Successful methods for play-by-post RPG

I’ve made three serious attempts at running an RPG by asynchronous text composition, not counting some abortive starts. The first was a play-by-e-mail game in 1994. The others were two games played in the form of posts to an internet discussion forum — to be specific, the Steve Jackson Games Forums (9,401 and Wear a Badge, Carry a Gun, if you’re interested).

None of these was successful. I found them too slow and too time-consuming to GM. Players got too much time to think about the fridge logic. The active and garrulous players tended to swamp the ones with typical time budgets and typing speeds. The campaign ran into walls when I went into depressive phases of my bipolar mood disorder.

Who here has run on played in successful PBP RPGs? What techniques can you recommend for getting them to keep on ticking?


I ran a D&D campaign on the old SUSD forums for about two years - though there were a few breaks probably totaling at least 3 months worth. I’ve only ran D&D and Pathfinder, but hopefully my point of view can be helpful in other situations.

I too go in and out of depressive phases, related to my physical health. I found it pretty difficult sometimes to keep on trucking, but I did learn a few things.

I think ‘keep things exciting for yourself’ is really important. For me, I really like making and playing interesting NPCs, and my interest immediately dies if I have to act one that is boring to me. I think many of the slow periods were because I wasn’t interested in the characters that the PCs were interacting with - but I could have solved this by putting more personality into them. Fit that into your own particular RPG related interests, whatever that might be.

Secondly, I found that in play by forum it’s often better if the players can move relatively independently. Everyone has different posting speeds - one of my players really liked to-the-point action, one of my players really loved long role-playing conversations. I often encouraged them to literally go in opposite directions exploring different things. I feel like that allowed them to all have a good time, at their own relative speed. I liked them poking around different corners of the world I was crafting - the slowness of PBP can be suffocating if you have cool stuff you want to happen, so having multiple things happen at once really helped that. Keep on going with the speedy players, and have the slower players on their own slower piece of the plot. This may not be for everyone, it’s time consuming.

I always got bogged down trying to write the ‘perfect’ posts, and I think the players may have felt that too. In the future I plan to go with ‘whatever I first write is what is posted’, and try not to revise too much. When I DM live, I improvise everything anyways, except broad story concepts.

As for over thinking I think one of the ways that the players can get stuck in this pattern is feeling like they have to find ‘one right answer’ in every situation. The world-building can influence this, if the setting is extremely rigid and unfamiliar (so they constantly make social faux pas, for example), or the game system can influence this. I really don’t like ‘penalty combats’ personally, which can happen way too much in D&D. Your own systems may vary. My personal work around is that I structure my adventures/situations to be reactive to the players, rather than static. If the treasure is behind a door, but nobody thinks (or cares, more like) to look behind the door, then I put the treasure someplace that they are interested in looking, with a different kind of challenge.

Don’t know if that helps. The longest running and most active PBF I’ve ever seen is the Great Pendragon Campaign, formerly on the SUSD forums, which @RossM and @Scribbs participate in. What makes it so engaging? How has it remained so vibrant? Maybe they can speak to that.


I’m far from an expert, but I’ll throw in my thoughts.

You’ve listed all the big problems with PbP RPGs. I don’t think they are exclusive to PbP games, but the slow pace of the format makes them perhaps more evident.

Recognising that these are the likely problems is good, because it allows you to think about how to best mitigate them.

Firstly, consider why you want to run a game as PbP rather than any other format. I play that way because I have no local players, and I really struggle to pin down regular free time for any online sessions via whatever platform. PbP lets me check in for a few minutes, then I can go away, and post a response when I have the time. But it is a very slow way to play games, and they are prone to the problems that you listed. So think about why PbP rather than anything else.

Next you need to try and get everyone else on the same page with regards to how the game is going to be run. As well as the usual session 0 stuff about consent, theme and the rest, you need to spend some time about how the game will be run.

I recommend that everyone agrees to a set frequency of checking for new posts. Whatever frequency you go for, the GM will have to check more regularly to respond to player’s posts if required, so bear that in mind if you plan to GM. The fact the game isn’t confined to regularly scheduled sessions can be a barrier – it never switches off. Don’t be afraid to ask for a halt to play (both as a GM or player). For the best games that I’ve been involved with, PCs are ‘kept safe’ if players are away, so the game can still proceed for the others. I would also suggest that you ask players to check in more regularly when play enters a turn-based phase (e.g. combat).

Think very hard about player count. The more players, the harder it will be to mitigate active players swamping quitter players, and it will slow the pace (particularly in any turn based sequence of play). I think 3 or 4 is probably the sweet spot.

Really encourage the PCs to be fans of each other’s characters. That means giving less active players a chance to contribute and not always responding first to new dialogue by the GM etc.

Think about mechanisms to tackle players dropping out. The GPC that I’m playing in has had nine different players over three years. The setting of a quest each year easily facilitates players coming and going. Far better to have PCs as key members of a large company than a group of individuals in out on their own. Star Trek’s bridge crew rather than Firefly’s ragged band. Also think about the game structure. Something episodic again works very well to allow a changing of the guard with players.

Don’t be afraid to prompt players to responding if things have gone quiet (which reminds me to do just that on the Warhammer PbP I’m running…). If there’s been no response for a week, give everyone a nudge.

As a player I tend to try and not overthink any posts, but I know others really like to take their time, either as they ponder what to do, or because the creative exercise is a large part of why they are playing. Again, if you can draw out what the players want from the game, you can at least be prepared.

Why has the GPC that I’ve played in worked so far? Well, a lot is to do with the GM. He pushes the game on when it slows down. If someone hasn’t replied for a week, he moves the PC to NPC status and keeps the story going. He is also not afraid to delegate GM duties to other players when he is unavailable – I’ve run a couple of combats in his stead, @RossM did some introductory stories for new players with me chipping in as NPCs. I guess we play it as a collaborative game, and we’re all quite invested in the game. I think the players also have to take responsibility to keep the story moving. Go at too slow a pace, the game loses momentum.

I think that’s enough of my ramblings for now.


Looking at this makes me think “but hang on, what about a campaign that’s basically ‘the story of this particular ship’?” Let’s say it’s a Traveller/Firefly-type setting, and finagle the economics so that the PCs don’t have to pay for the ship; then new PCs join, and old PCs leave, but the story of the ship goes on.

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I wrote that thinking more about the vessel being stuck out in the deep unknown, but of course of are exactly right. It reinforces how important getting the campaign driver straight in the minds of everyone is.

The most successful PbP I’ve played was GURPS 3e, Arthurian fantasy, and not very serious. It was also single-player, which avoids a whole category of waiting-for-Joe problems. As the player, I took the radical step of building a character with no combat capability whosoever, because playing GURPS combat asynchronously was obviously going to be very slow. It worked rather well for several months and hundreds of posts. Unfortunately, when we added a second player, it bogged down and stopped.

I’ve played a couple of less radical, and less successful, games on the SJ Games forums: I Must Go Down to the Seas Again was In Nomine, and died of differences in player/GM availability. Its out-of-character thread is here. The Trojan War was GURPS, and the GM didn’t seem to grasp his setting properly. Its out-of-character thread is here.

I also played a play-by-physical-post GURPS fantasy game run by Michael Cule of this parish. That had several characters in different places in the same setting, but I never met any of them.


Note - The current location of the aforementioned grand pendragon campaign.

As for its longevity, a number of factors.

  1. The backstory and detail that Greg Stafford put in is amazing.
  2. Its a dynasty game. As players come and go their are always new players and new knights who can pick up the torch and run with it.
  3. Players who are very active can engage in solos, whilst real life delays other players.
  4. Barring large scale battles you can check in, post something and log off again.
  5. Will. As a gm with an affinity for cartography and history he is more than willing to do research “I’ll put on my mail and check if that’s true.” Or flesh out any npc you ask about.

As for being a gm myself, I would say run one game, and be realistic about player numbers and pace.

Once I’ve finished Mothership I will probably do the simplest pbf possible in terms of roleplaying.

After that I may fire up my Western Marches pathfinder setting. Last time I think I was running three groups (2 groups of three and a solo.) After each adventure players gravitated towards others that played at their own speed, and the content was very episodic. Little and often rewards were the order of the day.

Only problem was maintenance an overall timeframe. I had to be aware of… (Some kind of analogy about how time and space can get a bit borked.)

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I have recently been shooting my mouth off on IMPROVISED RADIO THEATRE WITH DICE about running a play by post game and one of my players is calling my bluff.

The main problem I’m having when thinking about asynchronous gaming is how to tie it all together. How to make the player characters have a sense that they are not all alone in the world. (As they were in the postal game John Dallman mentioned.)

There can be no party unity because there is no party. Just about every rpg is designed for party play. I have an urge to try to work ARS MAGICA as PbP but the Troupe idea falls to pieces that way.

So in advance of deciding what system to use, how do you create a unified world and a unified game when player characters may only hear of each other’s exploits from the wandering bards or the newspaper reports?

The most successful* postal RPG I played in had the characters as the high (“Name”) level D&D Characters ruling neighbouring kingdoms - so character interaction was effectively “diplomacy” and player turns were getting your troops and followers to carry out your wishes.

*I’ve not played in very many, and most attempts did not last very long - so this is not a very high bar

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I have thought of running a game of REIGN as pbp. The players would be acting as agents of the controlling council of a clan, company, conspiracy… whatever social group on whatever scale. They could act as individuals most of the time and also vote on how the council chose to act on the larger scale.

Hmm, maybe. Maybe.

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This concept sounds amazing.