Thursday, May 16, 2013

Observations on Play by Email Games - Part I

If you read this blog, you've probably figured out by now that I run a lot of play by email (PBM) games. The biggest reason for this is that my old gaming group is now about a 10 hour drive away, which means my face-to-face gaming with my favorite gamers is rather limited. At the time of this post, I've run at least a half-dozen long-term PBM games, years of gaming, hundreds of turns. A few weeks back I saw a post on asking for guidance on running a PBM game, so I thought I'd put together a collection of notes based on my own experiences. Hopefully it'll prove useful to anyone trying to run a PBM game. This post is focused on setting up for a PBM game, the next post will focus on running things.

First a quick note on how I run games. I structure things around the turn, a cycle of player input / GM response. There's back and forth between the players and I during the cycle, but having an actual turn structure keeps things moving forward. Obviously this method may not be a good fit for all groups or games, but even if you don't use this format, there are probably a few notes in what follows that can help you run your game.

Gather the Players
This can be hard, even if you have a regular group of players and they've expressed interest. PBM games aren't for everyone; they require a willingness to deal with the slow-burn nature of email communication, and a little bit of writing skill. If you're starting with a group new to PBM, expect at least one or two drop-outs. Some people simply won't engage with a written-format game.

Define the Game
Get everyone on the same page regarding game genre and content, system, and duration. A consistent table vision for the game is always good, and the right system will make the GM's life easier (more below). The last item, duration, is particularly important. PBM games are slow-paced (if you read any of my Wilds game posts you can see how our games run). Setting up a realistic start and end is a good idea, but one I'm not that good at. My biggest flaw in running games is that I'm a sandbox GM, and PBM games beg for a bit more structure.

System, System, System
There are two main considerations for system. First, pick something you're comfortable with. You're already facing a fair bit of work in writing / responding to turns, don't add a system headache to your burden. Second, favor flexible and light over complex and intricate. Depending on how you choose to handle system resolution, you may end up doing a lot of the grunt work in the game. Having players roll their own dice can turn even a simple encounter into a slow-motion nightmare, especially if you use a heavy system.

When I run games, I do all the dice rolling so I can get through more than a round of action in a week. I also favor Fudge, since it's simple, scalable, and easily adapted to any genre. I've been pretty pleased with Labyrinth Lord for my Wilds game too.

Start Running!
No, don't. It's tempting, especially for strong improv-style GMs, to just jump in and start going. Before you dive into the game proper, spend some time getting organized. Trust me, having some basic logistics in place will keep your game running smoothly, and make it easier for you to write turn responses. Here are some things to take care of before you get rolling.

Set up a Mailing List
Even the most secretive, backstabbing, PvP-oriented game needs a common channel for communications. There are many options here, Google or Yahoo groups, or privately run mailing lists, but having one before you start is going to save you a ton of work in the long run. Every player in the game (plus the GM of course) should be included on the mailing list, and I prefer to set my own lists so that replies to list messages go back to the list. This keeps everyone involved.

Set up an Archive
You'll want a place on the web where you can share out background, images, and the like. Again, there are many options available, including Obsidian Portal, which I've not used but many people recommend.

Set a Schedule
It took me until the Wilds game to realize how important this is. My players are all working folk with limited time to engage with the game. Having a regular schedule for the GM update has dramatically increased player involvement. My current game runs a Monday/Thursday schedule, which works for our group. Of course each group is different, so work it out with your players, and then stick with it.

With a mailing list up and running, you can run through whatever character creation process you need. Be sure you get copies of all character information, so you can effectively manage characters if their players drop out or go missing for a few turns. Using my Wilds game as an example, I have an Excel spreadsheet with all the party stats and gear listed, along with a sheet designed to quickly generate combat results should the need arise.

Safeguard your Turns
It doesn't matter what you use to write GM updates. I've used flat text files, Word documents, and TiddlyWiki. Pick something you're comfortable with. You will want to keep your turns and associated notes organized and backed up. If you're using individual files, number them or date them. If you're using something like TiddlyWiki, use consistent naming and tagging. Back up your data! I know this sounds a bit dogmatic, but you WILL want to refer back to turn 20 on turn 50, and you'll want that process to be easy.

You'll also want to keep track of choices you've made and information you've shared outside of turn reports. These days I've settled on TiddlyWiki for PBM games, so my usual method is to apply a 'turn' tag to each turn tiddler, appending additional clarifications / expansions to the turn tiddler as needed, and adding new tiddlers for other important elements as they arise. If you're not familiar with TiddlyWiki, you should definitely check out my intro/tutorial posts on my old blog.

The Turn Template
My games tend to run in a "GM goes then players go" cycle. One standard I've adopted is a turn template that contains important information about the game and the people playing. Here's what mine looks like for the Wilds game (minus personal details). As you can see there's contact info, administrative noise, a start / end framing for the turn, and finally some standard orders for the party. This template allows me to give the players the info they need in a standardized format, and let's me see their general method of operation should the need arise.


Mailing list: EMAIL
List archives: URL
Web: URL

Please put Wilds: at the beginning of the subject line of any game message not destined for the mailing list.

Main Characters

All characters, player names, and email address(es)


Hireling characters and the controlling player.


Non game announcements and the like.

Common Information

Start Date:
Start Status:
Start Location:

The Turn

Game stuff goes here!

End Date:
End Status:
End Location:

Standing Orders

Marching Order (servants march with their leader)

Front: Grit, Rawon, Dagmarten, Raúguey
Middle: Locky, Ohwatoo (Jonquil), Ingvild
Rear: Durego (Gorvil), Maro, Nissa

Front: Grit, Ingvild, Rawon, Raúguey
Middle: Maro, Ohwatoo (Jonquil), Dagmarten
Rear: Durego (Gorvil), Locky, Nissa

1 - Nissa, Ingvild, Dagmarten, Raúguey, Saurabah
2 - Rawon, Maro, Locky, Durego, Gorvil
3 - Grit, Ohwatoo, Jonquil

OK, you have your resources in place, you know what sort of game you're running, characters have been created, and everyone is ready to roll. Now what? See part II.

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