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Play by Email: Setting Up

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.
Most GMs who want to run a PBEM already have a pretty good idea of what sort of adventure they're going to run. That's the easy part—the part GMs have learned from years of face-to-face gaming. However, the technical considerations of running a PBEM are somewhat less obvious, especially if the GM doesn't have much Internet experience. Here are a few guidelines for handling the Internet-specific side of setting up a PBEM.

Email List: The first question is how to set up an email list for the game. The most basic way to set up a list is to simply insert every player's name into the "To:" field of the email. However, if the game contains 10 or more players, this quickly becomes cumbersome, and it always runs the risk that somebody will be accidentally dropped from the list. Using an email-program-based group name helps get around this problem, but every player who responds to the email must also set up a group name ... and when the email message is received, all of the names will appear in the "To:" head again unless the recipient list is suppressed.
A more elegant way to resolve this problem is to use a listserv host that will set up a group account for the game. There are a number of commercial services available that will host a group. Most of these services provide the list hosting services, a website where all messages are archived, and listserv management functions, for free. In exchange, they place advertising at the bottom of each message that is processed through the group. Some offer a no-advertising alternative that costs the GM a small monthly fee.
The main advantage to using a group list is that players simply send their moves to the group name, such as "" The group moderator can subscribe or unsubscribe members, delete messages, and perform other administrative tasks. A secondary advantage is that the messages are all archived on a website where lurkers can read them or players can go back to review old posts for clues. A less important but still useful advantage is that the server attaches a keyword to each message's subject header, permitting recipients with the right kind of email program to automatically sort their PBEM mail into a separate mailbox.

Dice: The second question is how to handle die rolls. The GM can choose to keep a bag of dice by the computer, rolling everything him- or herself; s/he can permit players to roll their own dice; or s/he can forgo dice entirely, demanding that players make their own choices with an eye toward entertainment and storytelling. Another alternative is to use a web-based dice-rolling program. The Irony Games' Dice Server is probably the best-known of these programs. The player titles the roll, addresses it to the GM, and chooses the type and number of dice to be rolled. The program "rolls the dice" and then emails the result to the player and the GM, using PGP encryption (recipients do not need a program to decode the roll). In my PBEM, one player uses it constantly for his mage's cantrip rolls, humorously roleplaying out the failures and the successes; other players prefer to roll their own dice, and in some cases I arbitrarily decide what happens in order to keep the story flowing smoothly.

Website Support: The third question is how to handle graphics, music, and recordkeeping. Many GMs choose to set up a support website devoted to their PBEM. A support website should contain at least the following information:

• Background information (e.g., pre-game campaign history)
• Character list (include at least names and descriptions)
• House rules

Other items the support website might contain include:

• Archival materials (e.g., laws, local customs, and other materials tangentially related to the PBEM to which players might want to refer)
• Bulletin board for out-of-character discussion
• Chat room for occasional live roleplay
• Maps
• Mood music
• Non-player character list
• Player character and non-player character illustrations
• Player contributions (e.g., player character diary entries, letters, songs, origin stories—anything player-composed that relates to the game)
• Secrets and clues (perhaps hidden as secret links!)

The GM should remember that some players will check the support website regularly and some will never glance at it after the game begins. If the GM adds something essential to the site, an announcement should be made to the email list.

Finding Players: Some games are invitation-only, in which case the GM invites only roleplayers s/he knows are skilled and reliable. Other games are open to anyone who signs up during the enrollment period. A GM can announce an open game on game-related listservs, on this site's bulletin board, or on PBEM-devoted sites.
The GM should seek players who can demonstrate that they have strong roleplaying skills and who promise to post reliably. PBEMs usually take a year or more to resolve, so a player who will, for example, lose his or her email account when school is out for summer is not an ideal candidate.
The GM should accept more players into the PBEM than s/he thinks is manageable. Player attrition is an unavoidable fact—no matter how wonderful the players are, real-life crises and stress will always cause some to drop out. Moreover, some players will post regularly and some will be little more than lurkers, appearing only for a fight or a particularly interesting scene. The GM should accept these realities and plan accordingly.

The next essay will address PBEM plot, turns, and pacing.

originally written April 4, 1999


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