MMORPGs are fun. Even if we sometimes complain about this or that, overall we end up spending hundreds or even thousands of hours with these games, which we presumably wouldn't do if there wasn't any fun to be had. But just like any relationship, there are some compromises that have to be made. MMORPGs have their limitations as well as their strong suits. Lots of object or NPCs in any virtual world can't be interacted with at all, others follow relatively simple scripts that make their actions quite predictable. We would like to feel like Bilbo entering the cave of Smaug the dragon, full of excitement, anticipation, and some fear of the unknown danger. Instead we end up shouting at each other because on the 37th attempt to kill the dragon the huntard still didn't manage to step out of the fire fast enough and caused the group to wipe. Somehow MMORPGs have ended being games of exciting adventure, and have become games of excellence in execution through repetition. That is fine for some, but probably not what attracted many to the fantasy genre in the first place.
Pen & paper roleplaying games have a very different set of limitations. They are comparably slow, don't reward fast reactions, require a lot of preparation from the DM, and are more complicated to set up. But pen & paper games are often strong in the areas where MMORPGs are lacking: Every adventure is new, and the range of possibilities of what can happen is endless. As the story evolves through the interaction between real people with real intelligence, the outcome isn't easily predictable. Even in the best prepared adventure, the players might come up with different solutions than those foreseen by the Dungeon Master, which makes the game interesting for everybody.
My first Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition session yesterday was quite a success. I think everybody had fun, and we played until past midnight. Because it was the start of a campaign, and at level 0, I could use a rather restrictive story hook, the kind I would never use in the middle of a campaign: The players got drugged and sold into slavery, and start the game chained to the wall in the hold of a ship. Not very original, and not giving lots of degrees of freedom, but the adventure was deliberately designed to run a bit on rails. The main purpose was for everybody (me included) to get acquainted with the D&D 4E rules, the combat system, the skill system, and all these things. In the next session we will finish the adventure and spend the rest of that evening to transform the players' characters into proper level 1 characters. As creating a level 1 character involves lots of choices, it is better to make these choices after having played a bit, and seeing what is useful and what is not.
We had 2 combat encounters that evening, which I think is pretty much the maximum if you still want some story-telling and role-playing to happen. The first fight pitted the 6 level 0 characters against 2 level 1 pirates, and was well balanced. The second fight was a against a level 1 goblin leader with 5 minions, which ended up being a bit too easy. No biggie, for this specific adventure I prefer to err on the easy side, as it is more about learning the fight mechanics than posing a big challenge. I guess balancing the fights is something I'll learn over time. That part is very specific to the rules system used, and requires some practice. The general dungeon-mastering part was something which I had very little problems to pick up again after over 15 years.
The various maps I prepared came in handy. One permanent danger in a pen & paper roleplaying game is that different players have different degrees of "drive" or whatever you want to call it. Thus if you leave the game very free form, some players will hog the limelight, and do all of the talking, while others will slink into the background on not say much at all. In a combat, which is turn-based, you don't have that problem, everybody gets his turn. But by running non-combat encounters on a battle map as well, it is easier to get into some sort of pseudo-turn-based mode for them as well. The more active player simply can't be everywhere at once if his figurine is on the map, and that gives you good opportunities to ask the otherwise less active players what they are doing. The D&D 4E rules for skill challenges also help getting everybody involved in non-combat encounters.
Right now I'm quite pleased how well everything went, and how enthusiastic everybody was. I'll try to keep that level of enthusiasm up, even past the point where the new game shine wears off. In the end a pen & paper game can have the same problems of longevity as a MMORPG.