Let me say this up front: You can raid as a casual guild, but you can't raid casually. Raiding as a casual guild means your guild raids, but it isn't the only thing your guild does. You have flexible rules about attendance and fewer requirements for joining. You are more tolerant of those who don't quite know what they're doing yet and try to help your members learn to play their best.
On the other hand, raiding casually means people show up to that night's raid late if at all, their talent specs are all over the place, and they may or may not bring the right consumables, install the right addons, or know anything at all about the zone they want to defeat. This approach doesn't work, end of story. Trust me. I've tried it. It gets ugly very fast.
When everyone steps through that swirly instance portal, your players have to put aside their personal issues. They have to turn off their TVs, shut the door to their room or office, and get focused. They have to come prepared to succeed. That doesn't mean they can't have fun. It just means everyone has to take their job seriously. And no one has to take their job more seriously than your raid leader.
1. Find a Committed Raid Leader
Much like the house where you grew up, a raid is not a democracy. Everyone should feel free to express their opinion, but somebody has to make the tough final decisions and somebody has to be hard on people so the group will improve. A good raid leader knows the mechanics of every class, the personalities of the raiders, and the nuances of every pull and every boss. That doesn't sound very casual, does it? It's not. This is an important point that most casual guilds don't understand as they embark on their first raid: There has to be at least one person who falls into the "hardcore" category, and that is your raid leader.
Leading raids might actually be more difficult than leading a guild. That person can't afford to slack. They have to look at everything with a critical eye, from a person's spec to their casting rotation to the buffs they use. They constantly have to make judgment calls about who is good enough for what. Sometimes a raid leader has to hurt a person's feelings. It's not fun telling that guy who's incredibly likable and generous but can't DPS his way out of a wet 6-slot bag that he has to step it up if he wants to come to Night 2 of that week's Karazhan. And that's just a small glimpse at why very few people want to lead raids.
It's not a job that can be forced on someone. He or she will burn out very quickly when things start to go wrong. You have to find a member -- not necessarily an officer (although that does help) -- who is perverse enough to enjoy this role. You might be lucky enough to have more than one person who's good at this, but consider yourself fortunate if you have just one, because one is enough for a casual guild. You have to schedule your raids around his or her real-life commitments, but in exchange for that you'll have consistent, effective leadership. And that is the primary ingredient for successful raiding.
2. Develop a Fair Loot System
Raiding takes time out of people's lives, time away from other obligations and responsibilities. So they need to feel that they will be properly rewarded for that time. A loot system in which officers and their friends get first dibs is a short trip to Failuretown. Likewise, a DKP system that allows people to build up massive point totals so a new member won't see a drop for months is demoralizing to recruits and makes it difficult to retain them. However, it can be just as bad to propagate a system that allows a brand new raider to outbid a longstanding member with 100% attendance who's been waiting for a certain drop since, well, forever.
What does my guild use? We decided on a modified zero-sum DKP system. The basics are simple. We assign point values to every drop in a certain zone. When something drops, the person who has earned the most points can take it. If that person has 40 points at the time, and the item is worth 100 points, they now have -60 points. They have to work their way back into positive points before they can receive another item. Meanwhile, everyone in the raid receives the 100 points that were spent. Since everyone gets the same total that one person lost, no points have been added to the system. Thus the phrase "zero-sum."
What's great about this system is that veterans can build up points to outbid a newer member or someone with less attendance -- but once they spend those points, they can't receive another item for a while, giving those other people a chance to receive something. Those who attend more frequently will obviously get more points and more loot, but they won't always get everything that they want to take.
We added some very tiny bonuses for showing up on time, staying through a night of wipes with no loot, and participating in a guild-first kill. The bonuses add a small bit of "inflation" to the system, but it's not enough to allow massive point buildups. It motivates people to be timely and to attend when the odds of actually getting loot might be 50/50.
There are many different effective loot systems out there, so take a look around the Web and find one that works for you. If you've used another system that worked well, tell us about it below!
It's up to you whether you want to use a point system for all raids or only for 25-player raids. We do the latter, because there isn't nearly as much competition for a given item in a smaller raid setting. For Kara and Zul'Aman, /random works fine for us. But we tend to have mature players who don't mind passing on drops from time to time for whatever reason. If our members were more self-centered, this very casual method wouldn't work for any raid size.
Obviously this topic covers quite a broad range of issues, so it's going to take up several columns' worth of information. Stay tuned for part 2 of what will probably be several more next week!