Guide to PBP / PBEM

By Scott Sylvester

With busy schedules these days there seems to be precious little time for the more mature and adult gamers to indulge in their teenage passions of gaming. Once upon a time, there were countless hours in the day that could be carelessly frittered away around the gaming table listening to your favorite GM spin a tale of adventure and mystery.

Suddenly however, you found yourself all grown up. There were college classes to attend, bills to pay, and wife and kids to make time for. Sacrifices had to be made. Now your weekly gaming group struggles to meet monthly, and even then, conflicting work schedules often prevent those meetings. If you are like me, you long for the opportunity to pick up your laser rifle, raise your sword over your head, and charge back into battle once again. Thankfully, modern technology has afforded many of us that opportunity again.

Play-By-Post (PBP), or Play-By-Email (PBEM) is not a new forum for gaming, but it has recently garnered new interest among working professionals. Even with my erratic work schedule I get the opportunity to carry on my passion. We all check email almost daily, and it only takes a few minutes to respond to an email with the actions of your character based on the description you have been given in the email by your GM.

Play by Email is not a new invention, and I am certainly not one of its founders. I always imagined the origins go way back to the ASCII days of basic programming. As soon as one guy found out how to send a message to another computer the idea was born. Wherever it began, it has certainly evolved into a new form of fun and entertainment.

To give you a basic idea of how a PBP or PBEM works, I will cover it from the GM and the player perspectives. I will talk about my experiences and the programs I use that have made my games a success. By the end I hope to encourage many more of you to start your own games online via email, posts, or bulletin boards.

Getting Started

Wow, gaming without a table…what a great idea! Now, where do I begin? Ironically, you start the same way you would for a tabletop game. As a GM, you need to have your basic plot outline and have an idea of how many characters you want in your game. If you like to make maps and sketches of the areas your PCs will be playing in, get them prepared too. Once you have all your preliminary work done, you need to find a table top to put it on, an “online” table.

For my games I use Yahoo Groups. The best part about them is they are free. Free fits into the average gamer’s budget quite well. All email addresses are public and the information on the group sites is readily accessible to the public, so I strongly caution you about posting personal information.

To get your own Yahoo Group you simply go to Click on Start A New Group and fill out the required information. Once your Group name is selected the Group will be activated.

The Yahoo Group automatically comes with a pair of email addresses for the Group Moderator (you the GM) to use. The first email address is the Group Email; the second is a public but direct email for the GM to use. All messages sent to the Group Email address will be automatically posted on the Group site. This is important later when your players respond to the emails and posts the GM sends out. The second email is for use by the GM. Both email addresses have the same prefix, so they are easy to remember. For example, it will read something like: [email protected] and [email protected]. The former being the group and posting address, the latter is for the GM use. One thing I like to do is just use first names on the site. I never put someone’s full name; it’s just not a good idea, especially in the days of high tech crime and identity theft.

Using a group site is great because it offers several different options to you as a GM. On the left column there are various headings that will aid you in establishing and customizing your group. The ones you will use most often are the Files Section, and the Photo Section.

Files Section: The Files section is where I post all pertinent game related info. You can create folders and sub folders to help keep things organized. Some of the folders in my games are for things like, Characters, GM Info, and Experience Log. As your players create their characters it is a good idea to have them post them on the Group Site so you the GM can see it and have a record. Other players can also look over each other’s skills, equipment, etc. Plus, if the character sheets are posted, it keeps the PCs honest. I do not want to accuse any player of cheating, but I have seen “Modifications” made to character sheets when the GM wasn’t looking.

In my GM info folder I keep a list of NPC’s that the party comes in contact with, a list of equipment that is available to the group, and even a list of House Rules. In every game there seems to be situations that arise that the rules don’t cover. So, as the GM, you make the call and create a rule for that situation in case it happens again. I highly recommend that you keep a list of all the house rules you create on the group site. It is just fair, and open, and prevents problems when various situations recur.

Photo Section: I use this section for tons of things, as do my players. I like to put up maps of the area or draw pictures of the locations of my players versus the bad guys. It helps with the visual part of the game immensely, and replaces the use of miniatures. Maps are excellent things to post there as well.

One time, a friend of mine was running a game in thedesertofTexas. He took a picture of the red dirt, mesa, and scrub brush and posted it in the photo section so we players were able to understand what kind of terrain obstacles we might encounter. It gave a flat online game a great visual aspect. I did something similar when running a Rifts game set on the Coalition’s Brown Water Navy using theMississippi River. I searched under Yahoo Photos and found two or thee good pictures of theMississippiand put them in the Photo Section of my Group site.

Those are the main ones that I use. Yahoo Groups offer a Polling section on the Group Site. My players often like to create polls about the situations in the game or ask general gaming questions. In another game I play in I am a member of a Mercenary Group. The GM asked us for suggestions to name the group. Using the Poll area on the Group site the GM put up all the prospective names and then we players voted for the one we like best.

The Nitty Gritty

So now the group site is ready to go, what do I do? Well, as the GM it is up to you to find players. Advertise your game via bulletin boards, forums, or word of mouth among your friends. For the Palladium games I run, I went to the Palladium Books web site and accessed their Forums. In the Palladium Forums they have a topic for Gamers seeking Gamers. The other place that got me good results was the now defunct RPG Think Tank (now the wonderful Nexus Nine Forums).

Whatever system of game you want to play, seek out other Yahoo Groups and ask the moderator of that group if you can advertise on their site and recruit players, or go to the game manufacturer’s or printer’s web site and see if they have a forum or BB you can post on. When advertising make sure to include the following:

  • The RPG System you will be using to play the game
  • How many players you are looking for
  • Any restrictions regarding the types of characters you want to be in your game, including experience levels
  • An estimated start time for your game (1 week, 1 month)
  • The Group Site address or a link to the Groups site
  • Your own email contact information

This is also a good time to write a short (1 paragraph or so) description of your game’s theme or plot.

Recruiting is a slow process because not everyone is into PBEM games. I have had players join my game and then drop out because the game moves too slowly. I have had other people contact me and show interest and then disappear. I have had people send me completed character sheets and then disappear. Why people drop out or want to play is a mystery, but the key to a successful game is finding players that will join for the long haul. PBEM/PBP games are very slow moving. A round of combat can take a month to get through. When the GM is tied up with personal issues the games can sometimes stop for a week or more at a time. Your game may hinge on the actions of a single player, and until he posts a response you could be stalled. Players need to be patient and understand that it will take years to resolve a campaign. But that in itself is part of the fun because, no matter how busy life gets, all you have to do to be involved is check your email.

Once we have all our players organized it is time to get the game started. As a GM I recommend you print out a copy of the PCs’ sheets in your group and keep them in a folder somewhere handy. During game play, as you read and respond to the player’s posts, it will help you quickly reference the particular PCs’ abilities and skills, etc. If you lose paperwork easily then use the Group Site. Right-click and open the files section in another window. Put the PC data and post side by side and type on. Technology makes it so easy.

The game begins with the GM’s first post. For Yahoo Groups, you are allowed to give a title to your post. I use the title area to keep track of rounds/actions as well as to delineate what part of the story the players are in. For example, in the Rifts Atlantis game I am running I divide the story into Chapters. The heading of the post would read: Chapter 4: Uncertain Futures – Turn 2. By adding the turn, the round or the action number to the end of the chapter or heading it also helps players keep track of when new posts are put up, and it will help you as a GM later when you have to go back to look up something in the messages section of the Group Site. There is nothing worse than going back to previous posts looking for some bit of info when all the post titles are the same.

The actual post itself is where you, the GM, tell the story. When running a Play-By-Post or Play-By-Email game you need to be somewhat literate in the English language (or whatever language you are running the game in) and not have a hard time describing things in detail. The more details you give about the setting, the NPC’s, and the actions the enemies are taking, the better your game will be. Nothing bogs down a PBEM or PBP more than having the players’ post a ton of questions they need answered just so they can respond to your first post.

Try to think ahead when you write. What bits of information do the characters need to respond to the situation? For example, if I were going to write a battle scene where a line of troops are ambushing a column of vehicles, I would write the following:

  • The speed the vehicle is going
  • The amount of armor the vehicle has
  • The number of people in the vehicle
  • What kinds of weapons the victims have
  • How many victims will be caught in the ambush
  • Where the attackers are hiding in relationship to the incoming vehicle
  • Are the attackers behind cover or are they merely concealed behind bushes?
  • What kind of armor do the attackers have
  • What kinds of weapons do they carry?

It sounds like a lot of details to include, but if you take the time to write it up well, your players will appreciate it and respond to your posts faster. To answer the above questions you do not have to break it down into a Q&A session. Make it part of the story. For example:

The lightly armored APC was moving at a crawl toward the hedgerow. Little did the four unarmed occupants know that the hedgerow contained a dozen of the king’s best soldiers, all of them armed with the king’s standard-issue laser rifles, and heavy body armor bearing the king’s seal. All of the soldiers lay in a line across the roadway poised and ready to fire when the APC reached the intersection. The heroes spotted the soldiers in time but there was no way to warn the travelers. They could only hope the armor on the APC would hold till they could get there to save them …

You get the idea. Just a simple paragraph and all the questions were answered. You can write more if you feel it is necessary or if you have time. You could describe the color of the APC, what type of laser rifles the soldiers carried, the weather outside, or additional factors that might dictate the accuracy and timing of the attack. This is where you decide what is best for your story. Whatever you write, remember that adjectives are your friends. The more descriptive you are, the more your players will look forward to your next post, and the longer they will stay interested.

There is no set length that any post should be; you can say a lot in just a couple of paragraphs. Don’t feel inadequate if your post is short. The length is inconsequential as long as you cover all the info necessary to advance the game.

There will also come a time when an NPC and PC may have to conduct some dialogue. The best way I find is to have the players post their list of questions for the NPC’s in their response posts, and you, as the GM summarize and rewrite them in your next storyline post. As each character speaks you should start a new line and new &quote; &quote; quotation marks. It will ease the confusion. For example, look at the two conversations and tell me which is easier to understand.

“Hello,” The elf said. “Hello,” the dragon responded. “I am Niallo of Rivercourse. I am seeking the silver orb of healing. I was told you might be able to help me.” “What makes you think I will help you?” “You have a reputation for compassion Sir Dragon.”


“Hello,” the elf said.

“Hello,” the dragon responded.

“I am Niallo of Rivercourse. I am seeking the silver orb of healing. I was told you might be able to help me.”

“What makes you think I will help you?”

“You have a reputation for compassion, Sir Dragon.”

To me, the second is easier to understand. It looks less like a run-on sentence, and more like a conversation. Each new line denotes a new speaker and will help your players along.

Another great online tool I use is Yahoo Instant Messenger. I have a buddy list for my gaming friends that are in the group. If I need to role-play a situation for a player or just need to answer a few game related questions for a player, we can IM one another. For off-camera RP sessions you just role-play the situation, cut and paste it into a story, and then post it for the group to see. If the GM or player is offline, the message will be saved until the person logs in again. It’s a simple system and it also helps develop long-term friendships with your players. I can’t tell you how many good gamers I’ve met that I now consider friends, and how knowing them has led me into other great gaming opportunities.

One advisement: secret, under-the-table gaming is a necessary evil sometimes, but be careful with it. Just like in table-top groups, the more up front you are with the group, the more credibility you have with the players.

At the end of every post is the key to a successful game. The end of the story line post should end in a cliffhanger. Write what you need to get the characters filled in on what is occurring, and then leave it all open ended. The open ending encourages players to post because it is human nature to fill a void. Think of your favorite TV show or book. Surely you have noticed that every episode or chapter ends with just enough info to make you want to keep reading, or to tune in for next week’s episode. That void at the end of the story is where your characters jump in and finish the story. When your story ends your players should be dying to fill in their part, which will progress the game for you, and enable you to set them up for the next cliffhanger.

Rolling the Dice

Well, the game is on and the first combat round or skill check is imminent. Now what? How do we roll for the messages in our inbox? Here are a couple of options.

As a GM I like to do all the rolling for my games. Not that I don’t trust my players to give me honest results, but sometimes I like to be able to “influence” the outcome of a roll. For dramatic effect I can alter the dice roll to fit the situation to create tension or to make that heroic moment come alive for a player. This is not something I do for every roll; I’m a huge advocate of letting the dice fall where they may. Dice are what gives games their realistic feel. Without that random element in the game, your players would get bored rapidly. In real life you don’t succeed 100% of the time, so why should you be allowed to in a game?

The main reason I like to do the rolling myself is if I control the dice I can advance the game faster. It’s faster for me to have the players’ post their actions, and then I can roll everything at once and put it all together in a story post. I would go crazy if I had to wait for each player to roll and then send me their results. If a player chose to be dishonest (it hasn’t happened to me yet) then this is their opportunity. It’s up to you, but I feel it adds continuity to the story if I do all the rolling all at the same time with the same set of dice.

You can have your players roll and post their rolls with their actions or response posts. The honor system works quite well actually, but if you have several players in a combat round and everyone sends you their response except for one player then the game stalls, waiting for his roll of the dice. This can be frustrating, but again, its up to you, it’s your game; you try it your way.

Lastly, and perhaps the best way, is to find an online dice roller. There are a few good programs out there that will roll any number of dice with any number of sides and will email results to you and the player(s). I love these little software programs; I hope the people who wrote them make a million dollars and go into the RP hall of fame. These programs keep everyone honest all the time. If you have an integrity issue in your game then I highly recommend a rolling program.

Da Playerz!

As a player, your job is simple: to react. When the GM posts the next part of the story and the group site automatically emails it to everyone in the game, you read the story post and then figure out what your character would do in that situation. Below is something I wrote for a player in my game that had a hard time writing more than two sentences when he posted. After using my system below his responses became much clearer and added a lot of insight into his character. Mind you, this is not a complete list, and you may not need to respond to every question on the list every time, but it will help you as a player when you sit to write. Feel free to amend this as necessary.

  • What does the PC see from his perspective? Be descriptive; use lots of adjectives.
  • What does the PC think about what he is seeing at that moment? Will it affect him in the near future? Will it have long term effects?
  • What is your PC going to do about what s/he sees? Talk? Run? Fight? Miscellaneous Action?
  • Who is standing near the PC and how will this affect them?
  • Does having someone else nearby make your PC think or act differently versus if he was alone?
  • What does your PC feel inside? Does this make him happy, sad, angry, and murderous?
  • What does your PC say to the people around him? His friends? The bad guy? To God? To whoever else is around?
  • When you say that, what reaction should the PC expect? Are his words going to be friendly in tone, defensive, hostile?
  • What equipment does your PC have at his disposal that will help him in this situation? How is he going to use that weapon or object and what does he hope to achieve? Is he proficient with that weapon? Is it the best weapon to use or the best piece of equipment for the job? Why or why not?
  • Finally, what does your PC do? Before he acts write what the PC is thinking at that moment so we know what is motivating the PC to do that particular action.


Like a Play by Email game there is also its twin sister the Play by Post. This is the same type of game with a couple of exceptions. Instead of a group that emails for you, you run it from a bulletin board or forum service. First, make sure you have permission from the person that owns the BB or Forum before you start running a game there. I don’t think would happy if a bunch of people started their own thread and began a full game—I could be wrong, but permission is better than forgiveness.

Once you have a BB service the GM starts a new thread and posts the first part of the story there. The players then post their responses to that part of the story under the same thread. The GM can continue under the same thread or start a new one for the next part of the story. I recommend starting a new thread every time you advanced the story. It just makes it easier for the players to keep track and saves them from having to scroll through a long list of crap to get to the new story.

It’s essentially the same except it is harder to post maps, pictures, and PC sheets for quick reference. There are some BBs and Forums that allow pictures and stuff that will round out your game; check with the BB owner and see what their policies are.


Lastly, I want to address the tempo of PBEM and PBP games. When you write a story post you need to wait and allow your characters time to react to what is written. I usually post once or twice a week at the most in the games I run or play in. The GM needs to have patience and allow the players time to sit and read their emails or posts and then to reply. It can take 2 weeks and sometimes longer. It can make a game drag, but remember PBEM and PBP games are made for busy working geeks—you gotta have patience.

One real horror story is a PBP I got into. I had a great PC and a great GM and a great story. The problem I had was trying to keep up. I don’t have internet access at work and can only respond at night when I get home. The GM would put up a post and everyone would reply and then he’d advanced the story again, and the group would reply. By the time I got home at night I was three actions behind everyone else. One week was exceptionally busy and I missed a week of posts. When I logged in I was three pages behind on the story and the group had already moved into a city, engaged the Coalition Forces, killed them and moved on. I hadn’t posted at all during that exchange; the game moved on and left me as a player out of it. I quit. I had to; the GM moved the group too fast. After another week I was another 4 pages behind. It was too much.

A fast game is not a bad thing; some players have time to post a lot. But as a GM you need to get all the players’ input. It makes them feel included and makes their actions and their character an important part of the whole. When you are three pages ahead of a player, that player will feel left out like I did, and then feel like the group doesn’t need his PC to execute the mission (or whatever).

Anyway, just remember, move at the speed of your players. If a player has gone AWOL then resort to option two.

Option Two is what you might have to do when a player takes an extended leave of absence or is unavailable for a long time: replace the player. In my Atlantis game I had a key character who was active initially drop out totally. The player went through a move, a job change, etc., and just couldn’t find time for posting. In some cases you might need to replace a player in a game with another. Usually you will see this happening and will have time to adjust your story to plan (usually). When you need a new player it’s back to advertising (see above section).

What if the player still wants to be in the game but hasn’t posted in a few weeks? I have another friend in my game that has taken a second job and has a bustling social life. He can’t post that often because he is trying to make ends meet. He doesn’t want to drop out, but he can’t be in the story full time. As a PBP PBEM GM you might need to NPC that character till the player has time again. Move them to a lesser part of the plot for now and you can revisit their plotline or quest later. Be flexible, it will happen to you. It doesn’t hurt to send the player an email once a while or, if you have instant messaging, you can check up on them. Just a “Hey, how’s it going, miss having you in the game!” kinda thing can be a big boost and gain their interest again. Whatever you do, don’t be harsh towards them or goad them into posting. We are role-playing to have fun. Trust me; they feel bad enough for slowing your game already; don’t rub it in.

For those of you who would like to get back into role-playing or run a game yourself, but don’t have players in your area code or can’t find the time to meet, and then give PBEM or PBP a try. It is a lot of fun and an easy way to get a game in without interrupting your hectic schedule.



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