Tips on starting a Play By Email game

I’m going to talk a little bit about running a PBeM game, like I’ve been publishing here.


The first step is to decide whether or not you can handle writing a lot. Do you really enjoy writing, or is the writing something you’re willing to put up with in order to have some fun?

If you don’t enjoy writing, you are not going to carry through on the game. It’s just not going to happen. Enthusiasm will only take you so far.

So make sure you are willing to write a bunch.

Next, figure out how you intend to present the turns.

There are many different styles out there. When I first started looking at doing this years ago, there were some really nice, dedicated websites that talked about PBeM and also served as places for players to meet. They also provided guides and tips on getting started.

In the end I actually didn’t follow any of the advice, but hey. I had my own idea of what I wanted, and it wasn’t what I was seeing.

The point is, if you are interested in starting your own PBeM game, there are lots of awesome resources available, and if you just want to play in one, I know there used to be websites you could visit where open games were posted looking for more players to sign up. A little searching should hook you right up.

When I started this, most PBeM games that I saw at the time were almost like shorthand.

The turns themselves were about a paragraph of description at most, and then players would have to reply with thier turn decisions. You’d have a lot of the normal table chatter in the turn, and it would be very short. “I want to hit Mark’s character with a chair.” That kind of thing. A turn by turn account of what happened.

I decided that, while that would certainly simulate a tabletop role playing game, it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

Anyone ever play a live RPG game, and a single encounter like a bar brawl ends up taking 4 hours to finish all the combat rolls? And in the game, it was supposedly resolved in like 5 minutes?

Yeah, I didn’t want to spend 4 weeks of email resolving a bar brawl.

So what I decided to do was go the other direction. Instead of a turn based tabletop game converted into PBeM form, where each action of the characters is micro-managed by the players from second to second, in endless emails, I chose to write an interactive novel.

I took a setting, in this case a fantasy world I had created over many years as the setting for a trilogy of novels.

I decided what the general archtypes of characters that would fit into the setting would be. I laid out these archtypes for players to choose from, rather than character classes.

I had, just for an example, the third (and minor) son of a backwoods noble family that has studied Wizardry most of his life in an academy far from home, but aside from mastering the knowledge and lore, has never been able to actually force himself to be able to seize the flows of power and shape them to his will to perform magic.

You see? Not a class, like a mage, but a character foundation to build from that has built in story hooks.

Instead of AD&D rules, I chose GURPS, since the basic rules are available in PDF format for free, and it allows greater freedom in customizing a character to your own desires. I provided the GURPS rules in PDF, and my own homebrew character creation additions.

I laid out what rules I would be using for encounters and such, so that players could see how their choices made in character creation would affect them. However, I made it clear that once the game began, I would ask each player to use a web based dice rolling website to generate 10 dice rolls, the website emails them to me, and then as the player makes decisions, I use the next roll on the list. Once I run out of rolls, I ask for more. Once the game started, the rulebooks were tossed out the window, as far as the players are concerned. The only times they need to look at rules, is when they earn character points to improve themselves.

Everything the player handles during the live game is descriptive. “I’d like to try and convince the quartermaster to increase the amount of food he’ll give me, keeping him occupied on me. While I’m doing that, my squire will have been directed to casually walk down the aisles, looking around and poking into things looking for concealed bargains.”

The biggest thing about the game, is that each player has to make a character that has a rich and detailed background and history. A defined personality, hopes for the future, goals, fears, prejudices, and tendencies when faced with different situations.

When the game began, I took the character and background, determined how someone meeting him would see the character, and what impressions they would make. I determined what kind of reputation the character would have with different peoples, and what kind of reaction he would tend to get. And I took into account the advantages and disadvantages the player took for their character.

Hold on, let me see if I still have something….

Okay, found them. After I post this, I’ll post what I’m talking about, the descritions of Terin and Lauchlin from the point of view of someone meeting them on the road or at home.

Okay, back to the game.

After I had the characters, I designed a basic plotline that would serve as a solid introduction and settling in period. Nothing to last too long or get too complicated, but that would still have tons of stuff for the player to get into.

Then, I wrote the first story section, writing dialogue and interactions based on what the player had created and provided as a background, until I reached the very first decision point.

At that time, armed with a knowledge of what the situation is, and seeing what decisions are in front of him, the player wrote me an email explaining, in as much detail as possible, what they want to try to do next, and, anticipating as much as they can how things might go,what they would try to do after that.

Again, intentions, actions, overall approach to a situation. In specific cases, dialogue.

In some situations where the conversation can have a massive affect on how an encounter goes, possibly leading directly into battle, such as when Jessie encountered the Dryad, we went into Instant Messenger and did the conversation live.

When I get a player’s reply, I then sit down, plot out what happens and use rolls where appropriate to go as far as I can until we reach another main decision point and I need more guidance.

Then I actually write the turn, knowing how the events worked out and just writing it all out. I write the dialogue where I don’t have specific guidance, based on the character the player created and what I have been told about his personality, and also based on how the player may have been changing their approach or intentions.

For example, Jessie is starting to intellectualize that the Orcs are puppets being manipulated by the Dryad who is using them to kill the humans she loathes. However, emotionally, she still feels hatred and bloodlust for them, because she took those as disadvantages at character creation. The Orcs slaughtered her family, and she just can’t let that go in her heart. As time goes on, Manny has told me he intends to save points to buy off those disadvantages, but in the story there has to be a gradual change in her personality, and a growing awareness and softening to explain it.

When combat happens for characters, I ask for a description of what tactics the player intends to try.

However, once the fight starts, I base how each person fights not just on a point value for a skill, but also on how it was trained. There is a big difference in two people who each have a 17 longsword skill, if one has it because of very high natural dexterity and minimal trained skill, and the other one has it because of average dexterity and very high, intensive professional training.

In my game the difference between natural talent and trained skill is very important, and studying from various different teachers, using different methods on the fly, feeling out an opponent and testing their defenses and skill can have a serious impact on how a fight plays out.

I also take into account the ‘mental game’, the way different attitudes can affect how each person fares in a situation.

So far, I think it’s working well.

My biggest intent for the game, is to truly make it an interactive story.

While I am writing each turn, I am using the guidance of the player for what their character will do next. And if a player chooses to do something, then that is what will happen, and we go from there.

I do have a single large plotline for this, but the truth is that along the way there has been a lot of change from how I imagined it would go. Not really so much with Terin, but with Jessie a lot of change has happened.

The world setting I created is pretty big, and the timeline was fleshed out with the knowledge that nothing stands still. Life is going on, everywhere, all at once. And with that being known, I have hundreds of plots and activities going on everywhere. Manny knows, he’s played in this world before. Duck! lol

So while I have a single overall plotline that both Terin and Jessie are still a part of, if Jessie decided that instead of trusting Bane and working with her, she chose to listen to the ball of hate in her gut that whispers that Bane once willingly lived with and aided the Orcs, then if Jessie decided to abandon Bane and her purpose and either attack her directly, or strike out on her own under cover of darkness, the world is big enough that there are lots more adventures waiting just down the road.

The important thing to me is that the players still have control over the journey their characters take, but at the same time there is that rushing sensation of real life, of being slightly out of control and caught up in events as they happen.

I think it would be very satisfying if the big plotline somehow survived enough for everything to come together in a big ‘holy shit moment’ for everyone to enjoy, but if the players, in making their decisions, go an unexpected way, I try not to let on. I want them to never be sure if what they are doing is what I expected.

So I have a story, a plotline, and general ideas of how things COULD go… but I also have things in the entire area going on, and what players decide to do drives what happens next.

In fact, this started with one player, Manny. When I mentioned it to James, Manny had been playing for a while already. James was interested in playing, so he made a character and everything… and it was very easy to insert him right into the world on one of the other plotlines, and just tweak things a bare smidgion so that it became likely the two would intersect.

Having lots going on, that can be brought to the foreground or just left to simmer on the backburner is highly convenient when players take an unexpected turn.

I hope that all somehow helps.

Speaking just for myself, linear storylines, in my opinion, suck. But branching storylines, to be fun, each have to eventually lead somewhere important.

The players may not be the most important people in the world, or be involved in averting the most critical disaster in the world, but they must be the center of the story, and they must be involved in very important things.

So to me, there must be a lot of options for me to feel freedom to play a character, but at the same time, know that at the end of the road lies high adventure.

How many people read those ‘Create your own adventure’ books?

How many people tried many different decisions in the book, trying to get the ‘good’ ending? The one ending that it seemed was the only one fleshed out and satisfying, and that all the other endings felt like afterthoughts of one paragraph or less?

Yes, you should try to make sure that whatever happens, the ‘ending’ the players will reach is still a nice, big satisfying one.

I like the feeling, as a player, that if I wander into a town, and stumble into a tavern, road weary and covered with dust, that if I make an effort to sit down, get some stew, and listen to the babble of conversations around me, that what I overhear will contain more than just what I need to know to get to the next step of the story. That there is more going on in this town than what the GM created in two minutes to move me to the next part in his scripted plot.

Maybe I’ll overhear a farmer complaining to a neighbor over ale that the foxes are getting into his chickens, no matter what he tries to do to stop them.

Maybe I’ll overhear that the taxman has been around more than is fair, and they are being made to pay more than their share of the crops’ market value, but the local Baron hasn’t been seen for a month now, and refuses to hear the local’s pleas. And from the murmur of the crowd, he is getting lots of agreement… and some angry faces indicate there may be trouble ahead.

Maybe I’ll hear the local blacksmith bragging that the new metal his lad found in a lump in the back forty of John Hacksorts’ cabbage field is much harder to work at the forge and takes greater heat to make malleable, but is resulting in a fine, supple steel, both strong and flexible, when worked for long hours at the folding and shaping. Too bad the lad only brought back a small piece that broke off a bigger rock. The lad swears there was a mighty big rock of the stuff, but when he got back there with a cart and tackle big enough to try to move it, there was nothing there but an empty hole in the ground.

And maybe I’ll overhear caravan guards complaining at being stuck in this backwater town, because the pass through the valley ahead has been closed by the Baron’s guards for a week now while work crews are supposedly clearing away a rock slide that is blocking the pass.

What is important? What should I pay attention to? What has to do with my quest?

Well… maybe nothing. Maybe they are all alligators meant to entice me into side adventures that have nothing to do with my original mission, draining the swamp.

Maybe none of them lead to real adventure, but have mundane causes. Or maybe not.

But the feeling of having the freedom to decide for myself what sounds interesting to check out… or nothing at all, is what I enjoy the most in playing a live RPG. Do I follow up on a rumor? Keep focused on my quest? Or do my own thing as wanderlust catches me and takes hold. Do I follow the wild geese?

Hell, why not slip the bartender some money under the counter, and feel him out as to the gambling opportunities in town? Is there a backroom game of cards going on somewhere?

What about legal (or illegal) bare fisted fights, with betting on the victor? I bet I can take ’em all, last man standing!

What trouble can I get into on my own, in keeping with the character I am playing?

Is there a temple I could visit, to pay my respects and pray for guidance in my upcoming journey?

That’s the kind of freedom I love in a game, the freedom I want players to have in making their own decisions. At the same time, I want the players to feel they can trust that, whatever they decide to do or wherever they choose to go, the journey will be fun and the destination will be challenging.

I hope some of this helps you get an idea for how I set up and run the game. Any questions?


4 thoughts on “Tips on starting a Play By Email game

  1. Didn’t read much of the article, just the first few paragraphs, but I think I can add.

    If an e-mail game is too much there are free alternatives like OpenRPG, it’s basically an IRC client with the ability to show a board, design and keep character sheets, and has an active community.

    It’s just another option if you can’t adhere to the email alternative.


  2. Wow! Thank you for the detailed response. Creating a living world was the part I had the hardest time with in running games. Mostly I just offered my players a choice between a couple adventures whenever they finished with the previous one.

    I don’t think I have enough of a love for writing to pursue this kind of game, but it’s still fun to read about it.


  3. Back in my rpg days i would have loved to have you as a DM. The one I played with always made or personalities part of our characters, why i still think that way when I play mmo’s. I guess once a chaotic good paladin always a chaotic good paladin. Great read as always 3B


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