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.
The following is just my personal stance on the matter, and I offer it merely to present another side of things, not to tell you that you are "wrong". In the interest of fairness I must state that I do not care for MMOs. My opinion of them is almost entirely negative and that probably colors my thought process, but I will try to state my case as clearly as I can.
I disagree with a few of your points. MMOs are designed the way they are for a reason. Those design concepts are not necessarily good for tabletop RPGs. Nor do MMOs have a special quality about them just because there are examples of them being successful in the development of worlds and stories. They have as much validity as a source as other media, but not a special place or quality.
To begin with, the argument that MMOs were inspired by tabletop RPGs, and therefore taking ideas from them can't help but be a good thing, does not hold water with me because it does not include the realization that MMOs took ideas from tabletop games and then filtered those ideas to make them fit a different mold, to meet the demands of computer gaming. Taking those already-filtered concepts — especially presentation such as strongly defined combat roles, theme-named monster variants ("goblin bubblegum-chewer", "orc hall-sweeper", etc. as opposed to "goblin" and "orc"), power cooldowns of various lengths, spammable at-will powers that make simple attacks undesirable — from MMOs and tactical combat CRPGs without first thinking about how to adapt them back to the tabletop environment doesn't sit well with me. D&D 4e does not refilter these concepts, and comes out looking exactly like what it's been criticized as — a tabletop MMO, though with strong elements of TCRPGs as well. I don't think it's silly at all to state that; the elements are right there in the design of D&D 4e and can be pointed at. If I want this kind of game, I will not go to the tabletop for it. I'll go to the PC or the game console.
Anything non-mechanical that can be drawn from MMOs as inspiration can be found in a number of other sources. Naturally, individual MMOs may have story elements that are worth considering or even lifting outright, and the eye toward expansion is a useful tool for anyone designing a world, but to claim any special value of MMOs as a category because of these elements is specious to me at best. Campaign settings were often presented with opportunities for expansion well before MMOs ever appeared. Films, books and television were a ready source of setting elements. There's nothing special about MMOs in this regard. That isn't to say that no MMO has any worthwhile ideas; quite to the contrary, in fact. But they aren't doing anything special, especially to the point that tabletop games should all immediately stand up and take notice. What those successful storylines and ideas are is simply doing things the right way, a way that's been a good idea all along. It isn't an MMO thing.
To shift gears, I agree completely with your point about accessibility. Quick, easy character creation should be available in all games, even those that also allow detailed, complex chargen. I've always believed that creation options should be presented for many different preferences — random, non-random, template, by-hand, pregenerated. I do not like to be confined to templates or lifepaths, but I see their usefulness and often wish I had them for games when I don't have a ready character idea.
The designers of D&D 4e made a conscious choice to focus its mechanics on tactical fantasy combat, and in this area I cannot argue against its brilliance. The borrowed MMO and TCRPG concepts work. My problem is with the idea that because 4e did it well, all tabletop RPGs should do as it has done. I think 4e is a special case, not an archetype.
I agree with you in the point that getting inspiration from MMOs is not that different from taking inspiration from other sources like books or movies. The point I was trying to make is that we shouldn't dismiss the idea of incorporating stuff from MMOs outright, because there are quite a few stories, concept and perhaps even mechanics that might work well in a tabletop format as well.
And I fully agree that some concepts of MMOs like the theme-named monster variants shouldn't be transferred to the tabletop. But I nevertheless think that MMOs can be valid sources of inspiration, nothing more, nothing less.
If I have a beef with MMOs, it's with the habits and expectations they breed. I think WoW is an excellent MMO, but it is not a tabletop RPG. Some players confuse computer and console RPGs and essentially want one to be the other. Therein I've found behavior I don't care for in my games (not saying that it's categorically NOT how you play, just that it doesn't mesh well with my own style).
Having said that, I also find that players bred on D&D have behaviors counter to what I like to do games other than D&D, so it's not all the Computer's fault. However, it's omnipresence is bound to draw people into the hobby from that side of the tracks. MMOs may be the gateway drug, but tabletop RPGs have to be their own thing as well.
I may be in the minority as I have never played WoW, or any other MMO for that matter… Well I did play Wow for two hours, and as fun as it seemed it did not make me run to the store and get my copy. Still the sheer amount of people who enjoy it means they must be doing something right.
I have a lot of friends who also play and I must admit that some of the background does sound fascinating, and I guess there are elements of worlds building that can be learned from it, perhaps not the form but the inspiration.