When I returned to playing Role-playing games, I initially dipped my toes in the water by playing in a couple of play-by-post games. I felt that this would allow me to learn the mechanics of the games I was playing (D&D5e and 13th Age) while not leaving me with too heavy a commitment. Having enjoyed those games, I decided to move on to DM/GMing a couple of games. Once I started to run my own games, I became very aware of the benefits and challenges of PbP games and wanted to share that here.
Firstly I want to look at why you would choose to play or run a play-by-post game and also some of the less appealing aspects of the medium. This post is written entirely from the DM/GM perspective so the tips that I provide later in the article will primarily be GM tips.
Firstly, what’s good about PbP?
- There are games in abundance and they are usually easy to get into.
- They are much less of a time drain than a traditional, weekly or bi-weekly game commitment. You can participate at a time that suits you. Often, taking part takes only a few minutes a day and is easy to fit around a busy schedule. I opted for PbP initially because with a young family, it suited me to be able to play RPGs at a time which was convenient for all of us as a family.
- As a DM, particularly a novice DM, it gives you much more scope for improvisation. It’s challenging to pull something out of the air when there are 5 faces the other side of the table staring at you expectantly. With a PbP game you have time to formulate a response to anything the players do. Nobody is sitting there watching you stumble over your words.
What’s less good?
- It’s slow. Very slow. Combat in particular can take a lifetime.
- Because it is slow, attrition rate is high in games, both among players and with DMs who finally give up running games because of lack of interest or because of players dropping out.
- As a DM, it can be hard to keep track of things like conditions, ongoing damage, spell effects etc because (due to aforementioned slowness) they could have come into play weeks ago.
So how can you deal with the less good parts of PbP and make them better? Here are some tips which will enhance your game.
Set expectations around posting
This is probably the most critical aspect of PbP to address. Lack of posting or posts which don’t move the story forward can cause attrition, disillusionment among players and is just generally a pain in the arse.
Firstly, set out to players what your expectations are around posts. Set a posting schedule and try and stick to it. Make it clear though that life is always more important than posting. Let your players know that time away from the game is fine. Just ask them to post in an ‘Out of Character’ thread if they are going to be absent for a while and make sure they understand that the story will move on without them in the interim and that the DM will make combat rolls and decisions on their behalf.
Make it a requirement that every post should be worthwhile. Posts must move the game forward and give the DM something to work with. While it’s great to stay in character and post that “Kenwin sits down and sings a song about ale, remembering the inns of his hometown in distant days”, it gives the DM next to nothing to work with in terms of moving the story on to the next step. Because interaction with your players is less frequent than in a face to face game, every post has to be worth it’s weight in gold, including your posts as DM.
Don’t sweat dice rolls
Dice rolls for skill checks and so on are a big part of many d20 games but the mechanic tends to fall over in PbP because of the slow nature of the medium. If Kenwin wants to search for secret doors, then don’t go back and ask for a perception roll. Make the roll for Kenwin, otherwise you could be waiting a couple of days for the roll and to describe the outcome to him. It’s unnecessary time wasting, particularly because in most PbP forums you will have access to the player’s character sheets.
The same goes for initiative rolls. Make them for the players. I’ve made the mistake in the past of asking players to make their own. It can drag out for days, and that’s before the first sword is swung in anger. Make the roll and tell them what the order is.
Speed up combat
Combat is the biggest issue with PbP and is usually where most players drift out of the game. Playing turn based combat over PbP can become intensely annoying when everyone is waiting for Kenwin to make his attack, when unbeknownst to everyone, Kenwin is pissed in a bar in Tenerife and isn’t home for another 10 days. Some ideas include:
- Consider your game system carefully. Some are better suited to fast PbP combat than others. 13th Age with it’s escalation die is particularly good as it speeds up combat significantly. For those unfamiliar with this mechanism, every round after the first round, the players get to add a bonus modifier on to their roll. It starts at +1 and continues to +6. Generally speaking monsters don’t get that modifier on their turn so the players can usually wrap up the combat more timeously.
- Make sure your players roll damage in the same post as the attack. If the attack misses then you don’t apply the damage. It may seem counter-intuitive but sitting waiting 3 days for the damage roll is pretty annoying too.
- Don’t be afraid to narrate battles to a conclusion. If the party have the upper hand and it’s only a matter of time then just narrate it to a conclusion. That’s much better than running a foregone conclusion of a battle for a further 2 weeks.
- If a player drops to 0 hit points, and you are playing a game with death saves then get the player to roll them all at once.
- At the beginning of each round, remind the players what the initiative order is. After each attack (player or monster) remind the players who is up next.
- Don’t be afraid to shuffle initiative order. If Kenwin is still unconscious on the beach in Tenerife then move past him and incorporate him when he does show up. Alternatively, roll for him although this is a less straightforward solution for spellcasters and characters with a wider range of abilities.
Level up at key story points
A traditional XP based levelling system isn’t going to cut it in PbP. Instead, level characters up at key story junctures. Give them a day or so to sort their character out and then move on. Insist on average hit point upgrades if you want to reduce the number of dice rolls you need to keep track of. Level up sooner than usual as well. Nobody wants to wait 6 months to go from level 1 to level 2.
Keep a tracker spreadsheet
It’s easy to lose track of who everyone is, let alone what conditions, spell effects, ongoing damage they are subject to.
I create a simple Google docs spreadsheet for this. In the first tab I have the characters listed with attributes, hit points etc.
In subsequent tabs, I track combat stats and conditions.
Don’t rule out using maps
Play by post can be challenging because people interact with your game fairly infrequently. As a result, it can be good for players to just be able to visualise where they are in the grand scheme of things.
Traditional digital maps can be used. To create ‘fog of war’ you could use Photoshop to block off the areas that the players have not yet seen. Personally, I use Snagit because it has a useful feature where you can screengrab multiple areas and combine them, allowing for easy creation of fog of war effects. The example below is from my PbP Curse of Strahd game. I host the images on sites like Postimage which is usually compatible with forum image posting.
One final tip around maps is to create a separate map thread in the Out of Character forums. Definitely post the map in the main game thread because this is where it is most relevant but also post in the map thread so that players can see all maps at a glance without scrolling back through pages of posts.
The ideas above are just some ways I’ve found to make my Play by Post games better. If you have any thoughts on any of these, or any other great suggestions then please feel free to comment below.
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.