I have only been playing this game actively for about a year and a half. (I also played for about a couple of months about 10 years ago, but not in the interim). I have no master characters. So, I am not going to comment on the nuances of PK balance.
But, Treach (and Mhaliah earlier) noted some points that resonate with me. As a newer player, there are two aspects of this conversation that sadden me a bit: (1) the suggestion that not having master bonuses makes the game boring and causes the reduction in the player base, and (2) the suggestion that PK is the only worthwhile activity in this mud.
For one, it really boggles me when people argue that losing master mob lead (or making experienced player bonuses weaker more generally) is what is leading to the loss of player numbers. It seems so out of touch to me. Basically, it comes down to saying if you don't have these bonuses, the game is not worth playing. If you can't be motived to play your master with all of the bonuses they still have, what motivation do those of us who have no masters have to play at all?
I do understand the argument that mob lead allows you to do something when you log on and there is literally no one else -- to play solo. But, it seems to me that this just speaks even more to the need to bring in and maintain new players.
I suppose that one reaction to the declining numbers in the game is to hold as tightly as possible to the small group of hardcore experienced players that are currently left, and then when those last people leave, let the game die. Perhaps that is the mentality in this thread when people say it is the loss of these bonuses that are killing the game. Another approach would be to try to bring new blood into the game and (crucially) to retain these new people so that they continue to play and move into PK. If you think the latter is impossible, then I guess I can understand somewhat the focus on the former.
But, there ARE regularly new players who start playing this game. I see them all the time. My impression is that they often play for a while, level up a character (or two or three) to 51, explore a bit, do some smobbing, maybe join a clan. But, when it comes to PK, the learning curve is too high and they often get discouraged and/or lose interest. PK is obviously the main endgame activity in the mud, and (sadly) people regularly comment on how if you are not participating in PK most of the time, you are basically useless as a player. If you want to have more people PKing, might I suggest thinking of ways to encourage people who are not PK experts to get involved? I don't think a PK of 5 fades vs. 5 master gaidin is what you have in mind in terms of 'quality' PK, so I am not sure that losing mob lead is really the culprit here if we are talking about encouraging 'quality' PK. It seems more like a bandage than a real solution -- have a larger mass of people who jump into PK at least sometimes.
As a newer player compared to most, I can tell you from recent experience that the learning curve in this game is ENORMOUS! I think the imms and the player base has done a good job of making the game more newbie-friendly in the earlier components of the game: learning the game mechanics, levelling, getting equipment, etc. There are quests and more information is available. People are very helpful over chats and such. (The wiki has helped so much with this as well.) But, the endgame aspect of the game -- mainly PK -- is still VERY newbie unfriendly.
-- 98% of people that you encounter in the game today are extremely experienced, having played the game for years and years.
-- Basically every other player has so much more knowledge and skill than you do, especially when it comes to zone knowledge, etc.
-- When the other side gets a whiff that you are a newer/less skilled player, you often become high on the target list and get picked off quickly (a logical tactical decision, but it still makes it even more difficult to stay alive).
-- When other people die, they pull one of their many stored sets out of rent, take some of their massive stores of gold to h/h their weapon and buy a warhorse, and keep going. When you are a newbie, you have nothing and losing your set means you cannot PK again until you can gather up another halfway decent set, which could take hours.
-- When other people need equipment, they ask their friends to go smobbing (or they go solo smobbing if they are uber enough). When you are a newbie, you know no one. If you are lucky enough to get brought along smobbing (because you are not as quick as others at knowing what to do), then some people tend to give you basic pieces and keep the better pieces for themselves. As a newbie, it is difficult to know the norms of gear distribution, or to work up the nerve to ask for something because you are happy to just be able to come along.
-- The best way to improve is to practice, but as a newbie what tends to happen is that you go PK and die within a few minutes, then you are out for a while because you don't have the gear to jump back in. It makes it difficult to get the repetitions necessary to really get better at it.
-- Even when you do start getting a bit better, a majority of people that you face are masters with tons of bonuses. So, the most experienced players in the game also have a slew of bonuses (extra damage, extra ob/pb, amazing stats due to years of rerolls, previously mob lead, not to mention fade/gaidin bonuses). So, even when you feel that your skills are starting to improve a bit, you still die...all...the...time.
The most common advice I hear w.r.t. PK for newbies is something along the lines of "just go do it and you will get better." Strictly speaking, this is obviously true -- you need to practice to get better -- but this more difficult today than it may have been years and years ago. I think a lot of experienced players remember back to their newbie days when there were hundreds of people playing, and a much greater proportion of the people you would encounter in PK were relatively inexperienced (compared to today) and non-master/non-bonused. I was not really playing then, of course, but my guess would be that you could sort of start having some success (staying alive longer, getting kills) even if you weren't so good yet. In today's world, I have been playing quite actively for a year and a half and I just now feel like I am starting to get the hang of it and having some success (and I think it is probably not an accident that this coincides with me now having a bonused character -- bonded Aes Sedai though not mastered). That is a long time to wait for a pay-off, and I don't think that I am a particularly incompetent person. Not too long ago, I died on virtually every PK outing that I ever attempted, on any character. (And yes, I know that channelers are hard characters to play, and I have spent time PKing as abs bashers as well to help me learn).
When people make the argument that having master mobs adds options and lets PK continue for longer, I can't help but interpret that as: master mobs allows fades/masters (i.e. those who are already highly experienced, highly skilled, highly bonused) to survive for longer and pick off weaker (non-master) characters while having less risk for themselves. This may make PK longer and more fun for those players (I guess), but the weaker players are still just fodder. This point-of-view may have made sense when there were few masters and most people were plain non-masters. But now, many, if not most, players have masters so being the fodder is often just not that fun.
Personally, I feel like the logic of giving masters major PK benefits is flawed, especially in terms of maintaining a healthy player base. Giving the most skilled, most experienced players in the game even more benefits to make them even harder to kill than they already are (by virtue of being really good at the game!) does not promote a game that is accessible and fun for new players, especially when we reach the point we have now where so many are masters. Maybe it made more sense when player numbers were huge and masters were few, but that is no longer the case. In hindsight, I think the master bonuses would have been better designed to be largely unrelated to PK directly -- things like making it easier to move around quickly (personal coaches), free storage space, more inn options, etc. Things that make your life easier, but not benefits that make you harder to kill directly. But I think that ship has sailed, so I digress.
The other thing that bugs me is when people suggest that everyone who plays the game should be essentially forced into PKing all the time, or else they are just wasting space. It is clear that this is a "PK mud" in the sense that PK is really the main endgame activity. But personally, I play the game because I like the combination of things that I can do while being immersed in a fantasy world that I like. Sometimes I like to PK, sometimes I like to RP, sometimes I like to have a relaxing smob trip, sometimes I like to go out and explore areas I have not been to before, sometimes I like to just sit in my chambers and chat with friends over tells. If a just wanted to do PvP and nothing else, there are other games that I would play instead. I would bet that no new players start playing this mud because they think "Wow, this game seems to be a one-of-a-kind PvP experience." Rather, people start because they love the Wheel of Time and want to try out a game that lets them experience the world.
What does it matter if people get some qps from smobbing, or any other activity? If people get master that way, then fine. It seems that most everyone already has a master anyway. We live in a mud where masters are the norm, not the exception. If someone is not much of a PKer, then they aren't going to use their new master bonuses to kill you anyway, so what is the problem? Is it just pride? Exclusiveness? If that helps a newer player get a master more quickly to even the odds, then so what?
It is difficult for newer players to just PK constantly due to reasons mentioned above. Personally, I still find PK do be somewhat stressful because it is not second nature to me yet, and I feel like I really have to be mentally tuned-in to do a good job. Maybe this changes if you play so long that PK just becomes second nature, but I cannot just PK all day nonstop. I have to have some down time, and I could either just log off, or I could do some other things on the mud like RP and smob. Attacking the other activities on the mud that people like to do, or making it such that there is zero incentive to do them, does not make PK better. It will just drive people away who might want to PK sometimes, but not all the time.
Sorry -- this turned into a much longer post than I intended, and I realise it is only tangentially related to master mob lead.
I guess what I am trying to say (tl;dr) is: if you think that losing master mob lead has made your character so boring to play that you have nothing to do, and if you are truly committed to improving numbers in PK and improving the quality of PK, consider taking steps to help encourage other people to get into PK and to get better at it. Offer to lead someone through PK areas and show them points of interest, regroup points, doors. Offer to spar with someone, or offer to give constructive feedback on a PK log that they send you. If you notice someone in PK who seems new-ish, offer them some constructive feedback on what they did well, and what they could have done better. (CONSTRUCTIVE feedback -- saying things like "WTF were you doing, I said hit and you got me killed!!!" is not helpful.)
I think I have gotten over the mid-game 'hump' in the game to the point where I am in for the long haul: I feel like I can at least hold my own in PK and contribute, I feel like I am steadily improving, I have a some friends now that makes equipping and the social aspects of the game more manageable. Some people have been really amazing in helping me improve my skills and knowledge along the way (and to them I am very grateful!), and this has been crucial. But there were definitely times where it seemed hopeless, where it seemed improvement was stalling, and where I was very close to just saying it was too much work to be worth it, tempted to move on to other activities with a more reasonable timescale for it to be worthwhile. If you really want to increase numbers in PK over time, I think we need to get more people over the mid-game hump. Some experienced players have left and will continue to leave for reasons mostly unrelated to the mud (they get older, have families, have other responsibilities, move on to other activities). These people are most likely not coming back, regardless of how many bonuses they have. So, the only option (short of letting the mud just die) is to find ways to get new people involved (and involved in PK specifically to improve PK).
Debating the merits of having master mob lead or not is fine, but having more master bonuses is not the be-all-end-all of PK. Calling people smurfs for suggesting that a more even playing field would be beneficial is not helpful. I can tell you that PK zones/fades are still scary places for new players, and that new players still get pk shakes, even without master mob lead, or any weapon attack, or whatever other bonuses people could have. I am not sure that making the elite players more elite (in the form of more bonuses) is what is really going to encourage more players to stick around, except for maybe those elite players. But is that really the PK you want? It just turns into a majority of powerhouses vs. a small minority of weaklings.
Disparaging players who like to do other activities (smobbing, RPing, or even just sitting in the square hanging out) is also not helpful.