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Play-by-Post for the Modern Era

Pretty much as soon as 1) the internet and 2) roleplaying games were both widely accessible things, people were playing roleplaying games on the internet. Even without the definition of a singular roleplaying game or ruleset, how many of us gamers today got our start in places like freeform forum RPs? I met a girl in grade school who introduced me to some of her text chat RP friends, they sent me over to the custom forum they’d made for RP, and the rest was history for me.

In recent years (since maybe 2008?), that “retro” form of internet RPG has been on the decline, as video chat platforms and streaming have widely overtaken them. Why wait two hours for your friend in another timezone to reply to your forum post when you could prearrange a time to meet and not have to wait? Plus, you can see their face and hear their voice! Those are great things!

Home sweet home

But I don’t think we should throw away the good with the bad, when moving on from old things to new things. I think there’s still a ton to be gained from “old-school” text-based RP, whether that’s in a chat, a forum, email, wherever you like to type text, whether you’re just freeform RPing or playing with an actual rule system. A lot of us, myself included, stopped participating in text RPs for any number of reasons over a decade ago. I’m here to bring us back home.

But Why Text-Based RP?

In a few short paragraphs, let me outline some of the key benefits of old-school text RP, primarily focusing on forums, because that’s where I got most of my experience. There are a lot of them, trust me!

You don’t have to schedule time. You don’t have to find a way to set aside four uninterrupted hours to play a game every week. Four uninterrupted hours is, frankly, a precious resource for many of us. Jobs, school, family, any other kind of responsibility eats into that. With play-by-post, your time commitment shrinks drastically, with most groups I played with having some kind of understanding that most people will post 1-3 times per day, as time permits. Your time commitment goes from four straight hours to five minutes here, five minutes there, ten minutes here.

Four uninterrupted hours is, frankly, a precious resource for many of us.
You don’t have to find space. Listen, my regular gamers reassure me every week that they don’t mind how messy my house is, but I mind. And the FLGS, much as I love them, is often crowded and noisy. But there’s no place like cyberspace, to bring this back to the early 2000s. People can and will post from the bus, while they’re waiting in line at the store, while they’re in bed, while the oven is preheating to cook dinner, while procrastinating at work. Time and space are what you make them.

To the above point, everyone carries the whole internet in their pockets now. Smartphones weren’t a thing back when I used to do forum RP every day, and that’s probably for the best given I was in school then, but now? To have my games at my fingertips, wherever I am? To be able to bookmark that post where my character had a really cool moment and come back to it whenever I want? What a precious gift!

I don’t know why this stock photo already existed, but I’ll take it

Game flow is not non-existent and is much harder to disrupt. When I’m GMing in person, I sometimes struggle with distractions, or with wanting to look something up without taking too much time away from the game. That’s just not a thing with play-by-post. As long as most people are posting once a day or so, the rhythm of the game keeps on a-moving. Look things up to your heart’s content, whether that’s the stat block for the monster you didn’t expect your players to pick a fight with, or a picture of the cursed diamond necklace your heist crew is in the middle of stealing from the museum.

And the biggest thing to me? Time to think. I take more time than I like to come up with something really good to say, whether I’m playing or GMing. I don’t want to take that time away from other players, so I often default to a couple of standbys. And I don’t want to be brainstorming my own stuff during other people’s turns, because I want to hear what they’re doing too. Plus, sometimes you just come up with better, more creative stuff when you’re not pressed for time, it’s a simple fact.

But What Are the Downsides?

Well, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t any. One big one is that everything takes much, much, much longer. A game module that takes four hours to play in real life can take a whole month in play-by-post, depending on how frequently people are posting. Combats, in particular, will take entire days to play through. One way to avoid this is if you can combine play-by-post and real-time online play through Roll20 or another platform when you feel like it. Hey, it’s 2019, you can have your cake and eat it too.

It doesn’t take much tech savvy to get started with text RP if you don’t want it to – most people know how to post comments nowadays. But if you want to get into fancier stuff: setting up your own forums, a wiki to serve as a repository for stuff, etc., it might take some know-how.

…everything takes much, much, much longer
And yes, you will miss seeing people’s faces and hearing their voices. Again, this is averted if you schedule a two hour real-time play every so often, but otherwise, it is the big thing lacking from text-based play. One thing you can do is ask people to make quick voice recordings in character, to give you an idea of their voices, or use their real pictures as their avatars on your forum. It’s not perfect, no, but what is?

I’m Sold! So How Do I Do This?

There are tons of pre-established RP sites if you just want to make an account and find a group. Literally tons of them. RPNation.com is a solid place to get started, in my opinion. It’s got a simple forum interface and a pretty broad user community. It does gear mostly towards freeform RP, and not using a given rules system, if that’s your jam.

But honestly, if I was getting started today in 2019, here’s how I’d do it: make a free WordPress site. Really? Yeah, really! There’s all kinds of free add-ons for adding a forum interface, if that’s what you want, or you can have people make comments on blog posts set up by the GM or facilitator. You can add a built-in wiki full of your locations, NPCs, notable objects, character diaries, etc. You can customize just about everything.

Wait, no, not THAT forum…

This will work best, of course, if you have an established group you want to play with (real life friends who’ve moved away, people you’ve met online who want to move to a different platform, etc.). If you don’t have an established group, this might feel backwards – why would you build the site if you don’t even have players yet? But I promise you: if you build it, they will come.

I think there’s a hankering for this kind of RPG experience now. Something without as much pressure as streaming a game, but that still allows you to connect deeply with your world and your characters and your fellow players. Play-by-post isn’t for everyone, but I think for a lot of us, it scratches an itch we might not have even known we had.

Do you play-by-post? Did you get started in text-based RP? Let us know in the comments!

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Play-by-Post for the Modern Era"

#1 Comment By Björn On March 15, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

Ha, this article comes right at the time when I’m thinking about returning to PbP (mainly, because as a shift-worker, it’s even harder to set up a regular table, and that goes for both traditional and for online role-playing). And yes, I remember it as a wonderful hobby, but I feel the need to add that if someone is to GM such a game, especially when the group uses a heavy ruleset like D&D, there might be a bit more to it than only some minutes per day. There’s quite some work to do for anyone running a group in that format. And while you don’t have to think on your feet all the time and while you have the time to think about any surprises the players might come up with, you are still the person mainly responsible for the flow of the game and to keep the players interested, all the while adjucating the rules.

Again, it is a lot of fun and can be quite fulfilling, but there’s also quite some work involved, especially if you’re the GM.

#2 Comment By hvg3akaek On March 15, 2019 @ 11:16 pm

I’ve been using [5] for many years – in fact, one of my oldest games recently turned 13 years old! (Sure, we haven’t kept the same players throughout, but we have had a great crew of various players drop in and spend time with us over that time).

Games definitely go slower, but that gives you more time to spend on each post, to check rules out, or to have multiple games going at once. It’s definitely worthwhile for a wide array of systems and game types, and for people who want to spend hours each day, or just log on two or three times a week.

#3 Comment By Ellis On March 16, 2019 @ 8:05 am

I’m a WordPress developer and I started going down this route but quickly abandoned it. My favorite PBP website is RPOL.net because it’s very easy as a DM to change the character you’re posting as, have custom avatars for those extra characters and NPCs and even just type in a one off name for who you’re posting as. I tried to figure out how to do this with several different WordPress forum software and it would have required a lot of custom development. Or, using the Switch User plugin and creating a WordPress user account for each NPC. In the end I decided to use WordPress for notes and image hosting. I’ve got two websites I do this with, d20.pub and ptol.us.

I did have some success with a really simple forum website software called Vanilla Forums. The main reason I used this one was because it was the most mobile friendly. None of the WordPress forum software seemed to be very Mobile friendly. Another benefit of Vanilla forum software was it has a pretty handy notification method. Some of the WP forums did too. Unfortunately I couldn’t find ANY forum software which allowed posting/responding via email which was what I really wanted.

I’m not a huge fan of writing on mobile, but phones and tablets can be good for quick posts and for reading. I find myself posting from my phone a lot, just another way to sneak in time in our busy schedules.

Like the author, I love the freedom and lack of stress that comes from running a PBP game. We too use Roll20 for some combats to speed things up, but very seldom are we together at the same time.

Honestly, unless I’m running a game for family, I’ll probably never run a real life game at a table again. The freedom to roll play, really enjoy the dialogue, get in character, and review my notes before posting is just too useful and stress relieving.

Another awesome benefit of play by post is you can go back and read all you’ve done like a book. This is so helpful as a DM. Better than just campaign notes because you can see exactly what happened and what was said.

Great article and thanks for sharing!

Maybe I could do a guest post showing the WordPress technologies and other forums? No biggie. Thanks for a good post. May your dice ever roll 20. 🙂