Monday, January 24, 2011

My Foray into Play-by-Post Gaming

Let me preface this entry by noting that there is no better way to play D&D, Labyrinth Lord, S&W, or any other RPG for that matter, than with pencil and paper, dice, and a table.  In my own opinion, this is the key to playing and enjoying those games the way they were intended.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, my D&D group hasn't changed much since the mid-90's.  I'm not one that's going to go to a game shop and post a bulletin looking for a game, or visit and try to start a gaming group with people I don't know.  Maybe it's because I'm getting old and have a harder time making new friends, but It just seems strange to me to do these things.  Oddly enough, my current group, all lifelong friends, met up in this same fashion 15+ years ago; at a game shop in our hometown.

Back to my point.  Over the years we've played, with various members of the group here or there, but rarely with everyone able to play at once.  Most of us are fairly spread out and live far from each other, so organizing games to play on a regular basis at the table is not an option for us.  One evening early last year, I had an idea to play D&D on a forum via a play-by-post method.  I was hesitant and skeptical of it working, as anyone would be.  I emailed all of my friends and asked them what they thought of it, and they were all eager to jump on and give it a go.  I must say,although we've had to take a few breaks along the way due to unexpected life events, we've had as much fun as we've had in years and years playing.

Here's how I made it work.  Well, this is the simple abbreviated version of it, anyway.  I didn't want to invest a lot of money into this starting out, because let's face it, the mere notion that it might work was a crapshoot.  So, I headed over to and created a free forum.  The great thing about ProBoards forums, aside from being free, is they are very easy to customize.  The first question that immediately arose, of course, was dice rolling.  How were we going to handle dice rolling in a play by post game?  Fortunately, I was able to find a great script which allows us to roll randomly generated dice in our posts.  Any dice with any number of sides.  The script, for those inclined, can be found on the ProBoards Support Forum.  With the dice roller installed, we were ready to begin.

We had decided to use 2e rules for AD&D prior to the start of the game, primarily because it is the edition we are all most familiar with.  Only a couple of us ever ventured into the "forbidden zone" of 3e, 3.5, or 4e.  So, I individually communicated via email and forum posts on the board and we created the characters.  From there, I began to populate the board with various forums in order to make the game work and flow smoothly.  I tried to look at things in the perspective of a DM at a table, rather than on a computer. 

I created one board I titled simply "The Adventure."  Within the board was the main storyline threads of each part of the adventure.  I organized these into "chapters" with each chapter having its own thread.  This was the equivalent of the entire group together at the table calling out actions, movements, etc.  I created a simple color code system for the posts.  Green=OOC chatter, Red=actions, Blue=character speaking, and normal text=descriptions.  This really helped keep the game separated from any OOC speak and really made things a lot easier, especially during combat.

My players are sneaky bastards.  I say that with a great deal of affection, but it's the truth.  They like to do their own thing.  At the table this is done in the ever popular method of "passing the DM a note."  So, in order to facilitate this on the forum, I created each player his own personal password protected board.  I assigned each player a password which only he and I knew.  This allowed each of us to communicate one-on-one information without everyone seeing it.  Also, it allowed me to keep track of players' XP and their character sheets, items, spells, etc.

At this point, I had the basics down, and we were ready to start.  I began with a fairly simple adventure to stop a band of brigands robbing people on the roadway.  That evolved into a more complex storyline, which the characters are still pursuing.  Combat was the one area we were particularly curious about in the play-by-post method.  As we didn't have a table with miniatures, or tokens to give us an idea, instead I created very simple maps of the area in MS Paint.  The players were marked by various colored numbers on the maps along with the enemies annotated in different colored X's.  This gave the players a visualization of the combat, just as the miniatures do at the table.  This map was of course ever changing and I would have to update it several times during the combat, but due to its simple design in Paint, this was easy and quick.

To streamline combat, I would ask each character what his actions were for the round and they would post them.  After they all posted, I rolled initiative for both the party and the enemies using the dice roller in the post.  If they were tied, then we went to speed factors, dex adjustments, casting times, etc. to determine initiatives.  This was only in the cases of ties, however.  If the enemy won initiative, I would take their actions and then it would be the players' turns.  I had them roll to hit in their posts as well as the damage with adjustments using the dice roller in the same post.  If they hit, the damage was applied.  If not, the damage was null.  This really helped speed things up because we weren't waiting on separate posts for damage.  It might sound confusing to read on the surface, but it works surprisingly well.

The game so far has been a huge hit, as I said.  We're having more fun gaming than we've had in many years.  Partly because we're not waiting to meet twice a month and can actually "play" on a daily basis, but also because it's been the only time in 15+ years that we've all been able to get the same group together in one place to play.  In fact, a couple of my players have branched off and created their own private forums running their own games.  We found a way to make the play-by-post method work.  No, it can never replace the joy of sitting around the table together, but it has been a great substitute.


  1. Those are some great tips. This is a timely post, as I've been giving some thought to trying my hand at running a PbP game this year.

    Question: how do you deal with posting frequency? What I mean is, do you get some players posting with much greater frequency than others due to having more access to their computers? Do you have people who can only post once or twice a day? If so, how do you deal with it?

  2. Kudos!

    I wish I could keep my focus with a pbp game. :(

  3. @sirlarkins - Yes, I have some posters that post more frequently than others for various reasons. We don't really slow the game down if someone isn't posting. We tend to keep a pretty standard pace on the board. Everyone knows to check it at least once a day, and in fact, most of us are on there on a daily basis posting all the time. The only time I will really hold a game up to wait for someone to post is in the case of combat, or when that PC needs to interact for some reason or another to keep the game going. Good luck with your game and if you have any more questions on it, feel free to ask.

    @Tequila - Well, we just happened to be fortunate with this group, but we keep the pace pretty steady and in essence my goal with it is to make it as much like the table top experience as possible. In that regard, most of the guys can keep their focus.