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Some friends and I are planning a play-by-post (using a forum, not physical mail) game using Pathfinder. Although we are fairly comfortable with role playing online out-of-combat, we haven't been able to figure out how to run combat online.

How can we handle combat in a play-by-post Pathfinder game while both streamlining play and not invalidating combat-based character builds?

There are two different experiences we are trying to avoid:

  1. If we run combat using the Pathfinder rules-as-written, the play experience is unbearably slow and uninteresting. Mapping online is a pain, and waiting for everyone's turn to come around is boring. Most of our tactical choices don't seem as meaningful without a physical map to spatially orient ourselves.

  2. If we abstract away combat into a purely narrative element, most of our character design options become meaningless. What is the point of building a fighter if their special features don't determine success in combat anymore?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As you talk about being "online", I assume you're not using snail mail, which is what I thought of when I saw "play-by-post". Are you doing it all via email, or using a virtual tabletop? Please clarify by editing your question. \$\endgroup\$ – rojomoke Sep 2 '16 at 4:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/292/… (one of the answers gives some advice for streamlining combat) \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Sep 2 '16 at 5:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rojomoke Play-by-post usually means by forum post, though it may also mean play-by-(e)mail. VTT is not PbP. \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Sep 2 '16 at 5:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rojomoke - I edited to clarify that we are using a forum. I hadn't considered that anyone played rpg's through the (literal) postal mail. \$\endgroup\$ – indigochild Sep 2 '16 at 13:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's a UK/US thing. We send our post through the Royal Mail, you send mail via the US Postal Service. \$\endgroup\$ – rojomoke Sep 2 '16 at 15:26
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I've done a lot of PBP/PBEM games, and tried to do games like Pathfinder via PBEM. I'm currently running a Rolemaster game by PBEM and have tried several different solutions before settling on my solution (see below)

The problem with running pathfinder as a Play By Post or play by email is the sheer number of posts required to complete a combat.

For a typical group of 4 characters and 1 GM with a fairly short 4 round combat you're looking at 9 x 4 posts (4 character posts + DM result + monster round) which is 36 posts, a massive amount of posts and delay. Even if you manage one post/day which is usually fairly good for play by Email, forum posts can be faster, you're looking at around a month to complete a combat if people post on weekends.

So Pathfinder is designed for tactical play on a board and play by post is really bad at handling that game style.

What you can do is trim down the forwards and backwards for characters by reducing what they do.

  • GM Makes all rolls. This slimlines everything down a lot.
  • Run characters in blocks. Usually you can run two consecutive characters actions with minimal disruption if they're just whacking the bag guy and the mob still has enough hits left to take it all.
  • Run different areas in blocks. This isn't so common, but if Bob the Barbarian is on the wall attacking guards and Fred the Fighter is in the courtyard attacking guard dogs then you can get them both to reply at once.

All this will help, but you're still going to have really slow encounters.

What I suggest if you still want to run Pathfinder for combats is one of these broader solutions, while the GM makes all rolls.

  1. Stuff initiative and have everyone declare actions at the same time. Resolve them all as sensibly as you can and then get a result from it. This cuts down a lot of time but is very complicated for the GM.

  2. Trim out feats that are harder to use by PBP and go to mapless/descriptive. Change the play style to more descriptive and remove feats that rely more on tactical play like flanking bonuses. This isn't optimal for what you want but again can speed things up a lot.

  3. Drag people into real time sessions to run combats. Not always an option.

  4. Bite the bullet. You are not going to get the same tactical level of detail without significant pain in PBP, things like flanking will be harder to manage and get going; Get characters to describe what they want to do and resolve it in a more storyboard fashion giving descriptive results. Encourage players to use more descriptive terms than "I attack the orc with my +2 battleaxe" and instead encourage them to write more prose-style descriptions of combats. The joy of PBP and PBEM style play is the amount of time you can spend describing stuff and combats can become a thing of descriptive beauty. This is the option I ended up with, it takes more work and the players have to like writing but it can give great story.

TLDR: In the end, you're trying to mix a Game with a medium that it's not very compatible with and you'll have to compromise somewhere; talk to the players and see what they're prepared to give on, otherwise combats are going to be slow, tedious boring affairs.

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This is what I do to make combat fluid but still meaningful for character abilities when I GM in a PbP game:

  1. GM rolls for initiative (and perception for surprise round if needed)
  2. All monsters go at the same initiative count (make the average or use whatever method to pack GM characters initiative you feel fair).
  3. Players do not wait for other players in the initiative queue, only for GMed enemies. This is, the first player to post assumes other players going before him delay for him to play.
  4. GM goes ahead if most group has acted. When three players in a group of four, or four in a group of five or six have posted their actions, the GM can post the enemies actions. The GM marks for the next round the players that did not act so they can post two turns of actions when they can post (this requires some good will from both players and GM to not abuse the system in behalf of making the combat experience more fluid).
  5. The GM can call the end of the combat and resolve it cinematically if it is clearly won.
  6. Passive rolls are made by the GM so he can resolve what other creatures do (saves, passive perception, etc.). If the result will not influence the creatures actions on current post, the GM can better leave the roll for the player to take.
  7. Use Google Slides for the mapping. It is free, multiplatform, light-weight, you can check for edit history (see where players where before and where did they move their token), and there is a free app you can install to access the map in hand devices. Most Pathfinder APs come with maps you can copy and paste directly from the PDF to the Slides web application.
  8. If someone cannot move their token, they specify their movement and kindly request for other to set it on place.
  9. As a GM avoid combats that are not meaningful for the story or character development.
  10. Start by playing a short scenario. Only then, if it worked, enroll into a long campaign. This is very important because everything learned will set your campaign in the good direction from a start. A bad experience might break what could had been a memorable PbP campaign.

There are plenty of more advises to give for PbP roleplaying, but these are good techniques I have seen used and used myself to handle combat enough fluidly to be interesting and do not make adventures endless.

You can see a real example of use on this goblin combat for my Shackled City PbP campaign.

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The logical choice, considering your points 1 and 2, is not to play Pathfinder but another game instead. Choose one where combat is more narrative or at least shorter to run.

Alternatively you can change a bit the play-by-post system, by doing some of these things:

  • run extra-ordinary sessions on a virtual tabletop (like roll20 for example).
  • use something like talesta to make dynamic combat (good luck if you want the full pathfinder rules)
  • penalize slow answers (for example consider they delayed their action if they did not play for 24h)
  • make the gm roll for everyone's initiative
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  • \$\begingroup\$ What is talesta? I googled it but found a bunch of French sites (backstory: I can't read French). \$\endgroup\$ – indigochild Sep 2 '16 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's an obscure French engine to make online rpgs that feel like forum but with a bit of gameplay too. Sadly it seems not to be known at all outside France so it will be difficult to find English documentation. Maybe there is an English equivalent. \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Sep 2 '16 at 13:55
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I've played 3.5 by email pretty extensively and it went well. But:

  1. We had only the DM and 1-2 players
  2. On a character's turn in combat, we rolled all his attacks at once (and if for example the first blow finished that opponent, the DM would say so and the character would then have the option to perform a Move action, etc.)
  3. All a character's summoned minions, familiar, etc. usually did their turn at the same time (i.e. in the same email) as the character. Occasionally we'd roll a major minion's initiative separately.
  4. We did tactical maps by passing around SVG files created with Inkscape. Sometimes we'd have scanned images as backgrounds.
  5. We weren't in any particular hurry to rush through things. The play-by-email wasn't supposed to run at the same pace as an in-person game gathered around the same table.

We've done this by forum as well, but less often. It worked the same for us.

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We have 20 years of running genuine D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder combats in play-by-post settings. Here's how:

  1. No initiative. Generally players go in the order they post, with tweaks by the DM as needed to make it work out.

  2. Every player and the DM makes one post per weekday. One weekday is one round. The DM should try to post at the same time each day.

  3. Each player posts a round worth of actions.
  4. Then the DM posts a summary of each PC actions, plus results, plus enemy actions last. That concludes a round.
  5. A ten-round combat lasts two weeks over 10 weekdays.
  6. We outlaw certain feats that interrupt the flow or affect initiative.

We always have openings in our games.

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