An Argosy of PBEM Advice


Everything You Ever Wanted
to Know About Running or
Playing in Play-by-Electronic-
Mail Role-Playing Games


Zen & the Art of PBEMs,
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to
PBEMs, PBEMs on $1.50 a Day,

Compiled by Andrew Fabbro

Version 1.0
5 February 1994

Section 0: Introduction & Table of Contents
This document is a modest collection of advice on the fine and noble art of running and playing in play-by-electronic-mail (PBEM) role-playing games. It does not cover role-playing games that were specifically designed to be played as PBMs/PBEMs (such as Atlantis, Arena, etc.). Instead, it offers advice on how to adapt paper-and-pencil RPGs to PBEM play.

To my knowledge, the only net.doc ever previously written on the subject was Chua Hak Lien's excellent _Totally Harmless !Complete Guide to PBEMs_. After mentioning it rather casually on rec.games.pbm, I was flooded with requests for copies. After seeing Bruce Saul and Rob McNeur post other useful advice, I decided to compile all this sage wisdom into a formal (ha!) document. Everyone concerned was kind enough to grant me permission, and thus, the Argosy of PBEM Advice.

However, this document is far from finished. If you have anything you'd like to add, or if you are aware of other net.docs on the subject, please send them to me (afabbro@umich.edu) so I can include them in the next version. Here is your chance to be a big net.star...see your name in little pixeled lights...and gain big heaping bucketfuls of good karma. Heck, you might even inspire someone to start a PBEM you'd like to play in. The only rule regarding material for the Argosy is that the original author must grant me permission to include it.

Your feedback and opinions would be happily received at afabbro@umich.edu.

This document has been posted at greyhawk.stanford.edu and soda.berkeley.edu.

Section 1: The Totally Harmless !Complete Guide to PBeMs by Chua Hak Lien Section 2: Article by Bruce Saul
Section 3: Article by Rob McNeur

Needless to say, all copyrights held by the articles' respective authors.
Section 1: The Totally Harmless !Complete Guide to PBeMs

by Chua Hak Lien

Once in a while, one will see a post in the rec.games.frp.** newsgroups about a PBeM game being started by so-and-so. So you might be asking? What is a PBeM? How does one take part? How does one start one? Well, this article attempts to answer some of your questions. So read on, pilgrim...

I. What is a PBeM?
PBeM stands for Play By Electronic Mail. Basically, in the context of RPGs, this means that the game is played with players and Gamesmaster communicating and sending moves to each other via email. (Now, wasn't that enlightening?) It is a good compromise for those GMs and players who cannot afford the time to play face-to-face or can't find a game in their area, and who don't want to resort to a PBM, or a play by mail, game.

The advantages of a PBeM include:
[a] The players won't call out for pizza and make you pay the delivery boy for it. [b] Your mom won't come in and ask about the female wearing the chain mail bikini on the cover of the module you're running. [c] No little kid sister breaking into giggles just as Zorkath, Lord of Darkness, prepares to scarifice the party to the pit of Infernal Dimensions. [d] You won't have to clean up your house afterwards. [e] No more Born Agains protesting outside your home. [f] No more struggling with names like 'Rl'yeh', 'Drizz't', or 'Nyarletheop'.

II. How do I get to play in one?
Hang out night and day in the rec.games.frp.* newsgroups, watch out for a PBeM post to appear, and send out a reply immediately. It would be good if you had a character prepared, but the most important thing to do is to reply AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, because spots for PBeM games are likely to fill within 24 hours of the posting, if not much shorter. Sending out a post requesting that someone take you in for their PBeM is not likely to work. The likelihood of getting a reply is probably about the same as that of getting viciously maimed by a group of grenade-launching hamsters while jogging.

III. How do I run one?
Ahh.. now we're talking.
Firstly, you have to be willing to put time into your PBeM campaign. How often do you want your moves to be? Once a week? Once every two days? The length of your moves should be proportional to the time you want the players to reply back by. Next, ask yourself, do you REALLY want to run a PBeM? Spend long thankless nights sifting through moves and answering questions, and roll dice all alone in your cold dark room. A lot of PBeMs go belly-up even before the first move is sent, mainly because someone just like you thought that they did want to play, but lost interest after a week. Make sure you'll willing to commit the time involved. It will be just as much as that for a face-to-face RPG, I assure you. So you decided to run your own PBeM. Well, good. Here are some guidelines so that you can preserve your sanity. [a] Decide on the game system and milleu. Sounds easy enough. Keep in mind that for the most part, you'll want the game to flow pretty quickly. Avoid rules-intensive games and consider using a system with little combat. Combats are difficult to run in PBeMs and the faster they can be resolved, the better. Also decide what supplements or rules-additions will be used. Of course, the player should have the basic set of rules that you are using, as well as know the background to the milleu, if you're using a commercially availabe product. If not, you'll have to spent a few hours every night sending out dossiers on why the Quorantigas of the Land of bani-Wani stuff crickets up their nose, and other background info.

[b] Decide on the number of players.
How many players do you want? The best number all depends on the time you have available and the kind of game you like. Some PBeMs work well with just one or two, while others may have up to 10, but this makes for an administrative headache as players disappear, are busy because of homework or run off to have babies. But you might ask, should there only be one group? The answer to that is an emphatic YES. With multiple groups running around, you'll be facing the possibility of a brain haemorrage trying to remember who did what to whom, when and how. Stick to ONE group at a time, and if you're thinking of running a tourament like game, in while several solo players run around in a dungeon or similar setting, TRASH IT! You'll never be able to find the time to write out all the moves!

[c] Decide on how the players will generate their characters.
For games with point allocation systems, this is fairly straightforward. For games which depend on random generation for ability scores or stats, come up with a fair system. For AD&D, I use a 80 point system to be divided between the six ability scores. For scores below 16, the point conversion is on a one-to-one basis. Therefore, a score of 14 requires 14 points. For a score of 16, 16.5 points are required, a score of 17 requires 18.5 points, and a score of 18 requires 21.5 points. In the case of Charisma, the point cost is only 75% of normal, as most players will try to shave off points from this score. Any additional points left is converted to XP (100 xp per .1) or gold (100 gp per .1). Example: Krag the Dwarf has these abilty scores: Str: 16 Int: 10 Wis: 11 Dex: 14 Con: 17 Cha: 10, which makes 16.5+10+11+14+18.5+(10*.75), or 77.5 points. He spends 2 points on XP, and the rest on gold, giving him 2,000 xp to start with, and 500 extra pieces of gold to spend.

[d] Post to the appropiate rec.games.frp.* group.
So now you're almost ready! The big moment! Now you can actually POST and declare to the world that you are starting your very own PBeM! Give yourself a congratulatory shake, a pat on a head but not at the same time, of course... The content of the post should say:-
i. The rules you are using.
ii. The movement rate.
iii. The power level of the characters.
iv. And some brief background of the game world, if you're feeling egoistic and want to show your works to the whole of USENET. So post and prepare to be deluged with mail. You will probably find your game oversubscribed and you should savor the moment because you'll probably never ever receive as much email in such a short span of time ever again. But of course, you might want to stop the flood. So do the following.
i. Send out another post saying you have enough players.
ii. CANCEL the article with your PBeM announcement.
The latter should do the trick, but folks from Northern Europe will probably still be mailing you for the rest of the week. Anyway...

[e] Decide who to take in
Yes, this is the hard part. Send your intro to those who have replied to your email, and ask them to start sending their characters. You'd probably want to include additional material on the tone of the game and the background of your world, so that players don't wind up sending Stimpy the clown characters for your Neuromancer-inspired universe. Not everyone will reply to you. A 50% attrition rate at this stage is common, as repliees decide they have better things to do like decorating the lawn and watching the goldfish. But don't be disheartened, you've gone too far to back up now! Pump out your chest and thumb your nose at those who have deserted you, pitying them for missing out the game of a lifetime. And now sift through the characters of those who have remained loyal and are actually interested. Decide who to take in. Look for good background and effort in characters, and who will make DMing interesting for you as well. You'd probably want a good spread of characters; not just in terms of profession, but in personality as well. Else you may wind up with a whole bunch of 'dark, dour men' who clamber with each other to grab that unlit spot at the corner of the tavern. Avoid characters that hint of munchkinism. Out. No. Ah-ah. Sorry. Twelve year old child geniuses with PhD's in Molecular Cell Physics and Biology, as well as a black belt in karate, as an example.

[f] Send out acceptance and rejection mail
So make your choice and mail to those lucky individuals who have been selected to participate. Keep a waiting list as these few may decide they want to mow the lawn or watch the goldfish instead and drop out. Then prepare the rejection slip. For your convenience, I have included this form letter which you may freely use:-

Dear [insert name here],
I am sorry to inform you that despite the wonderful character you have sent me, I am unable to find space to fit him into my game. I hope you will be able to find another PBeM campaign as good as mine will be to play in. Thank you for your interest. Yours Sincerely,
[Insert your name here]

Avoid the temptation to gloat. It makes for bad public relations on the net and high medical insurance.

[g] Finalise the characters.
Ask your players to finalise the characters and make them fit into the background of your campaign world. Then, you are ready to begin!!!!

[h] Format for Moves and Mails
It is advisable to you a standard format for replies to posts. First or Third Person, and it's also best that the other players be able to read each other's move, so you don't have to spend your time relaying mail between players. Third person is best, as it makes it easier to read. In the subject line of the post, ask the players to tell you the name of the character as well as the subject. You may want to number moves as well. Eg:

Subject [Krag: #4] At the F.O.U.L Scharwz

You may also want to have players send their moves in a special format, so you can easily read what they want to do. An example would be the use of '<...>'s to denote actions, '"..."'s for speech, and '[...]'s for questions to the GM. You may want to use '{...}'s for 'if this happens, then the character does that moves.' For example:-

<Krag the Bloody draws out his Battle Axe +2, +3 against plush beings and chops at the giant animated Undead Gund Squirrel> "Take THAT, you ball of fluscious, fragrant fur!" {If Krag kills it, he will draw out his crossbow and start shooting at those monkeys with the unicycles zipping above him.} {If Krag is just about to get killed, he will fall down onto the floor, twitch his feet and play dead.} [Are the Barbie Dolls attacking Mikhol the Magnificent? What weapons are the Ken dolls holding?]

[i] Format for GM's posts
Of course, you can do whatever you want with your posts. But do not abuse your powers. Do not make the players address you as 'God'; 'Your Highness' should suffice. To make life for your underlings better, however, it is suggested that you also use a nice format for your subject line, as in:-

Subject: [Nordok, Move # 5: At the F.O.U.L. Schwarz]
(Where Nordok is the name of the game world in this case. Oh? It's not as good as Oerth or Greyhawk or Glorantha. Well, sue me!) For your post, you might want to write up in the third person a story detailing the results of all the PC's actions, like so:-

Krag's axe bites deep into the fur of the Gund Squirrel. Coughing up a hairball, it falls to the floor and dissolves into a pile of nylon. Then the dwarf draws out his crossbow and begins to shoot at the unicycle riding monkeys.

Mikhol the Magnificent casts a spell on the Barbie dolls, changing them to Cabbage Patch Kids. They all head off in search of a good plastic surgeon.

Toghar bonks the head of the Furry surf Troll with his baseball cap of homerun hitting. He then takes out his lasso to foil the escape of the windup elephant.

<ZAT!> Krag's first bolt just nicks the head of the monkey. The hairy ape hurls a coconut at Krag in return, hitting the dwarf squarely on his helmet and stunning him. Krag falls to the ground, unconscious!

Then from the gateway appears the two enemies your party has huntd for all this while! You see a man in brown robes holding a packet of french fries, next to a huge cat in metal sheet armor spewing dirt from it's mouth.

"Oh no!" Cries Princess Elyria, the maiden you have just saved from suffocation from the giant Goofy doll. "It .. it is... the fiendish Chip Monk and the Muck-Filled Plated Puss! Oh.. what will we do????"

The Chip Monk raises the bag of fries and casts a spell on Tohgar, changing him into a pig

[Deadlock Comment]: The guy who wrote this had a 'flicted idea for an example, huh?

Reward the efforts made by players to individualize their characters by support in your own postings. If you have an elderly Dwarf priestess who is a master chef, let her find cook books in a library, and have NPCs ask for their favorite regional meal. If a player creates a style of movement and of speech for their character in their postings try to maintain this when you send out an update.

5. Always let your players be the most important people on the scene. If your game starts the characters at first level then find a way to isolate them so the only NPCs with the party are level 0 or advisors. Give them challenges suited to their abilities. Never place a higher level NPC with the party as 'insurance'. Nothing kills out the fun of a game session like a DM run NPC who totally outclasses the characters.

6. Try to maintain a balance in the game in terms of things for folks to do. Find challenges for every class of character, and make it equally important for each character to succeed. Each of your players is taking important time from their schedules to be in your game. Give them a reason to eagerly scan their mail list for your postings.

7. Encourage your players to think about the previous history of their characters and use the character's past as an anchor in developing sub-plots for them. I have a gnome mage who has seen his sons die, victims of a plot of chaos. Driven to understand why the world is as it is the character seeks to become a sage. He actively collects bits of esoteric knowledge and speaks of 'when all this is over'. This depth of play is a priceless gem, especially when the player has the skill to maintain it over several years, as this player has.

8. Do not needlessly overcomplicate your plots, or weave multiple levels of puzzle into a campaign. Remember that more communication will take place in a six hour face to face gaming session than in a year of PBeM gaming. Overcomplicated plots drag, and cause players to lose interest. Puzzles are too often answerable in a single manner. Creativity and enthusiasm are the chief ingredients of a successful PBeM. Encourage these by having several possible 'logical' solutions to riddles, puzzles, or traps. And if your players come up with something which might work which you have not previously considered give it a fair chance to succeed.

9. Be understanding in the treatment of error. As a DM, you are going to forget things about the characters, and the players are going to attempt things beyond the scope of their abilites. If you make an error, and have it discovered by the player be gracious enough to make correction as soon as possible. If a player directs their character do something which is not possible by the game rules send them individual e-mail explaining the relevant rule and ask for a revision of the proposed action.

10. Be patient with those who cannot temporarily contribute. Vacations, mailer problems, and work schedules wreak havoc with a player's ability to contribute at times. Learn the ways of each character so that you can write for them if the player cannot post an update. On the flip side encourage the players to contribute by involving their characters in the action through careful construction of plot and use of NPCs.

11. Never, never trick your players into doing harm when they intended good, or evil when they wished to be the heroes. It is the world's easiest thing to create a situation where the well meant actions of a character can result in harm to an innocent NPC. Resist the impulse to do this at all costs. Conversely, do not confuse your players as to the moral implications of a possible action. Most PBeM players really want to wear the white hat. If there is to be mud on the brim let it be by the conscious, and fully informed action of the players. Don't screw them over.

12. Resolve to put the energy into the game which it and the players deserve. This is the toughest thing to do. There will come days, or even weeks, when you just seem flat in terms of the idea of sending out an update. Well, buck it up, and send out that update! You have others who are waiting on your posting in order to continue the game. In starting the game you have pledged to maintain a level of response to player postings. If you find you can't keep the game up admit it, and as soon as possible. My own game was originally started by another DM. He had to drop out.

Using the high level of player enthusiasm I was able my own campaign.

Whew, that is enough for now. Bruce Saul -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Section 3: Article by Rob McNeur
[Compiler's note: This article was posted in response to Bruce Saul's article]

As well as that
(6) If you want to focus on ROLE-playing, check all initial characters carefully to ensure that no-one is trying to start with unfair characters (in stats or equipment)
(7) Try and be available to players every day to answer questions and do short updates for situations that only affect individuals rather than the whole group
(8) Inform all players of any house-rules in advance, but be willing to discuss them
(9) Before any combats, get a general idea of what each individual intends to try and do and then try and do as many rounds of combat as you can or the whole combat if you can do so without needing to get back to the players. The smoother it flows, the more the players (and the DM) enjoy it.
(10) Remember rule 1! Always do everyone's dice rolls yourself. It really does save arguments, and any players that don't want to play that way are probably going to argue about anything anyway.