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FAQ: Play by email (PBEM) role-playing games
Brandon Blackmoor

General infomation
What is it: What exactly is a PBEM, anyway?
On being a player...
Finding a game: Where can I find PBEM games looking for players?
Finding a game: What kind of PBEM games should I avoid?
Advice for players: Be flexible.
GM quality: Does Sturgeon's Law apply to PBEM games, and PBEM GMs?
GM quality: How can I recognize bad GMs, and avoid them?
GM quality: Is a "control freak" or "the GM is God" GM the same as a "killer GM" or "adversarial GM"?
GM quality: How can I recognize a good GM when I find one?
Internal monologue: Should I write my character's internal thoughts as part of my game posts?
Minor NPCs: How should I deal with minor NPCs? Do I need to wait for the GM to respond for their actions?
On being a GM...
Finding players: Where can I find players for my PBEM game?
Combat: Combat is complicated! How can you run combat in a PBEM, and have it still be (insert game system here)?
Game management: There is so much to keep track of. How can I possibly control everything without ruining the game and having the players hate me?
Game management: I have seen it said that most PBEM games die prematurely, within the first week or two. How can I prevent that?
Game management: A conversation that would take thirty minutes face to face takes weeks, months, even years in a PBEM. What can I do about that?
Game management: How can this time dilation affect my game?
Game management: Should my PBEM game seek to emulate a novel, short story, or some other form of narrative fiction?
Game systems: Is it possible to play a PBEM using a complex game system like Hero System or D&D?
Player quality: Does Sturgeon's Law apply to PBEM players?
Player quality: What should I ask from potential players?
Player quality: What are lurkers? Do I want lurkers in my PBEM game?
Fear: Should I fear change?
Other: Who are you to give advice?

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General information

What exactly is a PBEM, anyway?

A PBEM game, in the context it is used here, is a role-playing game where you participate via email rather than face to face. This has good points and bad points.

On the positive side, you can take your time and consider your actions carefully, and you can describe things in far more detail than you ever would be able to in a face to face game. PBEM games also tend to have a great deal more noncombat character interaction than face to face games, although of course this varies a great deal.

On the negative side, activities which require a great deal of back-and-forth between players take much, much longer in PBEM than they would in a face to face game. Combat is probably the most well known example: a fight which would take perhaps an hour of face to face game time may take weeks to resolve in a PBEM. Of course, the exact amount of time dilation varies from game to game.

Another potential negative aspect of PBEM games is the "tone of voice" issue. What would be taken as simply a good-natured jibe or "table talk" in a face to face game is more likely to be misinterpreted or taken badly in a PBEM game. To some degree this is a result of human nature and our reliance on nonverbal cues when communicating. To another degree, this is a reflection of the social skills of some individuals who seek out PBEM games. It can be avoided if the players and the GM are careful, but it requires diligence and a willingness to assume "good faith" on the part of the other players.

On being a player...

Where can I find PBEM games looking for players?

What kind of PBEM games should I avoid?

Different people like different things, and this FAQ can't pretend to know what kind of games you would like. However, there is one style of PBEM that you should steadfastly avoid. It goes by many names, but we'll call them "Xerox games". Some PBEM games are set in a world established by a major media corporation, like the world of Harry Potter, or the Marvel Comics universe. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a warning sign. However, a Xerox game goes one step past this. In a Xerox game, you do not make up and play your own character: you are required to play an established character, made up by someone else, such as Dumbledore, Batman, or Spider-Man. Games like this should be avoided for a host of reasons, but here are the most important ones:

Xerox games are the opposite of everything a good role-playing game strives to be. Avoid them.

Be flexible

This isn't technically a question, but it's good advice nonetheless: be flexible. You expect the GM to work your character into the world she's created, and rightly so. However, you also need to be willing to modify your character to mesh better with the setting and plotlines the GM has set up. You've put a lot of work into your character, haven't you? Of course you have. Now multiply that by at least five or six: that's how much work a good GM puts into a game. If the GM wants you to tweak your character's background, or nudge the powers around a little, it's your job as a good player to do what you can to make the GM's job easier.

If the GM wants you to change something that you feel is absolutely essential to your character's concept, explain to the GM what exactly makes that detail important to you, and why. Maybe the GM can adjust the setting to work your essential detail in. If not, maybe you need to submit a new character. After all, not every character is suitable for every game, and when the rubber hits the road, it's the GM's job to make sure that all of the characters mesh well and will work in the game.

So keep a positive attitude if the GM asks you to change a few things, or if the GM says that your character isn't right for this particular game. She is just doing her job. A good player, just like a good GM, cooperates.

Does Sturgeon's Law apply to PBEM games, and PBEM GMs?

Sturgeon's Law applies to everything, unfortunately. And, much like drunk drivers or abusive spouses, the worst GMs fail to recognize it: more often than not, they are perservely proud of it.

How can I recognize bad GMs, and avoid them?

The worst GMs are prone to the "control freak" or "god complex", and are fond of making pronouncements like this one:

The GM is in charge of the game, in every way. What the GM wants, the GM gets. If that means a character's abilities change without explanation, that's what happens. If that means the player has to write in all caps, in a certain tense, without using any word that starts with 'D', then that's what it means. The GM has every right to demand anything they want, and get it. The GM is God.

Avoid such GMs, and strive to avoid becoming one yourself. Like the Dark Side of the Force, the temptation will always be there: resist it.

Is a "control freak" or "the GM is God" GM the same as a "killer GM" or "adversarial GM"?

No, a "Killer GM", or even a merely "adversarial GM", is quite different. A "GM is God" or "control freak" GM does not necessarily see herself as the adversary of the players. After all, Jehovah did not see itself as the adversary of the tribe of Abraham. It did, however, see itself as perfectly justified in demanding their obedience, and the tribe of Abraham would either toe the line or pay the price.

The difference is, in part, one of degree, but it is also to some extent a difference in kind. A control freak GM sets herself apart from and above the players, but not necessarily against them — if they do things her way.

How can I recognize a good GM when I find one?

Different people like different things, and this is as it should be, so finding a GM whose style you like is largely a matter of trial and error. However, all good GMs recognize that a role-playing game is cooperative form of entertainment, and will go out of their way to adapt the game to the needs of the players. A good GM has a "players first" attitude. Finding a good GM whose style fits yours may sometimes seem like an insurmountable challenge, but don't give up: they are out there, and they are looking for you as hard as you are looking for them.

Should I write my character's internal thoughts as part of my game posts?

Like most things, an internal monolgue doesn't usually cause difficulty in moderation, but some players get carried away. I played in a PBEM game once where one character literally did and said nothing for weeks at a time, posting only internal monologues. That's the only time I have seen it carried to that extreme, thankfully.

As a PBEM player, I avoid internal monolgues. As a PBEM GM, I would not go so far as to forbid them, but I might try to discourage them if it seemed to be edging toward getting out of hand. Perhaps I am lucky that I have never felt the need to do so.

On the other hand, I have seen players take "in character" things personally more than once, and it's never pretty. On more than one occasion, it was my character's words or actions which were taken personally. What can you do about that? I'm not sure there is a silver bullet. Some friction between characters is inevitable — on some occasions it may even be desirable — but it can be carried too far. It really boils down to the players' responsibility to be good sports and cooperate with the GM and each other. I think it also helps to preemptively make sure the other players understand that this is the character's point of view, and not indicative of any personal animosity.

But there are some people who just take things personally, regardless of how it's intended or whether or not an attempt has been made to explain it within the context of the game. How much work you are willing to put into trying to avoid that is a personal decision.

How should I deal with minor NPCs? Do I need to wait for the GM to respond for their actions?

That will depend on the specific GM, so you need to ask them for a definitive answer. A good rule of thumb (and it's only a rule of thumb) is that if the NPC doesn't have a name, then it's usually safe for you to write their responses. If your character says "Good morning" to the unnamed doorman at the hotel, it's usually safe for you to write that the doorman says "Good morning" back. But you need to check with the GM of your particular game to be sure.

On being a GM...

Where can I find players for my PBEM game?

Combat is complicated! How can you run combat in a PBEM, and have it still be (insert game system here)?

You fudge a lot of it. You don't tell the players you are fudging it, although of course they know — it's a (as much as I despise the phrase, it actually applies here) "suspension of disbelief" thing. But you ignore the details when the details do not matter. Or, at least, when you think they do not matter. Sometmes you'll be wrong, and have to rewind a little and cover your ass, but that will happen less as time goes on, and if you are gracious about it no one who has experience playing in PBEM games will complain.

You do keep track of rounds and who has acted in what round, but that's mainly to keep the frequest posters from overwhelming the infrequent posters. And you do roll dice (at least, I do), but I find it much faster if the GM rolls dice for everyone and then tells them what they rolled. However, you must know all the players' character sheets inside and out, because if you are wrong about something, it can really break the mood when you fix it. An alternative is to only tell the players the perceived results, and not the actual numbers that were rolled, but then you will have to deal with people convinced that you have overlooked something when events are not in their favor. Pick your poison.

It also helps if you have people post not just their current action, but also a contingent action based on what they expect the results of the current action to be. "I shoot him, and if he goes down I fly away; otherwise I keep shooting." That helps keep everyone aware of the state of the fight, and reduces the number of questions from Gail asking what Bob is doing, and if he needs help (or whatever). Combat, oddly enough, is not really as much trouble as you might think. It is time consuming — it may well take a week or two for one fight — but as long as the players post as frequently as they ought (at least once every other day, and at least every day for the GM), it goes fairly smoothly.

The most common rough spot is when you have one player who goes a week without posting. How long do you wait before you say "Mighty Max holds his action and waits to see what happens", and move on? I am a softie, and tend to wait on that person for too long, and the game suffers as a result. Live and learn.

There is so much to keep track of. How can I possibly control everything without ruining the game and having the players hate me?

Like anything, it gets easier with experience, but even after having done it a few times and mostly doing it successfully, I make tons of mistakes. So you can't beat yourself up over it. You do the best you can, and plow ahead.

The most important thing is to know what not to worry about. For example, don't lose any sleep over every single character point. The time and effort you would spend calculating and error-checking each character is too high a price to pay, and an errant point here and there is just not worth it. If a character is obviously abusive or grievously broken, then take the time to address it, but do not waste your time and that of the player dealing with problems that do not exist.

Similarly, do not micromanage how players post. The important thing is that they do post, and that they communicate effectively who is doing what. A mistake many novice (and not so novice) GMs make is to impose rules on how player posts are formatted, how thoughts are different from what is spoken, what tense the post is written in, and so on. This is a colossal waste of time, and it just detracts from the game. You do not have time for this: no GM does. Focus on what's important. As far as the formatting of player posts is concerned, there are really only two important concerns:

  1. What is being said and done by each character must be clearly identified.
  2. What is being said "in character" needs to be clearly separated from what is being said "out of character".

That's all there is. The important thing is not to get worked up over how a player meets these requirements, as long as they do meet them. Take a look at the "posting guidelines" document that I used in one D&D PBEM game, as an example of how I handle these issues. It might work for you or it might not: it's just an example. I stress again: these are guidelines, not rules. It does not matter how players format their posts, as long as they communicate clearly.

The purpose of posting guidelines is to provide guidance to the players so that they have an example for clear communication. If the player is writing clearly, but is not following the letter of your guidedlines, that is perfectly acceptable: if you make a big deal about them not following the posting guidelines exactly as written, you are missing the point and wasting your time, and as a PBEM GM you do not have the time and energy to waste on inconsequential matters such as that.

I have seen it said that most PBEM games die prematurely, within the first week or two. How can I prevent that?

I have to admit that there is no silver bullet. Good intentions and experience are no guarantee that the game will succeed. For example, if a lynchpin player drops out, the effect on the game can be devastating. That's just one way a game can die prematurely: there are others, so many others.... I wish I had a foolproof answer for how to prevent it, or how best to deal with it when it happens. I don't. When it has happened to me, I've just winged it and done the best I could. Sometimes things worked out, and sometimes they didn't.

It can be disheartening, though. Sometime I wonder if it'd just be easier to write a novel. But the fun of running a PBEM is the give and take between myself and the other players: the synthesis of something new which none of us could have created on our own. I can't imagine that writing a novel would be anywhere near as much fun.

(Do you have a better answer? Then let the author know.)

A conversation that would take thirty minutes face to face takes weeks, months, even years in a PBEM. What can I do about that?

There really isn't much you can do about it. The best you can hope to do is step in and push things ahead when it's obvious that the players are not saying anything new. For example, if they are discussing whether to head to the mountains now or spend the night at the inn, that conversation could go on forever, and some players will let it. You have to take decisive action and say, "Okay, the group decides to spend the night: the night passes uneventfully."

Of course, you'll always get the one ambitious soul who wants to go off on a solo adventure while everyone else is asleep. Unfortunately, the reality of a PBEM game means that if you were to run them on their solo jaunt, the rest of the players would be sleeping for the next real-world month. No fun for them. The best thing to do in such a situation is — that's right — fudge it. Ask the player straight up what they want their character to accomplish while everyone else is alseep: have them name a goal, simply and succinctly. Then you roll dice, tell them what happened, and morning comes and you move on with the game.

How can this time dilation affect my game?

One consequence of the time-dilation effect in a PBEM is that it makes long-term "epic" plots more difficult to carry off. For example, in a long-running game I recently drew to a close, the smaller story arcs all contributed to a larger "epic" story arc that I had intended to provide the climax to the game. I have run a number of PBEM games over the years, even some very long-lived ones, but this was the first time I went into the game with a single, grand, years-long story arc in mind.

Unfortunately, PBEM time-dilation threw me a curve, even though I am a fairly experienced PBEM GM. Two things happened which I should have been able to predict:

  1. People forget. By the time the game was gearing up for the last few story arcs, the players had forgotten many of the details of the first few story arcs. I spent a fair amount of time summarizing what had happened in the game two real-life years earlier.
  2. Players change. It is inevitable that some players will leave the game, and this usually means that new players will be introduced. This means that if a specific character is the only one who was privy to a certain tidbit of information, such as when you might want to forshadow something that will happen later in the game, and that player leaves the game... what do you do? Re-write another character's history so that they can carry the needed info? Find another way to reveal the information? Or just grin and bear it?

The lesson I learned from this is two-fold. First, what works in a novel does not always work in a game. I know, I know... we all have learned this lesson before, but sometimes I have to learn things over and over again. So write this in your game notebook in big letters: A GAME IS NOT A NOVEL. Most of the errors novice GMs — and even experienced GMs — make when they run PBEM games can be traced back to a misguided desire to make the game mimic a novel. When you find yourself starting a sentence with, "In a novel...", you know you are on the wrong track: start over with "In a role-playing game...", and move on from there.

Second, I learned that although planning ahead is a good idea, it's possible to plan too far ahead. You simply can't predict what will happen to you, the game, and the players over the course of a successful PBEM game — the time frame is just too large. Keep the "big picture" in mind, but try to focus on story arcs that can be wrapped up neatly in a few months. If you can later use elements from these to build on later story arcs, creating a long-term epic in the process, that's terrific, but don't depend on being able to do this.

Should my PBEM game seek to emulate a novel, short story, or some other form of narrative fiction?

No. This is one of the most common errors that new PBEM players make. A role-playing game is fundamentally different from any form of narrative fiction, and in many ways their goals and methods are mutually incompatible. If you try to combine them, either the game or the narrative (or both) will inevitably suffer. The best you will be able to create is yet another atrocious piece of game-based pseudo-literature, which is little better than fanfic. Do not sacrifice your game (or your novel) for such a misguided goal.

Is it possible to play a PBEM using a complex game system like Hero System or D&D?

I have played in and run numerous PBEM games using D&D and Hero, so I know it can be done. But it may be that less mechanical game systems might be more appropriate to a PBEM game. I ran a fairly long-term game using S. John Ross's Risus: The Anything RPG, and I must admit that I spent a higher percentage of my time on setting and characterization, and less on mechanical fiddly-bits. All things being equal, it is probably better to use a game system with which you and your hoped-for players are already familiar, and select one of the least-complex game systems from among that collection. Recently, the FATE system has become quite popular, and it offers rule sets for urban fantasy, superheroes, and so on.

Does Sturgeon's Law apply to PBEM players?

Sturgeon's Law applies to everything, unfortunately. And, much like noisy theatre patrons, the worst players fail to recognize it: more often than not, they resent it when it's pointed out.

What should I ask from potential players?

I always ask for a writing sample, preferably a few posts from a previous PBEM. I typically also ask for a half-dozen paragraphs of character background, or perhaps a one-shot post depicting how the PC would respond in a particular situation. Ultimately, it's a judgement call. If you make the entry requirements too high, you will drive people away: no one likes to jump through inane hoops just to play what should be a form of entertainment. However, if you don't have some kind of screening process in place, you'll inevitably get a few wankers.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

What are lurkers? Do I want lurkers in my PBEM game?

Lurkers are people who read the game posts but are not playing in your game, but who are not able to post or otherwise interact with your game in any way. As for whether you want them in your game, the answer is an unqualified yes. There are several reasons for this.

Most importantly, PBEM games have an infamously high rate of player turnover. Players come and players go. Getting new players to replace those who have left is one of the toughest parts of GMing a PBEM game. Having lurkers gives you a pool of people who are familiar with your game, the setting, and any ongoing plots, and who have already demonsrated that they are interested in it. The first place you should look for new players is among the lurkers. They are like an untapped oil reserve in a place without any cute animals or environmental busybodies: treasure them.

Another side benefit of lurkers is that they are impartial observers. Are you wondering whether Megadude is getting out of hand? Do you feel that you might be handling the arguments between Yarn Man and the Visible Girl poorly? Ask a couple of lurkers. They aren't personally involved, and they are as familiar with the situation as the players are. If you don't like what they say, you can always ignore it, but at least you have an impartial springboard off of which to bounce ideas.

A benefit you may not ever need, but that you will be grateful for if you do, is that lurkers are sort of like an off-site backup. Most of them will probably just delete the game posts after they read them, but if you have a lot of lurkers, there is a good chance that a couple of them will save the game posts, at least for a while. This means that if your computer crashes, you have a better chance of recovering lost game informaton if you have lurkers. It may never come up, but if it does you'll be glad you have them around.

Sadly, some GMs just don't realize how beneficial lurkers are. From time to time you'll see advertisements for PBEM games which include a warning like this:

If you wish to lurk, you MUST LET ME KNOW! If you do not contact me prior to requesting to be added to the list, I will have no choice but to deny your request.

This is a GM who just doesn't get it. As a GM, lurkers cost you nothing. If you never need them for anything, they are silent and invisible. There is absolutely no reason to demand that people ask permission to lurk in your game, or to prevent anyone from lurking in your game. That's like demanding that people ask permission before dropping money in front of you. A polite lurker may ask permission (I generally do), but whether they do or not, their presence as a lurker costs you nothing at all, and will potentially be of great benefit to you. A warning like the one above tells you that this is a "control freak" GM — a GM who wants to control everything, even at the expense of the game. Don't be a control freak GM: it only hurts your game and drives decent players away.


Should I fear change?

Yes. Tiny squamous faces of dead men, loathsomely lurking in the shadowy crevices of couches and cushions, collecting in heavy lumps in the darkest bottom of your pockets, hatching their malign plots in their gibbering, jingling voices for who knows what vague and sinister purpose....

Who are you to give advice?

That's a fair question. I have been running in and playing in PBEM role-playing games since the days of GEnie, around the year 1990, periodically giving or receiving advice on mailing lists or UseNet along the way, and for the most part it's gone pretty well, but don't let that fool you: anyone who claims to be an expert at PBEM gaming (or any variety of role-playing) is blowing smoke. Read all the advice you can find, weigh it against your own experience and judgement, and make your own decisions. The final arbiter of the value of any advice is yourself and no one else, regardless of the credentials or authority with which they claim to speak, or how many games they may have played in or run. Not even me. Only you.
Brandon Blackmoor

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