Monday, March 6, 2017

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!