Thoughts on Play By Post: The Whys

Recently I’ve needed to look into alternative modes of roleplaying. In this series I’m going to look at Play By Post or PbP: what it is, what advice exists for running it, and how I intend to implement it for my Demon: the Descent game, the Unusual Suspects.

What is Play by Post?

For my purposes, PbP is roleplaying via some slower media than in person or over an audio or video medium. This could be forum posts, email, or even text chat. Back in my youth, there were even people who ran games via snail mail.

The play proceeds similarly to a normal roleplaying session. The game master posts details on the current situation and the players respond with descriptions of their actions in their posts.

The difference comes in both the longer format and the slower pace of the game. Descriptions, both from the GM and the players, tend to be more lengthy and detailed than a live session. Player often have more narrative power to describe the world around them (partly to speed up play). Distinctions are made between In character (IC) description and voice and out of character (OOC) material like dice rolls and random chit-chat. Most of the time the effort is to keep OOC material to a minimum.

Die rolling might be handled by the medium itself (such as built-in dice rollers in a chat window), handled by the GM, or work on the honor system.

The players might all know each other as in a typical live game or they might be complete strangers recruited over the internet. Such games might include dozens of players and several game masters.

But the more relaxed response times and longer replies mean a much slower game. Scenes play out over days, sessions over weeks. On other hand this slow pace and freedom from set start and end times provides a lot of freedom to delve deep into the personal stories of characters.

But Why Am I Doing It?

I have two gaming groups, one local and one online, so you’d think PbP would have little appeal. Unfortunately with the arrival of my second child, I’m no longer able to run any live game that intersects with their 8 PM bedtime. It has to start afterwards.

That’s not an issue for my local game. We start after 8 PM already. But my online group consists mainly of players on the East Coast. 8 PM Pacific time (where I am) is 11PM on the East Coast. Even 3 hour sessions are thus out.

I thought that would be the end of that particular group but my players surprised me by suggesting PbP.

Previous Experiences

I hadn’t even considered PbP before the group suggested it because of how rarely the method has worked out for me before. The games always died and it seems a relatively large investment (emotional and creative energy put into my characters) for very little enjoyment (given how short most the games turned out to be).

My first Play by Post experience was shortly after the arrival of Mage: the Awakening a decade ago. A would be storyteller recruited people, including myself, from the old White Wolf forums. With a lot of enthusiasm, our small group of players began working through some introductory scenes.

Then the game master disappeared followed swiftly by the other player in my scene. The game died. I checked back over the next few weeks but no new posts arrived.

My second PbP game was Vampire: the Masquerade. This time I knew the gamemasters personally and they in turn recruited a much larger group of players. We made use of a play by post focused forum to help manage threads and rolls. The game had many subplots and levels of intrigue.

We got a few in-game nights into the action. Then it all fell apart. The main game master dropped out due to personal life issues. The secondary game master also began to lose interest as several players dropped out, following the normal rules of PbP attrition. An attempt to recruit a player for the GM role fell through and a few weeks later the game ground to a halt.

My last attempt only occurred because one of my best friends was running it. The small Vampire: the Requiem elders game proceeded pretty well lasting a few in and out of game months and completing a full story. It was helped by the monthly video chats and a fairly low barrier to posts.

Even so the other players resented the “homework” preferring the live sessions. The writer in the group wanted to focus on their own writing while others wanted to make things even simpler. The stress of managing all the communications (plus real life demands) wore on the game master and we stalled out before reaching the next story.

Lessons Learned

So what do I know right now?

Enthusiasm is key. Both the GM and the players need to be engaged. Both sides need to keep posting and posting regularly. Slow posting and stalled posts hurts player interest and that means hemorrhaging players.

The second take away is to lower expectations. Since I can’t pick my players (or rather I already have) I need to keep the level of posting at a level that everyone is willing to contribute to in terms of quality and quantity.

Lastly I’m realizing I’m signing myself up for a lot of work. Five times the number of posts (at least) that I want from my players. Ouch.

Next time I’ll read some advice from more experienced PbP game masters and see what other lessons I can find.