Comparing Play By Email (PBeM) With Other RPGs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0083

  1. Time And Distance Are Non-Issues 
  2. Distribute Information Selectively 
  3. Give Everyone Some Prime Time 
  4. Let The Party Divide Into Subgroups – At Times 
  5. Play with a Larger Group 
  6. Pace The Story Right And Take The Reins When Needed 
  7. Think In Terms Of Interactive Writing 

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Use The Scrabble Game For Names; Alternate Sources of Information in the City;
  2. Curbing PC Excesses 
  3. WoD Tips

A Brief Word From Johnn

Index & Table Of Contents Autoresponders

I put out a help request several issues ago, and I’m being forced to put all projects on hold until late August, when an intensive project at work and a vacation are over. (My apologies for the false start to those who responded.)

However, a fellow Tipster, Matthias Nagy, recently submitted a complete index and table of contents for Issues #1 – #81 out of the blue. So, I’m pleased to be able to cross a project off my list and to post the autoresponder links for you today for your downloading pleasure. Someday I hope to put these into HTML format for fast on-line reference. To receive the plain text files, send blank emails (no subject or body) to:

Table Of Contents:
[email protected]

[email protected]

Thanks Matthias! (Check out his sites at:
Magic in Berlin [in German]
Netrunner Weekly )


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Comparing Play By Email (PBeM) With Other RPGs

From Aki Halme

[Johnn: I’d like to extend a hearty thanks to Aki, who whipped up this article on very short notice once I realized I’d have trouble getting this week’s issue done on time due to overtime at work last week, visiting relatives, and other Snafu’s. Thanks Aki, you saved my butt!)

Time And Distance Are Non-Issues

One nice thing about PBeMs is that they do away with the need to get a group of players together at the same time, which can at times be a hassle, especially if some of the players have very young children of their own, jobs, spouses, and other real life impediments to gaming. It is far easier to find a couple of minutes to read and write email where you are, than three to sixteen hours, which happen to be the same hours that are convenient to the others as well.

Email also does away with the need to have the players at the same place, or even near the same place. A PBeM campaign I was in had players from Europe, North America, Africa, Australia, and Asia. With email, time zones are only slightly inconvenient. Intercontinental chat would be far more difficult to arrange though.

Distribute Information Selectively

PBeM provides every player a direct, confidential, and convenient access to the GM. There is no need for note passing, asking this or that player to leave the room for a while, or one-on-one chats between the GM and a player while others wait. This can be used in a variety of ways, from sabotage within the party to updating the party knight on an issue of heraldry.

Give Everyone Some Prime Time

Selective information can help each PC to be important. Where convenient, giving data to some and letting them use it as they see fit brings those characters to the spotlight. Let the PCs and players have their moments, spotting vital clues that they can share with the rest of the party later on – or keep hidden or alter, if that serves their personal goals better.

Let The Party Divide Into Subgroups – At Times

Having the party divide into smaller groups happens all the time in any role-playing game. One or two characters may be awake, guarding the camp, while others sleep. Some may be scouting while the party moves in the wilderness or explores a dungeon. Some may be shopping, meeting informants, paying respects to a local noble when the party is in a town. With selectively given information, it is simple to run several concurrent storylines.

On the other hand, splitting the party for a long time – or permanently -is not a route to take lightly. PC-to-PC interaction cannot take place while the characters are involved in different storylines. Eventually, the GM will find that he’s running two or more games at the same time, needs to keep in mind how they interact, and has less material to do it with.The hardest to run are characters which walk alone for long periods of time. Groups of two or three are far easier, as PC-to-PC exchanges give the GM both time and resources to run the small group.

Plus, some of the task of giving the players an entertaining gaming experience is done by the players themselves.

Play with a Larger Group

Whether big updates to a PBEM game take place on the average once or twice a week,or at some other interval, I prefer to write them once or twice a week, leaving the days in- between to player input and a chance to have brief discussions between me and a player in case either of us wishes to confirm this point or that. A PBeM GM has literally as much time as he needs when writing an update.

This makes it possible to play with a larger group. I would not wish to GM tabletop games for a group larger than nine. In PBeMs, 30 players is not unreasonable, though that almost inevitably means running several parties in the same world. Still, splintering is something that could happen in any case, and with a larger number of PCs the groups tend to remain bigger.

Pace The Story Right And Take The Reins When Needed

Something to keep in mind in PBeMs is that the pace is far different from other forms of roleplaying. Errors done remain so, and it may be days before they are even noticed. Running combats action by action causes a small skirmish to take weeks of real time to run. Player absenteeism due to real life obstacles, computer malfunctions, vacations, or whatever, can take weeks at a time. This alters the pace of the story.

In each update, the game should advance significantly – such as, through half a battle rather than through the first roll of initiative.At times, this may mean that the GM takes over a character for a moment, deciding what the character would do or think or say in a situation that is surprising, or where action from the character is required but the player remains quiet.

Think In Terms Of Interactive Writing 

Running a PBeM is like something between writing a book and editing a journal. Keeping the story fairly open-ended would seem to work very well, but that may be a matter of style. I personally prefer improvising, “seat of the pants” style to preparing everything beforehand–the “tunnel vision” style. Background stories and past chapters affect player actions, which in turn are essential to the next chapter.

As each chapter depends on player input, past chapters and whatever background material there may be strive to make each of those as good as it can be. Background material, consisting of maps, stories, legends, and especially PC character sheets, is the founding stone of the story. It provides the starting point for any adventure and goal the PCs may choose to pursue.

Giving each character challenges and opportunities to look good (at least in his own eyes, if nothing else) helps to make the game entertaining to the players, and helps the GM through the effect on player input and thereby past chapters.Any GM should strive to be fair, entertaining, and challenging. This is no different in PBeM, but the format of the game changes the way each of the three is pursued. In my opinion, the first duty of a PBeM GM is to the story.

The story is what the GM provides, more so than in tabletop and much more than in LARP, where a far greater portion of the story is written (acted, actually) by the players instead of the narrators.A PBeM story can be quite challenging to the PCs, yet in a different way from tabletop games. Combat encounters, traps, and puzzles are not as hectic as they are on tabletop as PBeM combat takes days or weeks to run.

Traps are generally the bailiwick of only few of the player characters, and puzzles may mean solitary contemplation which shoots PC-to- PC interaction in the foot. All those have a place in PBeM games as well, of course, but the focus should be on social interaction, something that comes more naturally in a game where everyone is present in the same room, around the same pizza.

As for fair, it is an ideal. To keep the story flowing, a PBeM GM can’t check and double-check everything from the players. Assumptions must take place. Asking players to provide contingencies, long-term goals and strategies for their characters, and detailed character sheets does not avoid this, but they do help the GM make the right assumptions – and that is a crucial part of what fairness means in PBeMs.

Tips Request: “PBeM, IRC, Chat Roleplaying” 

I’d like to feature more PBeM issues in the future. However, except for a short PBeM that I ran in ’92 on the Revelations BBS using a 2400 Baud modem , I have no experience with them. So, I’d like to request two things:

  1. PBeM, Chat, IRC tips
  2. PBeM, Chat, IRC problems you have so I know what tips to ask for from experts like Aki, who wrote this week’s article.

Send your tips and tips requests to: [email protected]


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use The Scrabble Game For Names; Alternate Sources of Information in the City

From Dr.X

Alien Names:

All right, not all of us are going to be playing fantasy. During a long-running Star Wars campaign, I started having trouble coming up with new names for people, aliens and planets. 3d6 and a Scrabble bag provided the answer.

Roll 3d6. Pull that many letters from the bag.
Roll 1d6. 1-3, the word has a hyphen in it somewhere, 4-6, it doesn’t.
Roll 1d6. 1-3, there’s an apostrophe, 4-6, none.

Try to make a name out of the letters. If you can’t, roll another 3d6 and add that many letters to the mix. SOMETHING will form.

Some of the names that came about using this system:
Sultry Pirate Queen: Jeneb Flux (Added a second x to make it Fluxx.)
Name of her pirate cartel: Boorezap Q’Jur
Alien Smuggler: Vale H’rt-Suhl
Tropical Planet: Sotie Aioteg
Fixer: Busixth Elivoret
Alien Ship: Q’wix Fynn

Alternate Sources of Information in the City:

A saloon that my players frequent in Deadlands is called “The Obligatory Tavern.” Every roleplayer knows, well, no longer even knows, it’s inscribed into your genetic makeup along with the role-playing gene: first thing, head to the tavern.

Nowadays, I’ve got the Posse (Technical term in the game, GM’s the Marshal, players are the Posse) trained so that the saloon is a rally point, and the first place they go for information is the town tailor.

It’s easy to understand why players think the bar’s where you go to get info: drink loosens peoples’ lips and they start gossiping and dispensing rumors. In fact, it’s to the point that other sources of information are often ignored. Think of places where people go for extended periods of nothing to do but sit or stand and talk: the tailor, the barber, the blacksmith’s. A character who’s friendly with the Law might be able to go into the Sheriff’s office and just sit and chat with the deputies.

Certain people, of course, tend to be tight-lipped for various reasons. Either professional obligation (doctor, lawyer, preacher) or personal agenda (reporter who’s got a scoop, politician worried about re-election–remember that politicians, especially in these old towns, often run an important local business, like the dry goods store) could make it difficult to elicit answers from certain people.

In these cases, a fellow member of their profession (or a character posing as one) might stand a better chance of getting to hear about an interesting client than a warrior attempting to intimidate the answers out of them.

And, of course, the phrase “Lunch is on me” is eternal.

If you’re running something using a present day setting (World of Darkness, etc.), is an excellent resource, detailing cities down to the locations of ATMs and pay phones.

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Curbing PC Excesses

From Arthur E.

The following is inspired by the recent thread on Running Cities, but it is not limited to urban settings.

PCs are typically among the most dangerous and unpredictable people in a game world. Many groups have a resident psychopath who may kill or steal for the fun of it. Even if there are no overtly crazy PCs, they often apply modern sensibilities in a game world with different mores. For example, PCs may decline to give way to a noble on the street or to pay taxes because the Players find it philosophically annoying to do so. For these kinds of reasons, PCs frequently go afoul of the law and they should not expect to evade it easily.

So, here are some things I have come up with in my game world to mitigate PCs’ tendencies to go wild or take undue advantage.

  1. Prisons are exceptionally well guarded, even in small towns. They are never made of weak material like wood– always stone and metal, maybe magic too, if the locals can afford it.
  2. Town guards/police/militia are smart. They use magic and technology to scry or detect criminals.
  3. In a world where transportation is expensive (horses, vehicles) stables are well guarded. There may be a stable boy, but there are also stable guards. Likewise with other expensive things–weapon shops, money lenders, etc.
  4. Guards hardly ever fall asleep while on active duty.
  5. NPCs are not very superstitious. A thin ruse playing on local fears is not likely to work. An involved ruse might work though.
  6. An entire community can be offended by PC actions, not just the powers in the community. For example, if PCs rob a temple, they will not just have to evade the town guard. There may be mobs, hit men and everyday good samaritans to rat them out.
  7. Organized crime usually has some kind of relationship with local powers. They may have exclusive contracts with officials over certain kinds of criminal activities.
  8. Enemies of PCs can be patient and smart. They can plan attacks and ambushes. They can wait until PCs are asleep.

I do not believe in placing PCs at the mercy of a game world. We all know that it is no fun to be deprived of options, or to have PC behavior be coerced. However, some limits are necessary.

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WoD Tips

From Ranko

Most WoD stuff needs to be created in advance, that is before the first session. Even more if politics are about to hit the characters in the face.

Please note that I do not like to mix different WoD games and do not see them as an integrated whole.

Cast and crew: After I have talked about the general issues of the campaign with the players, and have a rough idea of what I want to GM, I go and do the rough sketch of the vamps:

  1. Decide upon the number of vamps in the city, usually I do not follow the VtM demographics because I like my hometown of Zagreb, and raising it’s population to fit the WoD standards would ruin the atmosphere of the city.
  2. Now I like to decide on the rough outline of the power structure so I assign the number of vamps per clan.
  3. Using the assigned number, I give names to vamps of a clan. Then I think about their relations with each other. This usually ends up with me writing a lineage or two on an A4 paper. While writing the lineage of the local clan I make sure to put down: name, born – died (you might wish to add the period while the character was mortal too, it helps knowing if a guy lived through the high middle ages, or renaissance), a few general notes on the guy/gal (even if I killed him a century ago).I don’t shy from this part of the design process. I do it all, dead guys, failed embraces who are now Caitiff, the catatonic ones who got donated or sold to really old Kindred (the guys who need Kindred blood, as mortal is to weak for them). Doing all this stuff might seem a bit too much, but it is fun (well, to me it is) and you get to tell the players’ tales of their grand Sires and their kids, cousins etc.This is a good place (once you do more than one clan) to connect some of the older guys, who shared a coterie with whom, old loves/hates, etc.Lest I forget – fit the PCs in the lineage too : )(This is where you might design your local ____________(insert clan) lineage. For more on this I would suggest that you look up a really good article on [Vampire section].)
  4. Positions of power – who holds them and why. Map of relations within the power structure is really essential for a good WoD (VtM especially). Don’t forget to add aids and advisors. Change some of the titles – names or what they do.For example – I have a Ban (Croatian title) of Croatia (sort of Prince but on a larger scale), Zupans (also a very Slavic title; it is the one WW uses for Tzimisce) for towns and cities, Pristav in place of Sheriff, etc.
  5. Detailed design of key characters (this drags itself into the campaign time, don’t be afraid of it). Give them history, ghouls, mortal ‘friends’, family members, a life. Think about their areas of influence, ask yourself how they influence it (try talking with others to broaden your perspective on areas you know little or nothing about).

Hope this helps.