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Play by Email: Running the
are both more restrictive and more liberating for gamemasters and players.
They are more restrictive because they take much longer to play; they
eliminate nonverbal cues that help transmit emotion, irony, and falsehood;
and they require basic writing skills that face-to-face gaming elides.
They are more liberating because they permit players from around the world
to interact; they give players and GMs more time to craft witty, dramatic
and thoughtful responses; and they lend themselves to constructing a text-based
narrative that can be saved after the game as a story or account of the
One of the central problems
with PBEMs is that they move more slowly than face-to-face games, and
the GM must prepare for a PBEM with the time factor in mind.
In a face-to-face game, turns can be made quickly; the GM says something
or asks a question, and the players instantly respond. In a PBEM, there
is a great deal of lag time. The turn goes out, players read it whenever
they find the time, eventually compose a response, send it off, and the
GM reads it whenever s/he finds the time. As a result, PBEM plots should
be handled somewhat differently than face-to-face game plots.
the Plot Simple. PBEMs should have fairly straightforward plots
if the GM would like to finish the game within a year or two (I'm not
exaggerating!). Extended investigations and interaction take a great deal
of time. A GM who wants to run a mystery should be ready to keep the plot
moving along by narrating extended investigations rather than running
them as line-by-line dialogue and by advancing the timeline when things
go slowly (see Pacing, below).
Overlands. Extended overlands are a drag on the game, as are
random encounters. The GM should be ready to narrate overlands, pausing
here and there for player reaction, but not spending more than a week
or so on the "getting to the adventure" part of the game. Naturally,
if the game is based around an extended overland—such as a Star
Trek mission based on the Enterprise or Voyager plots—this rule
doesn't apply as strictly, although the GM should still avoid spending
too much "dead time" between encounters. Only planned encounters
should be used and each encounter should advance the plot in some way.
Combat. Blow-by-blow combat is fun, but very slow in a PBEM.
The GM should ask players to describe their character's plans in a private
email. Then the GM can narrate the scene based on those plans until there's
a natural break point—perhaps where a decision must be made that
the players didn't foresee. At that point, the GM again asks the players
for their revised plans, and so on.
Interaction Opportunities. I love allowing players to roleplay
with each other, but it slows the game—and in a PBEM, the plot is
already moving slowly enough. To avoid really bogging things down, the
GM might decide to place a limit on the amount of time players get to
chat with each other before moving on to the next scene. For example,
the GM might permit three real-time days for chat during a dinner party,
after which s/he moves the plot onward. Conversations can be continued
in a nonlinear fashion, running simultaneously with later scenes, or can
be moved off-PBEM to a bulletin board that the GM provides for that purpose.
If the response time is going to be limited, the GM should add that in
a note (e.g., "Players: You have three days to chat with each other,
and then I move to the next day"). If the GM can get the players
together for a quick live chat session, all the better—although
that's not easy to do if the players are living in different time zones.
should be kept off the main PBEM list and carried out between the players
in private email. The GM should be cc:ed all such private email messages.
That way, if another character is eavesdropping on the conversation, the
GM can secretly forward the messages to the snoop.
Nonlinearity. Because PBEMs must be nudged along by the GM at
regular intervals, some amount of nonlinearity must be accepted and worked
around. The GM should provide a special subject-header keyword or a game-related
bulletin board for nonlinear roleplaying purposes. My PBEM's bulletin
board has been used for out-of-character comments, player character reports
to NPCs, and player character stream-of-consciousness reactions to the
Because PBEMs constrain
the ways in which the GM and players can communicate with each other—that
is, email is primarily a text-only medium, although the GM might supplement
it with a website that includes graphics, audio and visual components—a
PBEM game runs the risk of seeming dry and dull. To avoid this, the GM
and players should write descriptively. Overacting and melodrama are particularly
appropriate for PBEMs. The reticent, shy or stoic character will not work
well in a PBEM, where nonverbal interaction is virtually nonexistent.
Which is more fun to read? "Bob winces" or "Bob staggers
back as if slapped. 'How could you?' he gasps, his face turning pale with
shock and horror." If a player absolutely demands to play the silent
Clint Eastwood type, encourage detailed descriptions of what the silent
character is doing: "Six-Gun Sam narrows his eyes and transfixes
the desperado with his cold, menacing gaze."
However, the GM should
encourage players to create verbose and emotive characters who chew the
scenery every once in a while with rants, tears, derring-do, florid avowals
of undying love or fist-shaking oaths of horrifying vengeance. Furthermore,
the GM should provide lots of plot opportunities for this kind of roleplay
and should have NPCs respond in kind. Think soap opera. Think Shakespeare.
Think action-adventure TV or cinema. Then start writing.
A new turn is started at any major scene change, and each turn should
have a separate header (e.g., Turn 1: The Group Meets; Turn 2: Red Alert)
that is kept in all replies to the turn. This allows players and the GM
to quickly sort through actions and simplifies keeping track of nonlinear
A turn should continue
as long as necessary. For example, if the game is on Turn 27: Attack!,
the turn number can remain 27 until the combat is over—weeks or
months of real time, perhaps! The GM and players will probably change
the title, but the turn number should remain the same until the GM decides
to change it. Thus, the GM might post a message with the subject header
Turn 27: Attack! and a player might respond with a message using the subject
header Turn 27: Brak Runs for Cover.
Have I mentioned that PBEMs are slow? PBEMs are slow. Even a PBEM with
a weekly or biweekly update rate can still easily run for a year or more;
and many PBEMs don't progress that quickly. The GM should decide how often
the game will be updated and let players know the schedule from the start.
In addition, the GM should give prospective players an "estimated
game length" before the game begins—a year is not unreasonable
for most short PBEMs, and a GM who plans to run a major campaign might
simply say, "years."
In the first half of
this essay, I encouraged GMs to invite many more players than they thought
they could handle, because some players will drop out and others will
turn into little more than glorified lurkers. No matter how many players
are invited, only about a quarter will end up posting regularly. Naturally,
this affects the game's pacing.
The GM should establish
several ground rules from the start, and one of them should be that turns
will progress without all players' contributions. If a player can't commit
to posting at least once a week, s/he shouldn't have been invited in the
first place; if s/he promises and then flakes, the GM should shrug and
progress without the player. If the player continues to flake without
providing a reasonable excuse, then the GM should invite the player to
leave the game, and either give the character to a new player or use the
character as an NPC. The same can be done for the characters of players
who need to drop out of the game.
When the player has
a reasonable excuse for not posting for a while, the GM should work with
the player to figure out what to do. Often the GM can NPC the character
for a while until the player's problem has been resolved, or the character
can be temporarily taken out of play until the player returns to active
When the players are
carrying the game along well, the GM can relax and simply respond. When
posts begin to drag, the GM needs to push the game forward by advancing
the game to the next signficant event. Although this seems mechical and
contrived, the GM has little choice. Good PBEM players will understand
what's going on and do their best to keep the plot moving whenever they
get a chance.
PBEMs can be a lot of
fun. In some ways they are better than face-to-face gaming, because they
can bring together in one campaign so many people living in so many places
around the world. However, both the GM and the players must go into the
PBEM aware that the game will progress slowly and that the number of players
involved will slowly dwindle as the game continues. As long as this is
remembered, allowed for in the initial game planning, and nobody is discouraged
when it happens, the PBEM can continue to a successful conclusion.
originally written April 18, 1999
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