and her relatives are looking for her. Next, you drop some clues to her whereabouts by putting conversations in the 'looked at' description of mobiles. For example you can set up some mobs so that when you look at them, you get "You strike up a conversation with the shopkeeper. He tells you about the rise and fall of the price of wheat. Looking at the candy jar he sighs. You ask him why, and he relates a sad tale of how he hasn't seen a little girl who used to come into his store in a long time. Granted, this isn't as elegant as triggers, but triggers can be a lot of work and not everyone can write them.

The point is that you interpret the looked at description as something more than just looking, you can view it as a static conversation. You can then go around the area and throw in a few room extras leaving a trail to where the princess is. You can also put some extra descriptions on useless items lying about to indicate where one may find the princess. Once at the princess, you could have her relay a story of the location of a secret buried treasure in her looked at description, a nice reward for the rescuing hero. You can set up the buried treasure in a container with a hidden long description and a short description of 'the ground' so they get the treasure from the ground, and only know where this object is by the princess's tale. When your players stumble upon something like this, they love it.

Not all mobs have to be designed to be killed, nor does every shopkeeper have to buy or sell something. They could just be created so that they refuse to trade with any player characters.  The players will then wonder why the shopkeeper exists.  Perhaps giving him a jewel will make him more friendly.  In this way, an area can be made infinitely more exciting by adding a trigger. Perhaps random teleporters throughout the area, perhaps some triggers that have mobiles respond to questions from players.

All in all, the best way to make an area interesting is to use variety, intelligence, and imagination in building.  Try to imagine what it would be like for you to walk through and what you might try looking at or doing, and then try to incorporate that into your area. Show your area to others and take their advice.  By taking all of this extra effort in creating your area, you will be rewarded by leaving a lasting memory of your area in the minds of many players.

Don't let your area fall by the unfinished wayside! Work on it a little every day, even if it's only one or two rooms worth of work. Remember not to leave out details such as exit descriptions (i.e., look north, look up) in the interest of finishing faster. Likewise, don't fill space by just making more of the same mob or duplicate room descriptions unless there's a good reason for doing so. Take your time and do a thorough job, not one that's only superficially good.

When you finish, MUDmail the imps, head builder, or all of the above. Let us know your area is ready to go live. We'll want to see what it's like; if you're around you will get to play tour guide. Once we've seen the place and checked to make sure there aren't any obvious problems your area will go live. It will show up on the area list listing your character's name as the author and you will also be given credit. Congratulations!

-- Rumble