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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Post often. The faster players respond, the sooner the story gets rolling.
  6. 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.

This article was great. I especially liked the detailing about affecting and controlling other PCs and NPCs. Now to go back to the previous article and enlist.

While your article gives a nice overview of what Play By Post is and how it works, I'm not sure I agree with your no-dice general rule. I GM a PBP campaign myself: Greyhawk: Sunndi (user rastaman), but I pretty much follow the d20 rules like when I would in a normal pen and paper game.

You say 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. When one would follow that rule in a regular game, I don't know how long your players would stay. I feel that's taking away too much freedom of the players, and also take away some realism of the game. It also provokes metagaming: "I can slap that BBEG in the face because I know I can't kill it now, and I know the GM won't kill me either. I've been a very able role-player after all".

I would also never allow for players to control NPCs other than their familair or trained animal (which you could count as PCs anyhow). Creating background NPCs is fine, and I promote that, but controling them is almost always up to the GM.

So in short I disagree that PBP is normally a story-telling, book-making experience. I play it just like I would playing face-to-face.

wmostry (whatever), i agree. I cant play a PBP if its that open. That just sounds like a bunch of kids mentally masterbating to a story, and pretending its a game. just sounds hokey.

One thing that I would have liked to have seen in this artcle was how to find a PBP. If I were from Criag Colorado (look it up) with a population smaller than most highschools, I wouldn't have much of a chance finding friends to play with.

It would help if I knew how to find a good PBP game. Are there PBP webrings? Chatrooms? Communities? Is it something that you can Google? What is the typical forum? Inquiring minds wanna know!

On a side note: I have recently started running a PBP without having had any experience in one. As a writer, I truly enjoy the the amount of description and the interplay between characters.

However, running a combat is a chore that bogs down the game badly. Anyone have advice on how to speed things up?

Grace Dragondale did not say that it was wrong to attack a /named foe/ only that death is not necessarily to be determined by the player. FREX in a Marvel Universe Game, I should not post,

In a rage, I disregard the immorality of murder and decapitate Kingpin.

This would be killing a named NPC and is by GD's article wrong. I COULD post.

In a rage, I draw my blade and disregarding the immorality of murder, attack Kingpin with his death being my primary goal.

The GM would at that point determine if Kingpin's actual death occurred, or if he resisted, or used some devious escape device, or reveals that he is merely a body double or whatever.

In a face to face game, or diced game, the second is also the actual (generally) way of play. My character never has the skill "declare the foe dead" except possibly if that character is a coroner or delusional.

In addition to the GM needing to keep Named NPC alive, the other players may decide to stop your killing him. "If he dies, we'll won't be able to stop the bomb" or whatever. If Player A can declare NNPC to be dead is really hinders action for player B through L (or whatever). Nameless mooks are just that and can die with remarkable frequency with little effect on the story.


Submitted by wmostrey on Fri, 2006-04-21 02:56.

You say 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. When one would follow that rule in a regular game, I don't know how long your players would stay. I feel that's taking away too much freedom of the players, and also take away some realism of the game. It also provokes metagaming: "I can slap that BBEG in the face because I know I can't kill it now, and I know the GM won't kill me either. I've been a very able role-player after all".

still...with technology, auto-dice rollers, and what-not, I dont see why anyone would run a online-post based on a "i say who you can kill and when" basis. I mean, i have crafted my own table-top over the past decade and I am very familer with rule matrixes and what balanced play is (and its importance).

I for one, when picturing myself running a PBP game (not that i would, just picturing it) would never even have considered this open-way of play. If I created a play-by-post game, I wouldnt have ever considered this system during crafting its rules. I mean, it just seems so lah-dee-dah and lacking of any real balance.

What I would do is, get a dice roller and roll for everyone. Yes yes, this would have to be based on trust with my players, but arnt all things on table-top also based in player-vs-gm trust? seriously, secret rolls, monster stats, maps, everything can be lied about by a horrible dm...but players trust the good ones to not fudge...and why wouldnt that be the same in a PBP? I mean, a battle dosnt have to be complex, a simple 1d6 calling 6 as success and 1 as critical failure (modified by proper stat) can be just as good as any other system when needed.

I dunno...i just think this way of play seems way to whimsical and free. I like to know my PC can try ANYTHING and with a chance can succeed. Thats what rpgs are about in my opinion. I can not seriously take any time in a game that lacks such structure and allows all choices of who i can kill and who i cant kill up to another person. I fully understand the reason behind the GM not wanting his players to kill the kingpin, I see how important he may be to the GM's story...but seriously, if that fat pig is standing infront of me and my boys, we got weapons, and he double crossed us, bet ur ass i should be able to attack and kill him with some system that allows it...not simply have some punk tell me "sorry dude, you cant do that...cus hes in act 2...and this is just act 1) thats silly, restrictive and allows less freedom them a finalfantasy game. If i wanted to be limited in actions and be told what i can do and cant do at any given plug in my xbox and play fable.

but/....on the other hand, Im running through ideas for rules, and ways i personally would run and PBP game..and I dont see much trouble with seems fairly easy to allow full player interaction/freedom with the world he plays within, insted of dodging this complexity in rules just for a simple salution such as: "since its so hard to run a fair and easy way to handle battle, Im just gunna say those rules dont exist and you can only kill who I say when I say.....SCREW THAT!

that might be fun for gamers who havnt played many RPGs or just chat junkies who wanna swim along. But for those of us who want structure, unpredictable outcomes, freedom to advance within the story at whatever pace we can survive at, etc etc....your version of PBP wont cut it.

I know I may sound like an ass here, but seriously, we all know thats what I am. You can also point out what I was wrong on, or how I misunderstood a few sentence of your definition...but the fact remains, most rpgers wont swollow this form of candy. Im sure you will get enough players to fill your game mind you. Thats without a doubt possible...but how many of them are gunna have that starving look of hunger for the game> how many players are gunna get sweaty palms while they wait for the next drop of the text-hammer? How many addicted players will you have after the first few games? thats the most important part. and when dealing within a story that has no real way to weigh outcome or actions other then your personal whim for story-sake, I'm sorry...thats not a game. Thats a fire-side story made to inflate the GM's ego.

dunno...Yeah Im a dick...but I'm sure more people would agree then you are painfully aware of.

Sifolis said: I know I may sound like an ass here, but seriously, we all know thats what I am.

Although we have crossed swords on this point before, I must commend you on the last few posts I've seen from you on this thread and others. I actually enjoy reading them now. =) They show much more intelligent thought than previous ones -- intelligence that we all knew you had, but just couldn't see it in the written form.

Good points, here on your reply. I understand what you're saying about the potential to be too "free formed", but I guess that's where a strong GM needs to keeps his hand on the tiller. For myself, having never participated in one of these types of games, I find the idea interesting and would like to "watch" one to see how it goes.

I think you're right, too, about many RPGers not taking to this type of game as readily as others might.

BTW: Thanks to the author for the article. It was more information than I had before regarding PBP gaming.

Without taking sides, I'd only like to point out that from a player's perspective, there is no difference between a GM deciding to allow the death of a bad guy NPC, and the GM rolling dice that only he can see and deciding to allow the same death. This seems to have been implied in an above post, and I disagree with that implication. Both are equally based on trust.

Regardless, to avoid just this sort of issue, the upcoming Ninja Burger PBP game on Gamegrene will be using numbers stamped into each post to determine outcomes, so the determining factor here will be given to fate. No dice to roll or fudge - just chance taking you by the hand.

I think that we're all being a little heavy-handed here with regards to what is simply, after all, a roleplaying style choice. I don't think that Grace Dragondale was claiming that her version of PBP is a superior form of roleplay to any other. She(?) said at the begining of the article that she has been involved in this kind of PBP for five years, and that's no lightweight commitment. Obviously Grace and the group of friends she plays with enjoy this kind of roleplay.

I have encountered this kind of diceless PBP roleplay before on the 'net. I seem to recall encountering a world peopled by various cat-like races who all had particular differentiating traits. (Yes, you may laugh and dismiss this as a 'bunch of furry freaks' but people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones really).

I have done play-by-email as part of my ongoing D&D campaign on a number of occasions (or 'blue-booking' as Cocytus called it.) One typical application is to make a lengthy journey more interesting or to fill in time between adventures. I hate just saying 'You travel for 6 weeks - you get there' and having them meet wandering monsters every time they go on a journey is soooo tired (I do throw some in occasional in the 'badlands' though!). It's much more fun for them to run into some interesting situations as they go along, ones that do not necessarily involve combat or even skill rolls. Just describing the scenery and the kinds of people they meet can be fun and enriches the campaign.

Grace takes this one step further, involving challenging situations and having the referee arbitrate the results of these challenges in response to player input. Ever play a game where the referee makes all dice rolls behind the screen and keeps the character's hit points secret? I know these aren't 'the norm' but it's a perfectly valid form of roleplay. Grace's PBP mechanic is not so very different. If the referee doesn't trust themselves to remain unbiased they can roll dice and track numbers if they want, but the end result is what the players see. The method isn't so important. A good PBP referee will keep their players, a bad one will lose them. It's a Darwinian thing.

Interestingly, my group were having a discussion before our game session last night in which the roleplay vs roll-play argument featured quite heavily. Case in point - one of my players does quite a lot of MMOG these days (and please everyone remember to drop the 'RP' from the oxymoronic acronym 'MMORPG'!). Now because of this he finds the pace of tabletop combat very slow - a drudge, basically. So what he was saying was that when he plays tabletop what he wants is roleplay and story development and wants to keep it 'rules-lite'. In fact he was advocating that the referee should maybe simply arbitrate the results of combats, maybe with a very simple, single dice roll involved rather than bothering with the minutiae. And in some cases not even bothering with a dice roll. Suddenly, this is sounding a little like PBP isn't it?

Recalling my article (shameless plug) on Rules, Referees and Reality-

- I mentioned that an RPG game's rules may be considered as (imperfectly) describing rather than defining the game reality, and that the referee's role was to be the final arbiter of reality within the game world - compensating for the imperfections of the rules. In a PBP the rules are (probably, in most cases) fairly lightweight and simply provide a framework of protocol for the referee to interact with the players. In fact this sounds like what my friend wants - he gets his fix of 'rules as immutable axioms' gaming from MMOG so he wants his fix of 'referee is the free-willed arbiter' gaming from somewhere else.

Myself, I like to strike a balance between these ends of the spectrum within the game. I have had some great play-by-email stuff going on (I may collect it and post it somewhere sometime) but I actually have a certain tolerance for the minutiae of combats. Much of it is dull but every once in a while there are real pearls to be found! Last night's session turned out to be just so, in fact. Three sessions ago (4 hour sessions punctuated by snack breaks etc) the PCs *knowingly* and voluntarily placed themselves into a very combat-heavy situation - pursuing a matter of moral principle the details of which I will not go into here. Two sessions ensued in which the characters were just, basically, hacking away, and getting hacked at in return, the PCs have high defensive capabilities, their enemies have middling defensive abilities but superior numbers and it was really a slow grind of a fight. By the end of the second session the excitement had worn off and the players were feeling a bit worn down.

Last night, having had a moan about how boring the combat could be sometimes, we got started. The rank-n-file of the enemy had broken and fled but then some serious opposition turned up and the party started looking a bit flaky, most of them pretty worn down at this stage. Then the fun really started - the party had the most amazing run of flukey luck with their dice rolls! There were some real life-or-death-hingeing-on-a-dice-roll situations happening - all of which happened to go the party's way, but it was close enough to make them sweat. An old enemy turned up unexpectedly - a half drow assassin who had slain a player character about three years ago. I myself was thinking when I introduced her to the scenario that she might possibly claim the life of another. But much to the party's joy, it went the other way and her carefully prepared escape-if-it-all-goes-wrong strategy didn't get a look in! They were like that cats that had got the cream....and revenge was sweet.

It might seem like I'm saying contradictory things here, since I started by defending Grace-style PBP and ended up saying 'hey aren't dice rolled combats fun' - but then, Grace wasn't claiming that PBP was the only or best way to roleplay either!

now THATS what I'm talking about! yehaw!

Actually, I have played at some quite different kind of Play by Post RPG. We were using the rules of a tabletop RPG, with the GM rolling the dice for everyone. The battles were still good ones, with tactical skills prevailing over brute power. For example, my own blacksmith warrior wasn't created to be a a battle monster, but his record showed he was far more dangerous than the party knight. Even when a villain had a name, he was still dying if I could prevail over him. On the other side, the blacksmith warrior gave me an oportunity to explore the issue of a man who fights evil with evil. And this same character, a human by the way, married an elven maid, roleplayed by another player. We will soon resume the campaign to face new challenges!
In my humble opinion, the only drawback of this form of playing was the lack of real social contacts with the other players. It is a serious drawback to me, but you can always go out and meet the people you are playing with, as long as they are living in the same city. I met some of the other players, some of them are now playing in my group.
Just my 0.02$.

Before I comment, I'd like to tip my hat to Grace for starting this excellent thread. My experience with PBP games goes back to the early 1980's when I ran several PBP games on 3 different BBS'. It was from a couple of those games that I met the members of my current gaming group -- something that wouldn't have happened any other way. Playing a PBP game masked the demographic in a way a sit down game could not. In grade 10 I had been to several gaming conventions, but found that when I sat down at the table with older players I was frequently tolerated with mild disdain because of my age. On the BBS the prejudice wasn't there. At the peak I had over 100 participants actively playing in one of my games -- people who would never have even signed up if they knew my age. My current gaming group (of the past twenty years) is comprised of players from those games and their friends. After twenty years of gaming the age difference is moot.
What is my point? There are interaction opportunities in PBP games that are not available face to face. My brother played an elf that was four foot ten inches and weighed eighty pounds. It may have been more convincing through PBP than in real life (he's 6'4", 320lbs). In a fantasy setting a little detachment can go a long way. I haven't played a PBP game since those early BBS days, and Grace brought up ideas that I hadn't ever thought about to make it more of an interactive story than an adventure game. I played my PBP games the way that Asen describes. Maybe some day when I have more time ... sigh.
I like all kinds of games. So Sif's points about dice, conflict, and dynamic tension are all well taken. Different games, different styles, but both are cool.

Sif, I just wanted to note that your reservations are just as valid with regards to face-to-face "freeform" or "diceless" RPGs, not PBPs specifically.
You have to remember, though, that PBPs face the challenges of slow action and resolution that may be (I have no experience in PBP) difficult to handle with standard dice-rolling and other such action resolution systems.

- reading a signature is silly -

An interesting product that might be just what some PBP DMs are looking for: Narrative combat. While not completely leaving out the rules, it streamlines them to up the actual story and narration and to leave the rules on the background, where they belong.

Seconding this emotion. I've been searching all day for something like this. Here's what I've found so far:

"PBeM2 is an automated game opening announcement and recruitment center for web-based roleplaying games. Because listings over 10 days old are purged nightly, you can be assured the games are current and are actively searching for players. This site is a recreation of the automated posting system used previously on Irony Games, and is a free service provided by Amazing Pit Bull Designs."

"Effie's RPG Library is a fount of information for and about pen and paper role playing games. Built in 1995 as a searchable index of the D&D rules, Effie now offers searchable product databases, an online directory and personal wish list feature across several different types of items.
I hope someone reads this and then comment, and the list can grow!"

This is all I've found so far. If you know more, please add to this list!

Hey, we actually found a way around that on the net. It appears someone made a PBP dice engine for Risk (which is why people can't find it under RPG listings).

So if you use phpbb you can have a random number generator. The system is actually really simple if you can use the bbcode already.

check out the PBP in question: