What is play by post?Play by post is the practice of playing RPG's like Dungeons and Dragons on an internet discussion board. This video does a great job of summarizing what it's like to play at RPG Crossing:
How is it similar to playing around a traditional table?In terms of the core of the game, play by post is very similar to traditional tabletop gaming. The DM tells the story, which players can directly influence and shape. We roll dice (using the forum's custom die-rolling plug-in) to determine outcomes when the DM requests it. Players control their own characters. They build their characters, maintain (online) characters sheets, describe their character's actions, and write (rather than speak) dialog. Using attached images players and DM's wage battles, and if they use Google Docs Drawing, the players and DM's can each move their character tokens.
It's not some distant offshoot of transitional pen and paper gaming. It *is* gaming.
How is it different?Despite the similarities, the different medium makes for some particular differences. Some of these are clear positives, and some are negatives that one has to deal with when playing these games.
Challenges to Play by PostPlay by Post is SLOW
This really is the big one. I get really excited about gaming. I want to play and play and play. There are wonderful game concepts pitched every day at RPG Crossing, and I often want nothing more than to dive right into them.
The problem is that, because you're playing asynchronously with people from around the world, it's rare that one ever is able to post as a player (or even as a DM) more than once per day in a game. Sometimes, it's more like once per week. And sometimes, it's even less often than this. Not only can this be maddening for the impatient--and I am a bit impatient--but it makes it hard to keep a game in your head from one week to the next. If I don't take notes, I have a hard time remembering the names of the other PC's, much less the NPC's in the campaign (or even the main plot line!).
To illustrate the point, the game that I began last June, the New World, has been running continuously for over a year. We've "recently" reached level 3, and just today I took my first combat turn as a level 3 character (I'm thinking that we've been through three or four combat encounters). My own game, which is a tad more combat-oriented, has been running for 6 months, and my PC's are level 2 and have been through a total of 5 combat encounters. And frankly, in both cases, the fact that we are at those levels is the result of a substantial amount of extra XP given for roleplaying. Otherwise, we'd probably still be level 1!
The solutions I have for the pacing are twofold. First, join more games. The more you're in, the less slow each individual game feels. Second, take lots of notes! I don't do this as well as I should, and as I result I am sometimes scrolling through pages of old posts trying to find some detail from times past. But when there is a quest, or there are important NPC, I try to jot them down in the notes section of my iplay4e character sheet.
Players disappear. Games fizzle.
In large part because the games do run at a snail's pace, players will disappear. And often times, it's without warning. You'll be playing with someone for months, and then suddenly something will happen in their lives that leads to either a quick "I hope this is not farewell, but farewell" post, or, even more often, just silence. In my game, six months old, despite doing a fairly extensive "background check" on each player to try to avoid disappearances, I lost two of my original seven players (and added one replacement).
Obviously, this can derail campaigns. There's a temptation as a DM to make campaigns character-centric. In fact, doing so might be rule 1 of DMing, and one of the best ways to engage one's players. But if you build your campaign around a character, and that character leaves the game without warning, where does that leave you? It's something that you always have to be prepared to handle in a play by post game.
Players aren't the only ones to disappear. Just as often, it's the DM. A lot of would-be DM's vastly underestimate the amount of time, effort, and commitment it will take to run an effective play by post campaign. Or, they are prepared for it, but then experience a life change that changes their ability to commit time to a game. I'm currently involved in five games, not including my own. I've been involved in four other games that have crumbled because the DM disappeared. In another, one of the two co-DM's disappeared within two weeks of the game getting off the ground, leaving the other to pick up the slack.
Game posts take time
Paradoxically, after you have waited for the game to come back to you, it often takes a substantial time commitment to make a good contribution to the game. Sometimes, I can just sneak in with a quick post that will allow for a short response to the DM or other players. When I can, though, I try to do at least two paragraphs. Somewhere in there, I try to show how my character responds to what the players and the DM have just said, as well as to push something back for either the players or the DM to run with.
I type pretty fast. But I don't compose quickly, and I'm not always the most creative person. I'm probably slower than most, but it's not uncommon for me to spend a half-hour or more on a meaningful game post.
During combat, it's often easier to decide what my character will do. But to do a good job of tracking my encounter powers (I use a "combat array" dashboard of sorts as an in-post character sheet), and to write evocative descriptions of combat, it still takes time. It's fun, but it takes time.
Organization is critical
With players scattered all over the world, organization is really critical. Players are responsible for keeping track of their characters' stats, loot, attributes, etc. In a game like fourth edition, this is pretty critical, as combat can become quite complex.
And as a DM, it's even more important. You can get away with just relying on player posts, but my own experience is that combat runs much more smoothly if a DM tracks not just the monsters, but also the players during the fight. I maintain a fairly large page of tables and such during each encounter, and one of the things I have the hardest time remembering to do is to keep them updated. But the players rely on those tables, as do I, to know what is happening during the combat.
Party coordination can be hard
At a table, the players can have a short conversation to decide what they want to do next in a matter of seconds. In play by post, such conversations can take days to complete. Add in a little bit of uncertainty that discourages players from chiming in, and you have a stalled game.
It really helps when a player or two takes the lead to keep the adventure moving. As a result, I've been writing more and more of my characters to be leader-types of late. Even my quiet ranger has become more assertive, helping to push the group forward when necessary (by actions if not by words).
Similar issues occur during combat. Because each post tends to make up a turn, you have little opportunity to plan out strategy in advance, or even during combat. Characters can shout back and forth from turn to turn, or players can make general suggestions to the party in the OOC forum (if the DM allows it). But it nevertheless can be difficult to devise a coherent strategy in the middle of a fight.
On the other hand, one can see this as a benefit. You certainly only rarely see players trying to directly influence the actions of other players at the table, which is all too common during pen and paper sessions in my experience. Furthermore, outright metagaming is also often not a big issue.
Benefits to Play by PostRoleplaying and Character Exploration
I first heard about play by post on the excellent Exemplary DM Podcast (which recently started releasing new episodes!), where it was described as largely a literary exercise. While you will meet a lot of aspiring writers on play by post games, I have felt little pressure to try to become one. And I am not a writer, nor do I have aspirations to become one.
At the same time, the medium of play by post demands that character posts be descriptive and evocative. Otherwise, there's nothing really there to game with. And in many ways, writing what your character says in third person (as is usually the custom) is far easier and less awkward for many of us than speaking your character's dialog out loud in a tabletop session. As a result, very rarely do you see situations in which players are unable or unwilling to roleplay. It doesn't take much: a paragraph or two, describing what your character does, along with a few lines of dialog, and you've made a useful contribution to the game.
Therefore, given this recent background, it's pretty hard to even relate when you hear tabletop DM complain about a lack of roleplaying at their table. If there is one thing that the slow rate of the game tends to promote, it's introspection and exploration of one's character. I think this is where the medium really shines--characters come to life in play by post more consistently than I've ever seen in a tabletop session.
While this might offend the purists, one thing that I really like about play by post gaming is the ability to easily add visuals to your games. As a DM, including an image of an important building, scene, or NPC is as easy as uploading to photobucket and adding the appropriate tag to your image. The medium is always going to be dominated by the written word, but visuals can really help bring a game to life.
Doing the same thing at a tabletop game either requires a) print-outs, or b) a laptop at the gaming table, ideally with a secondary, attached monitor.
When you walk away from a tabletop game after a session, the game exists only in your mind. Some groups will try to take the time to write down what their group does in adventure logs, but this can be a time consuming and ultimately often thankless activity. It certainly is also not one that lends itself to evocative writing--adventure logs tend to be pretty dry, point-by-point descriptions of what happened at a session.
In contrast, in play by post, every post contributes to the story of the adventure. And those posts are essentially permanent. As a result, a year later, you can go back and read an adventure almost as a novel. And there are some folks who actually do this! I've had at least one lurker who drops by my game and reads the wonderful stuff that my players have written.