Stress-Free Gaming and Time and Character Advancement in PbEM

From Kate Manchester

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0456

A Brief Word from Hannah

Great Military Sci-fi Series

I just started reading the Posleen War series by John Ringo (also called the Legacy of the Aldenata series). They’re fantastic military sci-fi, with just enough military and technology jargon to set the tone without completely baffling the reader.

Tough heroes, tougher heroines, and plenty of gritty heroism to go around. Plus, lots of great aliens, each with their own version of just who should be in charge of the universe. All that, and one awesome mechanized battle suit.

The series gets less military and more espionage-y around book #5, Cally’s War. So if you prefer spies over soldiers, skip straight to that.

I wouldn’t suggest the books for kids – there’s some mature situations, and I don’t just mean gore. But it’s got a great balance of action, snappy dialogue, character growth, and alien psychology. If you’re running any kind of sci-fi or cyberpunk game with military involvement, I highly recommend checking it out.

Posleen War #1, A Hymn Before Battle,

The 99

A little while ago, I stumbled across a relatively new superhero comic called The 99. It’s unique in that it’s based on Islamic mythology.

The premise is that 99 magical stones symbolizing the 99 names of Allah are scattered throughout the world. When wielded by the proper person, they each bestow fantastic powers. The idealistic Dr. Ramzi and villainous Rughal are both racing to find the stones and their wielders, each planning to use their power to reshape the world according to his own vision.

This comic is great for two different reasons: it puts a more positive face on Islam than what we usually see in the news, and it shows that you can find inspiration in anything.

When I’m planning a game, I usually look to classical mythology for inspiration; it never occurred to me to look to religion. As soon as I read about The 99, I thought, “Something like that would make an awesome campaign.”

I’ve read the first couple of issues, and while they’re clearly aimed at kids, there’s subtle jokes thrown in there for adults as well. Whether you’re a long-time superhero fan, or just want to get inspired by something a little different, I suggest checking The 99 out.

The 99:

Stress-Free Gaming and Time and Character Advancement in PbEM

Play by e-mail (PbEM) games offer a lot of advantages over face-to-face games: they can be fit into any kind of busy schedule, players don’t have to live near each other, and pausing to look up the rules doesn’t slow down the game. The format even encourages many players to be more descriptive, making it easier for normally shy players to really get into roleplaying their characters.

Unfortunately, PbEM games also have their down sides. Two aspects of the game that can be difficult to manage are time and character advancement.

Time as Days

The passage of time in a PbEM game is one of the largest problems a GM has to face. A single day of game time can take over three months of actual time, which can easily stall your grand plans while you’re waiting for someone to post.

In a tabletop game, the passage of time can be critical to the success of the mission. For example, in Shadowrun, PCs often order items that take several weeks to arrive. D&D settings often have holy days or events scheduled for a certain day of the year. If your PbEM begins in early October, you might have to wait a very long time until All Hallow’s Eve approaches.

So how do you deal with the passage of time?

One way is to tell your players you want their PCs to accomplish certain goals before calling an end to the day. Once the goals are met, you advance the story to the following night and establish a new set of goals.

For example, day one could involve the PCs coming together. The goal for this night would be for the party to agree to work together and perhaps start making arrangements for the following day. The next game day would be spent traveling, with the goal being to reach a certain spot.

Time as Chapters

Another way of handling the problem is to break the game into chapters composed of individual scenes or stories. Once the chapter concludes, you advance the storyline.

By either polling the players or deciding unilaterally, you establish how much time will pass between chapters; typically, a period between one day and one year. During this downtime, players can opt to spend any XP they might have gained during the course of the previous chapter.

They can also decide on their PC’s actions during the downtime. For example, having concluded the current story arc, the GM decides one month will pass between chapters. The player of Stella D’Oro, mage extraordinaire, decides Stella will spend this month researching new spells.

The player could then choose to create a post of Stella’s travels to the Wizard’s Guild to learn these spells, and how she created a mud puddle underneath the feet of the bully that had terrorized her as a young girl.

Skip Ahead

Sometimes it’s a good idea to advance an unfinished storyline.

PbEM games have a bad habit of stalling. The GM gets too busy with real life, the players have issues keeping them from posting, or sometimes it’s due to a lessening of interest in the current storyline.

If your game stalls for a month or more, it’s probably best to resume play with a fresh day. Wrap things up if you feel it necessary, but don’t take more than a couple weeks doing it or you could lose valuable momentum. Tying things up in one long post may be the best course of action.

As the GM, you have the option of how you wish to handle the restart. Time is always on the GM’s side.

Awarding Experience Points

Not all PbEMs offer the possibility of character advancement. But in my opinion, the ones that do tend to be the longest running. I think this is because it gives the player a reason to be more committed to their PC and thus to the game.

The most common method of character advancement is through the periodic distribution of XP. However, if you treat a PbEM like a weekly game and give out XP accordingly, you wind up with an odd dilemma.

Since time passes so slowly in PbEMs, it’s easy to gain two to three months of XP before even a single day of game time has passed. This discrepancy makes it difficult to justify large expenditures of XP, as you can easily wind up with characters that start the day at a low level and end the day at a high one!

So how exactly do you deal with this problem? The first method would be limiting the amount of XP PCs can earn. Instead of letting characters gain XP each week, perhaps they could gain it once a month or once every two weeks.

The next possibility is to apply the laws of supply and demand to XP. Since you have a larger pool of XP to draw from, you could safely double or triple the XP needed to advance to a higher level.

For example, if it takes 3 points to raise a given stat, it could now take 6 points. If it takes 1,500 XP to go from level 1 to level 2, under the new system it will take 3,000 XP.

If you choose this option, I highly suggest you set this rule in place before you start running the PbEM to avoid confusion and disagreement. If you don’t have that luxury, discuss the matter with your players as soon as you can.

If your setting allows it, you could consider allowing the sacrifice of XP towards accomplishing a goal. For example, during a Shadowrun session, our party’s mage sacrificed some of the XP she’d earned to get a favorable result from the spirit she was attempting to parley with. You could also allow players to use XP to get an automatic success on something important.

Another possibility is to create a new item to purchase. In the PbEM I have started running again, the previous Storyteller opted to create Fate Points as a means of spending XP.

You can use Fate Points to give you extra dice for an important roll, to re-roll failed attempts to gain a better result, to gain an automatic success per Fate point used, or even to escape the jaws of death entirely. Fate points are spent permanently regardless of how they were used.

Alternatives to XP

You could also use the passage of time as a means of advancement. For example, on the game’s one-year anniversary, you could offer each player their choice of an advantage – raising a skill, gaining an item, learning a new spell, etc. Or you could use chance to make the determination.

As mentioned before, you could also reward good roleplaying with things that are a bit less tangible than skills or items. For example, if Astara attends the party of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, she could strike up a conversation with Darnell, a traveling merchant, who offers her a discount on any purchase she wishes to make. A PC rarely has too many allies.

In a game where skills are used, you could reward players with advantages if a character is exceptionally successful on a test of that skill or simply roleplays a scene well. In a game with levels, you could occasionally award items or spells to the players.

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Play by Email/Post games are a great way to get in some extra GMing time and hone your writing skills.

Hopefully these tips will make running it a little easier.

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The Gamemaster’s Arsenal

Stress-Free Gaming

From John Lewis

Welcome to The Game Master’s Arsenal, the column dedicated to arming GM’s everywhere with the skills, knowledge, and creative energy necessary to provide the best possible gaming experience for their players. Regardless of rules, system, or genre, the Arsenal aims to give you a variety of tools designed to make your responsibility as a game master easier, more enjoyable, and to leave you and your players inspired by the stories you will craft together.

Over the years my style and approach while running a roleplaying game has changed and evolved. When I was younger I spent the game session scribbling notes, rolling dice, consulting charts and tables, and frantically trying to anticipate my players’ actions and keep them on my pre- determined story track.

Oftentimes the players would throw me off by wanting to go somewhere I hadn’t planned on or designed yet, by interacting with an NPC I hadn’t fleshed-out, or by taking a totally unexpected course of action.

We’ve all been there. These are moments of pure GM frustration, when players go “off the map”. Sometimes I would just wing it and hope for the best; other times I would stop the game for a while to readjust and compensate for the new direction things were going. Both of these techniques worked to varying degrees but not without adding stress to my life and completely disrupting the game.

These days when I sit down behind the game master’s screen I do it with the confidence and knowledge that virtually nothing is going to throw me off or derail the game. I’m ready for whatever the players want to do and wherever they want to go.

My personal arsenal is fully loaded and ready to tackle whatever lies ahead. I know what you are thinking. I already hear you asking; “John how did you get to this point? What’s the secret to the stress free game? What do I need to do to approach my game with this level of confidence and self-assuredness?”

In answer, here are some ways for making life as GM easier, for making the game fun to play, and for putting the master back in game master.

Change Your Focus

In the past when I would begin laying out a campaign I found I was very player character-focused. My mindset had me thinking about how the PCs would do something, or when an event would happen to the PCs, or what the PCs would do.

Although it is critical to remember the players and their characters are the focus of the story while actually playing, they are not necessarily the focus while designing the campaign.

These days when I design a new campaign I start by focusing on the setting and the NPCs. I like to establish a feel for the places and things that are going to be important during the campaign.

Even before I have a theme, a primary antagonist, or plot line in mind it’s critical for me to know the setting, to have an understanding of how its components work together without interference.

When I have a feel for the setting in general I begin thinking about the people within it, more specifically, who they are, why they are there, and what they want. This frequently brings to mind possible plot or sub-plot ideas.

Once I have some idea about the people in the setting I move on to thinking about my antagonist. At this point I don’t need to think about goals or motivations, just what type of antagonist the campaign will feature. This could be a power- mad despot, a criminal organization, a psychotic serial killer, or even an everyman out for revenge.

Once I have an idea about the campaign’s antagonist I beginning thinking about what they want and how they are going to get it. In my mind I begin telling the story from the villain’s point of view. I think about where the villain will go, who he will ally with, what he is going to do, and what he has already done. I have found it is much easier to envision the antagonist’s plans at this point without thinking about how it will interact with the PC’s.

In a nutshell, I imagine how the campaign will evolve for the antagonist barring any influence or interference from outside sources or random factors. Enter the PCs, or as I like to call them, the random factors.

Changing your design focus makes it much less work to remain flexible and adapt to the infinite variety of unforeseeable things your players and their characters do. Reacting to the characters’ actions is much easier than anticipating them.

Once you begin thinking from the antagonist’s and the world’s point of view, it usually becomes self-evident what will happen in response to any course of action the PCs choose to take.

A clear understanding of what the bad guys are trying to achieve makes it easier to figure out how their plans will change when they’re interfered with. When you eliminate the need to anticipate the actions of the player characters, life as a GM becomes much less complicated.

Remember, focus your energy on the characters you control, not the ones you don’t.

You Run the World, not the Other Way Around

As GMs we continually design and create worlds. Even when we use published settings we still take great liberties with the design for our individual campaigns. However, in an effort to design a realistic and exciting setting many GMs frequently back themselves into a corner.

We do this without even realizing it every time we place a dungeon on a map, when we pick a specific location for some climactic battle, or even when we decide when an event will occur. Once we commit to some specific time, place, or event within the campaign we often become completely inflexible about it.

I use to do this all of the time. I would design a great location for some fantastic encounter, make it the scene for the final confrontation with some arch-villain, and then I would place it somewhere on my map.

The only problem was the minute I placed it somewhere, whether on a physical map or in my mind’s eye, I felt committed to its location and its circumstances. I would place myself in a position where I was forced to find a way to get my players to that location or to make those circumstances occur. By doing this I allowed the world to control my game and dictate the things I needed to do to make my story work.

The secret to overcoming this is for the GM to not fear having a lack of commitment. I know this goes against everything your parents, boss, and significant other has been saying to you, but it is one of the secret keys to stress-free game mastering. I like to think of it as the Schrodinger’s Cat Theory of campaign management.

For those of you unfamiliar with Schrodinger’s Cat (and if you call yourself a geek you should be familiar with it), it is a thought experiment in which a cat is placed into a box wherein there is a 50/50 chance of the cat being killed. How the cat might die is irrelevant here (maybe it’s a one hit point minion) but Schrodinger suggested that until we actually look into the box we don’t know the cat’s fate, and furthermore the cat’s fate may in fact, be undetermined until we look into the box.

So what does Schrodinger, his cat, and your lack of commitment have to do with being a better GM? Be flexible. Only the part of your world the characters are actually interacting with needs to be in solid, sharp focus with a sense of permanence.

Many of the aspects of your world can be safely tucked away in the box with Schrodinger’s Cat. They can exist in a state of flux, ready to be used when and where you need them until the characters open the box and reality is forced to take shape.

When I game master there are many static features in my campaign; most of the villages, cites, and geographic features of the world are fixed and in permanent locations.

However, there are still many aspects of the campaign area I leave “in the box”. Say for example I design a haunted tower. I won’t commit to its location until I’m forced to. Then when I need to use it I can place it in the characters’ path.

It won’t appear in a place in which the characters have actually been and they know there has never been a tower there (unless it is some sort of “ghost-tower” or something), but it will appear when I need it and once the characters “look in the box”.

This reduces GM stress in a couple of ways. First, I don’t have to worry about how to get the characters to the tower. I don’t have to drop a bunch of “subtle” hints or worry about “railroading” the characters. Second, it helps maintain the illusion of free-will for the characters. This approach works for events, locations, NPCs, almost anything.

Many of the elements of your campaign are things that can remain in the box until you decide that it has been opened.

Remember, flexibility is the hallmark of the stress-free GM.

Just say Yes

One of the things stressed to GMs in the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the idea of saying yes to players instead of saying things like no you can’t, or no your character wouldn’t do that.

I’m a huge fan of this concept. Nothing kills the illusion of free-will like saying no to the players. Don’t be afraid to let your players attempt anything. Remember, even if success is virtually (or even completely) impossible it doesn’t mean that some fool, I mean PC, shouldn’t be allowed to give it a try.

It’s completely fair to let the players know the chances for success are slim to none, but never simply tell them no. Besides running the risk of making the game less enjoyable for your players, you are missing a golden opportunity to let the game grow on its own accord instead of you always having to be at the helm.

Why are some game masters unwilling to say yes? There are a lot of reasons. Sometimes the GM hasn’t anticipated the characters’ actions, so feeling the pinch they say no. If this is you go back and read the first section Change Your Focus.

Others might not feel prepared for where a yes might take them. If this sounds like you go back to the second section,

You Run the World, not the Other Way Around, and read that again.

However, many GMs I know are afraid to say yes because they are unsure of a game mechanic or feel they don’t know the rules well enough. Never let the rules get in the way of a good time. In some cases rules aren’t even necessary, but if you feel they are, keep in mind that virtually every game has some sort of core mechanic – use it. Pick a stat, roll against it. When all else fails simply assign a percentage chance for success and roll away.

The important thing to realize is saying yes actually makes your job easier by allowing players to exercise character free-will and being able to do virtually whatever they want; players love that. It also helps build player/game master trust. In some campaigns the GM begins to seem like an unyielding authority figure, someone who is always telling the players no and forcing the story upon them.

When a group of players has trust in their GM he becomes a partner in the story-telling, not a dictator, and he shares in the group experience. This kind of relationship eliminates many of the problems that can come up at the table, greatly reducing GM stress, and that is the key to allowing your best game to come forward.

Let the Players do the Work

One of the most stressful parts of being the game master is the responsibility of continually providing new, thrilling, and creative adventures that characters are emotionally invested in and players are excited to undertake.

The pressure to turn out great stories and adventures can easily cause GM burnout and make running a game feel more like a job than a beloved hobby. The key to staying fresh and keeping your creativity up is remembering most of us GMs do a lot more work than is strictly necessary when it comes to creating great stories. We tend to forget that our number one resource for inspiration and motivation are the players sitting around our table.

Earlier I talked about designing the campaign without focusing on the PCs. Although this helps reduce the frustration of anticipating the characters’ actions it doesn’t do much to connect them to the story.

This is where character hooks become the bridge between your story and the characters’ stories. Need to motivate characters into action? Use an old friend or ally. Want the players to care about a community? Make it a character’s hometown. Need an assassin for your arch villain to send against the characters? Of course – it’s an old enemy with a vendetta. All of these NPCs might seem like a lot of work, but let me share a little shortcut with you; make the players do the work.

When I’ve finished laying out a few general aspects of the campaign (see Change Your Focus above) I sit back with the players while they create their characters. I like to help the players come up with interesting backgrounds, character hooks, and ties to each other.

Among other things, I ask players to come up with some NPCs, at least three friends or allies, three rivals, three mentors or contacts, and at least one true enemy. These don’t have to be more than a name and a one or two sentence description, but right away I have 20 – 40 custom made NPCs for the campaign that tie directly to the characters.

This, combined with a background consisting of at least a place of birth and two or three notable life events, and I have plenty of inspiration for dozens of great adventures.

In my campaigns, I usually have one or two primary plot arcs designed for the overall story. Oftentimes however, that isn’t enough to carry an entire campaign, or they simply don’t dominate every part of the campaign level-to-level. Enter the character hooks; they are an excellent resource to mine for adventure ideas and sub-plots.

These act as mini-stories within the greater plot line that help tie each individual character into the campaign and make each of the players feel like they are part of something greater. This not only takes some pressure off the GM by giving him some ideas to work with, but also helps build verisimilitude in the world.

Using your players’ own creativity to help fuel yours goes well beyond simply assisting you as the GM; it also makes the players connect with the world and keep them emotionally invested in the events that transpire there.

Once your players feel their characters are the story and not just in the story, the game truly becomes a shared experience, and that motivates the entire group to work together to produce an excellent game. Sharing the workload is another key to stress-free game mastery.

Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride

All of the ideas presented here were designed to help you relax and have more fun while running the game. By using the tips and techniques presented above you should find the stress and anxiety that sometimes comes with running a roleplaying game to be greatly reduced. With time you might even find yourself feeling more like a player and less like the person in charge.

Hopefully you will be able to shift your role as game master from director, needing to control everything and keep the players on track, to story participant, watching events unfold around you and being pleasantly surprised by where “your” story takes the group.

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About the Author John Lewis has been a game master of numerous RPG’s since the early ’80’s, back when the rules were obscure, dice were poorly made, and hair was big. These days between a career and raising three teenagers, he still finds time to run a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game, a periodic Dark Heresy game, and write articles about gaming over at

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share in the ezine? Send it to [email protected] – thanks!

Heroes as Enemies

From Mike Bourke


In article, #453: 5 Uses for Heroes, you overlooked one of my favorite uses for heroes:

Use #6: Enemies

There’s always someone somewhere who holds a higher (or just plain different) standard of morality than yours.

Perhaps they are trying to do the right thing, but are prepared to pay a higher cost than the PCs. Perhaps they target the PCs as infidels. Perhaps they have been misled by a genuine villain.

Heroes make some of the best enemies, because they make the players question just what the right thing to do is.

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Turn Cards

From Loz Newman

I play a lot of board games, and some of them very thoughtfully provide cards (about the size of a playing card) recapping the sequence of stages in a typical game turn.

So I extended this principal to a couple of role-playing games. I made up short list of the stages of a typical game turn, printed them and put them in some of those card- holders used for collectable card games, ones with nice game-themed paintings on the back.

An example:

1) Initiative (Movement+Domain)

2) 1/2-move or reserve for Dodge

3) Declare attack type and target

Damage = Attack roll + Weapon

minus Def roll + Armour

(Attack roll < Concealment = miss)

4) Stunned? Life loss > 50% = KO

If 25% < loss < 50%: test Life

5) Cross off ammo/Mana points

6) 1/2-move or reserve for Dodge

If there’s too much information for just one side, split it into two and use totally transparent card holders that allow you to see both sides.

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Creating While Commuting

From Ben

I know a lot of users will have a laptop, but sometimes using a laptop can be impractical for use when traveling, especially if you are a commuter and don’t often get to sit down. And carrying a laptop everywhere can be a complete nightmare.

Step forward the humble 3g phone. I have a BlackBerry Pearl and installed the GMail application onto the phone. I find this brilliant for forming the skeletons of encounters, stats for creatures, and so on.

I can write them into the application and email them to myself. Then I access them at home at my desktop or at work on my laptop, and expand them at my leisure.

I spend a lot of time commuting around, especially going to my gaming group (I commute about an hour to get to the group), so using that time effectively is a real bonus when I GM.

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The SCP Foundation

From That One Guy with The Face

I recently stumbled across a website that has just over one thousand “subjects” for horror or science fiction roleplaying. It is really quite astounding how much is actually there, and the way it is presented is just awesome. Check it out if you have a chance.

SCP Foundation

One of my personal favorites is “The Sculpture”, seen here SCP-173

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Lethal Secrets

From Steven R.

I would like to input some advice for GMs across the globe regarding character creation and hidden secrets. Our group is currently running a fantasy GURPS game run by one of our two GMs. One of the characters was created with a secret that, we were told, cannot be seen by any other players or it would ruin the concept of what was going to happen.

We found out this past weekend the character secret was that he is an active member of an enemy nation’s militia or something similar. We were trying to rescue a client captured by that enemy nation as we tried to sneak through, and in the course of the rescue attempt, the aforementioned character turned on several weaker members of the group and attempted to kill them along with the rest of the group. Fortunately, the attempt was thwarted.

The bad thing was that the GM allowed this to happen. Wrong thing to do! It is fine to allow a character to do this if under evil influence, loved ones held captive, brain-washed, etc. The character was not under any influence of said parameters. Allowing players to willingly cause character deaths is very wrong unless it is a group of evil people. If they are evil, please, kill each other off.