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How I Lost My Play-by-Post Virginity, Part 2

This is second installment of a two-part case study of a play-by-post (PbP) game that I ran a couple of years ago. The first installment, How I Lost My Play-by-Post Virginity, Part 1 [1], covers the info I provided to my players before the game — an introduction to PbP gaming in general, as well as specific guidelines for our game.

This was my first PbP game — as a player or GM — and in the process of GMing it I learned several lessons that would definitely make things go more smoothly the next time around. Here’s what went well, what went badly and what I should have done differently.

What Worked Well

The EN World forums. I got a lot of mileage out of reading other PbPs when I was writing my guidelines, and we all found the EN World forums to be a good place to run a game. (If you’re choosing a forum for your PbP, check out the Play-by-Post Forums [2] section of our GMing Wiki [3], which compares several PbP boards side by side.)

Separate IC and OOC threads. This is pretty common practice for PbPs, and I can see why. It worked very well for us, keeping the story thread nice and tidy while also giving us a place to blow off steam and cover metagame stuff.

How my players wrote their posts. It took us a little while to get used to conveying things in text form that we would normally have gotten across visually, but after the initial adjustment period everyone did a great job. This was one of my favorite aspects of the game, and having more freedom to polish your descriptions is one of the strengths of the PbP format.

Trusting my players with their die rolls. With a group of longtime friends, this was a no-brainer — we trust each other in so many ways, why should this one be any different? With a group of strangers or messageboard buddies, I might opt for disclosing rolls. (Some PbP boards have ways to do this built right into their software.)

Having a default action for non-posting players during combat. My players missed combat turns from time to time, and it was nice to have this in place. It’s simple, fair and just an all around good idea.

Maps, from a playing standpoint. My simple maps were clear and easy to understand, although they could certainly have been prettier. We had very few problems determining what was where, who was next to who, etc. — which is the main point of using a map, after all.

What Didn’t Work Well

The timetable. The single biggest frustration in this game was our timetable: “Every 48 hours or so” just didn’t cut the mustard. It was a pretty good fit for our real-world schedules, but it produced a slow game — and it really made things crawl in combat. If I ran a PbP again, I would set the turns at 24 hours, and require everyone (myself included) to check in or post at least that often.

Since the primary concern with this game was keeping a great group together, I matched the timetable to the group (I don’t think we could have kept up with a faster-paced game). Starting fresh, I would match the players to a timetable I knew would work for the game, the shorter the better.

Pacing. I was more worried about stepping on toes than I was about keeping the game moving, and it showed. Not wanting to dictate player actions is a good impulse, but it’s not the same in a PbP as it is when you’re all sitting around the table. There were times when I should have skipped over details, or nudged the game along more aggressively.

This is definitely a social contract [4] issue, and one I’d make sure to bring up before starting a new PbP. Cutting a few corners and taking a more active role in moving the game along would have made this campaign more fun, and probably led to it lasting longer than it did.

Listing modifiers with rolls. It might just have been the syntax I chose (which was clunky, although clear to read), but I found the whole “Tell me how you arrived at your total” thing pointless in practice. It basically meant calculating everything twice — once to make the roll, and once to write it down — and it was a waste of time.

If ignoring it had led to a few mistakes, that wouldn’t have been a big deal — every tabletop game I’ve ever been in has involved occasional mistakes on die rolls.

Too much combat. I adjusted a lot of things about the game to match the new medium, but not one of the most important elements: combat. Combat already tends to take a long time in D&D 3.x, and in PbP form it takes much, much longer — the combat I remember best took three weeks.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, as it was a fun combat, but when every battle takes that long you either need to have fewer combats or take shortcuts. Coupled with how long it took me to write the combat posts and draw the maps, this made combat one of the biggest reasons why the game ended.

Maps, from a prep standpoint. Even though they were simple, the game maps I created took a long time to put together. This was partly due to my relative inexperience with Dungeon Crafter and Photoshop — I made a lot of little mistakes, then had to redraw things after I’d already compressed layers and saved the file, for example. Like most game prep, though, I’m not sure there’s a way around this one.

There are many, many different approaches to running a PbP game — what works for other groups may not work for yours, and vice versa. I hope that seeing how I tackled (or failed to tackle) common PbP issues gives you ideas for your own PbP campaign, and helps you run a great game.

If you’ve got other tips for GMing a PbP campaign, have suggestions for handling specific things that came up in this case study or have any questions about these posts, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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#1 Comment By Ian On March 31, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

I think the thing I like best about PbP is the roleplaying. I hate the combat. Which is ironic, because I’m the stereotypical roll-player. IRL, I’m the one sitting there bored while everyone else talks with the NPCs and figures out what we’re supposed to do…

But I just can’t get into combat in a PbP. On the other hand, the roleplaying is a lot easier and a lot more satisfying, because you can take your time not only to figure out a response, but also to figure out how to give that response.

I’m in 2 PbPs right now (both on ENWorld). One is D&D3.5, the other is Mutants & Masterminds. The D&D one wrapped up the first adventure relatively quickly, and when combat comes around now I literally tell them that I’ll still be paying attention to the thread, but I won’t be posting. I just stick my character on autofire (shoot crossbow/reload, try to flank and sneak attack if someone gets close).

The M&M on the other hand is a bit more interesting in combat… I have to not use my primary offensive power, because it deals lethal damage (enchanted sword) and that’s an IC no-no, so I’ve had to come up with more creative actions in combat. Certainly something I could do in a real game, of course, but I don’t tend to think that way when the heat’s on. Here I have time to consider my options and figure “Hey, it’d be cool if I used my telekinesis to rip the gun out of the guard’s hand and then bludgeon him into unconsciousness with it!”

#2 Comment By william On April 1, 2007 @ 8:00 am

roleplaymarket is the current site I use for all my PbP games. I have a bi-weekly real life (RL) game, which is the most any of us can handle with our crazy schedules but PbP gives me the opportunity to get our fix. 🙂
I do find combat tiresome because it is so slow but that is a limit inate to the medium. Which is why I always make it a post a day or the GM will NPC the character for that round.

What I enjoy best is GMing games on PbP that I am not as familiar with or comfortable with to run in RL. I am able to run a game that moves slower and allows me to recheck the rules on combat, consult a chart or simply allow me some thinking time for a response, without slowing the game down. It really causes me to learn the game mechanics better and more able to run it in RL. I am doing that with a small group now, trying to get ready for a RL game with my group this summer.

I love it! 🙂

#3 Comment By ScottM On April 1, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

I think your “what worked well” and “what didn’t work” are invalable for adapting to PbP play. Thanks for sharing them.

#4 Comment By Kestral On April 1, 2007 @ 11:42 pm

Having seen PbPs from the player end, I think you hit on the primary concerns.

Martin, I think you really only had 1 problem. Guess what? You already hit on it. It’s the problem of pacing.

Pacing, while important enough in real-life RPGs, is even more so in PbPs. Why? because if a combat drags on, it takes 4 hours instead of 3. However, in a PbP, it may take 2 months instead of 3 weeks. That’s a lot of time to put ‘talking’ on hold. Likewise, unless you see your players regularly, (and if you are, I’m going to question why you are doing the PbP unless you know you are unable to get them all together at the same time reliably or unless the PbP’s something light and airy… and combat’s usually not something found in that type of PbP unless reduced to Rock-Paper-Scissors in terms of battle complexity) a long discussion that’s away from the players’ interests will bore the hell out of your players, and you as GM won’t probably realize it. Both will see post numbers drop off very rapidly, probably never to rise again, as people oddly won’t discuss their issues with the pacing, because they’ll generally assume that’s the norm.

Furthermore, most groups make a common mistake: They assume what works for their real-life games will work in PbP with few modifications. D&D, with it’s complexities, is usually boring as hell in combat in a PbP, though it works better in real life. Risus, in real life can feel hollow to a gamist group, but that same group could be OK with it in a PbP, because it offers enough complexity for their situation. You could probably fix your modifier problem by having players simply list their totals, then occasionally spot-checking to keep them honest, but if you find a game that your group likes that largely minimizes modifier addition, such as one based on FUDGE, that is likely to work better. In fact, I’d go so far as to say: any system which devotes the majority of it’s pagecount to combat resolution that is treated differently from other conflict resolution is likely to have too much combat focus, unless the system largely expects the conflict resolution to be between players and not subject to direct mechanical system concerns. If the combat resolution is largely treated as the same as other RP resolution, then you can use combat more heavily.

I agree with your suggestion of a 24 hour max. in fact, if I run a PbP, that will normally be my limit, so I have no disagreement there. It appears to be at my limit for tolerance before the pacing gets too slow for my taste.

You seem to be putting forth a lot of effort into your maps. I think that’s very commmendable. However, it also seems to be the root of your problem; as your map-making issue is essentially a pacing issue. If you were already skilled (I’m assuming you’re not) with your software of choice, it’s possible you would be able to make the beautiful maps in a reasonable timeframe, but you’re trying to make them faster than you can, at the moment, so try and change your expectations of results, and what their timeframes will be. This is a common problem people have in regards to creativity software. The masters of our artistic canon mostly studied their techniques a long time before producing their first known ‘masterworks’. The same goes with Photoshop. You can’t master it in a day. Though people try. I spend days just playing with effects and various things, just so I can learn new things. At first, I spend way too much time doing something, then over time it becomes natural on it. But if I don’t need complex, and can deal with quick n’ dirty, like making a black spot on a photo that I’ll be putting online so I can delete personal information, I’ll take MS Paint any day. Simpler interface, fewer options to get in the way, and it loads faster too. That said, I still say keep with the software. It can really help speed things up once you’ve mastered it, or simply make things prettier. Good maps are always nice to have.

#5 Comment By Martin On April 2, 2007 @ 11:02 am

I used Dungeon Crafter for my maps, and found that even simple ones took a while to set up. Follow that with a PhotoShop layer that includes notes and PC names for every round of combat, and it starts to add up.

Pacing was definitely number one with a bullet, though.

Thanks for the feedback so far — I’m glad this two-parter is useful. Down the road, it might make a good choice for a PDF, or perhaps the basis of another Wiki-to-PDF Project.