Basically, the idea is to incorporate a MMORPG version of the long-neglected engine of the tabletop RPG - the Gamemaster (GM) (link is to DM because the GM article is too diffuse and far afield for my purposes). Not like the MMO GM described at Wiki, but the GM as fellow CRPG player; he's not there to play lifeguard/customer service rep (not that that model and the one I'm describing are mutually exclusive, mind), he's there to breathe life into the NPCs and challenge the PCs.
That's the thorny design issue, though. Generally, the GM is not there to beat the other players. In most PnPRPGs, the GM can kill the party off with ease; he gets his rocks off by providing the other players with an interesting story, characters, challenges, etc. Ideally, in the most common method of PnP play, he tends to "lose" to the other players, in the sense that his villains get knocked off eventually, their plans are thwarted, and the players win the day. Like the bad guy in a Hollywood action movie, he has a great time chewing the scenery and giving the good guys hell, but eventually he kicks the bucket, preferably in grand style. (on the other hand, he can't be a pushover - we're talking games, not movies, and if the players muck it up they should lose, retreat, live to fight another day...even die).
But this is a CRPG, not pen and paper. We can be much more structured, to account for the aggro effects of online play between strangers - limit the GM's power so he has to work within the constraints of game balance. I.e., he can't call down the greater powers of the universe to smush the PCs like ants. He has to be very good at his task if he wants to beat good players, and they have the edge in the long run (just like a single-player game; it costs the PCs some lives, but they usually win out in the end).
In essence, the goal is to change the GM player's concept of "winning" (i.e., of "being entertained") from "I defeated the other players," to "I kicked ass - a great time was had by all!" I can think of two main ways to accomplish this. First is by rewarding the kind of success you want - give GMs rewards for good GMing, rather than defeating players. Ranking as a good and/or challenging GM, "experience" points to use in-game, etc. Second is with alternative gameplay. The GM role really screams for some RTS/RTT and simulation elements. This is where we get to the good part. PCs are supposed to solve the mystery, save the princess, kill the villains, etc. They're the stars. But the GM gets to be everything else. He gets to set up the story, design the dungeon, create the bit players, play the villains, command the evil horde, etc. And when the PCs finish breaking all his crockery and leave, he gets to repopulate, repair the damage, add on a new wing or level (e.g., set the evil dwarves to digging a new mine shaft), concoct some new inhabitants and challenges, etc. Say, with points recycled from the previous version, plus new points earned for GMing, plus any bonus from good GMing. Another fun aspect of GMing is that you can jump around as much as you want. You can keep jumping from one orc to the next until the patrol is all dead - then you get to be the next critter to try to bash the PCs over the head, and so on, upping the ante all the way until the big finale when you play the mustache-twirling arch-villain (who then escapes through a secret door at the last moment, once again thwarting the PCs' attempts to bring him to justice), or the dragon to be slain, whatever. And all of it is optional in a CRPG; don't like the RTS/RTT or simulation parts? Don't mess with them. Let the AI do it while you mustache-twirl. Or vice-versa.
Basically, make GMing into a fun game in its own right.
So, what's the point? Intelligent challenges: villains as crafty as the PCs, with as much personality (this is a big one - a good GM beats a dialog tree to hell and back), and unique content (GM-created plots and challenges). In a nutshell, someone behind the wheel for the opposition.
It probably won't be every player's cup of tea, but it doesn't have to be. A typical PnP GM can handle anywhere from 4-6 PCs ; some take on twice as many (though a GM is most effective, and the game runs most smoothly, when the PCs obey some general 'rules,' like not splitting the party, regardless of size). And an MMORPG GM could easily take off his GM cap and join the PCs whenever he likes.
And the GM-PC dynamic I've outlined is only the traditional PnP model. The dynamic could be reversed, with PCs as the "black hats," predisposed to lose, and the GM (and assisstants) as the "white hats," predisposed to win. Or the players could all become GMs, and have fun slaying NPC bots playing the role traditionally filled by PCs.
For all I know some or all of this has been done already. Either way, I think PnPRPGs have a hell of a lot to offer us with the concept of GM.
Flame away if you like, I have a thick skin. I also love a good argument. And I haven't kicked the tires on this idea at all, so I'm looking forward to discovering and considering the flaws.
Edited by JQP, 07 June 2012 - 05:31 PM.