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Community Blog Spotlight: Dungeon Masters, Anyone?

Every Week, Community Manager Laura Genender takes a look at one or more of the entries being created in our MMORPG.com blogs. This week, she looks at Jesad's blog entry about the Dungeon master's role in pen and paper gaming and how that relates to MMORPGs.

Dungeon Masters, Anyone?
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If you asked the average gamer to tell you what the root of the MMORPG genre is, you'd probably get varied answers. Some would claim EverQuest started it all - some Ultima Online, some Lineage I. Many would cite the MUDs that brought roleplayers to the virtual world. Heck, some of the new kids would proudly cite World of Warcraft.

To many though, the MMO genre began offline, without computers, in the pen and pencil world of Dungeons and Dragons. This week, user Jesad's blog, "In My Understanding" asks a question of the genre and its patrons: What ever happened to the Dungeon Master?

"The other day I was running through a cave with a friend of mine," the blog starts," and he said something to me that made me think. He said, 'Man! If I could only have imagined caves looking like this 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?'...Why? You ask? 'Because the DM sucked!' that's why."

In effect, he argues, the MMO world's capabilities act as the DM in our virtual tabletop games. They fulfill the DM's responsibilities, including: explaining the surroundings to the players, providing the players with encounters, running the game within the parameters of the rule-set as non-obtrusively as possible and keeping the story interesting and moving forward.

The game's graphics, sound, animations, etc explain the player's surroundings quite well. Random monsters sprinkled all over the game worlds provide us with encounters, and even automatically roll the dice for us - running the game non-obtrusively and efficiently.

But who keeps the story moving forward? According to jesad, whose opinion here I agree with, the game places that in the player's hands - it's our responsibility to find quests, to pursue monsters or XP, to explore dungeons. NPCs don't run up to us and ask us to find their daughters - they stand patiently in front of their shop, holding an exclamation point above their head.

Now, I both agree and disagree with jesad on his following statement. "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 all this responsibility heaped on them? You guessed it, it's the guild leader."

I am the co-leader of an 80 player guild in EverQuest. We call it herding cats sometimes. We are CONSTANTLY encouraging people to show up for raids and events, constantly encouraging people to progress their character, to get their zone keys or flags, to bring a certain potion or gem to a certain raid event. Yes, we are, in essence, a DM's little helpers, but I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.

No one saddled me with a guild and made me lead it. I both accepted and welcomed the opportunity, and I would not have it otherwise. There's no responsibility heaped on me; I heaped it all on myself.

If anyone is hurt by this model, I think it's the game publishers. "We have come full circle back to the same old game breaker which is, either the DM sucks or they don't," jesad continues. "In cases where the DM or now the GL is concerned the task is to find a way to keep guild members inspired and moving forward without being too...diligent and scaring half the membership away." In effect, the publishers are handing me and my co-leader the keys to 80 people's subscriptions. If we don't provide these 80 people with a good time, they'll either find a new guild (best case) or a new game (worst case, for the publisher).

And a lot of guilds, I believe, do this wrong. As jesad pointed out, being overpowering can scare users away. But if a player wants to see the high end content, they have to join a raiding guild - and these normally have mandatory attendance, mandatory character progression routes, etc. How long can you let someone else dictate your character before it's no longer fun?

This is another place where I think MMOs-as-DMs fail - as advanced as our graphics and technology are getting, they're still hugely primitive when faced off against a human-run event. When you play D&D, you can do anything - I remember playing a campaign where two jokers bought parchment, crapped in it, and set it on fire on an inn stoop. Did this do anything for the game progression? No. Could they do it? Did it affect the game world in a lasting way? Yes, yes it did. In D&D you could do anything, and the DM could account for it in any way they pleased. You could attack gazebos, use anything as a weapon, come up with crazy but brilliant plans. MMOs don't let you do that.

Check out the rest of Jesad's blog entries at http://mmorpg.com/blogs/jesad.