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I've played in a couple of play-by-post games over the last couple of years, and they've all ended more-or-less unsatisfactorily. Usually posting would slowly wind down until we hit a bottleneck of some kind and it stopped entirely. If you have ever run or played in a PBP or PBEM of this kind that survived more than a couple of months: What techniques and measures in the area of system, style, social contract, or otherwise work to make a game like this maintain player engagement and game momentum?

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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/9624/… –  wraith808 Oct 17 '13 at 14:08
    
I wouldn't consider a PBP that dies of inactivity after a few weeks a failure. As long as it gets off the ground and is fun for a while, it was worth doing. –  Brilliand Apr 10 at 19:18

9 Answers 9

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Oddysey. I've run several successful PBPs and several unsuccessful ones. (It's been a very long time since I did PBEM.) These are based on my own experiences only. My advice may be incoherent as I'm going off the cuff and have taken a lot of allergy meds today.

I usually set up a phpBB-based forum solely for use with the PBP, rather than using an area of someone else's forum. It makes it much easier for me to administer and tweak.

I set up custom ranks for each player to indicate which character he or she is playing, which makes it easier for the players and myself to keep things straight. I encourage avatar use as well.

The paramount concern in PBP, in my experience, is having active players. I ask for some kind of substantive post at least once a day. Stagnation is doom in the PBP realm ... once things slow down, heat death follows. If I can't post for a few days - which happens - I let everyone know, and expect the same.

One thing I discovered running a City State of the Invincible Overlord PBP a couple years back is that too many options at the beginning of play can lead to decision paralysis as the players try to decide what to do. In a dungeon-type game, I'd recommended starting at the adventure site, getting stuck in, then getting to the roleplaying after the players have the swing of things. In a story-type game, I'd consider starting in media res, like with a chase scene or something that gets the players thinking in-character quickly.

Another advantage of having your own forum is that you can easily set up "private" forums, each of which only a given player can see. This is useful for "note passing," keeping track of xp and private conversations, and so on without having to go through a backlog of PMs.

I usually have an out-of-character forum for intros, general discussion, and metagame stuff, and an in-character forum for actual play. I devote a separate thread to each "delve," as I'm currently running an OD&D campaign.

Finally, I'd avoid excessive infodump. It's great for you, as the referee, to know lots about your setting, but I'd keep the early background to just enough to give the players a sense of things and parcel the rest out through play.

Hope this helps a bit ... if I can be of any more assistance, especially in the area of setting up a phpBB-based forum, please let me know.

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I ran a PBeM game for several years, and have done a number of successful and "failed" with others. I've only done free-form this way, though. (I call it "Collaborative Fiction" when talking to non-nerds.)

One of the keys to keep things going is to be continually recruiting. New blood keeps things alive. For a free-form PBeM, I'd suggest at least 6 players minimum; I prefer 8-10 as my ideal. I've also found some sort of public "standard" helps greatly -- "I will post at least once a week" sort of thing. I've tried "Just post when you're able" games, and they tend to grind to a halt in pretty short order as you've described.

You also want to find and nurture the leader-sorts within the group -- you want people who will kick the group when it slows down too much, either by throwing in new ideas or plot twists or whatever else. You also need to be willing to cut a plot/storyline/quest closed when things start to flag, and start up a fresh new one again -- in my experiences, about a month and a half is enough for a single storyline, which means if you throw in two weeks of down time between plots, you have a nice rough two-month schedule for plots.

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I have played in and run several PBeM games and as with the other posters, some have failed and some have not. One (sodiumnoir.com) ran for 10 years and it was eventually my failings that killed it in the end. I couldn't handle a disruptive but outwardly helpful player and they eventually ruined it for everyone. Even the person running the game is susceptable to the many things thta can kill a PBeM.

Here are my tips to add the other great advice when running an online game.

1) be strict with troublesome players. The number one killer of an online game is the guy who spoils it for everybody else. You have to keep a harsh control over disruptive influemces, espechially the ones who will spoil the game for you as the GM.

2) share the workload. If the game gets big, give your star players room to run thier own substories. Ask good players to help newbie players, treat it like a community event. If people offer to develope the website, let them.

3) keep everybody reined in to start with. No matter how great a player seems to be, don't let them stretch the rules of the setting or to create an 'unusual' character. make everybody, even your friends you already trust, prove themselevss first. Once they have shown that they are a benefit to this game and this setting, then you can let the good players do kinky things with their characters or even create seciond characters.

4) have a page for the rules of your game. make sure players know the way you deal with non posting and the like. An unyeilding system make sit much easy to deal with issues.

5) make sure players have access to you or the GM/storyteller. Make sure their access to him/her is structured and they don't bug the GM so much he starts to hate the game.

6) the number 2 killer is the GM/storyteller loosing interest. How you prevent this I have no idea. The best games I played in were run in chapters, with natural ends to each story. Even when the GM lost interest and the story fizzled out, they'd still run good stories in the past and that is what I remembered.

7) don't try to fix a lull in the game by throwing new stuff at it. Games can get drown in all the great ideas at times. Every player is a frustrated storyteller of some type and they will all want to throw cool subplots for their character at you. You will want to throw a bunch of cool things at them. Find a way of limiting that and you'll be a better man than I.

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6- You prevent the GM/storyteller losing interest by raising up replacement GM/storytellers to take over. I liked having a team of three or so to handle running things, although it then becomes important to fight against cliques. A group I started once lasted five years after I lost interest, due to well picked assistants. –  Trevel Aug 27 '10 at 18:58
    
Yeah, a situation i would have loved to have copied. However there are several things that can get in the way or even make that impossible. The style and content of the gam,e will usually be the deciding factor here. A generic setting with easily available ruels is often a good game to share / pass on the GM responsibilities. But a very personal / house rueld / or single GM driven game rarely survives for long without the central storyteller. –  Spikey Sep 7 '10 at 1:11

The biggest killer I've seen to online play for RPGs is combat with initiative order. So in terms of system, picking one that de-emphasises combat, or at least handles it equally would be necessary. Alternatively, some systems, like Burning Wheel have a combat system that isn't done step by step like most traditional systems, that lends itself better to PBP/E. Another thing is avoiding a system that requires checking against TNs. If you ahve to ask for permission before you declare your action, it really slows things down, but if you can just roll and determine the results yourself, you can string together several actions in a single post. This means d20 systems are a particularly bad fit, because they offend on both counts. Something like Alternity, or even moreso Donjon would work much better.

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I had a PBP game that went on for a few years. Best advice I can give is be very selective of who joins. All it takes is a few people to go stagnant posting late which drags the game on and people get bored. People you know that will post regularly and can commit is the only way to go. If you have people that are not posting per your stated guidelines. Boot them and replace them right away. Otherwise it's not worth your time or your friends. If you treat it like an exclusive PBP, it's more likely to be treated like an exclusive pbp. For the game I had going on for a few years. I was lucky! Great bunch of guys, but after a year or two people get really busy with real life. So try to set short stories so that if someone has to bail, they might be able to at least finish out the chapter in your on going pbp campaign.

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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the tour and the help if you haven't yet. And once you have 20+ rep, feel free to join the chat! –  BESW Aug 27 '13 at 23:36

I've been playing Jedi vs Sith for the last several years, the PBP game started out on Facebook in 2007 where the gamers could post their moves and story within the comments section. Eventually it moved to being done within some groups on Facebook, and to its own website.

The site is still active, and a lot of it has to deal with several dedicated members who have stuck with it through the years, as well as new members being introduced to it. Some of what helped make it last as long as it did, was the site's moderation which is done by both Admins (Whills) and by chosen people from the players (Councilors).

If you have any other questions, that I might be able to help with shoot them off and I will be happy to answer them!

Cheers,

ZenPit

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1  
Part of the reason you're getting such a negative reception to this is that it's an ad and you're essentially establishing your credentials. Part of Stack Exchange is that you don't do either; there are people fiercely against self-interested promotion who define such very broadly, and second that you're really trying to define why you're knowledgeable using credentials we've replaced with the upvote/reputation system. In addition, you don't really mention any answers to the question, merely say that you're happy to answer them. Mention the things that make Jedi vs. Sith successful. –  Kyle Willey Oct 17 '13 at 4:53
    
I suspect less that it's anti-ad voting and more "I don't see any answer in this." I do think there's an answer in here, but it's just a few words: "several dedicated members who have stuck with it through the years" and "the site's moderation". Expanding on those, maybe with how to get such players and why they make such a difference, and what exactly the moderation did and how, would improve this a lot. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 17 '13 at 6:48
    
Sorry it wasn't so much as an ad, as just the reference site I was using. What the moderators have done is set up a form of "Infraction Reports" for handling any issues that may come up between players. A lot can be said at how it could be a successful site. Much of it would be the remaining players who stick with it over the course of years, and talk with each other over plot lines and such and try to find a nice place in the middle for the RP to be enjoyable by all. –  Zenchou Oct 17 '13 at 16:35
    
The councilors, try to help handle any inter character issues before it is passed up as an "Infraction Report". Basically they work as peer mediators as well as base level advice givers. If a writer would have a question regarding something they plan to write out, they would consult with a Councilor and see if they could get an answer from them. I'm just a player on the site, so I honestly can't give too much of an indepth account as to what the Moderators do other than try to keep us all happy. –  Zenchou Oct 17 '13 at 16:37
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That information is probably sufficient enough to improve your answer. Might I suggest editing it with that additional info? –  Ellesedil Oct 17 '13 at 19:26

Secrets to running a play by post game? I would sat the first is having a game YOU LOVE. (If you do not love the theme, world, and such, the game will not thrive).

  1. Administration falling off the interest wagon is the number one game killer.

  2. You want to have plot- and hooks for people, running a game that's about social intruige- make sure you guide people towards those hooks, but also allow them to have hooks of their own.

  3. Make sure players and characters are playing together. Sometimes a 'Roleplay roulette' can help break the ice.

  4. Rules, information about the game is important but try not to info dump, make sections [Important] [Basics] [Extra-Enhancment Info]. So that way people can read things at their leaisure. That way new players (or even old ones) can find 'information' easily. Things they or their characters would know... normally.

Save deeper stuff for other things.

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As you note, PbP games have a tendency to peter out within a few months, but some great ones last and there are definitely things you can do to maximize their chances:

For the GM

One of the biggest factors will be recruiting great, reliable players. Assuming you don't already know them,

  1. Clearly spell out your expectations (for post frequency, formatting, style of play, consequences of disappearing without notice, etc).
  2. Get the (potential) players excited. Model great writing and interesting ideas. Stay involved during the recruitment process.
  3. Screen for what you're looking for. My ideal PbP player is (a) a good writer, (b) a good roleplayer, and (c) dependable.

    For (a) and (b) I recommend asking for some writing as part of the application, e.g. the character's backstory and appearance, and an in-character response to a particular scene or prompt.

    For (c) if they have a posting history within the PbP forum you're using, read it! Do they post frequently? Have they been a part of a long-running game before? If you don't have that to go on, you can still ask for a clear commitment...and having an involved application process (like asking for a written backstory + scene) will in itself help to weed out less committed/reliable applicants.

Here are two somewhat different examples of very successful recruiting posts (which attracted many applicants and inspired them to write up strong characters).

Once the game is running,

  1. Keep modeling great writing. This can really make the difference between players getting further enmeshed in your story versus getting bored and wandering off.
  2. Keep things moving. If a player doesn't post at the agreed frequency, ping them...and then consider DMPCing their character so as not to lose momentum.
  3. Don't let initiative slow things down. You don't want to require each player to post in initiative order, and to wait for the person before them to post before they do so. I recommend initiative blocks, e.g. if the skeletons rolled a 16 and the zombies rolled a 7, the order might look like:

    • A: Players who rolled >16
    • B: Skeletons (16)
    • C: Players who rolled 8-15
    • D: Zombies (7)
    • E: Players who rolled <7

    If there are 5 players in group C (i.e. who rolled between 8-16) their exact roll doesn't matter. They will act in the order that they post not the order that they rolled.

    If you're comfortable with the mechanical impact it has, you can make initiative even smoother by simplifying things down into two groups -- the heroes and the antagonists, and the let the group which had the highest individual roll go first.

  4. Roll perception, saves, and initiative for your players. This lets you get right into the action without introducing an unneeded pause. On their turn, they can write their reaction to what they saw, or the effect of the save.

  5. Give the players what they need to play well. For example, detailed combat maps with coordinates help players plan and describe their actions (e.g. "I charge from b12 to c17"). If it fits your style, letting players know the AC (and possibly other stats, e.g. HP) of the foes means they can put more into description into their posts, e.g. instead of "I swing my sword at the ogre [hit AC 17]" they can say "I swing my sword at the ogre, cutting under it's outstretched arms and drawing a thin line of blood across it's pock-marked chest."

For Game Seekers

I recommend looking for many of the same things above, e.g.

  1. A GM who clearly spells out her expectations (and whose expectations I like)
  2. A GM who seems to be good at recruiting strong, reliable players, to maximize the change that the game won't fizzle six weeks down the road.
  3. A GM whose writing you enjoy . Other applicants whose writing and characters interest you.
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I haven't run very many games on PBP myself, but I have been in a few very successful ones. Here's what I've seen that works, specifically for using someone else's PBP site.

Separate OOC and IC

This is absolutely essential in a PBP game. If you're using an RPG forum, keep two threads going at once - one for OOC and one for IC. If the forum has a dice-roller, always roll in the OOC thread, or if you prefer and the forum has it, use Spoiler tags to keep the roll separate from in-game action. If you need to tell a player something secret, send a private message. If you need to discuss actions out-of-character, use the OOC forum OR if you have a small group you could even host an IM chat for more elaborate OOC discussions.

Have Everybody Read The Rules

PBP is one system where not knowing the rules (or not having access to them) can really grind a game to a halt. Make sure your players know the rules before getting started. They don't need to be experts - they just need to know enough to play their character, or to be able to look up a rule if needed. If one player doesn't have access to the rules for any reason, make sure they have access to someone who does, or create a short 'cheat sheet' of things that player will need to know in advance.

Keep People Posting

There will be periods when players aren't posting, and it can be a real drag on the game. Make a minimum post requirement - at least once a week for larger groups, or once a day for smaller groups. Make it clear that if a player needs to go on vacation, they must inform the rest of the group well in advance, and preferably leave a way for the other players to continue.

Be Prepared For A Long Haul

If you're doing a PBP right, it will last for a long time. Not 'might', it will, inevitably, last for a very, very, very long time. Really. A single encounter in whatever system you're using can take weeks to complete. A single quest can take months. And a whole campaign can easily take years to finish. This is inevitable. Accept it, embrace it, and be prepared to take copious character notes in case you forget something that happened literally a year ago.

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