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Play by Email: Running the Game

Play-by-email games 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 adventure.
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.

Plots: 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.

Keep 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).

Avoid 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.

Narrate 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.

Limit 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.
Private conversations 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.

Accept 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 plot.
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.

Turns: 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 responses.
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.

Pacing: 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 duty.
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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