Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On PbPs - another basic primer

Over at Paizo, threads pop up fairly regularly asking how to run a PbP and I'm jotting down some thoughts about that here.

There are many more potential players than potential GMs.
GM dropout or burnout is responsible for the vast majority of PbP deaths.

So, how do you start one, how to you keep it running and how do you keep your own interest going?


However much you want to run a whole adventure path bringing the players from novice wet-behind-the-ears adventurers to super-charged world changers, accept right now that you can't.

Plan one adventure at a time. You can build from one adventure to the next and create a campaign that way, but if you set out to run all six modules of The Curse of the Crimson Throne you are setting yourself up for a world of heartbreak.

PbP is slow. In a three-hour live gaming session you can reasonably expect to get through at least one combat encounter and a certain amount of plot, negotiation and rambling around. In a PbP you may well be looking at 3 months.

Look at your material right now and prune it. Be ruthless. Read the adventure with a critical eye and ask yourself which encounters further the plot. Look at the maps and ask yourself which ones are necessary. On average, you will need to trim out at least one third of a pre-written module. If it doesn't progress the story, ditch it.

If you are running a homebrew, it's easier to make those cuts. However, it's your heart that breaks when all your carefully crafted subplots have to vanish. Trust me. They do have to vanish. You may be able to work some of them back in, but don't count on it. Running a homebrew requires a bigger investment from players and unless you live online, you can't possibly hope to answer all the questions that would take 10 seconds at the table and may eat a week of PbP time.

While this may seem like brutal railroading, be aware that the timescale of PbP means that a lot of plot points will be missed. If something is important, you need to say it loud and clear. And then say it again. Your players aren't stupid, but something mentioned in passing five pages ago can easily be missed. You will do yourself and your players a huge favour if you condense and telescope down to the essentials. If it matters, tell them.

16 archers may seem like a very cool encounter.  Just be aware before you run it that updating those 16 archers is going to take a lot of your time.  Maybe a couple of hours of it until the players start killing them.  Consider reducing it to 6 rather more awesome archers.

Brutal pruning makes room for your players to build their own bits of plot. More on that below.

You will get player attrition. The chance of the same party existing in 6 months time is negligible. Keep that in mind and have ways of getting new players into the game without breaking the flow. Easy in urban settings, not so straightforward in the middle of a dungeon.

Run something you like or can turn into something you like. You will be looking at this baby for a very, very long time. Starting a game you're only half-invested in is doom before you even ask for players.


You've got your adventure. Now get your players.

At risk of stating the obvious, be clear from the outset. Include the following information as a minimum.

System - is it OSR, 4e, 3.5, Pathfinder, whacky thing you knocked up on the fly one drunken evening.

Starting level and character creation rules - self-evident, but important.

Setting - delving through the pygmy infested jungles of Rythortan is not going to require the same players as your high level diplomacy game negotiating with Grazz't. Players keen to build cavalier types will be justifiably unhappy if you don't warn them that they'll be spending a lot of time on boats. In an ideal world, any PC should be able to operate in any setting, but the reality tends to be that PbP PCs may only get the one adventure to show their chops. Don't let someone build a character they can't have fun with in your game.

Your own expectations - this is important. You need to state clearly what you want from your players. Posting once a day, 24 hour deadline or you get GMPCed in combat, notice of absence if possible. Whatever it is, get it out there. Corollary to this: stick to it. If you say you expect people to post within 24 hours of their combat turn coming up, make sure you do act on their behalf. (This is one of my rules and the one I try hardest to stick to).

If your game is something with obscure rules, can the potential players get easy access to them? If there's an online resource, post a link. Make it easy for people to find out about your game.

Tips to make your life easier

Ask your players to keep track of their own hp and conditions and to make sure that they have a complete character sheet available and up to date where you can see it. If you need to run that character, you need that information.

Consider asking your players if they will let you roll init on their behalf. Time zones being what they are, it can take two days to get into combat if you have to wait for everyone to check in and post. Nearly every player I've ever met would rather post a set of cool things they've done than an init roll.

If you provide maps, keep them updated. Players need to know where they are in a battle. I use Flickr which occasionally refuses to update properly. It's my biggest bugbear.

Try to post all the information the players need in some easy to read format. If 16 archers all attack, you are going to have to make sure that each of those attacks is posted clearly. If any of those attacks have fancy effects, you need to say so. Let the players know if they're injured or blinded, or drowning in toxic mud without making them wade through an incomprehensible paragraph.   Like this one.

Running the game and troubleshooting

Assume everyone is an adult and wants to have fun.

Your primary job as the GM of a PbP is to be available and to keep nudging. Let the players know if you're too tired to post. Tell them you're going to be without internet for three days. Post regularly. You have to. If you keep checking in to see what the players are doing, they will keep checking in to see what's happened to their characters. It also means that if your internet does fry for some inexplicable reason and you can't get a message to them, they tend to know something is wrong and you haven't just abandoned them.

If you are burning out, losing interest or don't have time to run the game properly, let people know.  If it's a temporary issue, ask the players if they're happy to accept a change of pace for a while - even putting the game on hiatus if you need to.  However terrible it feels to make those posts, it is far, far better to do so than to jump ship without warning.

Be prepared to be ruthless. If you have a group of four or five great players and everyone is constantly waiting on a single laggard, you may well have to boot the offending player. You don't have to be rude about it, but you need to deal with the issue. Some players just need a different pace or a different game. You are not going to be the ideal match up for every player every time. Accept it and don't berate yourself.

You will make mistakes, so be up front about them. In general unless the mistake is completely game-breaking, don't try to revise it. Just suck it up and move on, implementing whatever it was you got wrong from now on. Similarly, if players make mistakes, sort out the issue as quickly as you can and move on.

One of the wonderful things about PbP is that you and the players can develop characters much more organically and improvisationally than at the gaming table. Suspension of belief is easier when you can't see the large bearded gent playing the tiny girly halfling. This works both ways. Players give you a lot of clues about their PCs through their posts. Read them. Use them. It's game material on a plate. It is free plot. Pick up on their randomly expressed thoughts, file them away and use them. Make it personal.

Enjoy what your players bring to the table and let your own imagination roll.  You have time to look up the rules and world-build, so use it.


  1. Good post. I'd vaugely considered this sort of thing and it's get to get insights into how to run them.

  2. Excellent Tips Amanda. I think the advice about pruning material and keeping to the core elements in a PBP is crucial to keeping a PBP alive. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  3. Nice to meet you. Good luck with A-Z. I look forward to your posts.

  4. You provide some very good advice. We've been experimenting with a slightly different approach to PBP, and so far it does seem to be working, at least it has been a lot of fun to do and we plan on keeping it going, if the POV character doesn't get killed or eaten any time soon. We've also considered running a PBP for Wermspittle, down the road, but this sort of thing takes a lot of prep and a lot of on-going work to keep going, so that's staying on-hold for now.

  5. Bujilli is a Play-by-Post adventure we host at Hereticwerks. It has a new episode every Thursday that gets written fresh that morning based upon the feedback, suggestions and input (and dice-rolls) of everyone who makes a comment on the previous episode.

    Bujilli is the viewpoint character and the readers who make comments determine what he does next. You Decide.

    We have a post that explains What Is this?, another that tells you a bit about Who Is Bujilli?, and there is a Character Sheet for Bujilli (done-up in Labyrinth Lord style for ease of use), as well as The Most Current Map, which we update as Bujilli discovers more about the place he's exploring. Episode 14 is the current episode, and we'll be posting the next episode this Thursday, before noon (sometimes it takes a little longer than other times, depending on what all is going on...).
    You're more than welcome to drop by and check it out. The more the merrier.

    Feel free to ask us any questions you have. This is still a work-in-progress and we're still refining things as we go along. It has been quite a learning process.

    1. How interesting. I shall take a look as soon I can get my head out of sea shanties.

  6. Back in the 90s I created a PbM, or as you call it, PbP. At the start it was good fun with quick turn-a-round. But once the action got going and players began to encounter each other, my job as the GM became mammoth.

    Eventually it ended, much to my relief.

    I'm sure I have heard that there is a version you can run via your blog, or am I imagining that?

    Now that would be far easier to run, I should imagine, as it would more or less be a text based game.

    But brilliant post, very insightful and well written. Kudos to you :)



  7. Ah... bugger! Just twigged - you do actually mean play by post as in blog post, am I correct? In which case I'm glad I wasn't imagining it, but I also feel like a right dick for getting myself confused.

    It's late, I'm tired - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. :P

    1. :D It's exactly what I mean. I run all my games on the Paizo messageboards - which is perverse as I use 4e, but there you are.

      Take a look:

      This is the game I just started up for a group new to 4e.