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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Ditching the Table? Play-by-Post Gaming

One of the biggest forms of RPG that I've been introduced to, mainly because I haven't run into much of a local gaming scene where I'm at, is play-by-post gaming. It got me into gaming (a little Tolkien-based website called Entmoot, with its own freeform RPG section), saw my roleplaying mature (another Tolkien-based website, the LOTR Plaza, which had many RP-training programs), and provides a good bit of my RP experience now, with the website Myth-Weavers. It's definitely a different experience from traditional tabletop RPGs, and it bears some thought. (Quick note: although I don't mention it, there's also online real-time roleplaying, through chat programs. For the purposes of this post, I'll consider it equivalent to traditional tabletop play)

Post by Post
For those who haven't tried it, Play-by-Post gaming (also known as PbP) uses a "forum", an online discussion board, for roleplaying purposes. Like in a traditional RPG, players make characters, and there's a GM who sets up the game. People take turns posting their actions, and adding in roleplaying to their actions. For instance, Bob might post "Drellek the Elf waits silently, trying to blend in with the crowd, but at the same time fingering the dagger up his sleeve. Now or never. [OOC: Stealth check at +10]" Some PbP forums even have dice-rolling tags programmed in.

This can be its great strength and also its great weakness. Because it progresses post-by-post, this can lead to a huge lag in the game. You have to wait for players who may not check on the website for a few hours at least, but possibly half a day. At the same time, it encourages players to give more in-depth, thought-out actions, including character thoughts and descriptive details in their posts. That doesn't nullify that weakness, however. Play-by-post gaming can be highly detrimental to the interactive aspect of an RPG, which is potentially its greatest strength.

Another Approach?
Thinking over this, I remembered how my first RPG experience went, back on Entmoot. A few of us got together, and essentially took turns playing out the story, although we tended to stick to writing one or two characters. What it came out to was a bit of a give-and-take among characters, collaborating together for what made a better story. It seemed to run pretty smoothly, actually. Yes, there was a GM (that would be me, actually) to keep the plot running along, but the other players helped to add to and develop the story in unique ways.

Oddly enough, this reminds me of an RPG called Mouse Guard, which I've become a huge fan of lately. The whole focus of the story is not so much the players trying to overcome the challenges set by the GM. Rather, it's about the players and the GM working together to make a cool story, even if that means the GM beating up on the players a little. It's all taken in a spirit of fun. The other important bit of this is that the focus is on the drama that the characters bring about, and not on the specifics of their actions. It's heavily abstracted.

That heavy abstraction reminds me of the one very successful RPG endeavor I'm currently engaging in: that's FactionRPG, a political intrigue system with very simple mechanics. Everything is highly abstracted, but there's still variety. The amount of things to keep track of is also less, and the paperwork is pretty simple on the players' end. The game just keeps clicking along, and clicking along. I think that there's already been one game of it successfully finished, though I could be mistaken. Still, the player retention seems fairly high.

Helpful Lessons
In my experience, play-by-post games can often stall, because of the interaction problem. This is unfortunate...but perhaps there can be something done about it. If the focus of play-by-post gameplay shifts to a cooperative effort between GM and players, focusing not on character advancement but on tension...that serves to make a more interesting story. Even more importantly, however, is the issue of abstraction. The more abstract the mechanics of the game are, the easier it is to do it as play-by-post. If a game's mechanics are complex, this complexity will combine with the post-lag issue, and cause a very slowly-moving game.

That's not to say that a game can't work with complex mechanics. Reliable, frequent posting, combined with tricks such as the GM listing difficulties to be overcome in his narration post (so the players can see if they succeed or not), can do a lot to advance the gameplay past the "dead-halt" zone. Still, simplification can't hurt.


  1. Keep in mind that there's another option that's in between Play by Post and playing in-person - playing online in real time. I've been running an online D&D 4e game for a couple of months now, and it's been a lot of fun. It's very close to the in-person experience, not much at all like PbP. If you want the in-person type of experience but the limiting factor is proximity to fellow players, maybe you can take your game online using a program like MapTool, Gametable or OpenRPG. It's been fun for our group!

  2. Indeed. I figured that was close enough to traditional face-to-face gaming in many respects as to merit similar classification...I should make a note like that.


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