With all the post-NDA opinions floating around about Dungeons and Dragons Online's beta I have been thinking about a crucial part of what has always been the most important aspect of a tabletop game of D&D. That aspect of course is the real, live, and breathing Dungeon Master (DM).
Let's step back to DDO for a minute. Turbine has gone a long ways to make sure the aspect of the Dungeon Master was not forgotten. They have added pop up text boxes that go into some detail about each and every area a player visits. Also there is narration to help better explain some of the different events within a quest or adventure. It gives an overall impression of there being a DM present, but in reality I doubt any player will ever believe a DM is truly watching over their play.
Turbine has decided that the DM is not a role that needs to be filled by a human. After all, that's what they have servers, graphics, real time combat, and the game itself for. There is no need for a DM to be there. Turbine's quest team has hand built numerous quests and areas for players to adventure in. They have gone the extra mile to make adventures that are exciting and multi-faceted. What possibly could a DM be needed for?
Human > Computer
It is a simple fact that a human would serve as a better DM than a computer.
Your party has been rolling through a dungeon. No monster, trap, or ambush could stop you. No monster, trap, or ambush could... because the dungeon doesn't change based on how well you're doing. The difficulty hasn't scaled. The computer is not smart enough to do so.
Insert a human DM into that situation and you have a different story on your hands. The DM could throw down a trap to slow the party while he prepared the next wave of attackers. What may start as an easy fight could escalate quickly as the DM jumps in to control one of his summoned creatures. Now the party is fighting against a real opponent.
This even extends beyond just interacting with the party as they adventure. It pays its dividends in the end also when the true reward of adventuring in D&D pays off and that is at the division of the experience points. A computer is going to reward you the same amount for the same quest (with diminishing returns for DDO). A DM on the other hand is going to analyze the fight. Was it hard for the party? Do they deserve a little extra maybe? Do they deserve less possibly because they took the easier path? These are questions to think about the next time you earn experience in any MMORPG.
What about getting a bad DM?
Well it is a possibility and I would like to think there would be quite a need for DM with the number of adventurers playing. So the possibility of getting a poor DM that is unable to enhance the adventure is a real possibility.
Things like DM rankings and scorecards would go a long way to alleviate this. After every adventure the party could rate their DM and a DM would rate his players. Other things such as rewarding a DM for achieving better rankings and giving them more power as they achieve higher ranks could also help. These are things that just haven't been explored and until real DM are placed in game it is hard to expand upon them.
For some ideas on ranking and rating systems check this article out.
Its too exploitable
I know what people are going to say. A bunch of buddies get together and jump into an adventure with their buddy buddy DM. The DM makes the adventure a cake walk and then rewards insane amounts of experience at the end. Everyone else feels cheated because there is nobodies all of a sudden level 10 after a week of playing.
No one likes cheaters and sadly cheaters will always look for maximum return with the smallest investment on their part. Its a sad fact, but there are ways to deal with it.
One idea is to randomly assign the DM to an adventure. That way no party can “shop” for a DM that will help them exploit the system. But honestly do we need to go so far as to push the players and the DM apart?
Honestly the simpler fix would be to just not connect the game to hub worlds. Disconnect the player base from itself and offer a separate way of connecting. Server browsers work great in FPS games. Give the adventurers a simple chat interface linked with a game browser so that players can hook up for a game. Each game could then be stored for players to join in later.
Without the connection of hub worlds the effect of the exploiters would not be seen as a negative on other players experience. The exploiters would be playing their own games and the other gamers would be playing theirs. If an adventure called for a party of five level 5's then it would not matter really how each character entering got to level 5.
Again the DM has control of the adventure. If players come in with items the DM doesn't feel are appropriate they could be easily replaced or restricted. If a character comes in weak the DM could boost them up for that game and that game alone.
The DM holds a great power in D&D. Without their presence the D&D experience is not the same. Pretty graphics and flavor text will never replace the human imagination. D&D has never been about what 1,000's of other players are doing, but more about what you and your small group of friends are doing. An online version of D&D needs to simply increase the size of the pool from which you pick your fellow adventurers and in turn hopefully make some new friends.
DDO may be a faithful representation of the world and rules of D&D, but it will never capture the spirit.
Update: 28 Aug, 2008 - Updated labels.
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