The Hazards of Description

by Iskvarren on September 29, 2014

in Instructional, Iskvarren's Blog

I’ve wanted to write a post commenting on the use of description in our game for a while.  Everyone prefers certain styles of writing, and the preferred style of writing in this game has changed many, many times as administration changed.  I don’t mean this article to convey “Iskvarren only likes this way so everyone who likes a different way is wrong!  You’ll be punished for committing these errors!”  These are mostly comments on style, and I’d like to hear from any of you who feel otherwise.

Player Descriptions
For players, this is probably what immediately comes to mind when I say the word “description.”  It’s the only field that you’re allowed to freely edit on your own character, and every character needs one by level 11.

If you played 8-10 years ago, you might remember that there were more descriptions that were several paragraphs long.  People would use the purplest of prose to describe the colors of a character’s eyes in loving detail.  As a new player, I thought that longer was better because the people who wrote long descriptions were often prominent characters in game that were doing right in the eyes of the staff.

On the other side of the coin, we have players who struggle to describe their characters.  They struggle even to meet the minimum 5 line (not 5 sentences) limit.  You can often tell who these people are by how much of their description is devoted to scars, minimal jewelry, and tattoos.  Seriously.  Occasionally, there are characters who have more lines in their description about their tattoo than about their face, hair, eyes, body, etc.

I think it’s more instructional to talk about certain things that people do and my thoughts on them than to give a head-to-toe, stepwise instruction manual on “How to Write a Description.”  I’m not going to spend time on how to write; hopefully you’ve had those tips pounded into you for years by your English teachers.  These are topics on style.  At the end, I’ll present some NPC descriptions that try to avoid these issues while still satisfying 5 lines.

Too Many Details
If you look at books that people buy, you’ll notice that most of them (at least the good ones) don’t spend 5 lines describing a character.  You probably won’t see a line like “She has brilliant, ovoid, cerulean eyes with sea green flecks, and the whole is rimmed in an aureate hue like a tropical summer sea within the halo of a blistering sun.”  But hey, if you use this on CoM, it’ll fill up 2.5 lines of those dreaded 5!

No, most books describe characters by mentioning one or two distinguishing characteristics because it would be tiresome to read a whole book drowned in words.  If you think about it though, this is how we describe people in real life.  We say “She’s a little old white lady with curly white hair and a beaded chain on her glasses,” or “He’s a muscular black guy with a goatee.  He’s wearing a shirt with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on it.”  It’s easier to make a person memorable by attaching them to a few important features rather than making essays out of less important features.  And we know that all you nondescript human characters need to work on being more memorable…

Another thing to consider is “Why is anyone reading your description?”  While there is a place for your boundless creative energies, keep in mind that a description is meant to be read.  It probably doesn’t change gameplay to use “She has blue-green eyes” instead of the sentence above.  Maybe more detail about your eyes would be useful if the goal was to convey some sort of “I’m a magical creature” specialness, or you’re the single freak blue-eyed person in a world of brown-eyed people.  Maybe.

We’re not writing books, and the style of a mud character description is different from that of a book character.  Still, there’s something to learn here.

The Anatomy Description
This is a really, really, common thing I see.  In fact, I bet many of you do it.  I know most of you don’t want a description to be repetitive, like “She has blue eyes.  She has green hair.  She is tall.  She is thin.”  That’s unpleasant.  I don’t do it.  But again, it’s not bad if you’re not the greatest writer.

One of the strategies that people use is making the parts of the person (and the description) flow into each other.  This leads to sentences like “She has broad shoulders that lead to long arms and thin fingers each with a sharp nail,” or “His barrel-like torso joins two legs at the hips.”  There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this, but I urge you to find other ways.

Recall how you describe someone in real life.  You assume that other people know the basic traits of a human, so you’d never describe someone as “She has a head with two eyes and that is attached to a torso with two arms and two legs.”  That would be silly even if you put some adjectives in it.  In CoM, you can assume that the average person knows what all the sentient races look like at baseline (and well, after playing for a little bit, you probably will).  Again, you should aim to only convey distinct details to the observer.  Tell me about features that are not the same across most humans.  Instead of telling me that a human has two arms, only tell me if he has one arm.

Another reason I don’t like sentences such as the one I presented is that there’s very little information being provided.  It’s useful to say that someone is thin or has a barrel-like torso, but you don’t need to say what it’s attached to unless someone is an anatomic anomaly.  If you use the anatomy description, you can produce multiple paragraphs telling people what’s attached to what, but you won’t be telling them anything other than “It’s a human with human anatomy.”

The Lopsided Character
This develops out of a need to describe every trait of a character but not having adequate words (or interest) to describe them.  As a result, every body part gets an adjective such as “large,” “small,” “thin,” “wide,” “muscular,” or “long.”  This leads to something like “He has long arms and small hands” or “He has a thin face and a thin torso with long legs.”

As I’ve mentioned above, you only need to focus on features that are distinctive.  You don’t have to describe every single feature of your character and then risk making them funny-looking and disproportionate.  Which leads to…

Let There Be Deformities
I think people do this because they’re not sure they have enough traits to describe in order to fill in their quota of lines.  Sure, you should aim to make your character look unique.  However, you don’t necessarily have to invent features like six fingers on one hand or a massive scar under their clothes.

I’ve seen some excellent descriptions that only describe the basic features of an average human.  Consider hair for example.  You get to pick the coded hair color in creation.  You can specify other traits of hair like color (blond could be strawberry blond, flaxen, platinum blond, etc), texture (wavy, curly, tousled, matted), length (cropped, short, to the shoulders/waist/feet), and hairstyle (loose, braided, in a ponytail, in a bun).  One sentence could combine all these descriptors like “His wavy, shoulder-length blond locks have been captured in a loose ponytail.”  If you did the same for a character’s build, facial features, age, and skin tone, you would have most of your 5 lines there without being so deformed that people look at you when you walk down the street.

A good rule of thumb is “If you don’t want to explain a feature of your character, don’t write it.”  That is, if you give your character scars, you should probably be willing to explain how you got them.

These Words?!
It’s pretty common for players to want to use the most difficult words they know, whether it be jargon or a fancier word for “shiny.”  You look pretty smart if you manage to use them correctly, right?

I don’t encourage this for some obvious reasons.  If the majority of readers can’t understand what it means for your character to have scleral icterus or bitemporal wasting, you’ve failed to accomplish the basic goal of a description, which is to convey what your character looks like.  It’s easy to say “Well, they need to be more educated” or “They need to look things up,” but I think there is a line somewhere between what the average person ought to know and what would be considered specialized knowledge.

Also, it’s kind of embarrassing if you use the wrong word 😛

One of the things I tell my player builders is to write for a fifth grader.  If a fifth grader doesn’t know what it means, then you probably shouldn’t use that word.  Since the game is all in text, the only thing we can rely on as a cue on what to do next is words.  If it’s hard to understand, that’s a hurdle to playing the game that doesn’t make it more fun except for the person using the difficult words.

Example NPC Descriptions
Here are some descriptions of NPCs in the game that I feel accomplish their goal well.

Short: a broad human man with scraggly brown hair
Short, curly brown hair, a bit scraggly from sweat, tops this human man’s
head.  He keeps his bangs tucked behind his ears, revealing his copper
piercings.  Thin, dark eyebrows sit above a pair of pale blue eyes.  His
chiseled features are all the more rugged in appearance due to the weathered
nature of his darkly tanned skin.  He is broad and tall with well-defined
muscles and hands heavily calloused from years of labor.

Short: a burly, disfigured human man
This burly, disfigured human man is extraordinarily tall for his race and as
broad as a troll.  Sparse, short red hair sticks up all over his head, merging
with the stubble of his meaty jowls.  His nose has been bent one way, and one
of his brows sticks out more prominently than the other.  His tanned skin is
covered in healed slashes and tattoos ranging from coiling sea serpents to
nude women.  His physique is somewhere between muscular and corpulent, and his
arms bulge with muscles and veins.

Short: a plump, orange-breasted female avian
Plump and stout, this female avian closely resembles a small songbird.  Her
small, pointed beak is light yellow and the feathers atop her head, back, and
wings a dull gray.  A few specks of white encircle her black eyes and dot the
bottom of her throat, giving way to soft, rusty orange breast feathers.  The
clawed fingers of her wings are small and dainty, barely noticeable among the
feathers.  A patch of white lies at the base of her blunt-ended tail.  Her
black feet are slender and stick-like, the scales shining faintly.

Short: a gray-haired lythren male with scars for eyes
With a messy thatch of gray hair upon his head, this lythren male has scars
where his eyes should be.  He has no eyelashes or eyebrows, and the scars
widen on the right where the wound did not close so cleanly.  He has a flat
nose with thin slits for nostrils and a jutting jaw filled with broken black
teeth.  His abdomen swells with the paunch of obesity, and the scales that
begin at his waist continue down to a green tail with black diamond

I understand that everyone will continue writing descriptions their own way.  This post is only meant to provide advice.  We don’t have any policy for forcing a rewrite if you break the above guidelines.  A description is a canvas for you and you alone, but that canvas still has limits.  The only requirement is that you follow the description guidelines (no movement, no history, no facial expressions, no personality, and so on).  Some of the other staff might be pickier about descriptions, but I usually only point out typos and grammatical errors.  I’m not the one who looks silly for eyes like a “tropical summer sea within the halo of a blistering sun” after all 😉

Maybe next time I’ll explain why we have silly requirements like “two descriptors plz.”

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