3/01/2011

I often find myself without a regular local play group. For various reasons - distance, work and family commitments, apparently I'm a big douchebag so I can't make new friends - it's simply not possible to get a bunch of people together on a steady basis to play role-playing games. In absence of a local play group, I usually resort to PBEM - Play-By-E-Mail - which is certainly not the same as playing "live" but it works in a pinch.

For those of you unfamiliar with this high-tech yet archaic system, Joe Nelson mentioned it in a post a few weeks ago, but while he looked at online role-playing in general, I'm going to focus on PBEM. The idea behind it is that the DM (me) sends out the scenario or encounter via e-mail and the other players reply with what their character wants to do. The DM in turn replies to their character's actions and the story keeps going until suddenly you're role-playing! The reference to Google in the title refers to how that particular conglomerate's selection of tools (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Sites) combine to form a very handy toolbox for this sort of thing. (Yeah, I know there are websites dedicated to RPGs specifically, but I really do find the Google stuff easier to use)

Of course, playing like this has its own particular pros and cons you would never find gaming around a table. Today's topic of conversation is the advantages of playing in this manner. Here are my top 4 reasons to play RPGs by E-mail:

1. Play anywhere, with anyone, without worrying about schedules
That was ultimately the point of starting this in the first place.

2. I can jam a lot more background and story into it if I want to
When you're playing around a table and the DM goes off on tangents weaving his or her narrative or explaining background info or whatever schlock DMs think they can get away with, it's very easy for you (the players) to grow bored. You ignore them, start playing Atari (people still do that, right?) or scribble little flowers and/or bleeding skulls in the margins of your character sheet.

Player: You have 600 pages of background material for your players?!
DM: No, that's just the one for monks and clerics.

When you're playing via email, the DM can jam as much flavour and fluff as they want in there and the folks that want to read it can do so and everyone else can suck it. They can easily ignore it without being a distraction to those who do want to read it and thus immerse themselves in the vivid, living world the DM has painstakingly created. It's win-win for everyone.

3. Options for storytelling you can't get in table top
In any cool story, be it book, movie, stage show, video game or cave drawing, the heroes always split up. Sometimes you just have to do it that way for the story to work. Luke went off to find Yoda. Rand al'Thor goes off to do whatever bullshit it is Rand al'Thor does (do those books still come out?) The Fellowship actually only lasted for the second half of the first book, and that's the basis of our whole frickin' hobby. Yet in table-top RPGs, the number one rule is: Never split the party. Most people assume this rule is so that players don't spread their strength too thin and get wiped out by more powerful monsters.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: The real reason you never split the party? Because it's way too much fucking work for the DM.

How can you convincingly play a group that's split up, working at different (possibly opposing) goals, without each group knowing what the other is doing? This is perhaps a whole article for another time, but in short: you write notes, you move some players to another room, and you generally jump through hoops to awkwardly do something that doesn't really work anyway.

In PBEM? You just change the addresses in the "To" box. You can send some of the characters off on a side quest, give out secret information to only one player, or describe seedy sexual encounters without embarrassing the rest of the group (see last week's post). It's a simple way to open up so many new story-telling options you can't do on a table-top.

This guy totally has the wrong idea about digital role-playing.

4. It helps shy players be creative
I didn't think of this when I started, but I've discovered that the faceless medium of the Internet allows people who would be uncomfortable playing a racist metro-sexual borderline homosexual eladrin warlock in front of people a chance to play said character (and love it!) in text only. It's the same reason people play WoW and Second Life - you can be whoever you want to be without everyone else seeing the "real" you sitting in your underwear at your keyboard. Even if you know the other players, the distance created by the fiber optic wires between you still generates a weird sort of anonymity.

The huge advantage to PBEM over WoW (in my humble opinion) is that instead of just grinding the same stupid levels over and over again while listening to the inane chatter of pubescent illiterate punks calling you a noob, you actually have to be creative. You have to describe your character and their actions, and speak with their voice in character. It's a great exercise for your imaginative writing skills.

So those are some of the positive aspects of PBEM. I'm going a little long, so I'll save the negative aspects for next week (sadly yes, there are a few). In the meantime, if anyone has experiences with PBEM they would like to share (hopefully positive ones), I would love to hear them.

Like this?

13 comments:

  1. You make a lot of good points--but you all blasted my mind with that horrid picture, so there's that.

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  2. Bigby's Left HandMarch 01, 2011

    Any dice servers or the like you can recommend? I suspect I'm going to have to rely on PBEM if I'm going to get anything started in the near future.

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  3. Lord GwydionMarch 01, 2011

    Bigby--we're using this site: http://www.dedzone.net/traveller/dice.html in David's (Tower of the Archmage) play-by-post forum game, but it would work well for PBEM too.

    I've had fairly good results when playing forum/email games if the core are people I actually know. If they're strangers or merely online acquaintances, I've had fairly poor experiences. But I do agree with all of your positive points of the medium above, C.D. Looking forward to reading your take on the negatives next week.

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  4. Book_ScorpionMarch 01, 2011

    I'm currently playing by mail, but just a sidestory between my character and a NPC that the other players don't need to know. It's fun and I can get some creative writing done. The only drawback is that I tend to agonize over what I write and if I don't stop myself, I edit it to death. But I'm getting better :)
    I do love the fact that we don't need to schedule for playing. The GM suggested playing by ICQ, but we just wouldn't have been able to come up with a date we can both agree one.

    Oh, and thank you for that photo. I'm going to look at a baby hedgehog now to cleanse my mind.

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  5. Bigby's Left HandMarch 01, 2011

    Thanks for the link (and the picture of a cute hedgehog).

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  6. Great article, I experimented with gaming inside Google Wave, but this could be the answer. BTW the pic just pushed this article into NSFAW territory (Not Safe for AnyWhere!!)

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  7. CDGallant_KingMarch 02, 2011

    Oh, there's some flaws, don't worry. I can imagine playing with people you don't know could be one of them, but so far I've only played with friends and fairly close acquaintances. And thank you for the link!

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  8. CDGallant_KingMarch 02, 2011

    It's true, PBEM doesn't have to be your only method of gaming - it makes a nice complement to live games. And things like Google Docs for sharing files (maps, characters sheets, player handouts) and Google Sites (for creating a webpage or wiki for your campaign) are also handy tools.

    You're welcome for the picture, by the way. The hedgehog's okay, too, I guess.

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  9. CDGallant_KingMarch 02, 2011

    Thanks for the comment. As for the picture: If I had posted a naked girl holding a video game in front of herself, would anyone have said anything? (I assume that's the picture everyone's referring too, and not the binder. Cause I would be scared if I sat down with a new DM and he slapped that in front of me.)

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  10. CDGallant_KingMarch 02, 2011

    Yeah, Google taking over D&D? That would su... wait. Would it be any worse than Hasbro? :-)

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  11. JsalvatoriMarch 02, 2011

    As a racist metro-sexual borderline homosexual eladrin warlock, I have to say PBEM works well for me. I do miss some of the live playing stuff, like background music, porn on the TV, watching the DM almost pass out when our cleric is flatulent, etc.
    But with no one local to play with, PBEM gives me my fix for role-playing.
    And we don't drive my wife crazy sitting around the kitchen table for 12h straight.

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  12. Book_ScorpionMarch 03, 2011

    There are quite a few men (and women) I would love to see in that pose, but he's not one of them and I can think of women I would rather not see like that either.
    The binder is pretty awful as well, though. I do know a GM who would have something like it if he printed out all his Vampire NPCs and stuff he claims to need to run a game. Instead, he keeps it on his computer (but looking up names ect. in an Access database during the game is not really helping the mood).

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  13. Joe NelsonMarch 03, 2011

    Very nice article!

    I especially like point #4. It's true. I've seem some people who couldn't handle the table become budding roleplayers over a forum. There's this sense that no one can really judge you from behind a computer screen. Of course, that leads to a whole other set of potential problems...

    I've only ever played in a PBEM game once, and it didn't last long. I think it was probably because of the GM we had, but in the end it just fizzled away and I haven't tried since, though I've considered it. I've stuck with PbP for its immediate connection to the players. I don't know why, but in a forum environment I've found that it seems easier to connect and find players who are more willing to stick with a game. And those who don't are replaced without too much hassle.

    I suppose that's the real reason I migrated to Rpol.net; it has an active, massive community of like-minded gamers, so no desperate searching for a game that suits you. A little patience is all that's needed. I've found it harder when attempting to look for a PBEM game to join.

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