The other day I was running through a cave with a friend of mine and he said something to me that made me think.
He said, "Man! If I could only have imagined caves looking like this (the virtual environment) back when I played paper and pencil D&D... I probably would have been a lot better at those games."
He was right of course. The MMO has made leaps and bounds toward replacing the old-fashioned requirements of imagination, social interaction, and a basic understanding of the rules with beautiful landscapes, artificial intelligence, and easy to play characters. I wondered to myself then, "Why do I not find these games nearly as fun to play as I used to find paper and pencil D&D to play?" The answer to this, although I had not thought of it before, came as quickly to me then as it would have years ago if asked why I had stopped frequenting whatever hot-spot there was at the time to get my paper and pencil fix. Why? You ask? "Because the GM sucked!" that's why.
Fast forward to today. We have expansive virtual worlds with beautiful graphics, very handsome and/or scary character choices and several genre's to choose from and yet, there are a lot of people floating around INTERNET websites, blogging, or even turning off their computers all together because they simply are not having fun with these games anymore. Everyone seems to think they have a solution but not many are tapping into the true essence of what the problem really is.
The responsibilities of the Dungeon Master or "DM" as they were affectionately called was to...
1. Explain the surroundings to the players. Ok, games do that pretty well.
2. Provide the players with encounters. Yup, games are pretty good at that as well.
3. Run the game within the parameters of the rule-set as non-obtrusively as possible. Games excel at this.
4. (And most importantly) Keep the story interesting and moving forward.
Now those rules were always negotiable. Rule #1 could be enhanced with little action figures, maps, my friends and I even drew a grid on a piece of Plexiglas so that we could lay it over our dungeon maps and account for our movement rates more accurately. Rule #2 could be adjusted to deal with unruly players, i.e. "As you remove the sword from your teammates back a poisonous Asp strikes you for 2D10 points of damage and a save vs death poison attack", or they could be used in the same way to add a little flair to an otherwise boring campaign, "After killing all the Orcs you see the shadow of a large figure looming over the hillside to the west, on closer examination you realize it is a very large Troll and it is not alone!"
Rule #3 was always the choice of the house just like in Monopoly (do we put money under free parking or no?) or any other game. But in a world where rules 1-3 are hard wired and unchangeable without a massive intervention on the part of development, the stress that makes or breaks a game becomes almost entirely placed on Rule #4 which is at best, not that good in most MMO's to start with.
MMO's rely mainly on the player to keep their own story moving forward. The player, if they don't already have a vision or if they have already explored that vision in a previous game, puts that reliance back on the MMO and it's developers who, at any given time, can opt to hide behind the wall of reality and log off of the INTERNET leaving the cries of the unhappy unanswered. This leaves one person or group of persons in charge of making the game fun for those who can not make it fun for themselves. Who is this poor soul you ask that has had all of this responsibility heaped upon them? You guessed it, it's the "Guild Leader."
We have come full circle back to the same old game breaker which is, either the DM sucks or they don't. In cases where the DM or now the GL (Guild Leader) is concerned the task is to find a way to keep guild members inspired and moving forward without being too...too... diligent and scaring half of the membership away. In effect, the Guild Leader gets a small taste of what it feels like to be the publisher of an MMO (who's main responsibility is to keep people playing in order to make money) complete with the option to go with the lowest common denominator (just letting the chips fall where they may) or taking a pro-active (and risky) stance toward a specific outcome. I have heard a lot of GL's say things like "We don't want to scare them away" or adversely complain about membership loyalty all the while not taking into account that the majority of their guild members look to them for direction and guidance.
Individuals who have taken the responsibility of fun onto their selves often find difficulty finding others who share their goals or perseverance and what we end up with is a community of players who lean more toward the A.D.D. in the psychological sense than the AD&D we all came to play.
We have to find out what happened to the "Dungeon Master", where he or she is, and why they no longer visit us with their wondrous stories. I say to look at development first, in game personnel (i.e. GM's) second, and Guild Leaders third. Scrutinize them. Hold them to a standard that speaks to your desire to have fun in these games and then, when those standards are met, respect them for their efforts.
That buddy of mine who was enjoying that cave so much used to be the most disruptive part of the game I ran when we were kids. He was always running around stealing his teammates items, causing problems where problems didn't previously exist, and upsetting the general direction of the game. Instead of throwing him out however, I used what I knew about him to make the game more interesting, and in time my friends came to think of me as a pretty good DM because of it. Sure, there were still nights where some people went home unhappy, but they always came back, and that's because people know the difference between real fun and the kind of fun that comes from drawing negative attention to one's self and they prefer the former over the latter in most cases.
To all Developers, GM's, and Guild Leaders then I say this... Take a chance. Embrace the linear but just don't let them know in advance what is coming, and lead your people to where you know they want to go whether they know it yet or not. You may not have the same kind of fun they are having but you will have fun none the less. At least, that's how it is in my understanding.