How to write a good Zone/Quest Aber-Style (by Og)

I. Choosing the Theme

The first and probably most important step of good zonewriting is choosing an effective theme. The first consideration you should make is the theme of the mud for which you are writing. Most aberMUDS are set up in a fantasy/magical/medieval theme. This mudtheme is very wide-ranging, and is defined differently on different MUDs; it is a good idea to talk to your MUD's administrator to see how your idea fits with their vision for the MUD before breaking ground on writing the zone.
There are many useful sources for finding the theme to your zone: books, movies, fairy tales, and mythologies. If you base your zone on a source that is very recently written, you need to consider whether you can write the zone without infringing the copyright of the source; if not, choose another theme. If you do use an outside source for information, try not to copy the source exactly. Remember, a zone is best as your own creative invention, not just a translation of a story into another format. It is fine to use characters, locations, and events from a story, but the storyline is all yours to invent. Also, when planning the zone, do not assume that the runners of your zone have read the book/seen the movie/etc.
Finally, a good zone is puzzle-based. Therefore, I find it useful to invent the puzzle first, then write the locations to fit the puzzle, rather than the other way around.

II. The Puzzles

Good puzzles are the prime difference between a good zone and a mediocre zone. A zone can have everything from very small puzzles involving only one object, to a superpuzzle that involves use of the whole zone (usually, the "quest"). It is good to have a variety of both small and large puzzles in the zone, and the quest itself should be a combination of smaller puzzles.
Most puzzles are implemented by "specials", which are special code usually triggered by an action by the runner, for example a switch which can be pushed to open a door. As a zonewriter, you are not required to be able to write this code yourself: there is at least one designated coder on the MUD who will do this for you. However, you should provide as much information to the coder as possible about your special, for example:

    on command "push switch":
    Door should open.
    Message to the runner: "As you push the switch, the door creaks open."
    Message to the room: " pushes the switch and the door opens."
    Switch should not be able to be pushed again.

You can write this directly into your zone file, because the symbols /* and */ cause the compiler to ignore everything between them. When writing your puzzles, try to think of ideas that have not been tried before in other zones you've run. Also, you may find it easier to be original if you use commands in your specials other than the ones most commonly used: "put", "give", "push", "kill", and "examine".

Statistic: A zone should have at least one special per every two or three rooms, and every subdivision of your zone should have a substantial puzzle related with it.

III. Locations

Writing locations is usually the most tedious part of zone writing, but spending time on it will make a zone look "professional" rather than "crudely home-made".
Naturally, proper spelling and grammar are important things to watch, but many MUDs will do the grammar and spell checking for you. It is very important to avoid making assumptions in your room descriptions. This is a list of the most common fatal assumptions:

    "As you continue east...": Many zonewriters do not consider that the runner may actually be going the opposite direction of the way the zone was written. In fact, the runner may just decide to stay in that room and not move at all.
    "You feel happy as the snowflakes fall around you.": Don't tell the runner how he feels. It is possible you have a runner who hates snow. It is best to allow the player to decide for himself how to react to a certain event or sight.
    "You are standing...": The player may be sitting down.
    "There is a sword under a rock.": If the sword can be taken, it should not be in the room description. It is possible that the runner will return and still see the sword under the rock, even if it is no longer there.
    "A giant behemoth stands under the arch bellowing at you.": If the mobile can be killed or removed in any way, or if it is a moving mobile, it should not be in the room description. In fact, everything that can be a mobile should be in mobile format instead of room format. Why have a "meadow with deer in it", when you can have real live deer to interact with the runner?
    "The sun is shining...": Most AberMUDs have built-in weather and time of day systems. The weather in your room description may contradict the actual weather of the MUD.

A room description should adequately describe the room. A runner should be able to picture everything there just from your description. Therefore, 4 lines should probably be a minimum. Test every room you write to see if you can picture the room in your mind just from your words. Also, stick to pure description. Do not try to use your room description to tell a story. Furthermore, remember to describe the room the runner is currently in. Some zonewriters end up using most of the room description to describe the exits from the room, rather than the room itself; try to avoid this trap.
Finally, every location should have a specific purpose. It may be nice to have a large castle in one corner of your zone, but if it has no use to mortals, it shouldn't be there. Acceptable uses of locations are:

Puzzle room
a room that is critical to a puzzle, or to the quest in general
Mud connection
an intermediate room gradually to change the terrain of the MUD to match your zone's. For example, if your zone is in the mountains, there should be some rooms leading up to that: You shouldn't connect "mountaintop" directly to "the beach" for example. You can make a series of connecting rooms leading through low hills, high hills, and finally the bottom of the mountain. If you can make these connecting rooms double as puzzle rooms, that is even better.
Region connection
These rooms are for making your zone coherent, for example streets and roads between houses in a town. Again, it is better if you can make these double as puzzle rooms.

If a zone would be just as good without a certain room or set of rooms, it is best to omit those rooms.

Extra credit: See how many rooms you can write without starting with the word 'you'. In fact, as far as possible avoid the word altogether in room descriptions.

IV. Mobiles.

You should have a variety of mobiles in your zone that have no use except for the runners to kill and get points. You can have a wide variety of sizes, from very weak mobiles to rather tough ones. In a small zone, you probably should keep all the mobiles relatively easy to give new and underequipped players a chance to succeed.
In your zone, you will probably have mobiles involved in some aspect of the puzzles. These are the critical mobiles. If your zone is in an open location where the mobiles may be killed quickly and randomly, you may consider putting a "NoHassle" flag on the critical mobiles. In more enclosed zones, however, the nohassle flag can tip off mortals that the mobile is critical, and should be used more sparingly.
The description line of the mobile is a quick "first-glance" view of the mobile. In it should be the mobile's name, and a quick description of their current activity, usually less than a line long. The examine text is a more full description of the mobile. It should be a complete physical description, so that the mobile can be fully imagined by your description. Any nonphysical traits can also be put in the examine text.

V. Objects.

A zone is much more enjoyable if almost everything in the room descriptions is examinable. This can be achieved by making objects with the NoGet oflag, which are there only for adding more detail to the room descriptions. Generally, make every noun/object in the room descriptions into an examinable object if it is something that would normally be examined.
For every object, you should have a full detailed description of that object, usually 2 to 3 lines minimum. Avoid "giving attitude" to the runners through examine texts, for example, "You see a door. What did you expect to see?", or, "Yes, it's really a door." Zonewriters may find it humorous, but runners generally find it rather annoying.

Statistic: A zone should ALWAYS have more objects than locations.

VI. Realism

Although MUDs exist in a fantasy environment, most of them still use the real-world laws of physics and science as a basis. In your zone, read over everything several times to make sure everything makes sense. For example, if a door is locked and the key must be created, you must explain how the door became locked without a key, and why the door was even built with a keyhole if there was at that time no key to open it. Another example is the "lake of dough" from the brownies zone: Since dough lakes are not a natural occurence, you must explain how that lake got there. (The solution was to print on a sign that it was the work of an evil wizard.) Another aspect of realism is terrain. You must be sure that one room can naturally be connected to another. (See previous example about connecting beach to mountaintop.)

VII. Balance.

In the normal usage of the word on MUDs, balance means that you should not create weapons/armor/mobiles that are out of proportion with the rest of the mud. Generally your MUD's zone editor will adjust your equipment and mobiles for you to match the mud; just don't be surprised or upset when it happens. Another problem is just having too many weapons and armor in the zone and cluttering the Mud. For example, in a warcamp there could be ten mobiles each with a sword and a shield; killing all these mobiles would introduce a massive overflow of swords and shields into the game. In this situation, it is best to make the swords and shields part of the mobiles' descriptions, rather than giving them actual objects. Also, if you do have a sword or a shield in your zone, you can give it a special name like "greatsword" or "lionshield" to prevent it from being confused with the hundreds of other swords and shields in the game.

VIII. Consideration

The purpose of writing zones, above all, is for the entertainment of the runners. Therefore it is important to consider how the runner will respond to certain aspects of your quests. The following is a list of things to consider:

  1. Mazes: Unless a maze is very small, it should have a "key" of some kind. You can give a list of directions somehow, or create an object to guide the player through the maze. These keys should not be easy to find, and they should involve a new twist that is not used in another maze on the game. If you can build your zone without a maze, it is much better.
  2. Allow an exit from the zone. Don't force the player to stay with the zone until they complete it. Many times players have to leave, or just need more time to consider a puzzle while doing something else. Always provide a means of leaving the zone to the main Mud.
  3. Don't allow the quest to be ruined too easily. Allow the runner to explore and experiment. A quest that is ruined too easily unfairly frustrates the runner, and detracts from their enjoyment of the zone.
  4. Deathrooms: Keep deathrooms and deathtraps to a minimum, and be sure there is more than ample warning for any trap. This also refers to rooms with no exits, and exits that remove the runner from the zone with no chance of return.
  5. Hints: Be sure that any puzzle can be figured out. If a puzzle is rather difficult, plant hints in the area in the form of object descriptions, room descriptions, or anything available to the runner.
  6. Be careful not to offend runners. Remember, your runners may come from a variety of different backgrounds. Never use any vulgar language, or reference to drug use, sex, or too much violence in your zone. Avoid scenes that include distasteful elements. Do not require a player to participate in religious actions, such as praying or sacrificing to a god. Also, do not make the players perform actions that may make them uncomfortable, such as using drugs, suicide, killing a child, etc. When writing zones, try not to express personal opinions in the descriptions; instead, try to make the descriptions as impartial observations, and let the player make judgments on it.
If you have any questions or comments on this essay, contact Og at Northern Lights. Any specific questions should be directed to the administration of your MUD.