Long before The Elder Scrolls or World of Warcraft and really before the rise of video game consoles and the personal computer, many of us older (and some of you younger) gamers played games on a much more powerful platform - our imagination. With pen and paper and small pouches of funky sided dice, we would gather on the weekends for hours on end to play the original roleplaying games, with perhaps the most popular being Dungeons & Dragons (or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).

Even though it was 25 or more years ago when I was first introduced to D & D (the Red Box), I remember the first time I ever played the game. My brother and I were at the babysitters who were a fairly young couple. My mom was a single mom and worked a lot of hours trying to raise two kids on her own. The baby sitter's husband was in the Army and the baby sitter was a stay home mom with 2 really small kids of her own. I think it's only a bit ironic I remember her name even today - Zelda. They were big gamers and after a late night session with some of their friends where my brother and I could only sit and watch, they asked us if we wanted to play, which of course we did. I think about it now and how my mom would've probably freaked if she knew the baby sitter was letting her kids play a game full of orcs and trolls and other nasty creatures. It was such an unusual experience I don't think I'll ever forget it.

We started off as low level characters obviously and were exploring our first dungeon. I was just a kid...a fairly young kid at that. So of course I'm attacking anything that moves. First it was a carrion crawler. Then some giant rats. And finally, we encountered some other human adventurers. I think I was enjoying the carnage a little too much and was about to roll the d20 and take the humans by surprise attack...because the "Dungeon Master" - who was really my baby sitter's husband - he asked to see my character sheet...and when I got it back, my +1 long sword was missing. Not only that, the human adventurers were nowhere to be found. He made up a very convincing tale about how a magic user cast a sleep spell on my brother and me, and while we were out cold, these human adventurers were really bandits and robbed us of our possessions. The DM stepped out of character for a moment to teach us a lesson about how all of our decisions had consequences and how he could alter the sequence of the game depending on our actions. Of course, being little kids, that didn't make a whole lot of sense at the time. But as an adult, obviously the message was loud and clear.

Over the course of the next few years, my brother and I were older and more mature (I quit trying to kill everything). He was soon old enough to watch me and we no longer needed a babysitter. But we didn't quit playing D & D. In fact, we started playing more. By this time, Advanced D& D was taking over and we started playing on the weekends with some of our friends. Perhaps the most memorable was the Ravenloft module - which included a vampire by the name of Count Strahd von Zarovich. I'm surprised how much of this I even remember today.

I suppose it was the mid to late 80s when computers first started taking off and many of the first games I played were fantasy roleplaying games. They seemed to be quite popular back then, not that they aren't today. Some of the best (at least I thought so) were from a company called Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) and their coveted Gold Box series.

Computers (and eventually video game consoles) opened up a whole new world of gaming. I'm not going to say one is better or worse than the other. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both. Video games allow you to visualize the world and experience it in a far more immersive setting. It also provides a much larger environment and more monsters. I can't even imagine a game of D & D and a little band of adventures encountering dozens of goblins or skeletons all at once like we might encounter in a computer game - think of the amount of dice rolling that would have to occur every turn. Yeah, computers definitely one-up the old dice rolling games in this regard.

But the one element I miss the most from traditional pen and paper and dice role playing games over computer games is the Dungeon Master element. With a computer processor able to handle all of the complex operations like combat, inventory management and the likes, every encounter comes down to programming logic and parameters - the computer's artificial intelligence and how it is coded to handle every action. Yes, you can have random encounters and yes, this will add a variety of different monsters and treasure for each event, but you lose the thought and emotion a person fulfilling the role of Dungeon Master can inject into the experience.

If you ever watched the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the 80s, you might remember the Dungeon Master was an actual person (or at least an animated version of a person). In the show, he was represented as a short old man with all sorts of power. Of course that's not exactly how the Dungeon Master is in real life, or should I say, in real game.

"In the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game, the Dungeon Master (often abbreviated as DM) is the game organizer and participant in charge of creating the details and challenges of a given adventure, while maintaining a realistic continuity of events. In effect, the Dungeon Master controls all aspects of the game, except for the actions of the player characters, (PCs) and describes to the other players what they see and hear." -Wikipedia

If you talk to anybody who has played Dungeons & Dragons, no doubt they will have a memorable story to tell about playing the game and there is a good chance it will revolve around the Dungeon Master. And the truth is those who have played the game have probably experienced the impact a good and bad Dungeon Master can have on driving the game.

For me, I always thought a good Dungeon Master was the one who could assess the situation and make changes on the fly to ensure everybody was having fun. Of course the DM is all powerful and could squash all of the players if he or she wanted to by rigging a treasure chest with a poison trap or dropping a horde of kobolds or goblins into the next chamber... But that's not really the point of the position. The role of the DM is to referee the game, so if the players are continually getting discouraged because of bad dice rolls or unlucky circumstances, a good DM will use the superpowers of the position to sway the outcome...and it's perfectly acceptable. If it's done right, the players never even realize it is happening.

In a video game, these situations can feel mechanical or scripted...like no matter what you do the outcome is pre-determined. If I'm meant to succeed I will, or if I'm meant to fail I will.

What if somehow the Dungeon Master position could be incorporated into a video game? Imagine if you were playing a game like Warcraft or Elder Scrolls and there was a person (or many people for different servers or geographical locations)...an actual no kidding real person who could influence the game. Of course they would have to be somewhat limited in the scope of their powers, but even with limited influences over the action, I think it could add an interesting element to online games...especially if this position was able to oversee and listen in on the actual gamers playing the game.

After watching some of the footage for Project Spark, I'm hoping it implements something similar to what I am dreaming about - creating wonderful worlds, filling them with dangerous inhabitants, and then turning real players loose amidst the chaos...while overseeing the entire scenario as this unseen authoritative force.

Video games have all but replaced the traditional roleplaying games, so perhaps one day they'll be able to recreate that experience in its entirety. I don't just want a dungeon... I want to be the dungeon master.

Good games, pen and paper or otherwise.