PBeM tips, aka "Sorry, my mistake"

I've only lead a few PBeMs, but believe me, there are a lot of mistakes that are just waiting for an innocent GM to come by and stumble upon them. In this rant, I try to list all of my mistakes, hoping to enlighten the world of PBeM GMs. Well, a bit, anyway. Remember that the things listed here are things I personally count as mistakes -- I still have no idea how my players view my style of GM:ing.

    I was never under the impression that I could lead my PBeM like I've led table-top, but I have made some related mistakes anyway. Here are some things you might want to keep in mind.

      It's rather easy for players to cooperate and plan ahead when they're playing table-top; they can easily talk amongst themselves, and combats are often over soon. In PBeMs, however, communication is slower, and players often skip the planning, trying to end the combat as soon as possible, for better or for worse. Here, it's important to have a well-defined leader who can plan ahead for the rest of the group. In addition, the enemy forces in PBeMs should be weaker than in table-top games, if there are any rules and dice involved -- a free-form game where the GM just dictates the outcome can naturally have as "mighty" enemies as you like.

      In my game Nilotico, the very first thing that happened was that two PCs started fighting, because their group lacked a leader. One of them ended up blowing the other one to pieces. Sure, one of the PCs was a control freak, and the other was insubordinate, but still, I think I could've handled that situation better. However, there was a lot of action involved, and I dare say the game was off to a good start. The player whose PC blew the other PC to pieces (no pun intended) really enjoyed the combat, while the other player dropped out of the game shortly thereafter.

      Remember, it might take only a few evenings to play a table-top adventure, but the same adventure converted to a PBeM might take six months. With that in mind, make sure you don't make your campaigns too big, unless you plan to play the same PBeM for sixty years or so. My original adventure for Nilotico was way too big, something I realized after a few weeks of playing, when barely an hour had passed in the game. The adventure spanned several weeks of game-time, which would approximate to more than 15 years (!!) of playing if things kept running at the same pace. I wonder if any player would keep playing the same game for 15 years?

    With "moderated posts", I mean that all players send their posts to the GM, who then assembles the moves and writes an individual post to each player, taking care to narrate everything through each PC's point of view. Providing that we're talking about a role-playing game, and not just hack n' slash, this might work with one or two players, but it just becomes tedious with five or six, especially if the PCs are at totally different places, doing totally different things. If you really want to have moderated posts in your game, make sure that you have absolutely nothing else to do for the next couple of years. My first PBeM, a Kult game, died almost instantly because of my immense stupidity; I tried to moderate a game with three players, when I actually didn't have time to run a PBeM at all.

    In another one of my PBeMs, Förmörkelse (that's Swedish for "darkening"), things started to slow down before the plot had even started, and since there was only one player, there was a great chance that we might both get bored with the whole thing and just drop it. So I introduced new NPCs, and tried give the plot a twist. It worked rather well, until we both got bored with the whole thing and just dropped it.

    Unless there are no players, of course. Assuming that your PBeM still has a few players, just think of them every time you feel like quitting. Think of how they would feel about it, how they'd feel deceived because they've worked hard to produce great PCs for your game. (In other words; if the PCs suck, feel free to drop the game ;) As I've already mentioned, I once did the unthinkable -- I killed my Kult PBeM. It had PCs with great potential, and most of the players were absolutely fantastic. It was my own mistake; I learned the hard way that moderating a game isn't exactly the easiest thing to do, and felt really bummed out because I had also made mistake 1b. However, I still didn't have to kill the game. I could've just changed the format a bit, making the players narrators for their own PCs. There's always a way to keep a PBeM going, just try to be flexible.

    Of course, you can try, but always bear in mind that people are playing your PBeM for different reasons. Some of them want cool and gory action, while some want extravagant role-playing. Some players really enjoy the escapism, and others might just want to kill some time. Other players might just be aspiring GMs who're trying to figure out how to run a PBeM. Take a standard fantasy adventurer group for example. The guy who's playing the warrior wants some action, the one who plays the magician wants to use his Sleep spell, while the thief wishes there was a nice victim around to train his pick-pocketing skills on. Now that I've run a few PBeMs, I've come to realise that some people will get bored, and I don't think it's possible to please all of your players (see "Combat is harder").

    As with table-top, there's no way you can plan a PBeM in detail. For some reason, I always try to predict what the players will do when their PCs face certain situations, and I fail invariably. This is a mistake I've done throughout my gaming career, since it's practically impossible to create a campaign without trying to foresee the actions of the PCs. A good GM knows what "improvising" means. Just go with the flow, and don't try to penalize players for having creative ideas.

    I'm not saying you'll never be able to lead a single PBeM, or that the world is doomed or anything, I'm just saying that you will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, so don't get upset about it. Just try to admit that you made a mistake and move on. Try to fix it; most problems do have solutions. People might drop out; so what? Just turn his PC into an NPC, or kill his PC to get even. I usually do both -- play the PC for a while and try to place the death where it fits, not just a random heart attack or something. Don't get depressed and start thinking thoughts like "Nobody likes my PBeM" or "Nobody likes me" or "A sharp object and oblivion is the true path to happiness". Don't expect your first PBeM to be perfect. In fact, expect the worst PBeM ever. When I first heard about PBeMs, I was thrilled, and thought that leading one would be easy. Big mistake.

    No, there's no special "PBeM language" -- except for maybe "OOC" which means "Out Of Character" and "IC" which is the opposite; "In Character". What I'm saying is that if you're set on GM:ing a PBeM, you should use a language with which you are quite familiar. You should at least be able to use it without much effort (i.e. you shouldn't have to look up every other word in a dictionary). Above all, your writing skills should exceed those of your players.

    For instance, I feel that the choice of using English in Nilotico instead of Swedish was a bit of a mistake. I originally made this choice in order to get more players by reaching the English "market" of RPG players, but I ended up feeling the need to check and double-check my posts, worried that a player would find some kind of grammatical error and, instead of just pointing it out, think that I'm some kind of Swedish idiot. Sure, they kept telling me how good my English is, but what did they really think? As you can probably tell, GM:ing in English makes me a bit paranoid, and that tends to get a bit strenuous.

    If someone doesn't answer his e-mails for a week or two, don't get too worried. I once thought that if one player didn't answer the posts that I or other players sent him/her, the game would inevitably self-destruct, and everyone would blame me. Well, maybe I didn't really think that would happen, but at least I reacted that way.

    When two players dropped out of Nilotico, and a few of the others didn't respond within a couple of days, I thought the game was slowly dying. I seriously thought that my campaign wasn't worth crap (but then again, I've always had that opinion) and that everyone was bored with my game and didn't want to play anymore. We kept playing for weeks, so I must've been wrong. My point is; don't jump to conclusions.

    PC driven games are games focusing on PC interaction as opposed to, say, a plot. The style of the game actually doesn't differ much from a plot driven game. In fact, most games aren't one or the other; a game needs a plot, but some parts of it should still be about the PCs. When I started Nilotico, I thought a PC driven game was more or less player driven, i.e. I would only act as a kind of judge when the PCs got into fights. I had it all worked out. Some PCs were the "good guys", and other PCs were "bad guys". Players sent their moves to every PC in the vicinity (unless it was a secret move), plus me, so they could play amongst themselves. They did all the work, and I just had to sit back and relax. Wrong.

    Since the PCs in Nilotico were actually running about in a large city, there were in fact thousands of NPCs, and I too late realised that I had my work cut out for me. Some players dropped out, and I'm guessing it was because I almost tried to make them do all my work for me. If you want to be a GM, you have to be prepared to do some work. Below are some of the dangers of PC driven games.

      A PC driven game could be compared to table-top in the following way. Imagine you're leading a table-top game. You and the players are all sitting around a table, PC stats and everything else is all ready, and the players are looking forward to a great evening of gaming.

      "I wanna hack some trolls!" one of the players exclaims. You nod approvingly, and begin describing where the PCs are.

      "You're at the Tavern of the Black Goose. James, you're the innkeeper; Sharon, you're the serving wench; and Phil is the cook. The rest of you are adventurers. OK, gotta go, I'll be back after dinner."

      With this, you leave the room and go home, and the players have to run the game themselves. It's pretty obvious that they'll eventually start squabbling or talk about something that has nothing to do with taverns, cooking or adventuring. When you come back, chances are that the PCs have done absolutely nothing.

      "You didn't tell me if the kitchen has any pans," Phil might say when you enter the room. This is of course an extreme comparison, but I think you get the idea. The solution to this is of course to keep things moving; a PBeM is only as interesting as its most bored player... That didn't come out right, did it..?

      Actually, it should say "players that all check their mail at different intervals", or something similar, but I'd like to keep the titles of these list items as short as possible. Anyway, what I mean is that you won't get a bunch of players who all read their e-mail at exactly 10:00 am, 2:00 pm, 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm, unless you're extremely lucky. Everyone reads their mail at different times of the day, and at different intervals. Some people just read their mail once a week, while others read it every hour on the hour, et cetera. This makes some players very frustrated, since the game is too slow for them, while other players feel rushed, overwhelmed by the constant flow of e-mails. I still can't see a solution to this problem -- you'll just have to compromise, and try to find a pace that suits most players. As mentioned above, you can't please everyone.

      My mistake was an attempt to pair up a hyper-active player who reads his e-mail constantly, with a HotMail player who tried to read his e-mail at least once a week. Don't do that. At least try to see how often a player will be able to post his/her moves, and split the PCs into different groups, according to the 'speed' of the players. Sometimes, this isn't as easy as it sounds. Some players suddenly disappear for a week or two, which makes his PC lag behind horribly. The trick is to assume things; you need to know the PCs enough to play them yourself if you have to. Also, it might be best if the GM reads his/her e-mail more often than the players, to make the game flow as smoothly as possible. On the other hand, it might be good if the GM posts only once a day or even once a week, in order to keep an even speed in your game.

    I've already mentioned how hard it is to plan ahead and make a PBeM adventure long enough to become interesting and short enough to stay interesting. The problem is that this universe is non-deterministic -- or we're too stupid to see the patterns, if you will. We can't look into the future and see that Sandy won't be able to post any moves between November 28th and December 5th, since her computer will break down and it will take exactly six days to fix it. The real world just isn't neat enough, and unfortunately, the real world affects role-playing games. (Gasp!) These consequences may reveal themselves in ways that are strange and mysterious to role-playing addicts who aren't used to dealing with the world Out There.

    So how do we understand these strange phenomena? This whole article tries to answer that. This particular section focuses on ending a game, an event very sensitive and related to real-world events in ways that I have yet to fully understand. I have noticed that many games just curl up and die, although they might be able to stagger on for a while if the GM was stubborn enough. But smart GM:s know when to quit. They can say "OK people, let's wrap it up" and keep perfectly calm, without looking back. I really had a hard time wrapping up Nilotico, simply because it just hadn't reached the end. Sure, the game was a bit slow, but we were getting closer to the illustrious ending, the great finale, the Gnab Gib. I just had to keep trying. I just had to! We would make it to the end, I knew we would!

    And then it died. I tried everything, but not even CPR helped. One player congratulated me on my numerous resurrections of the game and said something along the lines of "It was a great game, you just didn't know when to quit." (As if that were my only mistake... Ha!)

    If this section has any point, it is this: Don't keep torturing your PBeM campaign. The time does come when you'll have to move on and start another (what else will you do with all the time you'll have on your hands?), no matter if you've reached the end, how much you've planned ahead and whether the players liked it or not.

Well, that concludes the long list of embarrassment. I hope you enjoyed it and/or learned something.

6. The Nerd Boy language
5. Nerd Boy behind the scenes
4. PBeM tips, aka "Sorry, my mistake"
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2. Rants, PHP and "geeky" comics
1. Scott Kurtz has a time machine?

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