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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Play by Email: Setting Up
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
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.
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 "email@example.com." 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.
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
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:
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
• Mood music
• Non-player character
• 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.
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
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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