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.