How to Run a PBeM Role-Playing Campaign

From: draphsor@medisg.Stanford.EDU (Matt "Rollie" Rollefson)
Newsgroups: rec.games.frp
Subject: PBeM: Running a Game
Summary: How to run a PBeM game.
Keywords: pbem, running
Date: 30 Sep 91 09:05:20 GMT
Lines: 306

Copyright 1991 by Matt Rollefson; permission is hereby granted to
reproduce for private, non profit use provided that this notice is
included and the contents are not altered in any way.

[Hmm. This is getting awfully muddled. I have a feeling that some
reorganization is going to be necessary. Well, that's why I asked
for proofreaders, after all! Hopefully you guys can give me an idea
of what needs help the most! :) ]

How to Run a PBeM Role-Playing Campaign

You've got your players. You've got your adventure. You're all set
to go, except for one thing - you have no idea how to make this work
by e-mail! Before diving in, there are some basic problems to be
considered. There are also some strategies for dealing with these


The major problem facing PBeM players is time. It takes time for e-
mail messages to propagate across the network. This can range from a
few minutes to a few days. And the GM can not be constantly logged
on. Therefore, the players must give moves which cover a greater
span of time than normal. The normal, face to face method of
constant give and take between GM and players and amongst the
players simply does not work when the time delay of e-mail is
introduced. This is most obvious in combat situations, but occurs to
some extent no matter what. Consider the following example.

In a face to face session, a player will attempt to do something and
the GM will immediately tell him what happens. The player knows if
something he was planning does not work. For instance, a player
says, "I draw my gun." If the GM knows that the gun has fallen out
of his holster, he can immediately say, "Your gun isn't there." The
player can then react and take some other action.

Unfortunately, if the players waited for their every action to be
confirmed by the GM, the game would go nowhere. Given an optimistic
turnaround time of one hour (for a GM and player who log on almost
constantly), it would still take several days for a character to
have a minimal conversation in a bar. To get around this problem,
characters typically send moves covering much longer periods of
time. This of course brings up new problems.

Simultaneity and Cooperation

With all of the players sending moves which cover larger periods of
time, it can be difficult to coordinate actions. If teamwork within
the party is not required, this is not a major problem. Still, it
can be difficult for the GM. If two characters are trying to do the
same thing, the GM has to figure out which character does it first,
and beyond that, how the other character reacts. Again, asking the
characters constantly what they do in the new situation can bog a
game down.

If cooperation between players is required, life gets even more
difficult. Messages between players become almost essential, for if
the GM must forward every little bit of conversation between
characters he will rapidly become swamped. When trying to formulate
plans, speed of communication is again essential. Unfortunately,
some players will typically receive messages later than others.
These players may well feel left out of the game, as they see
messages they wish to reply to fly by, followed immediately by
responses by other players.

Another problem with e-mail is known as 'Jumping the Gun'. This is
when a player logs on, reads the first message in his mailbox, and
immediately replies to it. Typically, this response will have
already been invalidated by messages other players or the GM have
sent. Often those messages are already waiting in the player's
mailbox. But since he didn't bother to read them before answering,
he wastes time and energy formulating a useless move.

How To Deal

To avoid these problems, cooperation is required between game master
and players. The players have got to put more effort into their
moves than a simple, "I shoot the bad guy". You have to give the
players enough information so that they can react intelligently, and
he has to interpret their actions. Depending on the genre, you may
or may not want to keep the characters alive. In Paranoia, you
should kill the characters when they seem to deserve it. (If you
take every excuse to kill the characters, the game won't last very
long!) In more heroic games, you may have to go to great lengths to
keep the players alive. In almost all cases, you should make sure
that the player's suspension of disbelief is not challenged too
much. For instance, to say that an experienced mercenary unit left
themselves exposed at a window when they knew that they were going
to be attacked by crossbows, simply because the players didn't all
say, "I duck!", is unreasonable. The player is putting his trust in
you, the GM, to play his character reasonably in cases where he
hasn't given exact instructions. It's your job to make sure he finds
the results reasonable, even if he doesn't like them.

You should tell your players what you want in a typical move. One
way to speed up the game is to have the players send contingency
plans. This is not only for combat. In a typical encounter, there
will be several possible outcomes to a character's action. If the
player anticipates the most likely outcomes and tells the GM what
his character will do in each case, the GMs life is made much
easier. More game time can be covered in each move because the GM
has instructions from the players which cover a wider variety of
choices. This will not always work, of course. The unexpected is
what's a lot of fun with many RPGs. But it helps out in a lot of

Another useful device is standing orders. While no one can
anticipate everything, there are some fairly obvious situations that
the character should have a plan for dealing with. If the GM knows
what this plan is, he can implement it without consulting the
player. In many cases, such consultation would be unrealistic. For
instance, the character probably has a plan as to how he will deal
with an ambush, or how he will react if someone points a gun at him.
To consult the player in detail when such an event occurs ignores
the fact that it is a stressful situation, and the character has
very little time to think. Implementing standing orders better
simulates the fact that the character has to act on instinct.

Depending on your players, they may send you contingencies and
standing orders without any prompting. The better players almost
certainly will. It is the more lazy players that you should prompt a
little bit. Ask them for more contingencies. Ask what they'd do in
this or that situation. While it requires more work on their part
(and your part) now, it will prevent them from bogging the game down
later on. It's worth the time.

Conversation and Game Mechanics

Conversation is one of the strengths of PBeM, but it also suffers
from the weakness of turnaround time. The best way to get around the
problem here is to have each player involved in the conversation
write a fairly long piece which rambles somewhat, touching on many
of the points he wants to cover. You or the player to whom the
speech is addressed can then go over the speech with a simple text
editor and insert your comments where they're appropriate. The end
result doesn't really sound like a normal conversation, but it
usually works well enough. If your campaign is prone to long
declamations by the heroes and villains, this works especially well.

The game mechanics themselves should be mostly hidden from the
players. Description is the heart of the written form, and that is
what you should emphasize. Jargon like +1 to hit or three fatigue
points should be completely eliminated from moves. Even things such
as orc chieftain should be fleshed out, especially if the characters
have never seen one before. Show, don't tell, is the advice to
follow here.

Running combat can be especially tricky. There are two main options.
You can run the entire combat yourself, rolling all the dice for all
the participants for every round of combat. Then all you have to do
is record the results and describe them in a convincing, interesting
way. However, this can be a real bore for the GM. An alternative is
to run combat in the Paranoia style, where flashy action is rewarded
more than tactical genius. (After all, a role-playing game via e-
mail is hardly the place for tactics. It's just not well suited to
it. Play Diplomacy via e-mail instead.) In this case all you really
have to do is decide what's going to happen based on how clever
and/or interesting your players were, as well as what would
logically happen. Rolling a few dice helps determine the outcome,
but you don't have to get down to the nitty gritty details. In fact,
in all cases that involve game mechanics it's often easier to simply
do the logical thing, instead of rolling dice. If you do it well,
your players will never know.

Putting it all Together

There are three major ways to run a PBeM RPG. They are having the GM
do everything, having the players do everything, and a balance of
the two. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and responds to
the problems of e-mail in different ways.

GM Does Everything

This is perhaps the 'purest' form of gaming. None of the players
know each other or communicate at all. All e-mail is sent directly
to the GM. If a character wishes to speak to another character, the
GM will forward the appropriate conversation to the other player.
But the players don't send each other mail. The GM takes all of the
moves which arrive before the deadline, reads them carefully, and
integrates them into one large move. This move is then sent out to
all of the players, and typically leaves them confronting a problem
which they have to solve. Each move tends to take them from one
minor crisis to the next, thus keeping the level of tension high.

This form of gaming is eminently suited to such games as Paranoia or
ShadowRun, where secrecy and conspiracy run rampant. The players are
never sure if they are speaking to a PC or an NPC. Moving the
players from one crisis to another keeps the players as well as the
characters constantly on edge, adding to the atmosphere.

One disadvantages of this is that it puts a lot of burden on the GMs
shoulders. If the GM is not around, the game stops dead. It can also
lead to contrived or forced action. With one major move coming out,
usually about once a week, the GM really has to provide something
interesting. If the players completely fail to resolve the crisis
from the previous move, it is often anticlimactic to continue with
that same crisis. This is especially true in Paranoia. Paranoia is
full of small, almost meaningless crises, such as which elevator do
you choose, or what do you do when the elevator walls go up to the
99'th floor but the floor stays at ground level. If the players
can't solve the problem on their first try, they're not likely to
get it with another try. And making them try will just bog down the
game. Besides which, the crisis is completely peripheral to the real
plot. So to keep the game moving, the GM solves the problem deus ex
machina and moves them on to the next small crisis. The GM must be
careful to not make the players feel too powerless in this type of
game, or they'll begin to wonder why they're playing at all.

Players do Everything

Of course, the players don't actually do everything. Still, they do
most of the work in this type of game. Instead of the rigid 'send in
your move, get a big move in return after a while' format where the
GM does everything, this style is much looser. Players send their
moves to the whole list. Unless contradicted by the GM, these moves
are taken as 'reality'. The players can interact in almost real
time, without intervention from the GM. Cooperation among the party
becomes much easier.

This type of gaming is suited to games such as AD&D, where a
cohesive party has to confront and solve problems through mutual
cooperation. The game moves at a fast pace, as it is not limited by
the strict 'one move per week' schedule of the GM. However, much
time can also be wasted if the players take off on a tangent of
'impossible' moves before the GM has a chance to catch them. This
style pretty much requires a GM who is able to improvise quickly, as
the players will often assume things about the game world as they
make their moves. It is an exciting way to play if the GM and
players are good, as here more than anywhere else you are engaged in
a communal effort of world-building. The GM sends out periodic short
moves updating the situation, but does not attempt to synthesize the
moves of the players. The only difference between the GM and the
players is that the GMs move are law. The players' moves are only
hypothetical until they receive 'GM approval', ie until the GM sends
out an update that makes it obvious that this or that move actually
took place.

Fast e-mail feeds are, obviously, a necessity for participating in
this type of game. If all of the mail reaches you a day or even
several hours after it was sent, you will be unable to take part in
the action. Your character will constantly be following up on plot
threads which have already been taken care of. In essence, you will
be constantly 'jumping the gun' even if you do read all of your mail
before composing a move.

Balancing the Two

This form attempts to combine the strengths of the GM Does
Everything style and the Player Does Everything style. It is based
around a single major move per week, but the players are allowed to
communicate somewhat. The general format is, the players send out
public moves containing conversation and any straightforward actions
that the character takes (usually with a note saying 'if the GM lets
me' or something similar attached). The GM gets these moves, as do
the rest of the players. The players also send secret moves directly
to the GM. These secret moves contain the actual actions that the
character takes (the public moves only say what it looks like the
character is doing), as well as any contingencies. The public moves
give the players a general idea of what the other characters are
doing. The official GM move shows how it all fits together, as well
as revealing what the players didn't make public.

Oftentimes one character will start a whole plot thread with his
'conversation' move. For instance, in a recent move a Paranoia
character suggested that the entire Team play a game of
ExtremityBall, in order to increase morale. This was something that
everybody had to react to. If the game had been proceeding under the
GM Does Everything mode, it would have required a new move simply to
send out the speech. By allowing public moves, the rest of the
players get to see what's going on before they make up their moves.
Again, the player who acts first will tend to control the action.
However, fast mail feeds are not so essential here, as the public
moves tend to be much more restrained. Most of the interesting
action (not dialogue - that's in the public moves) is in the secret
moves to the GM, and doesn't come out until the main, weekly move.

Which One Do I Use?

The best form for beginning GMs and players is probably the GM Does
Everything form. You can control the pace of the game and don't have
to worry about your players running roughshod over your campaign
world. The players can be slowly eased into PBeM gaming without
feeling that they have to be logged in twenty-four hours a day in
order to make their presence felt. Since every player sends in a
separate move, each player will most likely attempt to do something
interesting. With the added control of being the only one to see
what is going on, you can make sure that each character gets his
chance in the spotlight. And since you are rolling all the dice, you
can ensure a fair implementation of the rules.

This form can migrate into the combination form, with public and
private moves, after you and your players get comfortable with the
game. Game mechanics become less and less important as dialogue and
dramatic action take on a bigger role. Rolling the dice can be
largely eliminated - just do what seems to make sense, and what is
the most fun for you and the players.

More experienced GMs, gaming with players they are comfortable with,
may wish to try the free for all approach. As long as everyone is in
it for the fun of it, the results can be rewarding. This form makes
the choice of game system almost insignificant, as the game
mechanics are going to be ignored most of the time.
Draphsor vo'drun-Aelf draphsor@medisg.stanford.edu