Play By Post: An Introduction
For the past five years, I've been involved in a little thing known as Play By Post gaming (hereafter known as PBP), and now it is my great honor to introduce you to this new, wonderful, and amazingly-inexpensive way to play.
Alright, my friend, here's the situation: It's four pm on a godawful-hot Tuesday in July, and you suddenly get the urge to do some fine, plot-heavy interactive roleplaying. But it just so happens that your usual GM is in Kentucky visiting Great Aunt Cindy. You'd turn to some MMORPG, but the monthly subscription fees would dip into the cash you spend on such necessities as Mountain Dew and Ramen. In desperation, you go online and try a MUD, but the game is almost entirely plotless, even after you spend an hour figuring out just which typed-in command will make your character move five steps north. Is there any free, quality roleplaying you can do without a substantial group of friends nearby?
Why, yes... yes there is.
The main difference is that the playing is done over the web.
Play By Post is a form of interactive gaming in which players use a forum to communicate and play. Just as in any paper RPG, every player takes on a character, and a GM creates a setting and plot for the story, and manipulating the NPCs. The main difference is that the playing is done over the web.
Instead of telling the other players and the GM what a character is doing, however, the players will write that out in narrative (story) form. Each piece of the story that a player writes is called a post. After a player has posted, the post is read by the other players, who will respond with posts for their own characters. Now, this doesn't mean that each post is supposed to be an entire novel; an average post is generally somewhere around two paragraphs, though it can be much longer or much shorter. While it's generally a good idea to make sure you follow the basic rules of language (using decent grammar and the like) there's no need to worry; this isn't English class, and you aren't going to be punished for putting a comma in the wrong place.
Who's the Boss?
One of the chief difficulties of PBP is keeping the group together. The nature of play gives players a great deal of freedom. Instead of telling the GM "I attack the orc on the left with my broadsword", a player will include their character's action in a post. In a PBP, a character is not simply identified by what they say and do; a player can include a character's thoughts, go into great detail about character appearance, and even include flashbacks in their posts. Likewise, many battles with random minions of darkness actually give a player control over their foe.
Most PBPs are in the "free-form" genre... played mostly without dice.
Which brings me to a very important explanation. Anyone accustomed to Dungeons & Dragons or any of the other d20 or similar games might very well have fallen out of their chair at my declaration that players are allowed to control battles on their own. Most PBPs are in the "free-form" genre, meaning that they are played mostly (if not entirely) without dice. PBPs are, primarily, story-centered games, and give players more creative freedom. The idea behind them is not for the GM to sit behind a pretty screen and try to avoid cackling evilly as the players face one hellion after another; the GM guides the players through a plotline that almost flat-out assumes that the players will "win". While many require players to include statistics (strength, dexterity, etc.), these are to be used merely as guidelines of what a character can do. Occasionally, players will be asked to pick a number or flip a coin to determine what happens in a given situation, but these situations are fairly rare, and are generally used only to determine something such as the contents of a treasure chest, or what happens in a very chaotic situation. Who gets to attack first is generally decided by who decides to post first.
This brings about one of the primary rules of PBPs: there are no automatic kills. You can understand the complications that would be cause if a character was battling an important villain, and included in a post "...and the warrior brought his sword down, slaying the tyrant." The GM very likely had planned to have that villain serve some future purpose, and can only bring themselves to have a certain number of miraculous resurrections take place. The general rule is that if a foe is important enough to have a name, the GM will inform the players when it's permissible to kill it. Before you start protesting that this gives the players a raw deal, I'll tell you that a GM will almost never kill player characters without permission, unless you have done something to anger them very, very, very much.
Likewise, an important rule is not to control the characters of others without permission. While it is generally acceptable to assume that a character would follow along with the rest of the group, making them speak or act in any major way (such as typing in that the elven bard walks up to the barmaid and seduces her) is forbidden. (Taking control of others' characters is commonly referred to as "God-modding".)
Keeping a group of players from all over, who are online at different times, is no easy job. Because of this, GMs (often called "founders") occasionally have assistants called moderators. Moderators are players who have proven their worth and skill either in previous PBPs, or during the course of an ongoing game. They are told at least the short-term details of where the plot is going, what should and should not be allowed to happen, and the like. They are often given the tasks of controlling more minor NPCs, and act in the name of the GM, particularly when the GM cannot be present. Because of the difficulty of running a message board campaign, it is usually imperative that there be at least one moderator.
Players are also able to create and control NPCs, particularly if such characters are an important part of the PC's history. Oftentimes, a GM will even go so far as to communicate with a player about forming a side-quest or sub-plot based on figures or events from their character's past.
A Few Final Notes
The faster players respond, the sooner the story gets rolling.
Above are the primary traits of your average free-form PBP. Every group will have its own rules and quirks. The following are a few tips to help you become more successful in playing online:
- Communicate. Because everyone isn't sitting in the same room, it can sometimes be difficult to work with the other players if you don't talk outside of your posts. Exchange e-mail addresses and any instant messenger screen names, particularly with the GM and moderators. The more you're able to ask questions and toss around plot ideas, the better.
- Be courteous. Avoid any out-of-character wars with other players; if a conflict arises, bring it up through the GM or a moderator. Players at each other's throats is one of the worst things that can happen to a PBP.
- Read the rules. Usually, the GM will put up a list of rules for the PBP, and it is extremely important that you read and follow them. Believe it or not, every last one of them has a purpose; most have been gained from the GM's personal experience, and will help the RPG run smoothly.
- Spend time on your character. Figure out what happened in his past, the way he thinks and feels, and things he might say. The more you get to know your character, the better time you'll have in the game.
- Post often. The faster players respond, the sooner the story gets rolling.
- Start playing! The best way to learn how to be in an PBP is by doing it, or at least observing how the game flows.
So, next time you need an interactive roleplaying fix, but don't want to pay an arm and a leg, consider Play By Post gaming; after all, you have nothing to lose.