Friday, May 17, 2013

Observations on Play by Email Games - Part II

In the first part of this two-part series, I wrote about the setup and prep I use for running play by email (PBM) games. This article will focus on the action, the actual running of the game. If you've followed the advice in the previous post, you have players ready, a game concept set, character info at hand, a mailing list running, an organized space to write in, and a schedule to follow. Now what?

Beginning, Middle, End
Each turn, try and cover these three main elements. The beginning encapsulates the scene, restates the current conditions, and frames the player's chosen actions, both as a reference for the future, and as a collective restatement of what people are doing for those that may have missed out on between-turn discussion. It sets up what happens, the middle.

The middle is where the action happens, moving the story / combat / exploration forward. It should resolve the players' actions, for better or worse. Unless there's a drastic change in the scene, you should try to play out the entire course of action submitted by your players, and use it to set up for the end.

The end is about new information, setting up a new scene, or in the case of combat, provides a stopping point for more tactical player input (more on combat below). It's sometimes hard to figure out when the middle ends and the end begins. My rule of thumb for the end is to see if I've resolved most of the player actions from the turn's inputs. It's also framed by the Rule of Choice (below).

Side Notes
Once the main sequence is written, write any individual player notes you need to send. Depending on the game and your players, you may find you're writing lots of notes, or none at all. Either is fine, but be sure you keep these notes organized with the appropriate turns so you don't lose your mind. I typically write the main turn, then add individual notes labeled with the appropriate character names, all in one file or TiddlyWiki tiddler.

The Rule of Choice
This is simple, and critically important: Always end the turn with choices for the players. If you don't, then there's nothing for them to do. That's the absolute worst situation in a PBM game. No choices means you're pretty much writing a novel, not running a game. No choices means your players read the turn, think "Oh that's cool," and then tune out with nothing to do. Choices get players focused and interacting, and that's where the fun comes in.

Three-Round Combat
Combat in PBM, especially in a round-based system, can take a long time. Dice for initiative, declared actions, dice to hit, damage rolls. It's all glacially-slow via email. That's why I run the fights. To do this efficiently, I divide the battle into three-round sequences, and players write their plans accordingly. I've tried shorter and longer meta-rounds, but end up coming back to three as ideal. You may not use all three rounds, no plan survives contact with the enemy, but it gives you a good basis to get through the fight quickly. This is where using a light / fast system pays off the most. If you can resolve actions with very few dice rolls, the turns are much easier to deal with.

Time and Place
It's important for players to know when and where the characters are, and the written word is sometimes not the best means to convey that. I always establish the starting and ending time and place of each turn with the headers in the turn template. I also make regular use of quick and dirty maps to provide a visual cue. Some people really don't get compass directions, and a map sidesteps that issue completely. As part of the end segment of the turn, try to include a concise description of what the player characters can see and sense, so they have a clear mental image to work from when formulating their next response.

Step Back, Get Coffee, Edit
Once you have the draft turn written, stop. Walk away from the keyboard and take a break. Relax a minute. With a clear head, go back and read what you've written. You'll find terrible terrible errors: missed character actions, illogical sequences, incorrect directions, bad grammar, and other horrors. Don't panic, it happens. That's why you're editing. Pay special attention to directions and distances. It's amazing how many times SE becomes SW or yards become feet.

When you're happy with what you've written, save your work (don't forget backups), copy it into an appropriate message (or messages — don't forget to split out your private messages!) Check any links or references to external sources and upload any ancillary information to your web archive. Send. You're done.

Clarify but Gently
As players dive into the turn, you'll likely see a string of responses, queries, and questions. Don't jump in with both feet, at least not right away. Sure, you can clarify a detail or correct a mistake, but move slowly when big picture questions come up. Two reasons: first it allows the slow responders read the turn without spoilers, and second, it allows you pick your players' brains for ideas as they speculate. Four or five brains are always better than one.

Prod as Needed
Sometimes you need to give your players a poke. They're busy or confused or not involved in the scene, and you end up with too little to work with. When you hit this situation, send a request for a plan, and restate the current choice(s) facing the party (not the answers, just the choices). One convention I've adopted for my Wilds game (which usually uses a group consensus to determine overall actions) is to request one final answer plan for big-picture moves. Anyone can submit that plan, meaning whoever has time can do it instead of thrusting the burden on a single party-leader player.

Collect Responses
As the next turn looms, review the responses and gather a summary of player actions. Depending on the amount of back and forth between turns, it can be hard to pick through dozens of messages to find those that move things forward. I generally read over the turn's thread and jot notes for each character right in the next turn report (and delete them before I send it of course). Having a brief summary speeds the writing process for next turn.

Congratulations, you've come full circle. Now do it again!

So that's it, a summary of how I run PBM games. As you can probably tell, I run a pretty structured game, because that keeps things moving if a player goes silent for a couple turns, something that's almost inevitable in PBM. I hope this proves useful to anyone getting started with PBM gaming. Suggestions on how to run things better are always welcome!

Postscript: I just discovered a Google+ Community dedicated to play by forum, post, and email gaming.

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