Today’s guest article is by Osmond Arnesto and deals with a different type of roleplaying when you are geographically distant from your group – play by post – Postal Gnome John.

One of my first games wasn’t played on a forgotten kitchen table in the basement, or even on a sticky table at Denny’s. That, I am ashamed to admit, came much later when I should have known better. Instead, I was sitting on my dorm room bed at college, typing on a laptop. The game was for Dungeons & Dragons v3.5, and I was playing through DnD Online Games (though nowadays, they’re known as RPG Crossing). But, that game, like so many other of its ilk, died. The gap between player posts kept growing. The Game Master stopped asking where everyone was. The steam: lost.

Play-by-post games come with a couple of advantages over in-person games.

  1. You don’t have to schedule a game night around Frank’s inconsistent restaurant work schedule, or Janet’s last-minute social plans, or Brad’s kid’s heavily censored elementary school production of Rent.
  2. You can game on the cheap. Besides the rules of the game (unless the game is free), you don’t have to invest in dice, travel expenses, or food for a group. Sometimes, all you really want to save on is time.
  3. Your pool of players isn’t limited to how far you are willing to commute anymore. For some players, like those who live in small towns or those who lack a way of getting around, gaming online is the only option.

So why do play-by-post games have the tendency to peter out?

Having a Game Plan

The easiest way for you or your players to lose interest in your game is if there are no ground rules before you start playing. Being in the mind-set that you can post any old time you feel like is the same as saying you’ll start going to the gym tomorrow. It won’t happen unless you set a solid time frame for it. Maybe you decide you and your players will post twice a week: Monday, when everybody is ready for work, and Wednesday, when everybody wants to stop going to work. You can also decide that if a player misses a certain number of posts, then the Game Master will act for them.

After frequency, post quality should be taken into consideration. Often, a player will post their character’s action and wait for the Game Master’s outcome for their roll. This is fine, but the game can move at a glacial pace when posts are only made once a week. Reserve forum posts for place descriptions or extended character actions. When the game calls for more of a back-and-forth, like conversation, combat, or dungeon exploration, consider doing it through an instant messaging app like Kakao Talk. Then, as the Game Master, you can post a summary of what happened in chat.

Sharing Contact Info

Another useful strategy is to have a way to contact each other outside of the game. I’m not saying that you should hand out more information than you need to, because you need to keep in mind that sometimes you really are just gaming with strangers that you ran into on the internet. It pays to be safe. But it is very easy to ignore the game and the other players in favor of your other obligations if you are merely brushing off Ophelia the Dwarven Cleric (as opposed to Rocky, the Hobbit fan who lives on a farm in the middle of Kansas and doesn’t have a gaming group).

This is even easier if you downloaded an instant messaging app like the one I mentioned above. You can send friendly reminders to your players to post in the game and get to know each other outside of your character personas at the same time. You don’t even have to use your real name the entire time. The game I am a player in right now has us all connected through Facebook, and if you have a more personal connection to your online group (maybe the only thing separating you is distance), then that is an option, too.

Starting In Media Res

Patrick Regan wrote this article for Gnome Stew about starting a role-playing game in the middle of the action, without set-up or context. The Game Master doesn’t bother with wrangling the adventurers to head to the same place, or giving them rumors about the untold treasures in the cave outside of town. The players just start by ducking behind a pile of golden statues to avoid the stream of fire. It’s an awesome tool for changing up the pace for any game, but it is essential for play-by-post games.

During an in-person game, you have the luxury of hanging out in the tavern or having a drinking contest with the surly halfling in the corner, but this will only serve to bore everyone involved with the game. Especially seasoned role-players who have done this kind of introduction dozens of times over. You don’t want players to have to wait for a threat or dramatic tension. An added benefit of this strategy is you and your players are able to flash back to the events that led to where the game started.

Keeping Players Invested

I’ve found that two of the best ways to keep a game in the minds and hearts of your players is by letting them make contributions to the game world and having stories to look back on. You can kill those birds with one resource by setting up a wiki for your game that your players can contribute to. There are several online services built for this purpose, like Obsidian Portal and TiddlySpace, but if you don’t want to deal with a whole new platform and you already have a Google account, you have the option of sharing Google Drive documents with whoever you want.

You can offer in-game incentives like experience if your players create content for the wiki. This includes places that the party has explored, in-character journal entries, rumors about a locale that the party hasn’t heard about, or non-player character profiles. Even if you are the Game Master, you don’t have to be the only one pouring any sort of work into the game. You might have to relinquish some of your control over the game world, but I believe it is worth it to make a game that matters to every player.

You have a wealth of resources available to you as an online gamer. Play-by-post games might have a life expectancy comparable to someone wearing a red shirt in a space opera, but they don’t have to be that way in the age of the internet.

How have your play-by-post games turned out? Do you have any other ways to keep the game going I didn’t cover?

Osmond Arnesto is a freelance writer and fiction author who has a lot to say about role-playing games and his time spent traveling around Asia. You can read more about him at osmondarnesto.com, or read his upcoming blog at lumberingelephant.com.