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What I've Learned from Play By Email

As I've garnered more time and experience with playing and running via email, I've come to a number of realizations that might help those who are thinking about trying it. For many gamers struggling with heavy work loads or few local gaming friends, PBEM will be a great way to continue a beloved hobby. Those with a love for language and writing will probably gain the most enjoyment from the format, hands-down, but even those who are skeptical might want to give it a chance. It is quite different in pace, expression, and connection than standard tabletop gaming, and a change of pace can be nice after years or decades of the same styles of play. And if you tried a similar arrangement in the past only to watch it flounder, you might want to review what went wrong and see if you can fix it. The enjoyment can truly make a little effort worthwhile.

Those who are already maintaining PBEM stories can still find food for thought in this article because I've included tips and tricks that you might not already be using. Even a well-loved story about fun characters can start to feel stale if it is told in the same way all the time, with little deviation or extra thought. If you don't look forward to that next response in your inbox anymore there are things that you can try, with and without input from your partner in crime, to inject new life into the mix.

With all of that being said, my endorsement is not without some warnings. This style of play is not going to work for everyone, but unless you've known someone who has done it for a while, you might not know what to look out for. The considerations below should give you an idea about whether or not you could stand it. They can also help you figure out if you're about to succumb to one of the common pitfalls of PBEM, and from here, you can go about saving your game.

If you love writing, PBEM gaming will satisfy both your writing and your gaming desires by merging the two into one. It makes gaming a literary activity in the strictest sense, since it relies wholly on the written word to develop everything. (Some groups will use writing to deal with character backgrounds or a few scenes that they don’t want shared with the whole group.) Each response gives you the opportunity to flex your writing muscles and build your storytelling chops, not just as a Storyteller but as a player. Both parties can (and probably should) do what they can to embellish a scene without going overboard, since a little extra love goes a long way to enhance the imaginative experience.

A piece of advice: Instead of just describing action and dialogue, ask yourself if there is pertinent internal dialogue or memories going on within the character. If so, weave them in without making them into their own book. If nothing like that stands out, see if there’s one of the five senses you can incorporate into your reply. There’s no need to get into every possible detail in every reply; that will probably bog things down. See if you can vary the things you focus on to give yourself a little extra challenge and to give your writing a little extra flair.

A word of warning: If you find writing a tedious chore, even when you’re writing about subjects you enjoy, PBEM is probably not for you. In addition, if you like writing far more than your partner in crime likes reading, there could be some strife. Try to balance your writing urge with the understanding that you will get more replies to develop different things in the future. You can always ask your partner in PBEM if the length of your responses is okay with them.

PBEM gives you time to consider your next move or do additional reading or research without bothering other players. During a live group game, particularly if the group wants to feel like they’ve been able to get things done, there is a limited amount of time that each player can spend figuring out their next action. Some Storytellers have been known to use things like egg timers to give players firm notice of just how long they have to state their intentions (while this can sound unreasonable at first, it can be a great idea and even necessary for some groups).

On the other side of the table, Storytellers can feel caught and at a loss when faced with a change of events they couldn’t have foreseen. Not every DM is good at winging it, so it can be a relief to everyone to have some time out of sight to think. PBEM offers that kind of time and privacy naturally. Even if you want to keep responses flowing on a regular basis, your partner in the game probably won’t mind if you take just a little longer to consult a book or clear your head before replying.

A piece of advice: Try your best to respond on a regular basis, hopefully daily, even if it’s just a few lines that aren’t worthy of Shakespeare. Set aside some time during the day to send the ball into the other person’s court not only to let them know that you are still interested but to maintain your own interest level, as well. If you can’t reply regularly for a while, be sure to let your partner in crime know what’s going on and when you might be able to get back to them. If your partner falls out of touch, don’t assume that they mean to insult or ignore you. Ask if things are picking up in real life or if there’s something in the game that’s troubling them. A few tweaks can be like oil in machinery and can improve the whole process.

A word of warning: Even the swiftest responders will take some time to get back to you, particularly when they have other duties to attend. If you have no patience and feel that waiting will make you more irritable than not having a game at all, then this format is not for you. While you shouldn’t send constant requests about the game, it isn’t out of line to inquire about whether the other person means to continue if they haven’t replied in a while.

PBEM offer gaming on a slower but steady I.V. drip throughout the week, which means that you’ll be able to enjoy partaking in the fantasy world of your choice at some point nearly every day (as it suits you). This can make for very entertaining and creative breaks from the daily grind, and can give you a reason to be excited about checking your email again. You will rediscover the joys of anticipation when you’re itching to see the next response, and yet, given the technology many of us carry at all times, you can access a new reply from nearly anywhere, at any time. PBEM can also satisfy your cravings for gaming that can be harder to fill when scheduling and logistics get in the way of group sessions. With PBEM, all that have to align are pixels and signals, and if you need to wait a little while to write a proper reply, you can do it without having to apologize for being late to a room full of people.

A piece of advice: Take a moment to reconnect with the setting and character before you start replying to a gaming email. Just taking a breath and a few seconds to imagine the scene and the people in it will help put you back in that world enough to adequately respond to it. Part of the point of roleplaying is to have adventures somewhere else for a while, so you don’t want to cheat yourself of that experience. Another part of the whole endeavor is to plug into another persona and interact with the fantasy as that person, rather than doing and saying the same old things as the same old you. That can be hard to do when you’re wearing one of your many other hats in the real world, but it can be a relief to put on your fantasy cap for five or ten minutes. This extra step can lead to richer responses.

A word of warning: If you must check your email from your job, on their machinery, save personal stuff for breaks and never send PBEM replies through your work email address. I know this sounds like elementary stuff, but you don’t need to endanger your job because of “extracurricular activities” that are well and easily tracked through your company’s network. Anything you send over a company’s network can be observed and potentially used against you; at least if you’re on a defined break, it will be more difficult to raise objections. It’s also worth noting that roleplaying games can go strange places very quickly and Human Resources will probably not understand what they’re seeing through your short replies. They might get unduly concerned if they’re looking in on vivid descriptions of things like sex and violence, though, particularly because they won’t understand the context. (I know how tedious this sounds, but this is the world we live in, and working enables us to afford to keep playing!)

PBEM can pave the way for very personal stories that are wonderfully focused and character-driven. While group games can delve deeply into the player characters’ psyches, histories, and lives (depending on the group’s style and tastes), in order to give everyone some time in the spotlight, you end up having to juggle characters and scenes. There might also be times when a player wants to go in a direction or deeper into a particular scene, and the others really don’t feel comfortable playing the audience for it. And there is a certain intensity that seems to be reserved for one-on-one gaming that even the best group sessions can’t replicate; just one extra person throws it off. Playing by email means that the entire world does indeed revolve around one player character and the things that player is interested in exploring. Not only can you go as deep into memory flashbacks and personal asides as you want, but as long as both parties are on board, the player can take the story in the direction they want without resistance from the rest of the party. In that way, the stories that are told can become powerful and intimate portraits of the people involved, from the PC to all the NPCs who cross their path. The results can feel like the best book-reading experience, where you get to know the inner workings of characters so well that it feels like you could know them in real life. And when you’re able to take a bit more time, everyone has a chance to be a real person, and not just Waiter Number Five.

A piece of advice: Consider trying out the literary and cinematic devices that help reveal and explore more about the deeper workings of characters. While you needn’t get fancy every time, trying something different to explore a certain aspect of a character can add fresh interest and spontaneity to the response cycle. Things like foreshadowing, flashbacks, inner monologues, personal symbols, reminiscing about memories with friends and family members, telling personal stories, or even changing the point of view to describe an event from another character’s perspective (if the Storyteller is all right with that) can be a lot of fun to write and read. You might even start a separate file just for things that are related to the character but are outside of the flow of the game, like major events in their life or their future goals.

A word of warning: As much as a PBEM game can feel like a closed circuit, no player character should feel completely alone or completely safe in their world. The livelier and more multi-faceted NPCs are, the more the lone PC will want to engage them and get to know more about them. Then the game will be about not only one character but others, and the Storyteller can really get to know their NPCs on a whole new level.

Connections also lead to actions, which move the story forward, but if nothing is at risk, then motivation will probably start to wane. In fact, if a PBEM game starts to feel stale or slows to a crawl, one of the things you might ask is if the game has become so internalized or about the single PC that the greater world no longer seems to touch them. If so, then expand the view to include everyone else who happens to be living, breathing, and scheming in the same place. Shake up all the inner reflection with the need for quick decisions and with the threat of consequences for taking too long or thinking too hard.

PBEM offers you a relatively simple way to game at a distance, not just from your fellow players but from computers, as well. Scheduling woes quickly become a thing of the past when you’re playing by email because there’s no need to gather multiple people in the same place at the same time. All of the effort to get players on the same page is flat-out unnecessary when you have a one-on-one game; so long as both parties are responding in a timely manner, everybody’s active and happy. You can have games going with players all over the world, if you’d like, and the distance will be negligible. In addition, by replying via something as simple as email, you won’t be tied to any particular type of device. You can start the ball rolling at home, take it to your laptop or netbook, and end up sending the next reply from your phone. Your cell phone is the ultimate in portability and since you take it everywhere anyway, that means you can be gaming from anywhere, at any time. Yes, even the bathroom. And your players won’t even be able to hear when you flush.

A piece of advice: It can be easy to lose track of the details of what’s passed in a game when you’re sending responses throughout the week amidst all your other duties and projects. One of the easiest things you can do is start an archive somewhere like GoogleDocs. You could just run your game entirely in that format, cutting out the middle-man of email, or you could use it simply as a way to gather the replies into one location for easy reference. Giving your partner in crime the ability to edit the file directly allows them to correct any errors they find, leave comments, and add links. But we’ll talk more about the glories of open archiving later.

A word of warning: Even when you’re replying often, time inside the story of a PBEM game seems to move a lot slower than other forms of gaming, especially if scenes are detailed and you feel no need to hurry them along. One day in storyland can take days or a week to fully get through in real life, and that’s not necessarily a mistake on anyone’s part; it’s just the way the ball bounces. And though I can be an impatient person, by and large I’ve gotten used to it and even come to appreciate it. But the pacing does mean that you’ll need to keep track of your ideas regarding things to do or check up on in the future, because the next opportunity to shift the scene could be days away. You can keep a list of people to track down, questions to ask, and projects your character wants to take care of in a separate email, GoogleDoc, phone memo, or even something like mind mapping software. Be sure to consult it every now and then, and you might find yourself doing the same thing for face-to-face or other internet games.

PBEM builds a full record of your roleplaying experience, from the first scene to the last, which can be invaluable in a number of ways. First, you can easily sort out any confusion about how a scene occurred or what was said because the whole thing is transcribed; all you need to do is look it up. But even more than providing a complete, searchable reference, your game will chronicle your development as a writer and a roleplayer, so you can review the results from many different angles. You can look at the writing itself and see how your techniques have changed (and fix any pesky errors that got through, as they inevitably do). You can regard your choices at key points of the action and strategize about how you could have things differently or better, and plan for the future accordingly. You can also review it just for the pleasure of reading an engaging story which you helped to develop, page by page. None of the great moments will be lost or hidden in the fog of memory; it will all be right at your fingertips to read or share whenever you want to.

A piece of advice: Arrange your output in a logical way from the start and it will pay off handsomely when you want to refer to it later. You can set the story up in chapters and use the current chapter’s title (or number) as the subject heading of your emails to keep them straight. Each section will only have a certain amount of pages before being closed off, and that can make it easier to read. A thematic title can be fun and enticing, especially if your partner doesn’t know the full meaning of the title until events unfold, but you should also give the chapters a numerical order so that you don’t get confused about which portion happened first. If you’re compiling emailed entries or using something like GoogleDocs to begin with, you can set up visual clues using colors, fonts, symbols, and/or footnotes to indicate shifts in scene, combat rounds, character entrances and exits, and other important occurrences.

A word of warning: Always ask your partner in crime if they are comfortable with sharing the chronicle with others before you do so. Be specific about how much you would like to reveal, to whom, and why, and if they are not okay with it, then try to respect their feelings on the matter. Even though it’s your story, too, and you might want to show it off because you’re quite proud of it, PBEM is a joint effort and a considerable one, at that. At its best, both parties are devoting real creative energy to the cause, and that can make both halves equally protective of the whole. On top of that, PBEM can end up digging deep and exploring tender subjects that one party might want to keep private. Hopefully both of you can work together on a compromise, either about who to share it with or which parts are appropriate to release.

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