Playing by post, in 2020

30 Jan, 2021, updated 31 Jan, 2021 pbp 2020

Christmas 2019, I decided to give playing by post (PbP) a try. What I mean here by PbP is the concept of playing an RPG, by writing alternate sentences or paragraphs of text, with other people (typically not in real-time). This seemed like a great way of balancing the goal of playing with new people without having to learn how to play games over the Internet, which at that point, didn’t sound fun1.

I was surprised how immersive it was, and tried starting a game as GM myself, and then in my RPG boom around March, joined a bunch of online communities and played a few more games. AFter briefly being in too many games, I had a second resurgence towards the end of the year. Overall, I’ve been in at least eight.

And I must be honest, I struggle to recommend the format. Let me explain.

Intro

This isn’t a rant, “Hot Take” or a “Change My Mind”2 - in fact I’ll answer the obvious criticism:

  1. Yes, this is all highly subjective to my personal experiences.
  2. Yes, I am pretty sure I’m doing it wrong. Some of this is for me to try to do it better, not give up completely.
  3. This is during the Interesting Times, and that was mostly definitely a magnifier for the normal natural rise and fall of a RPG.

Some stats; the game systems I played3 included:

And the tools were typically Discord, but I did also use an actual web forum for one of the games.

My experience

I much preferred using Discord, as I use it a lot already, and it gives customisible notifications (per server, desktop, phone etc), and there’s always a favourite dice bot. Getting notifications of new events via email was (for me) much more sluggish, and sometimes didn’t arrive at all4.

There are definitely better games than others for playing by post, but personally I don’t think the actual system makes much of a difference. Either the players need to know it well (as asking questions can be hard) or it needs to be simple enough to require little meta-discussion about things.

I think there are better and worse ways of running a PbP game, and I (in retrospect) have tried some of the worse ones. The advantage of message boards is that the higher-latency of the medium is front-and-centre. Player posts I saw fell into the format of:

My character is doing these things, and for these feelings that they aren’t necessarily expressing out loud. Mechanically I’d like this to appear as an Action/Move/Roll for X, if that works. [Roll results attached]

It’s agreed that players can expect their rolls to be discounted or reinterpreted by the GM (“actually you can’t use Survival here so I’ve rolled Nature”). I’ve talked with one PbP GM who does all of the rolling - players give their intentions and then he performed all the actions himself in the correct order and resolved everything and narrated it.

My best experiences were games when we did play in real-time. The first one was by accident, we all happened to be on Discord at 2200-0000Z in whatever personal timezone. I was a player, we just had in-character and out-of-character channels and it was very back-and-forth. The second game, with different people, was specifically a text-only game scheduled for a time and date. One could make the argument that these games weren’t really PbP at this point, just a text-only live game.

My worst experiences were when players just dropped from the Discord server without even saying goodbye. Some just ghosted - I mean, do you kick them out? Something could have come up which is just more important - but playing with strangers on the Internet, there’s no way of knowing. A similar feeling also came when one player produced statistics on the other players' posting schedules and pronounced that they were “too slow”. When I wouldn’t kick out the “slow” players, the first one left.

Most games however have gradually slowed and stopped. Now, this happens in non-PbP games as well, but it’s not “mid-conversation” (even if that conversation isn’t real-time). That’s always difficult, when there’s a page of nudging people “when are we going to play next?”. In fact now, I’m more aggresive in “I think we should stop this game now, rather than letting it trickle on, we’re definitely all too busy”. At this point, I revisited my experience in the paragraph above and wonder about whether being “strict” is less harsh than it looks. However, I don’t want strict. Throughout this, I’ve wanted to run casual games; something easier than agreeing scheduling. What actually happens though, when you try to “fit in” a PbP game, is that if everyone has such little time free, the game doesn’t have good chances of success.

Fundamentally the routine I was expecting was “I have a few minutes, let’s check in and respond to the latest post, and think of something interesting to advance the plot”. Or “Oh! A notification that stuff is occurring, that’s nice”. But what it actually felt like was either pressure (nearly always from myself) to rapidly respond to posts, or being a little bit despondent when I checked and I had not had the response I was expecting.

I would also look at the list of 20 odd Discord servers I was a member of, with the category of PbPs sitting there, and feel guilt that there’s a common theme. I don’t know why, but I’m happier being in less servers, otherwise I end up scrolling back through them to see what I’ve missed.

Conclusions

I’ve written this to try to get my thoughts in order on PbP so I know what I’d do differently if I was running a game. I think in general now I’d prefer to just schedule a voice game. I’m personally more used to sharing audio, and scheduling that isn’t as hard as getting friends together in a physical room (ignoring Events etc). If I can’t arrange a voice game, then a PbP isn’t going to last long.

However what I do really like about PbP games is that the story-telling is much better from the players. I think you have a lot more options then to play the character that is gruff on the outside but without seeming like an arsehole. In fact, that’s probably my favourite part, so games that are strongly narrative would be my interest.

In general though, some tips I’ve learnt, typically from doing the opposite:

Encounters

Were I to run a PbP I think I would want a way of keeping combat incredibly light. Encounters take a lot of interaction which could be taking a day per sentence! This isn’t necessarily a system thing - I had fast 5e combats and slow Mothership ones.

Simplified initiative of just having “sides” of combat helps. Letting players just shout out their actions in any order was quite useful. Certainly, waiting for each player in turn was incredibly slow. Some games support this inherently and others (like 5e) wouldn’t lose too much from changing to it. Although maybe not rolling-per-turn in 5e, that might not do well for potential double-actions.

I don’t think I’d go as far as “rolling for everyone” - that feels too burdensome for me as a GM.

Player choice

I am absolutely terrible as a GM in these games for not giving players enough information. I’ll write out “oh you arrive in this place, and it looks like this, and smells like that and you can hear the something-or-other and these people are around to interact with”. And then I’ll stop and wait to see what they do.

Nice and open, right? The world is their oyster. And a lot of the time they’ll be saying “OK…” or “I go and talk to the first person you mentioned 🤷” I absolutely need to change more to a style of:

(description from above) and ALSO you overhear this conversational tidbit, and then first person comes up and says “help me with this problem”. What do you do or say, specifically?

Then it’s a lot more clear who’s turn it is to talk. I have been trying this rule, but I definitely drift back if the game becomes more real-time on Discord.


  1. Obviously since The Terrible Events :masked_face:, as you can tell from this blog, I changed my mind. ↩︎

  2. Ugh. ↩︎

  3. Slightly anonymised, but when someone reads this and says “I was in that game 😢” see the ‘This Is Not A Rant’ bit. This is not a r/rpghorrorstories whine about my players being crap, it’s just maybe not for me. ↩︎

  4. In fact, email whitelisting turned out to be required to defeat some silent spam filtering. ↩︎

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