Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Play By Post

For these last few months, my regular gaming group has been stuck in scheduling hell. This happens occasionally, but it never ceases to frustrate and annoy when it does.

Fortunately, I am about to embark on two play-by-post/play-by-email games. The first of which is ze bulette's Dordogne using Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox. I have already  had the pleasure of joining ze bulette in an inaugural chat session, in which I rolled up my primary and secondary characters. It was a bit of a thrill because - and I'm seriously damaging my old school cred here - I had never rolled 3d6 in order before! Even back in the day, it was always 4d6 drop-the-lowest. In later days, ability scores have always been assigned with points. I embraced the random nature of the rolls and my secondary character (simply called "The Old Man") was a curmudgeonly cleric with some pretty pathetic ability scores. He naturally became the sidekick of my primary character, a noble fighter who managed to have fairly decent strength and charisma.

I'm also gearing up for The Drune's Humanspace Playtest. I'm particularly jazzed about this one for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's always exciting to play with new people and meet new friends. Secondly, Humanspace Empires is pretty freakin' cool. I'm only vaguely familiar with M.A. Barker Tékumel (the depth of the milieu is more than a little intimidating), but I love how The Drune has spun out the weird Space Opera pre-history as its own setting. I'm a huge, huge fan of retro-SF space opera and I rarely get the chance to play in the genre. I look forward to breaking out my dice and rolling up a character tonight. 

Now, I must say that my enthusiasm for these two games is tempered by the fact that, with one exception (see below), every play-by-post game that I have ever been involved with has failed spectacularly.

What are the pitfalls of the play-by-post-format?
  1. There is a lack of immediate social response to one's actions. In a face-to-face games (or chat games), players can riff off of each other in real time. That player-to-player dynamic is very difficult to establish in a game where players must wait hours or even days for their fellows to respond.
  2. Play-by-post games can be painstakingly slow. It takes a dedicated group to build any kind of momentum when posts may trickle in a day at a time. Major adjustments are needed to account for delayed posts and round-by-round, blow-by-blow combat systems are pretty much unworkable. 
  3. The game is always "on". This last point is wait has scared me away from many play-by-post games in the past. I'm easily distracted and if play-by-post game is actually engaging, I may have trouble focusing on other things while I wait for the next response. And waiting for the next response can be frustrating if the other folks are similarly sucked in.
Anyway, none these pitfalls are deal-breakers. It is possible to ave an awesome play-by-post game. My  Risus Lankhmar game succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. In that case, we had a couple of factors that may have ensured our success:
  • We used Risus, which enabled combat rounds to be abstracted beyond the simple blow-by-blow nature of most games.
  • We used the Mythic Game Master Emulator. Without an actual GM, the viewpoint character could resolve many in-game elements without having to wait for a human response. This worked brilliantly and it allowed us to really make progress in the story in a relatively short period of time.
  • We had a Google Site with all our posts, campaign documents, character sheets, and content generation tools at the ready. It was  more aesthetically pleasing than following the game an an email thread and we could always go back and review the story in a coherent form.

* Another exception: play-by-post roleplaying in support of an existing face-to-face game. I've had much success with these in the past. 


Trey said...

I have never done a play by post game, but given the difficulties of keeping "in person" games together, it certainly has some allure.

C.D. Gallant-King said...

I have played by e-mail extensively for years. The pitfalls you listed are certainly true, but there are cool advantages, too. You can do things in an email game that are very difficult to replicate at the table - splitting the party is a big one. The story telling potential of being able to easily share information to some but not all players is very immense.

It takes a lot of work to PBEM effectively, (and hell, I'm playing 4E by post right now) but it's worth it if you can pull it off.

The Drune said...

I've only played in a few pbem games but never pbp. None have been really very good for various reasons anf few lasted long.

The last one was a Heroquest game in Glorantha (Heroquest is well suited for pbp or pbem imho). It was pretty cool, the GM was a great writer but it was all railroad and I think I tried too hard to jump the track (almost unintentionally I generally go with the game flow as much as possible) and was discouraged at every turn and soon killed off.

I have no idea how the mad Humanspace experiment will turn out but I've been coming up with some ideas that might work out...maybe.

Excited and mildly terrified.

Risus Monkey said...

@Trey: That seems to be the big reason to launch a PbP game. The scheduling issue basically goes away.

@The Drune: Don't be terrified. The worst thing that can happen is that it fizzles out. But there is always the potential to have an awesome game experience, which is why I keep trying PbP despite my poor record thus far.

Risus Monkey said...

@C.D. Gallant-King: (for some reason you comment was swallowed by the spam filter...)

I totally agree with your assessment of the advantages. I guess my anxieties about previous failures crowded out the potential upsides. And I have have had one totally awesome PbP game (mentioned above). I think that is the model that I aspire towards and it's awesome that you've had more consistent success.

And 4e PbP... wow, I'm trying trying to wrap my brain around that. How much combat do you guys do? Do you take any shortcuts to make it easier to manage?