If you have more insight into how MMORPG like World of Warcraft work than I do (THIS IS NOT HARD) I would appreciate your comments.
And in this box were three little books, not well edited, which had rules for role-playing in a fantasy world that was kind of like Tolkien's Middle-Earth* but had some weird magic systems filched from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth and a really confusing armor class system. Still, despite the minor glitches and typos, people bought this box in sizable numbers, invested in pencils, polyhedral dice, and quadrille ruled graph paper, and began to pester their friends about playing the game. Now, this was of course D&D, which spawned a seemingly-endless stream of modules and revisions and manuals and suchlike publications, to say nothing of imitators.
Now, the original campaign that D&D was based on was about as structured as the original medieval era, so when a character got up to a fairly high level, say, tenth, they would generally retire to their castle and become NPCs, because in the original D&D a 10th level lord was a pretty serious killing machine even before you added in all the magic armor & weapons said lord had accumulated in his adventures. Ditto with magic-users and clerics; as for thieves and assassins, they had a Guild structure to force them into the background once they got senior enough.
Unfortunately this wasn't true of a lot of other campaigns, whose GMs hadn't bothered to take the time to set up a fairy-tale kingdom for their characters to operate in. (To be fair, building a dungeon under the old rules was enough of a ball-busting task to start with. Having done it myself, I can easily understand why other GMs couldn't be arsed.) As a result, you had players blundering around the landscape indulging their taste for slaughter, pillage, burning and more pillage in a sort of anarcho-feudal landscape. i.e. Sherwood Forest. Because if you're not a PC, this shit happens every day. And eventually the PC reach the levels where they should be settling down, administering justice to the peasants, brewing up magic potions for the low-level PC, and/or selling curative spells to the critically injured. Since there's no structure in place to force this, though, and most GM don't want to alienate the players, the characters just keep blundering around getting more powerful and encountering the kind of threats on a regular basis that would have made the medieval era a veritable Hell on Earth. Or, conversely, once these super-characters got done with it, a Shire on a global scale with the elves, humans, dwarves, hobbits and ents living in harmonious oneness
I get the impression that World of Warcraft isn't that free-form, that the emphasis is more on doing quests and running around with your guild doing these quests. Frankly, I'm not interested enough to find out, and the same goes for the new online D&D MMORPG. At this point I'm more curious about the general features of those worlds and the social structure, if any. I think the first MMORPG designers who can come up with something like EVE (where there is an orderly center that's safe, not too risky, but not too profitable either, contrasted with a lawless outer zone which has rich rewards if your alliance can hold off the other alliances) for fantasy RPGers is going to make shitloads of money. Because really, these games are all about friendships and alliances, and if they don't allow you to form those and use them in the world of fantasy, what good are the games?
(Originally written 12/28/08)
*Enough so that the lawyers of Tolkien's estate forced the game's authors to do a better job of filing off the serial numbers and repainting the ideas so the theft of intellectual property wasn't obvious enough for a judge to bring down the hammer. Still, everyone knew who the ents, hobbits, and orcs were.