Play by Email – PBEM

Friday, 26. November 2010

I had looked at this a while ago in methods of playing, but due to popular request we’ll look at play by email games (PBEM) once again.  The biggest advantage to this setup by far is that your players only need to have access to email.  Location and time are irrelevant, although timely replies are highly useful in keeping a game going.  One of my readers Don had mentioned a method I missed as well in the previous post skimming over gaming methods, so I’ll add that into the this as well.

There are a couple methods generally worth looking at for running PBEM games.  How centralized of control do you want.. are you going to have one specific storyteller or not?  How quickly do you want play to progress and what are you willing to sacrifice for it?

Centralized Control – This is the method that I have usually used and involves one person taking the role of a storyteller and the others the standard roles of the players.  The storyteller is the officiating member of the game and official play proceeds through him.  Private conversations can happen inbetween players however the storyteller is typically copied on in game actions.  The pace is set by how fast the storyteller writes and of course how quickly the members can get their responses in.

Free Play – Something I hadn’t considered.. (but should have!)  There is typically no officiating members here, this is typically more in line to something that is played on a forum.  All official members are copied with the exception of private convesations, in which case only the players involve see.  All of the players are responsible for writing and storytelling. This game can move at a much quicker pace, however it has a small cost.  Replying too quickly or too slowly can cause some problems with people not getting their actions in before the game continues.

PBEM games obviously have some major advantages worth looking at.. here are a few of them.

Email access is only required – Self explanatory, there is no location to meet up at. This makes games very flexible.
No specific time required – No specific meet up time is required.
Replies can be well crafted and worded – Good for shy players, responses can be thought about in depth, this also makes role playing much easier.
Rulebooks aren’t specifically needed – Typically only one person needs to know how to run the game and needs the books, although more are useful in a free play style.

There are of course, some disadvantages worth considering before you setup a game as well…

Potentially slow play – If everyone can only reply once a day, you are looking at very paced game play. Good for drawing out those dramatic moments however.
Missed replies if you’re typing too quickly – Free play games mostly have this problem, if players are responding at mismatched speeds.
Lack of combative control – Generally you can dictate a general strategy, but fine control of your character in fights is typically out of your hand.
It’s still not face to face – One of the real charms of gaming is the social interaction involved with it. This is playing, but misses all the banter, gags and good food that can come with tabletop play.
Character creation can be slow – Often you’ll need some help in this, and this is often the longest process. Slow email replies only drags this down further.

Overall PBEM is a good setup when you’re separatedgeographically or by time. You get to play on your time and can make some nice detailed responses, despite the game going somewhat slower.  Dramatic pauses and cliffhangers really stick, as players have to wait until a response comes around for them.  It’s not quite tabletop play, but it beats no role playing by a long shot!

What experiences have you had with PBEM games?

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2 Responses to “Play by Email – PBEM”



  1. Don Says:

    One big advantage I’ve found in PBEM is character portrayal. You can type what your character thought and the motivations behind it, as well as what he says and does. Composing an email you can type and edit until the nuances of your character are nearly perfectly portrayed.

    In an at-table setting, you can verbalize these things as well, and of course talk in character, but most people write at a higher “education level” than they talk, so portraying a character’s depth can be more difficult in regular speech, especially with 4 other players trying to do the same thing.



  2. Grey Says:

    Yeah, I was leaning toward that in my well crafted response part. I think the plays through as much with storytellers as well, where there is really a lot of characters to juggle around and different personalities to portray. It’s easy to let weaker npcs get left out and the added time reduces that tendancy.

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