Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Play-by-Post Gaming - some notes and advice

 Over the last month I have had run into several people online asking about advice on how to start a play-by-post game or mentioning that they are interested in doing one. And since I just started my own play-by-post game exploring the Caverns of Thracia, and I also have several years of experience in playing all manner of PbP games (from a racing game set in Unknown Armies, to multiple forum games of various systems, to years of both freeform roleplaying in Microsoft Messenger to semi-open world sandbox game on a forum with dozens of players, etc), I figured I'd write up a primer and some advice on how to do that. 

System and Theme

System selection definitely matters in PbP. You want something lightweight and not requiring multiple dice rolls in order to progress an action forward. Not that dice rolling is inherently a problem, especially with dice-roller bots and apps and such available on Discord, but it can grind the game down to a halt and the main thing about PbP games is speed - they are already slow enough as is, so you don’t want to slow them down too much.

Some of the PbP games I've run have used Call of Cthulhu (which tends to work well especially if the GM does all the rolling behind the scenes), HeroQuest:Glorantha, which is fairly light and out of the way, Unknown Armies, which also doesn’t require too much and can be handled all GM-side, and then also just custom made systems with minimal rules.

Freeform games with no rules generally just need a place for people to post and that's about it. Something more involved usually requires further setup (see the next point below). For OSR-style dungeon crawling games, that’s not too much of a problem - OSR games tend to prefer more light or at least unobtrusive systems anyway.

I personally would advise against particularly crunchy and granular systems, as those require either a lot more input from players (thus slowing the game down as you wait for everyone) or alternatively way more work for the GM running things to set up before they can simply get the action moving forward.

Platform and Logistics

In general how you organize a PbP games depends on where you’re running them. On a dedicated forum you can create different sub forums and threads for various locations or specific events. On Facebook you can have different threads and reply chains, though FB can be kind of annoying for looking stuff up later because…it’s Facebook. Discord can be good too, creating multiple channels for different purposes.

At the absolute, utter bare-minimum you need two threads/channels/topics/whatever. An in-character one and an out-of-character one. All banter, discussions, further questions and clarifications happen in the OOC channel. In the IC channel you only post the actual actions of your character(s) and the GM posts their stuff as well. This helps keep things from cluttering up and people can reference back previous events more easily.

For, say, a dungeon-crawling focused game what I’d do is have an OOC banter channel, an in-character channel and then maybe a place to store character records, allow players to keep track of their inventory and resources and so on. This is what I currently do with my own play-by-post game. 

In my own game I also have set up a separate google sheets document where I have character sheets on all the PCs in my game. Each player maintains their own character record somewhere too, but with me having them all arranged in the same way and in the same place makes it a lot easier for me to look stuff up as I write the game posts. 

Posting - Structure and Frequency

One of the fundamental differences between playing in PbP and playing in real time (be it in person or through a VTT or just on video or audio or whatever) is that it is asynchronous. While someone going on and on and on about the minute details of just how their character is feeling or what they’re doing in a given situation in real time play can be kind of annoying and time-wasting, it is actually encouraged in PbP, as you don’t have everyone else at the table waiting for you to finish. It means people can write out entire paragraphs of text per post, essentially only needing to stop when the GM needs to intercede with some information, or a dice roll or what have you.

Conversely, posts by the GM can reply to multiple player’s questions or actions at once, because again - you don’t need to respond to everything as it happens. For example

Player A wants to search a chest. Player B wants more information about the books they see on the bookshelf. Player C is standing guard at the door. Player D casts a spell to look back in time to figure out what happened in the room.

From here the GM can either make 5 separate posts responding to each player’s actions, or they can make one post of 5 parts that addresses everyone’s actions. So in our example the GM will tell Player A what they find, post a short list of book titles and maybe even descriptions of the contents to player B, either make Player C make a roll to see if they spot anyone (or just do the roll themselves and just tell player C what happened, this is the one I prefer) and tell player D what their divination shows.

While doing so at the table might require this to go in order, taking minutes upon minutes of time to go through all of it? In a PbP this can just take about as much space as I’ve written on this page and then everyone moves on.

This can lead to other connected differences from real time play. For example in a PbP game it is much easier to split the party into various groups and have the GM run multiple groups simultaneously. In a forum-based HeroQuest: Glorantha game that I played in years ago characters mostly pursued their own agendas and would only run into each other from time to time, almost immediately splitting into multiple smaller groups and going around the island the game was set on doing their own thing.   

In regards to player mapping in a dungeon exploration game, I just...wouldn't do it. Instead what I do is post clips of the map that I am using with a "fog of war" effect covering everything the party hasn't explored yet. 

Example of the party deciding to explore further north, and therefore getting more of the map revealed.
Since they haven't gone east yet, that part is still obscured.

As for posting frequency, that really is up to the GM and the players. PbP games are usually kind of relaxed affairs, with the typical minimal posting frequency being “Once per day”. But you can even go slower like having people have to post at least once per 2 days, though at that time the pace might be too slow depending on what the game is focused on.

For a dungeon-crawling exploration game once per day is usually good, and then if the players and/or the GM are around they can do more or maybe the GM can answer questions and offer clarifications in the OOC section. The once per day thing counts specifically for the in-character portion of the actual movement of the game. 

In OSR dungeon crawling games you already have a wonderful time measurement mechanic of the exploration turn, so I’d say that in that style of gaming I’d say one exploration turn per day (or more if nothing happens in them of course) as the minimum! I am still learning how to do procedural dungeon crawling through PbP myself, and while it works well so far, it might end up being too slow. 


So, running combat in PbP tends to be the single hardest part of it. Combats in RPGs usually require multiple short back-and-forth comments between players and the GM, and that is actively opposite the slow and long approach of PbP. There’s a few ways to get around this:

1. Combat just takes a bunch of messages. That’s how it is.
2. You make combat very fast and abstract, reducing the amount of work it takes.
3. There’s just no real combat. That might not work great for a dungeon-crawler game.
4. You simplify and abstract what you can. So for example players don’t get to say every single action in every single round in every single combat their character does. Instead each character can say what their usual deal is in combat - if you’re an archer you stay in the back and shoot at whoever makes the most sense, if you’re a healer you heal people, if you’re a magician you open with a certain spell then throw firebombs, whatever.
This allows the GM to then run a bunch of the combat by themselves, only really needing input for anything specific or non-typical that might be happening, or if the player wants to do something explicitly different than their default. This is the method I personally like the sound of the most (along with options 2 and 3). After all, I don’t need the fighter to tell me every single round that they’re attacking. We all know they’re attacking. I've not run any combat this way yet, only played in similar games, so again, take this with me just offering advice based on broad experience rather than specific exposure to this method.

Dice Rolling

Another thing that tends to grind the game to a halt is dice rolling. I personally am a firm believer that, in general, the GM should handle all dice rolls in a PbP game. That simply speeds things up, it doesn’t require a player to be present and log in just to roll a die, and it can move things faster.

On Discord this can simply be be done through a dice-rolling bot, which means all players can see the dice rolls and that there’s no shenanigans or fudging happening, but PbP games are inherently higher trust environments than in-person RPG gaming is (and those are unfortunately not as high trust as they should be) and so you just have to expect that the GM doesn’t want to simply dick you around for the sake of it.

This also ties into the comment above about system - Systems that do not require multiple rolls just to resolve one simple action usually do better in Play-by-Post games as it just generates less work for the GM.

Upsides of Play-by-Post

PbP games,I feel, actually tend to make for a lot more “roleplay heavy” environments than in person games. I put roleplay in quotations, because that’s a thing we’ve talked about in the past where people’s main idea of what roleplaying is tends to boil down only to “talking in-character to another player’s PC or an NPC” and that’s it. I personally think roleplaying is a lot more broad, but that’s another topic.

Either way though, PbP actually allows you to do this in spades! If you and another player want to have a long, in-character conversation as the party is exploring a room? GO FOR IT! Write it all out! 

It doesn’t affect anyone else’s actions, it doesn’t take up time or attention away from the GM and while it might fill up the thread or channel with a bit too much noise and make it harder to look up important info afterwards , you can easily solve that with sub-topics or maybe making a thread on Discord and keeping the convo there. 

Plus text allows one to more easily and less ham-fistedly, say, explore the inner feelings and world of a character. You can write about how your character feels or what goes through their mind, while doing so at the table, at least to me, always sounds kind of clunky.

It also allows the GM to in turn put a lot more time and effort into crafting a good description of a person or situation. To write out emotional reactions, use reference images, write paragraphs of descriptive text!

Downsides of Play-by-Post

The main issue that all PbP games ALWAYS run up against, and this is speaking from close to 2 decades of experience with PbP gaming is this - Inertia.

Inertia is what sooner or later grinds a PbP game down. Players lose interest due to the slow speed and leave or drift off, the GM loses interest or burns out. Inertia is what kills 90% of all PbP games.

There’s….not really much you can do about it either. It simply is a fact of life. After all the action that would take, say a 4 hour session can take weeks or months to unfold. That might be great if you simply want something going on in the background, but the downside is that things in the background also never keep your attention as much as something that’s going on in real time. And it is unreasonable (and frankly unhealthy) for a GM or players to try and keep a real-time pace going for a play by post game, as that leads to burnout very quickly and is what kills maybe another 9.9% of PbP games that inertia didn’t get to. (the last 0.1% is stuff like drama, arguments, scheduling issues etc).

Scheduling, btw, is if anything never really an issue with PbP. As long as a player can keep up with the minimum posting speed, then it’s all good. And having to just check a thing for 15-20 minutes a day is perfectly good.

 Plus you can always put in contingencies - for example the game is on pause on weekends. Or only on Sunday. Or on Monday or whatever. So no matter what happens, the game does not progress on those days, even if everyone is still online anyway.

Is this an exhaustive guide on how to setup a game - no of course not. But I already had these notes written out so hopefully they can help you as well! The fact is - the particulars of logistics and organizations depend on your specific game and the choices you make about it, and so giving general advice beyond the broad strokes I have provided here can be tricky. 

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