How to write excellent room descriptions for your text-based game

Headshot of a smiling Andruid.
By Andruid

Writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill & Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other." 

Table of Contents

    Today’s post contains tips on how to write excellent room descriptions for your text-based game. The advice is especially applicable to multi-user dungeons (MUDs) but may also be useful for CYOAs and other roleplaying and writing games.

    It’s important to note that in these contexts, a room isn’t always a space with four walls and a roof. A room can represent any area, large or small, that a player character might enter.

    With that in mind, let’s start by defining what makes an excellent room description. I’ll then provide some building tips, as well as some writing ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

    What makes an excellent room description?

    Unless you’re building your own game from scratch, there’s a fair chance that the game you’re working on already has some sort of builder’s manual. Many games do. If it includes a style guide, that’s the best place to start, as style and expectations can differ from game to game.

    For example, some game admins prefer that you avoid writing in the second person. Others might insist that you don’t write about the weather, as the game might already have a system for handling weather effects.

    And of course, there’s always one’s personal opinion on what sounds best. As for myself, I would argue that an excellent room description is…

    1. consistent in tone and style with other rooms in the area
    2. free of typos, mistakes, and grammatical errors
    3. doesn’t assume or force a reaction from characters
    4. follows the rule of “show, don’t tell” and minimizes meta
    5. includes a unique feature or detail

    To write outstanding room descriptions according to these principles, simply follow the 5 tips below.

    1. Keep it consistent

    Nothing says “sloppy” like a zone that’s figuratively all over the place in style and tone. Here’s how to handle each:

    Overall style

    I tend to think it’s generally okay if an area has its own unique flair, and in many games, that’s expected. After all, building is a time-intensive volunteer effort. Why wouldn’t you want your builders to create something special that interests them and includes their personal touch?

    Even so, the rooms within that area should be consistent with each other and with the game’s overarching theme, or players won’t know what to make of them. They’ll be turned off or, worse, confused. They might not bother reading anything else in the area, and the work will have been in vain.

    To prevent that from happening, make sure you’re following the game’s style guide as you build out each room. Follow the preferred point of view (first, second, or third), and avoid mix-and-matching. For example, if your game is played in the third person, it might seem weird and off-putting to randomly include the second person (“You see a…”) in your descriptions.

    Bonus tip: If your game doesn’t have a style guide yet, building your first area is the perfect time to put one together! You’ll be able to flesh out a few bullet points as you decide what works best for your game. Then, it’s simply a matter of sticking to the rules you’ve laid out.

    Tone and ambiance

    Technical aspects aside, you’ll also want to pick a particular tone and convey a certain ambiance. Ask yourself what kind of emotions you want to evoke in your readers. Do you want them to get goosebumps? Feel warm and cozy? Lost and disoriented? Wary?

    Make a list. As you write out your room descriptions, refer back to it. This will help you stay focused on your original goals and ensure a more consistent tone throughout the area.

    2. Spellcheck and proofread

    Typos and grammatical errors can also make a game seem sloppy. Not only that, they can be confusing for players. Did you write “west” when you meant “east”? To avoid sending players on a wild goose chase, make sure you proofread your room descriptions for mistakes. Keep in mind that a spellchecker is handy for preventing typos, but it won’t catch everything.

    If your client doesn’t include a built-in spellchecker, there are plenty of free browser-based options. Grammarly is extremely popular, for example, and includes a browser extension.

    You can also get some help from your playerbase! Encourage players to report typos and mistakes as they find them. As long as you provide clear instructions for submitting typos, you’re sure to get some useful feedback from your game’s loyal fans.

    3. Avoid forcing or assuming reactions from characters

    It’s important to remember that writing for a roleplaying game is different from writing fiction. In a roleplaying context, the reader generally expects to have control over the thoughts and feelings of their character. Thus, you want to avoid writing descriptions that infringe upon their ability to roleplay their character’s reactions as they see fit.

    For example, consider the following sentences:

    1. The sight of the waterfall takes your breath away.
    2. The sight of the waterfall is enough to take one’s breath away.

    They’re pretty similar, right? But there’s a key difference.

    #1 assumes that everyone who sees the waterfall will be affected by it and forces that reaction on the reader. It ignores the fact that the player’s character might be stoic or unaffected by romantic scenery. #2 conveys the same sentiment but leaves it up to the reader whether their character actually has their breath stolen.

    While this might seem like a harmless distinction, it’s fairly important in roleplay-focused MUDs. Players are likely to be offended if you assume their character will be afraid, saddened, enamored, and so on. To write excellent room descriptions for this group, build rooms that evoke responses but don’t assume them!

    A carton of eggs with different emotions drawn on them in sharpie. Similar to emojiis. Sweat smile, cat face, laughing, relieved, hungry, etc.
    Every character is different and experiences emotion in their own way. When writing for a roleplaying context, it’s best to leave the reactions up to the players and their characters.

    4. Follow the rule of “show, don’t tell”

    Outside of gaming, the “show, don’t tell” rule is a tool used by writers to help them focus on imagery and compelling descriptions. But because roleplay MUDs are writing games based in text, the rule fits well here, too. The rule has an added benefit in that it can help you become more aware of and avoid “meta” situations in your writing, even if it means you need to do a little telling to do so.

    For example, consider the following descriptions:

    1. Ten Mile Forest is dark and gloomy with hardly any gaps in the canopy.
    2. Hardly any light filters through the dense forest canopy, creating wells of shadow amid the trees’ craggy trunks. A battered signpost reads, “Ten Mile Forest” in faded yellow paint.

    Okay, so these descriptions are very clearly different! #1 is an example of telling. I’ve told the reader that the forest is dark and gloomy instead of demonstrating it. I’ve also told the reader the name of the forest, even though their character might not have any way of knowing that information.

    #2 is an example of showing and a little bit of telling. I’ve left it to the reader to surmise that the forest is dark and perhaps a bit gloomy. By including the signpost, I’ve avoided meta-sharing the name of the forest. Instead, I’ve given the character a reason to know that information, too. This not only makes the description more immersive but helps the player avoid unintentional metagaming.

    5. Include something unique

    Last but not least, I like to include something unique in each room description. Even if it’s just a tiny detail, something that sets it apart from the rooms around it.

    This tip might seem a bit more in the realm of personal preference, but if you want players to read your descriptions, you need to give them a reason. If all of your rooms are the same copy-pasted lines, players will move through them with the same amount of care you put into the copy-pasting effort. Meaning: next to none.

    That might be fine if your game is a hack-and-slash with very little roleplay or immersion. If you want your game to be immersive and story-focused, however, unique features and details are a must for capturing players’ attention and fueling their imagination. They’ll expect to be intrigued, so don’t bore them with too many copy-pasted repeats!

    At the same time, keep it concise. Every room should have enough detail in it to support a roleplay scene, but that doesn’t mean every description needs to be three paragraphs of lengthy prose. Try to find that Goldilocks “just right” level that works best for your game and your playerbase.

    Write room descriptions that are accessible

    In addition to the above, it’s also important to consider the roles of color and ASCII in your writing. You want to write excellent room descriptions for everyone, right? Remember: if you’re using color alone to call out certain features, you’ll be placing non-sighted players at a disadvantage. Their screen readers won’t be able to pick up on your visual hints.

    Similarly, if you’re using a lot of non-alphanumeric characters in your room titles and descriptions (as bookends and borders), you could be inadvertently spamming screen readers. Sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple and focus on the writing rather than the visual effects!

    See also: building a more accessible MUD and implementing accessibility improvements for more tips.

    Ideas to help you write excellent room descriptions

    Now that we’ve gone over the do’s and don’ts of writing outstanding room descriptions, it’s time to get those creative juices flowing! Below, I’ve compiled some things to think about while brainstorming rooms and areas. These can be especially helpful if you’re struggling with writer’s block or need a fresh perspective on a project.

    The 5 basic senses

    One way to start is by considering the 5 basic senses and how to include them in your individual descriptions:

    • Sight. What visual features are present in the room or the area at large? Think both big and small, close and distant. Don’t forget to consider lighting conditions!
    • Sound. What sounds are audible? Birds chirping? Vehicles passing? People conversing? The hum of machinery, or the clink of cutlery?
    • Taste. Is there a taste on the air? Taste and smell are closely related, so descriptions for these can be interchangeable at times. For example, the air might taste metallic if there’s a lot of blood.
    • Smell. What odors, scents, or aromas are present? The word “odor” usually comes with a negative connotation – it’s something unpleasant. The word “aroma” usually comes with a positive connotation – it’s something pleasant, often associated with food. The word “scent” is fairly neutral.
    • Touch. Is the character moving through rough terrain? Does the sand make travel difficult? Is there a soft moss on the rocks? Even if it’s not something the character will actually touch, this is a chance to consider various textures in the room.

    Try closing your eyes and imagining yourself in the place you’re trying to describe. You may be surprised by what comes to mind!

    City rooms

    A cityscape at night with lit towers and several lanes of traffic.

    Here are some features to think about when describing city/town/village rooms and areas:

    • Local population. Is the area sparse or crowded? Does it have any unique cultural features? How are people dressed? What languages do they speak? Are they generally well-off or poor or something in-between? Are there beggars asking for scraps? Religious types on their way to the local temple? Children playing in the street?
    • Businesses and institutions. What do people do for a living in this part of town? Are there advertisements for goods and services? Hawkers? Pawn shops, offices? Hospitals, hotels? Blacksmiths? Fixers? What about things like schools, courthouses, and crematoriums?
    • Vehicles and transportation. How do people get around? Flying cars, horse-drawn carriages, buggies? Are there elevated trains or subways? Skywalks, sidewalks, or paths? Is everyone able-bodied, or does your setting include people in need of assistance?
    • Refuse and sewers. Is there trash, and if so, is it everywhere or only in some places? What does it smell like? Look like? Paper litter, plastic? Fast food wrappers? Dung? Are there flies?!
    • Entertainment. What do people do for fun? Fight in the gladiator arena? Go to the movies? Take a stroll in the park? Visit the casino?
    • Animals and greenery. Speaking of parks, are there any? Flower pots? Trees along the sidewalks and front lawns? What about common pets or stray animals? Birds?
    • Lighting. How do people see when it’s dark? Do they need torches or braziers? Lampposts? Can people see the stars at night, or is it like living in Chicago, where the sky is a dull orange glow all the time?
    • Architecture and building materials. You don’t need to be an expert in period architecture to write excellent room descriptions, but it’s good to have a general sense for design and building materials. Are buildings made of glass, steel, iron, wood, or plastic? Are the structures rigid with lots of harsh angles? Rounded and domed? Made of natural materials and designed to blend in? Roofing is something we often take for granted but is essential for providing shelter. Is it thatched? Shingled? Tiled?
    • Food and water. Two more essentials we often take for granted.
    • Decoration. Statues, wrought iron, fountains, and monuments, if outdoors? Paintings and other art, if indoors? What about drapes and wall coverings? Expensive and rare or cheap and abundant?
    • Alleyways and hidey holes. Cities can be dangerous! Are there places for someone to slip away and lay low? Take shortcuts? Potentially get mugged? Are there fences or walls separating properties? Things for characters to climb?

    Wilderness rooms

    A wilderness scene with a bubbling brook in front and evergreen trees, as well as snow-covered mountains in the background.

    Wilderness rooms can be hard to write, as it might feel like you’re describing the same thing over and over. Hopefully, these ideas can help:

    • Trees. Deciduous, evergreen. Old, young. How many rings? Groves, stands, knotty, roots, thick bark, smooth, silvery. Learn about leaf morphology for more terms and ideas! Is the tree cover heavy or sparse? (When I write about trees, I always end up thinking about My Side of the Mountain…)
    • Flowers and herbs. Color, shape, scent, abundance. Can they be used for food? Rare and exotic or commonplace? Poisonous or medicinal?
    • Animals. Whatever your setting calls for! Think about herd animals, carnivores, rodents, raptors, predators, and prey. Don’t forget insects, too!
    • Insects and spiders. Actually, these guys deserve their own bullet point. Think: ants under rocks, dragonflies near water, grubs in the soil, etc.
    • Inanimate objects. Rocks and boulders, cliffs, overhangs, bluffs, loose shale. Underbrush, branches, humus, peat.
    • Ruins. Did a family or civilization inhabit the area, once upon a time? What evidence did they leave behind? Structures, crumbled walls, firepits, rusted tools, rotted fences?
    • Food and water. Where can characters get it? Is it abundant or scarce? Wild fruit, berries, roots, grains, and veggies.
    • Dangers. Jagged cliffs, a difficult river crossing? Loose rock? Hunters’ traps? Think about the dangers characters might face while traversing the area!

    Final Tip: Think of the 5 basic senses when writing about the above. For example, the smell of loam or sulfur springs or the sound of rustling branches.

    And that’s all for now! My brain is tapped out on ideas, but thanks for reading, and I hope you found this guide on how to write excellent room descriptions helpful. 💜

    Update (July 1, 2022): If you enjoyed this post, check out my latest blog entry: 50+ Rare colors to intrigue your readers. It includes many color terms that can help spice up your room descriptions!

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