Nothing truly compares to the experience of sitting around a table with your friends to play an RPG. The social interaction is a huge mood boost, and a lot of the fun of the game comes from the expressions on the other players’ faces when the GM drops the BBEG in their laps, the spontaneous puns and one-liners that have everyone rolling with laughter, and even breaking bread together before the playing starts. In a perfect world, we’d all have a wonderful game group to meet with and have this awesome camaraderie.
Alas, it’s not a perfect world. Too often, even those of us lucky enough to have readily available gaming companions find ourselves beset with conflicts – crazy work schedules, family commitments, lack of a gaming location – that prevent us from the joys of a face-to-face game. Or, even if we have a local gaming group, we have friends living hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away who we’d love to play with, if only there wasn’t a ludicrously long commute involved.
The solution? A play-by-post (or play-by-email) game. While a PbP game is a completely different critter than a table-top RPG, if done correctly it can be a reasonable enough facsimile that it will scratch your gaming itch. For a time period of about four years, I played almost exclusively in PbP games after a move took us away from our gaming group and my rotating work schedule made it impossible to find and commit to a new group. One of those games lasted over three years, while others fizzled within weeks. Being involved in both successful and failed games taught me a number of lessons.
Distance is no problem. Thanks to the internet, you can not only keep in contact with friends far and wide, but you can game with them, too! If you really miss your old gaming group from back home, or long to game with the peeps you only see once a year at a con, PbP gives you a way to play.
You don’t have to synch your schedules. While you can (and should) take advantage of instant messenger programs to work out scenes/conversations between characters that are too cumbersome for email, there’s generally not a need for any two players to be online at the same time. You can post a reply with your character’s actions on your lunch break, and the GM can get back to you after he gets home from work later that afternoon.
You have time to think. Sometimes, your turn in the initiative comes up, and you’re still struggling to figure out what to do. In a table-top game, your slowness bogs down the game for everyone else, and the GM might skip over you to keep things moving. In a PbP, unless you’re actually playing out a scene via IM, odds are no one is actually sitting at their computer, tapping their fingers, waiting for you to reply that very moment. So you have a few minutes – if not hours – to weigh your options.
You can use flowing prose. PbP games are a creative writer’s wet dream. You get to use different voices, find words for different characters, and get instant feedback from your fellow players. Playing in those PbP games made me a better writer.
Post lag. You make your post on your lunch break and eagerly await the GM’s response after he gets home from work. Except instead of going home from work, the GM goes on a weekend trip, so the game comes to a screeching halt until he gets back home. Players living in different time zones can also cause serious post lag – it’s bad enough when you’re talking about Eastern to Pacific time differences (East Coast-based players might be headed to bed by the time you even get home from work), but when you have a player halfway around the world, there’s always going to be a delay.
Overlapping posts. The opposite of post lag, it’s in many ways worse when everyone is online at once. The emails come so fast and furious that the characters’ actions override each other, void each other, or flat out don’t make sense together.
Not everyone is a good writer. Writing can be a challenge for some folks, and while they may be great roleplayers at a table, they struggle with typing out their actions and choosing the right words. In the long-running PbP game I was in, one of the players had such atrocious spelling and grammar that the rest of us spent a lot of time asking him to clarify, or taking a guess at what he actually meant (and we were usually wrong).
No facial expressions or tone of voice to guide you. We’ve all gotten an email or text from someone that seemed harsh or mean because all we had to go by were the written words alone. Without hearing a teasing tone in a friend’s voice, or seeing the wink they give you that says “I’m bluffing”, all you can do is take their words literally. In a game filled with subterfuge and intrigue, missing another character’s sarcasm or the stress they would normally put on a key phrase can cause you to misinterpret their actions. It can also lead to hard feelings between players, and that always makes a game awkward and less fun for all involved.
Can You Make It Work?
A PbP or PbEM game can be a challenge, and I have been quite content not playing in one for several years. But I would gladly play in one again if it were run correctly. Here are a few things I’ve come to believe are crucial to a good PbP experience.
An organized GM with a strong personality. Keeping half a dozen players from all corners of the world entertained and on task is like herding cats. Running a PbP game is no less work than traditional table-top – in fact, one could argue that it’s even more work. A meek GM will be overrun and overruled in short order, and an unorganized one will be removed from his position. Just like in a face-to-face game, the GM also has to be willing and able to boot a problem player.
The GM needs everyone’s character stats, and should do some of the rolling for them. Whether the game uses simple stat blocks or full-blown character sheets for the characters, every player should email their GM a copy. Most gamers are honest, but there’s always one who will try to cheat and give themselves ten ranks in Disable Device when they’re only second level. This also makes it easier for the GM to make rolls for the characters when it will save time. For example, if the GM makes a post asking everyone to roll and post their initiative, post lag could delay the start of combat for a couple days. It’s much easier for the GM to roll initiative for everyone and post the order.
Posting rules and/or limits. Ever opened up an email that was the tenth reply to an original, and you had to scroll past all nine quoted previous messages to get to the reply at the bottom? Ugh. It should be established early on what posting format everyone should use so all posts are easy to read and respond to. Posting limits (say, five posts a day) may need to be put in place in busy games, or if a number of people are having a hard time staying caught up.
A way for “off-camera” scenes to take place. A lot of PbP games are roleplay-heavy, and there’s often a great deal of character interaction and development. Not all of that interaction needs to take place on screen for everyone to see – at least not post by post. If two characters become involved in a lengthy conversation or encounter, they should be encouraged to take it to IM or private email to complete, then post the scene in its (edited) entirety. And it goes without saying that the GM should be kept in the loop of everything happening off-camera, especially if it’s going to affect the game.
Writing samples/interviews from prospective players. Before you think I’m a snob who only wants perfect people in my games, think about the player I mentioned earlier – the one whose posts were usually unintelligible because he had no grasp of the written language. It was no fun to roleplay with that guy. There’s no need for publication-ready writing, but everyone involved should be able to write at an understandable level. As for interviews, you don’t want a creeper in your PbP game any more than you want one at the table. Get to know potential players before letting them create characters. Just as in real life, they may put on a good face and turn out to be a freakshow later on, but at least you can say you tried.
While a PbP game isn’t as good as a table-top game, it’s better than no game at all. With the right GM and players, it can be a great experience. If you like writing and want to play with people you can’t often see in person, a PbP game might be just the thing for you.
Have you played in a PbP game? Did you like the experience?