Since D&D 4th Edition was released people have claimed it was WoW on paper. And while it’s probably true that D&D 4th Edition’s designers probably looked at MMOs for inspiration, I don’t think any game could be called a MMO on paper, that’s just silly.
But looking at MMORPGs for inspiration is probably not a bad idea. Millions of people are currently active subscribers of Blizzard’s MMORPG. Millions more are actively playing on of the countless other MMO games. Perhaps it could be possible to attract a few more people to pen & paper RPGs if we were able to transfer some of what makes MMOs so attractive to pen & paper games. This is definitely not a bad thing unlike what some people want to make you believe.
So, what can we take from MMORPGs and use in our games? Several MMOs have extremely detailed worlds with countless quests and sometimes quite intriguing story lines. Of course there are your garden-variety kill, collect or fed ex quests but some of the stories told could easily serve as the basis for a pen & paper adventure. In WoW before Cataclysm there was a storyline about the Defias Brotherhood that started with the first quests in the human starting area and more or less ended with the defeat of Edwin Van Cleef in the dungeon known as the Deadmines. If you ignore most of the quest description you might miss a lot of the background. But if you look a bit closer you learn about how the people who rebuilt the city of Stormwind after the war have been betrayed by corrupt nobles and started to rebel and formed the Defias Brotherhood. The guy you fight at the end was actually a genius architect who was not willing to betray his workmen. This is just one example. If you do some research (I advise having a look at the WoWWiki), you’ll find hundreds of stories which could easily be used as inspirations for your games.
If you are into creating worlds, learning from MMO designers is something you should not dismiss too quickly. Often MMORPG worlds are designed in a way that they can be expanded easily. In WoW the designers first added a completely new world, later an entire continent. With the recent expansion Cataclysm even more landmass has been made available to the players. In the case of the nation of Gilneas the groundwork had been laid a long time ago. Even when WoW started there was the Greymane Wall. Everyone knew that behind this wall Gilneas lies, but nobody knew what happened behind those walls. With the latest expansion players are finally able to find out what happened behind those walls. You can use this in your games, too. When you create your own campaign world, make sure you have some natural or man-made barriers in places you want to be able to expand later. It’s much easier to add a completely new country to your campaign when the area it occupies has been inaccessible by the players before. Mountain ranges usually work pretty well in that context. But of course a wall, like said Greymane Wall might work as well.
Another aspect of MMORPGs that should be copied by pen & paper games more often is accessibility. In most MMOs character creation is extremely fast and easy. You pick a race, a class, your character’s look and off you go. That’s one of the reason why I think that the claim “4E is WoW on paper” is pretty silly. Especially D&D 4th Edition’s character creation is obviously so convoluted that players need a character creation software to handle it. Of course some games benefit from a more lengthy character creation. Very story-based games like FATE come to mind here. But in most cases a quick character creation might be the way to go. That way players have more time for actually playing the game.
A shallow learning curve is also what made WoW so successful. You learn the more complex concepts of the game as you go. In most cases the quests are tweaked in a way that you feel the challenge but you can still succeed. Failing all the time can be quite frustrating for players. A badly balanced fight can ruin a whole gaming session. Looking at how MMOs get this right, may be worth the time, especially if you like to have a lot of combat encounters in your games.
Sometimes even looking at a MMORPG’s mechanics might be quite interesting. In a way the power system as we see it in D&D 4th Edition might be inspired by MMOs as is the spell cooldown mechanic in Dungeonslayers. Sometimes computer games have extremely complex rulesets because a modern PC can easily handle those. Copying those mechanics directly to the gaming table might not be a good idea, but some concepts might actually work quite well.
This post is meant to give you some ideas, some food for thought. Some pen & paper gamers don’t like MMOs, they see them more like competition than allies. And I have to admit when it comes to time spend with one or the other hobby, pen & paper gaming and MMOs are competitors. But when it comes to a lot of other aspects we should see MMORPGs and classic RPGs more like allies. The one should learn from the other. For a long time MMOs have learned from classic RPGs like D&D, so why not have it the other way around once in a while.
By the way, the posts title may have made you think you would get some information on how to play games set into WoW background. That was actually something I have thought about quite often, because I love the world and its lore, but it would have gone beyond the scope of this post. But I might take up this topic in the coming days.