When PBEM is the Best Method of Playing

Hopefully I'm not flogging a dead horse with this.  CD has done a bunch of posts on Play By E Mail here, and here, and mentioned this campaign here and here.
'nuff said.
So, if you haven't read all those other articles, or if you have but are one for self punishment, here's my take on PBEM.

I'll preface with the note that I am not often the GM.  I've run about 3 campaigns in my life, and I know that at least one of them was terrible.  I also know the reason why it was terrible: I don't think creatively when under pressure.  In one of the live games I was running, any time a PC would do something unexpected like charge the 80 hit-dice god with nothing but his bare hands, or ask if their character can be half cat, and use their urine as a way to mark the return to the exit of the labyrinth, I would choke.  These situations can be great ways to advance the game, but instead I would stammer out some pathetic description, look up a couple of stats, and then roll the dice.  The game would move forward, but so much of the magic and storytelling that makes RPGs great would be lost.

Copyright Roger Lee
"Ummm, yeah, I guess you can play that..."
My one truly successful campaign as GM was Battlestar Salvation, set in the Battlestar Galactica universe.  The reason I think this went so well is that it was a PBEM game.  Playing by email gave me time to carefully consider every situation I gave the PCs, and time to react appropriately when they went off the reservation.  An example CD already mentioned is when a player decided to announce he was the half-brother of another player, with no background or input from me to suggest it.  PBEM gave me time to think about how to spin this and work it in to my story, or I could have quashed it when the doctor revealed the DNA tests. The amount of time afforded in PBEM also allowed me to compose the scene setting posts with the appropriate descriptors and flare.  I can't say for sure, but I like to believe that the setting was vivid to the players, and that they could picture themselves on board the ship.

"You said I was piloting a viper... Isn't this what you meant?"
The other reason why this campaign went so well is that PBEM is perfect when you need to compartmentalize information.  We've all been at that game where the rogue passes the DM a note, the DM rolls and scribbles something down, then passes it back.  Suddenly every other party member wants to inventory their backpacks. With PBEM, all the side interaction happens out of sight of the other players.  I was able to parcel out information individually to certain players and help build the paranoia, leaving them wondering if they were a Cylon.  I think this is what made all the interactions of the players amongst themselves so enjoyable.  Everyone suspected the motivation of the others, but the proof had yet to be revealed.  When one player began to suspect he may indeed be a Cylon, he began behaving even more erratically, to the point of shooting the NPC XO in the back and then covering up the murder.

I do still love playing live, and miss it since my RPG gaming group dissolved years ago, but I truly enjoy the PBEM games I'm in as well.  Plus you can be so much more comfortable posting from your computer than you can sitting with other people.

This doesn't go over so well in person.

Any PBEM stories you'd like to share? Thoughts on live gaming versus online?  Leave me a comment!


  1. Yeah but what happens when everyone gets busy and no one replies for three weeks and when they finally do they completely ignore all the information and side quests you had set up for them? *sigh*

    Otherwise I agree with everything you wrote. I apologize if I was the one who made your live GMing experience difficult. I know I can be a dick to new and/or inexperienced DMs sometimes.

    I'm no where near as bad as André, though. He's a total tool to newbie GMs.

    1. Hey *I* didn't ignore my side quest, I'm just workig on how to approach it! And it was your wife that threw me for the biggest loop in our live game, but I blame me and not her!


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