RoleCraft: Dungeon-Mastering the MMORPG

In the last edition of RoleCraft, Defining the MMORPG, I defined what exactly a MMORPG is in comparison to an MMOG, and briefly pondered the missing element of a DM (dungeon master) in today’s MMORPGs. In this article, I’m going to discuss more about the role of a DM and give some ways I think they could be added to a roleplayer’s repertoire.

In case you may not be familiar with the term DM, or game master (GM) if you prefer, it comes from the world of tabletop pen & paper roleplaying games and describes a person who directs the players through whatever adventures they come upon. The DM is the one omniscient person in the game, who knows all the people, places, and things that the players may or may not encounter.

In current MMORPGs, this aspect of gameplay is under direct and strict control of the game AI, and for the most part, does a very decent job. Without question, computer AI is light years behind the human imagination. If you have never sat around a table with a group of friends under the guidance of a skilled DM and roleplayed one of these great games, like Dungeons & Dragons and many others, then your concept of creating and roleplaying a MMORPG is severely limited. However, I think with the addition of an actual DM into your MMORPG roleplaying, much could be done to remedy this, and could bring a much needed breath of fresh air into your RP.

So, exactly how could one bring a DM into the tightly closed and regulated world of an MMORPG? The same way roleplayers bring in their roleplaying: imagination. Before getting into details, it would help to understand what roles a DM can control in MMORPGs, and then lead into some ways to actually employ those roles.

DMs can replace, or at least augment, the game AI in two ways – as DM, and as any NPC.
Possible DM duties include being a quest giver and receiver, adventure or party leader, and storyteller. As an NPC, the DM could be anyone from fellow adventurer to arch enemy, from street beggar to lord of the manor. Basically, take a look at almost any AI-controlled character, and the DM can also portray a like persona, but with so much more RP charisma.

A live person taking on DM functions in game would to me be a fantastic way to immensely increase the levels of RP and fun when it comes to quests. Roleplayers, can you imagine engaging in an actual conversation with a quest-giver over the details of the mission, bartering for rewards and the like? How great a change would it be from constantly seeing and doing the same quest from the same game NPC over and over? Granted, because of the limited power players have in game, and because there are only so many styles of quests available, a DM may not be able to stretch beyond what quests the game allows. However, the mere fact that I’m talking to a real human would nonetheless be a major boon to the fun factor, not to mention elevating RP much higher.

Roleplayers of DDO and LotRO may know what I mean about having a DM as an adventure leader. In those games, when players enter an instance, a short verbal and/or written narration appears on screen, alerting and reminding players to what’s going on. DDO does on better by periodically popping up text that tells you when something doesn’t look or sound or smell right as you progress through the instance. I really like that, and I wish more games, especially WoW, would take notice and do something likewise. With a DM accompanying the party as an adventure leader only, and simply communicating with the roleplayers from an omniscient point of view, I think this is entirely possible. To be sure, there are some hurdles that require clearing, such as limited party sizes, but nothing an imaginative roleplayer can’t handle.

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A Storyteller is like an adventure leader, but on a grander scale. In storyteller mode, a DM would be responsible for overseeing their entire RP world, creating unique storylines that fit in with, but are separate from, what’s going on in the AI-controlled scheme of the game. A DM storyteller is the one who would write each quest line, dictate the roles and personalities of NPCs, what rewards they give, and even coordinate real players to fill those roles. A Storyteller may also be responsible for leveling and equipping potential NPCs appropriately. In my mind, I see the storyteller as one who has played their game thoroughly, and has intimate knowledge of the overall game, and who also probably only roleplays characters in this mode, akin to the tabletop rule of having only one dedicated DM.

An NPC-minded DM is a player who solely roleplays a character or characters according to the wishes of the storyteller and the story. Conversely, an NPC DM can simply be one who only roleplays NPCs outside of any storyline, or whose ‘main’ character is an NPC that freely hands out quests to roleplayers. For example, one roleplaying an innkeeper may need an amount of a certain cloth to replace the bed linens, or the one roleplaying a traveling merchant that the roleplaying party is sent to to ask for some piece of important info. This type of DM may not be very interested in the big picture like a storyteller DM, or may not have the time to commit to adventuring with a party. A real player taking on the role of an NPC is something I would dearly love to see more of in game.

Becoming an MMORPG DM would require some advance preparation, much like a DM does before a session of Dungeons & Dragons. Again, the lack of control in game limits what can be done within, so much of that prep will be done outside the game. No small amount of writing would be required, for adventure plots, NPC descriptions, lines of required and potential information NPCs may have to impart to players, and much more. Stock up on notebooks and pens, and/or make liberal use of quick text programs like Notepad. When using Notepad, be sure to save those files in an orderly and quickly retrieved place. I play all my MMORPGs in window mode, stretching the game screen to almost the full width of my computer screen, but leaving enough space at the bottom so I may access any folders I need to on the fly. This method also works well for using any non-game communications, like Skype, Ventrilo, or IM program, and also gives me quick access to my web browser should I need it, without having to constantly TAB out. As a DM, having as much info as possible within easy reach will be a must.

Shifting your MMORPG play to become a DM is a lofty task indeed, but it just may be the missing spark needed to fire up the RP for you, your fellow roleplayers, and your favorite game. I only foresee avid and hardcore roleplayers taking one this task, myself included. I have more RP characters across four MMORPGs right now than I can ever hope to play to full potential, so I am currently adjusting a couple to test out these DM theories. I am very sure I’ll be addressing them again at a later time. Of course, I am also sure I am not the only one who has contemplated being an MMORPG DM, and maybe even some enterprising roleplayers have successfully incorporated a DM into their games and guilds. I sure would love to know! Please feel free to share your thoughts and facts below in the Comments, or send them directly to my email, rolecraft at gmail dot com. All hail the DM, and role on!

The poll for RoleCraft Storyteller – Rose of the Sun is now closed! Thanks to each and every one who voted! The story of Wil’amae Sunrose, a blood elf priest in the World of Warcraft, will soon continue based on your choices. While I’m playing her in game, you may keep track of her progress through her WoW Armory page. Stay tuned for the next chapter!

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