Skip to main content

Play-by-Post: Advice on Characters, plus Recipe

I love play-by-post. It accounts for the vast majority of my actual game-playing. The glacial pace is not for everyone, but it’s easy to fit into a busy schedule. And what you lose in the spontaneity and flow of spoken conversation, you gain in the richness of written language.

Given the depth and granularity of rpg creativity, I’m surprised how little is written to address PbP specifically. Shouldn’t we have rule-hacks that are optimized for PbP? Guides for how to GM effectively in this environment?

Well, I can at least offer some thoughts on how to play well in a PbP game.

The Faerie Queene, Volume I by Edmund Spenser. Pictured and decorated by L. Fairfax-Muckley.

Present yourself simply.
Don’t bother with elaborate backstories or text descriptions of your character. They won’t get read, and are very unlikely to contribute meaningfully to the game—even less so than in-person. Go for evocative fragments:

A moist and simpering scrap of humanity.
A pissy young satyr in threadbare brocade.
Brother Tom thinks he’s a cleric, but his god doesn't.
A gibbering mouther in a sweater vest and bowtie.

If you want more than that, google up an image file and pop it in.

Only hang bangles on your character that will come out in play. Show, don’t tell. And how do you show? Through voice and motivation.

Character voice. 
One of my favorite things about PbP is that you can second-draft the language that comes out of your character’s mouth before hitting “enter.” This gives you a level of expression that most of us can’t muster at the table.

My go-to player voices are the salty dog and the flaky erudite. It’s fun when Clerics use the fire-and-brimstone language of Jonathan Edwards. There’s the insecure young man, and the hard-bitten veteran, and the raving visionary.

Because you can write in drafts, you can be more ambitious than you might at the table. You can write songs, or riddles, or dig up perfectly apt quotes for your character to spout.

Character Voice can be a mini-game. I have a character with an INT of 5, which I attribute to a severe axe-blow to the head. He can make perfectly fine decisions, but can’t process language very well. I only let this character use one-syllable words in sentences of 5 words or less. This makes any sort of nuance or complexity a frustrating/interesting challenge.

Don’t over-do it. A little mannerism goes a long way.

Oh, and it’s okay to grow into a character’s voice. Don’t feel like you have to have it down pat before the first post.

Character motivation. 
PbP bogs down easily when the players are indecisive—or, worse, prudent. A character needs a reason to actively pursue a course of action that will inevitably lead to madness and death.  Their motivation doesn’t have to be logical or subtle, but it’s good if it's consistent.

Common motivations are greed, relentless curiosity, or attachment to some quest or another. A personal favorite, which makes no sense whatsoever but is a lot of fun to play, is a character who just wants to eat monsters. New and different monsters. It gives them a reason to charge into the next room, and describing the preparations of the bodies is always fun.

Lurker ceviche

  • Remove the remains of any fellow adventurers killed by the lurker’s ambush.
  • Using a heavy knife, thinly slice the tough lurker meat. Areas targeted by crushing damage will already be tenderized.
  • Slice onions, garlic, and any flavorful weeds you may have foraged.
  • Place ingredients in a small sack, and cover with vinegar or very sour wine.
  • Tie the sack tightly, and let macerate until you next make camp.
  • Save vs. Poison.

Surprisingly, this has never led to a character'd death. But then, I’ve yet to try a Figgy Black Pudding.

Character Interaction. 
Be giving in your interactions with the other characters. Notice what they’re doing and comment on it. Appreciate when they do something cool. Ask them questions. Give them nicknames. Contribute actively.

Play-by-post has a tendency to become a group of people parallel-playing one-on-one with the GM. You wait for a GM-prompt, say what your character is going to do, and them wait for the next prompt. This gets boring and dispiriting in a hurry. But a really rollickin’ game can carry on for awhile without GM input.

On the flip-side: keep planning simple. Lots of players get frustrated if planning takes more than a post or two. And yet it can take awhile to formulate a good plan. My recommendation: Let your character state their plan, once, succinctly. If you as the player, have a separate plan, state it plainly, out-of-character. If other options are on the table, don’t debate it in-character. Try an an OOC poll, and then follow its results without grumbling.

Everything else is basic social stuff—don't be a jerk, don't make it all about you, don't play "beer-loving dwarf" or "surprisingly aggressive halfling" and expect anyone to congratulate you on your originality. You know all that.

Let me know if you have anything to add!


Popular posts from this blog

Knaves, fancypants

I've prepared a new layout document of Ben Milton's Knaves . Knaves is a great, light rules set that has an extremely elegant core mechanic while retaining total compatibility with OSR material. It's pretty much the rpg of my dreams. This document contains the complete rules, plus a bunch of useful hacks from the community, plus a few of my invention, plus some useful resources from Ben Milton's previous effort, Maze Rats . EDIT: I've updated the layout to fix errata and make a few tweaks. Further, I've made 3 variations: KNAVES TABLET LAYOUT The Tablet Layout is meant for scrolling on screens, and contains hyperlinks. KNAVES SPREAD LAYOUT The Spread Layout is set up to print on Letter-sized paper. KNAVES A4 LAYOUT The A4 Layout is set up to print on A4 paper, and is probably the most elegant of the three versions. This is presented with generous permission from Ben Milton, and should in no way be an excuse for not purchasing a copy of Knav

Reviewing Rules for Play-by-Post Optimization

I’ve played a lot of PbP games: all your favorite flavors of OD&D, AD&D, and their retroclones, Call of Cthulhu, Marvel Superheroes, Traveller, Dungeon World, etc. ad nauseam. In almost every instance, I forgot what ruleset we were using at some point. Which is a good thing. Once chargen is over, you spend a lot more time describing your characters actions and poring over the GM’s descriptions than you spend interacting with rules. When you do roll, it’s usually a combat to-hit roll, which you’ve probably programmed into the online dice-roller as a macro. Pretty much any game will work for PbP. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t points of possible optimization. Point 1: Resolution. Anything that can keep the action moving is a boon to PbP. A game that requires a back-and-forth exchange of information to resolve an action is going to progress very slowly. A good rule of thumb is that it’ll take 2 or 3 days to get a response from any given player. At that pace, an exch

Maze Rats by Post

In my previous post , I reviewed a bunch of my favorite rulesets for optimization for Play-by-Post. It occurred to me almost immediately that I hadn't really thought about Maze Rats enough. In fact, I'd mis-remembered and mischaracterized it. Upon reflection, one of the mechanics I took issue with is actually a big strength. Re-reading the rules, it seems like just a few very simple hacks could make it a highly-optimized PbP game. As follows: Danger Rolls are rolled by the GM. Danger rolls usually fail, so it is in the player’s interest to describe their actions plausibly and mitigate as many risks as they can, in the hopes that they don’t trigger a danger roll. 2d6 + ability bonus ≥ 10 If you have taken enough precautions to have a distinct advantage in an action, but not enough to have eliminated the distinct possibility of danger, the GM will give you a roll with advantage. 3d6 keep 2 + ability bonus ≥ 10 Because each character only has 3 ability scores (S