The rise of benchwarming
There are two reasons the bench came into existence in MMOs: instances and raid caps. Instanced content provides guilds the opportunity to raid on their own schedule, which is great for guilds that couldn't do the 3 a.m. phone call to log in quick and take down a boss that had just spawned. But instancing had to be tuned correctly so that it was challenging enough that guilds couldn't just breeze through everything in one night. And since that tuning depended on the size of the raid force, it was inevitable that raid caps were added to the picture.
Originally, raid caps were relatively high, with limits of 72 in EverQuest during Planes of Power and 40 in World of Warcraft at launch. The problem with raid caps, though, is that not everyone is a good raider, and it's hard to justify kicking out Johnny Parse'Buster for Mr. Wiggly. As raid caps shrunk down from 72 to 54 to 40 to 25 to 12 and now eight, raiding has gone from being an inclusive, social phenomenon to a number-crunching, exclusive, stressful experience.
One way to deal with overfull raids is to have sign-ups in advance. If you want a sure-fire way to get players upset and complaining, schedule a raid, ask them all to get there a half-hour early, and then turn some of them away at the last minute. Sign-ups are great because it gives players a chance to book themselves into a raid, and everyone can see in advance if a raid is overfull.
While first-come-first-served is the driving force behind sign-ups, you should make sure to establish rules that are fair but that also help you carve out a viable raid force. After all, if you get eight healers all signed up for a raid and no tank, you're probably going to end up wasting the evening. If you need three tanks for a particular encounter, make sure to advertise that on the sign-up sheet. If you feel that having extra utility would make a difference, put out a call for that. If it doesn't matter and you can go with a raid of 12 Rangers, let people know in advance. You'd be surprised how cooperative members are with policing themselves and working things out when the raid is a bit too heavy in a particular class.
Don't jerk people around if there's just no room
On raid night, if you're forming up and you get some last minute tells begging for a spot on the raid, be clear and upfront about someone's chances of getting in. If there's definitely no room, let him know as soon as possible so you don't waste his time. And if he wants to discuss it with you, make time after the raid, when you're not juggling 20 different things as raid leader. If you try to chat about it while you're forming up the raid, you're more likely to say something that will exacerbate the situation.
Raid caps make roster management a nightmare because guild leaders need to recruit a properly sized force and make sure that it's got a nice mix of classes and numbers. Of course, players come and go, which leads to an ever-changing mix of raiders. The smaller the raid cap, the harder it is to manage numbers and not end up constantly overfull. However, the more attention you pay to your roster, the better able you'll be to recruit what you need rather than invite blindly and get stuck with a bloated roster and unhappy players who have to sit the bench.
Balance strength with fairness
Other raid leaders might not agree with me on this, but I feel it's important to balance your raid force's strength with fairness to your members. Some leaders will argue that you always need to bring the best possible raid force you can field, but the truth is that you can field a less than optimal force and raid just fine (yes, even in an eight-man raid!). It's harder to bring weaker raiders than it used to be because raid caps force you into a "one or the other" decision rather than "let's take both." But if you know your raid content well enough, you can put together a balanced raid that succeeds. It's a fine line to walk because you don't want a raid that's destined for failure, since that's not fair to those who play hard and want to make progress. At the same time, switching things up a bit can actually help give regular raiders a little breather here and there, which helps prevent burnout.
At the end of the day, someone who carries a tag in your guild should be able to join along in guild events. It might not be possible to bring every member to every raid, but if you're shutting the door on the same few players over and over, it's time to consider whether it would be better for them to join another guild. To me, it's worth the occasional slow raid night if the alternative is seeing a good person leave the guild. And in the long run, chances are you'll be thankful you did try to balance things out because attrition and burnout can suddenly turn an overfull raid into a sparsely populated one, and someone you turned away last month can become an essential part of your raid force.
Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.