The third role: neither devs nor players but somewhere inbetween

3168012226_b740f3e49b from flem007_uk@flickr

When I started playing games as a kid, everything used to seem so simple. You had players and you had a game. You unpacked the game, read through the rules together and then played it. My first introduction to the idea that one player might have a different role with more meta-responsibility was via the banker in Monopoly.

The great thing about offering to be the banker wasn’t that you got to feel important by doling out stacks of pretend money, it was that you got to secretly cheat when no one was looking by giving yourself extra cash under the table (banking in Monopoly had more in common with RL than we realised at the time.) Even then, I wondered why banker was such an important role that players couldn’t just collect their own cash from a communal bank. But it was in the rules as a player role. And when you were the banker, you felt more important.

With RPGs, the difference between the players and the GM was far more marked. The GM wasn’t a game designer, but they weren’t just a player either. They were a player who’d taken on a different role which involved scenario design, and meant that they couldn’t play their own character in scenarios, only NPCs. Wacky, huh? Imagine being a mod designer where that meant you could never play your own mods. Then you had the regular players in the group who did create their own characters and just played. And games had to put out extra rules for GMs, to explain how to design and run scenarios. This is why the Dungeon Master’s Guide was always the largest of the AD&D core books. DMing is and continues to be one of the most exciting things about roleplaying, a combination of storytelling, scenario design, group facilitation, and mediation. But it is extra work.

One meme that travelled from D&D into MUDs was the idea that a player could become a scenario designer. In MUDs there was often an endgame path by which someone who started as a player could become a MUD wizard (ie. staffer, builder, implementer.) In the MUSHes I played, we often also  recruited players to be RP staff/ storytellers and run plots in the game for other players.

Although most MMOs don’t (yet) offer player created scenarios, with the honorable exception of CoH and STO, there is still a very key place for players whose main role is enabling other players. They are the guild masters, raid leaders, RP event organisers. Yet unlike pen and paper games, the devs don’t really publish rules and material to support and help them out. Instead there is a trend to undermine these people , make the roles superfluous, and make it easier and easier for individual players to play solo or switch guilds as soon as they meet with a moment of frustration. And it’s a shame because finding a guild/ community in game which perfectly fits your personality and needs is one of the most difficult and most brilliant things about online gaming.

Pen and paper groups were very attached to their GMs, if you had found a good one you stayed loyal. Because they created an awesome game experience for everyone in the group. And GMs were fond of their players too – we used to swap anecdotes about amazing/ stupid/ hilarious things ‘our players’ had done.

So it does make me happy to write about ideas like the Storybricks, which I touched on last week. Because I’m an old school DM at heart. Because I still wonder if empowering the player facilitators more to help create these amazing game experiences would be a better trend than forcing everyone to solo. Or at least one that I’d like to see further explored.

8 thoughts on “The third role: neither devs nor players but somewhere inbetween

  1. I wonder if the reason MMOs (although I only have experience with WoW) minimise the roles of guild leaders etc. so much is to avoid a kind of two-tier society. Perhaps they’d much rather just have everyone as a player (i.e. customer) rather than let people get ideas above their station.

    • It’s an interesting thought. One of the downsides of traditional RPGs is that if you have a bad GM or don’t have a GM at all, then you either have a bad game or you can’t play. If you automate the GM function then sure, you may never have the awesome games or give people to chance to play that role, but you guarantee EVERY SINGLE PLAYER a consistent experience in game. So that way does scale better and probably makes a larger number of players happy.

      I’m just arguing that the other route isn’t a dead end.

  2. Apart from making me miss my time playing D&D, this got me thinking about those games that do allow you to create something for others. I’m wondering if games like Minecraft are tapping into this, allowing one player to shape the environment before others explore it. Hrm…

    • It’s a style of play that really does need other players. Even if it’s making mods for a single player game and then sharing them, so you aren’t all playing together at the same time. But it’s a good thought about Minecraft, which shows that people really do enjoy playing in the sandbox (in the original sense of the word, not in the sense of a cut-throat PvP MMO) and freeform collaboration.

      You could also argue that blogging about games falls into the same sort of general area of facilitating other players.

  3. I think a lot of people in WoW would freak out at the suggestion that the ‘raid master’ could manipulate boss and trash encounters, such as increase cooldowns of problematic abilities, reduce damage of special abilities, give individual buffs to undergeared players to help a raid group that is struggling to complete an encounter. I would love it personally, it would go well beyond easy/hard mode.

    Another alternative to GMing in an RvR game especially, is to give superpowers to some players randomly or otherwise, or boost guild lords/leader (actual players not NPCs) to super elite levels, let them be able to nominate champions/bodyguards and have a standard bearer. The guild lord boosts nearby guild members, say letting them take keeps/control points quicker. WAR did a good thing when they made players champions in city sieges, not that I’ve played it but more of that sort of thing would be awesome. If the enemies took down these super-players it would be a boost to honour/renown on the level of taking a control point.

    • The problem with allowing ‘raid masters’ is that the playing field is no longer level, which removes the possibility of world/realm/etc.-firsts and other such competition. I make no claims about whether this is a good thing or not.

      • You could still have “world firsts”, etc. by only counting encounters that were run without the “raid master” option; they’d simply be like current raids are now. Of course, a well-organized group would probably use the “raid master” option to feel out the boss faster. But, you could potentially have much harder normal raids to compensate. I think it’s an interesting possibility.

  4. As I said to people repeatedly while demoing the Storybricks tool to people at Gen Con, one of our big inspirations was tabletop gaming. We wanted to capture some of the elements of collaborative storytelling and real social interaction in an online game.

    Should be fun!

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