As I have mentioned before, I am running a play-by-post (PbP) game of Dragon Age set in the world of the Tower of Druaga anime series. I have only one player, my friend JJ Lanza (who wrote the Vancian Magic post for the Oracle), as I originally made a prerequisite to joining the game having to watch a certain amount of episodes from the show and JJ was the only one to rise to the challenge. Neither of us had ever played in a PbP game before, only in play-by-email (PbEm) games, but we figured we’d just hit the ground running and pick it up as we went along.

We have been playing for a couple of months now and I have learned a few important lessons that are worthy of sharing. In many ways these are applicable to roleplaying games in general, not just to Dragon Age, though there’s one lesson specific to this game as well. My hope is that our hard-earned lessons can help others run smoother games online or face-to-face and create a more enjoyable gaming experience.

Lesson 1: Empower Your Players

We are using Obsidian Portal to manage our game since it has both a wiki for easy info management and forums that send an email when new posts are up if the GM has Ascendant status ($40/year). When we started planning I made it clear to JJ that this was our game, that one of the reasons why I asked he watch the anime was so we could both be on the same page and create our game world together based on a common source. JJ took this permission to heart, and he’s done probably more world development than I have.

We’re not setting out to create an exhaustive sourcebook; we’re detailing things as we need them and using the show as shorthand whenever possible. We set up a wiki page for Setting Declarations that go beyond what we saw on the anime, and for the most part those have been JJ’s doing as he’s needed/wanted to develop aspects of his character. And I’m perfectly fine with that! When we realized we had one major NPC, we designed her together, going back and forth until we were done, creating a character that was a surprise to us both.

JJ has experience playing collaborative games so I knew I could tap into that, but any player has this ability in them. As a GM, I am all about letting them add to the shared experience, as it reduces the work I have to do, and allows me to be surprised by the game and the world as well.

Lesson 2: Accept The Pacing of the Medium

Having played in a PbEm game with four players, pacing was one of the biggest issues as not everyone was able to access their email regularly during the day. With only the two of us in this PbP, however, we figured we would fly through play turns. We were wrong. While it is true that having only the two of us means we only have to wait for one person before moving on to the next turn, that can still be a game stopper. I am in school, and JJ travels a lot for work, so demands on our time are plenty. When midterms or finals hit, or a grueling cross-country 4-city fly-by-night shift comes around, it may be days, or even weeks, before we can get back to the game. It has happened. We simply have had to make our peace with this and play as we can. Ultimately that is one of the reasons why a PbP works: there’s no set schedule and play happens at each player’s time convenience.

That said, trying to stick to a minimum play schedule is a good idea. We set our schedule at one play turn per week. If we get in more, fantastic; if we don’t due to some real life issue, that’s cool too. We simply try our best. Making our peace with this aspect has helped us enjoy the play that we can get in and not fret over what we can’t.

Lesson 3: Plan Ahead

Playing by post means that, what can take 1 minute in a face-to-face game, can stretch for days as one waits for the other players to go online and make their move. Combat is the most obvious example of this, but anything from skill checks to back-and-forth dialogue can become game killers. The solution: proper planning of your play turns. I told JJ early on to describe his actions as much as he wanted, and to pre-roll any applicable skill test be thought would come in handy. The key here is me letting the player guess what skill check they’ll need. It forces the player to become familiar with his character’s abilities so that he can best utilize them, and tells me what he is most interested in. If we’re running an exploration scene, and JJ tells me he’s paying close attention to the terrain, I could ask him for a Perception check and assume that he’s simply keeping an eye out. But if JJ tells me that he’s paying close attention to the terrain, and pre-rolls a Nature Lore check, that tells me he’s far more interested in the composition of the terrain rather than if there are goblin tracks. I can then use that to tailor the story to what is important to him.

It also just plain saves time. In combat, I told JJ to narrate his action, roll his attack and damage and apply whatever Stunts he wanted whenever applicable. In my turn, I then take all that information and craft my response as well as that of the enemy instead of spending two or three times as much time as we exchange actions and reactions. It does remove a bit of the excitement inherent in combat (especially in Dragon Age due to the Stunts), but the savings in time are worth it. And again, it tells me what is important to the player. In the combat sequence we are engaged in right now, JJ is trying to pull a maneuver that’s very cinematic and takes some stretching of the rules. By pre-narrating his action (as well as his character’s thoughts, which I appreciate), JJ is telling me what kind of coolness he’d like to see happen. I can then work with that while still providing a suitable challenge.

Do you have some tips for PbP (or PbEm) games to share? Let us know in the comments.