View Full Version : What makes a successful PBP game? Looking for voices of experience.

Junior Martyr
2012-04-20, 08:14 PM
I'm interested in hearing from GMs and players of long-running PBP games to understand what has made those games successful and the elements that have prevented it from crashing and burning within a few weeks, like the majority of games.

I'm particularly interested to know which systems you are using, any rules modifications that you have made to adapt the system to a PBP environment, and what sort of balance you have between roleplaying, combat and puzzle solving in the game.

In my (admittedly limited) PBP experience, both as a player and GM, it seems to be an over-emphasis on mechanics, particularly with regard to combat, that often signs a game's death warrant, yet the vast majority of games that are advertised in the Recruitment thread talk all about the various character building options that are available and little about the themes or plot of the game itself.

I am very keen to start a long-running game of my own but I want to do some research on the success factors first, to make sure that I don't fall into the trap that so many seem to.

I'm don't want to make this a thread about what people think make a game succeed or fail. I am looking for specific examples and advice based on first-hand experience from players and GMs of games that have lasted in excess of a year.

2012-04-20, 10:17 PM
The most important thing is a reliable GM. The second most important thing is players who get along and communicate. The third most important thing is to focus more on plot and character interaction than on combat or exploration. Combat is quite frankly slow as hell in pbp and often requires strict observation of post order and that slows everything to a crawl. A focus on exploration tends to leave the players wandering around aimlessly and the game slowly grinding to a halt and dying as people don't know what to do and discussion of it is slow. More railroading than in real time games is probably warranted to avoid this problem, conversation with players and discussion of what to do in advance helps too.

2012-04-21, 06:47 AM
The most important thing is a reliable GM. The second most important thing is players who get along and communicate. The third most important thing is to focus more on plot and character interaction than on combat or exploration. Combat is quite frankly slow as hell in pbp and often requires strict observation of post order and that slows everything to a crawl. A focus on exploration tends to leave the players wandering around aimlessly and the game slowly grinding to a halt and dying as people don't know what to do and discussion of it is slow. More railroading than in real time games is probably warranted to avoid this problem, conversation with players and discussion of what to do in advance helps too.

Though I completely second this whole paragraph (and the third point is sure to be argued against, especially in this forum), the first sentence can't be emphasized enough. Reliable GM, period.

2012-04-21, 07:12 AM
The previous posters have summed it up well.

The best PbP games I've participated in were very strong on character interaction. The PCs developed strong relationships of varying types, and bantered back and forth continually (even when keeping quiet and sneaking might have been more useful... we were ambushed at the tops of staircases rather a lot, in hindsight).

There's nothing worse than a PbP game in which the players wait to be spoonfed something with each DM post, go quiet otherwise, and don't help each other.

Combat can indeed be slow. I find it important for people to post in strict initiative order, else things get very confusing, and the inevitable retcon makes it worse. Some groups loosen the initiative rules to avoid these problems, but I prefer not to.

Some of my games were slower than they might have been because we had players in many different time zones. When one player posted, two of us had often just gone to bed, so there was an unavoidable 8 hour delay to any response. By the time we posted, he was asleep. It was a great group, sadly missed, so we put up with it.

2012-04-21, 02:33 PM
First - reliability has been brought up. This is a big factor. You need to ensure that EVERYONE has buy-in and is excited for the game, enough so that they'll stay invested even when the spotlight is on someone else. Life does sometimes happen, and that can interfere, but I've been toying with ideas on how to avoid that being an issue. Mainly right now, I'm thinking about having busy players send a private message to the GM with a brief list of their actions so that things can keep moving. Even with as busy as my life is right now, if I was in a PbP game, I'd take the time to send a quick message that says "I charge the orc at F8, using power attack for 5", even if I didn't have the time to write a post about it. The DM can then describe that, and have accurate actions from all players.

Second - turn order can be murder on pacing. I suggest using initiative in "groups", effectively. When initiative is rolled, anyone who acts before the monsters can do so, then the monsters, then trade back and forth between the party and the opponents. Allow the party to post their actions in any order. Normal initiative would mean that if each poster takes a day and you have a four-man party, you take four days per turn. If anyone can post their turn at any point, then you take one day per turn.

Third, related to the above - Focus on roleplay over combat, and when combat is appropriate/necessary, use a more narrative system. Full-on grids and maps are difficult to work with, it's better to say "You're in a forest, anything 20 feet away has cover from the trees" instead of having do create a map and show the precise location of every tree.

Finally (for now), fourth - an active out-of-character thread is incredibly important. This helps keep everyone's attention on the game, even when the game itself slows down. Encourage players to post thoughts on things there as much as you can, though not to the exclusion of the IC post of course. Just like a game in real life, the things that happen outside of the game are just as important as things that happen inside of it.

2012-04-22, 06:37 AM
While one game in hasn't been going for over a year has been going since late September of last year.

Another thing for a great game is accountability. If someone can't post that day then letting the others know in advance helps. Speaking from experience over the past month or two had to do this alot because of all the doctor visits in regards to my cancer. I also keep them up to date about how things are going. So in a way in the OOC with such sharing of info brings more likely...to be playing with friends.

Roleplaying can't be said enough. Combat or just mechanics in general such as skill use doesn't really grab people. However if done narratively then is far more interesting. Interesting characters is also required. My character is a paranoid/skittish/aloof woodsman type character who has learned his skills by experience because used to be a streetrat on the run from the law. May sound like my character doesn't get along yet does. Also being the best at Stealth, Perception, Survival, and combat against favored enemy helps pull weight. Pulling your weight matters as well unless that isn't required.

2012-04-22, 07:36 AM
I have been running (GM) a PBP game for something of ten years by now. We have accumulated over 110000 posts in that game (including OOC-babbling in other threads and coordination). Neglecting small breaks, we have constantly been playing.
I have also participated in other PBP games, all of which were short lived (because the DMs sucked and did not adhere to the below).

Note I'm not talking about PBP in general, but about running one for a long time (1 year+).

1. The GM
First and foremost is a reliable GM. You as a GM must get new players when old ones do not work out. You must have patience with your players and do not mind if one takes an absence of a month or three, nicely talk to them and find out under what conditions they play again.
You also must remove players that really do not show up or simply do not fit the group (but see above, do not fire too early, I usually take a year to finally fire someone).
You must not press things so the players do not get choked but you need to move things forward on a constant basis.
You need to be able to easily just write nice stuff without thinking too much. If it takes you half a day to answer something because you write so slow, you'll never get anywhere (players taking a few hours to complete some post is fine).

If you find something does not work (your plot, your players, your time), organise around something. No one else will do that for you.

Accept that stuff can be slow, do not expect it to run like a game on the board table. We're making like a level per year on average (which means I gave out levels in the first years a tad quicker and slowed down in the later years, no we are like a level every 18 or 24 months). It's ten levels in ten years.

Know the limits of your players. If you have a player that is constantly there, but not the smartest guy... do not throw him into diplomatic situations, he'll screw them up (and has no fun). Do not press him too much to do things he cannot do. Give him stuff he can do, even if you have a higher standard (and fire him if he really is way below you intellectual standard).

2. The Players
What is most important is that the players do not get together just for the game alone. Come from some other net forum about something you all care about, that will initially keep you together.
RL connections are not bad, but no guarantee it works. I had RL friends leave the game again. Good is a mix of RL relations and net friends (RL friend of a player but not you works out as well).
Recruiting can only happen via "the other interest" or RL. Do not recruit players too quick, only invite players you do know already at least in some way and you know you like them (the exception is if a player introduces a new player).
Test new players in a small 1on1 game, like an intro to the char. Make sure it is "for you to get to know the character" but "also to find out if we get along". If that one fails, you two can go back to just leave it be.

You having RL connections to at least 2 players helps as well, as you'll form the Hard Core of the game that keeps it together (note you do not have to live in the same town, you can have contact to one of the players via the net alone, but I suggest you do have a RL connection (family, friend who moved away, ex-lover, ex-dog-walker,... whatever).

Try to play with at least 5 to 6 players. I found I find 6 to be a lot and 7 beyond what I can manage, but you need a group of 4 to keep a group dynamic going and even if 3 people are not active for a while, you still have the game running. So you need 6 people to have always like 4 running the game.

Refrain from adding active GM-NPCs to the group. If you do it, be very careful and have those characters be really reluctant (and at best do not use casters).

You need players who do have the RL time to post in the evenings. In principle, you need players who can, in theory, post at least once a day. You'll not get that, but if one of your players has already three evenings in the week planned and is away to party every sunday evening, you won't see an awesome game.
College is compatible with PBP, working not so much but currently, we manage that as well.

Do not open the age span too much. Having some 30 year olds who also have fun doing adult themes and adding one or two teenagers is probably a bad idea.

3. The Rules
The most important thing here is: Screw the rules. Use them to set up a very basic framework with them, but then go relatively lose. If any rule slows you down, discard it.
Your job is to keep the game flowing and you are not doing that with 10-round-fights or failed skillchecks and saves. I think in ten years, my characters failed less than two dozen checks. PBP is so slow that you cannot afford to have players "come up with a good spell in this situation" just to say "No, come up with another one".
Let people have fun, that is why you meet. Use a simple d20+stat mod to roll dice, keep some fluent "difficulty" level for your encounters. Is the guy hard? Then he has a "good" hit with a ten. Is he a joke? Then he only hits with a 18. Is a badass? Let him always hit (this scales with the PCs levels).
I gave PCs skills (staring with what "makes sense") then then PCs get one Tier per Level, they can learn a new skill or turn an existing once into "masterful" or a masterful into "Grand Masteful". Then I bulk-decide (ok, sometimes with the roll of a d20) if the application of a skill works based on that in this or that situation.

Boss fights should not be longer than five rounds (cheat on both sides to make an awesome, badass fight from it), normal fights should not drag on longer than 3 rounds.

Cheat a lot. Cheat to keep the game flowing and fights short, cheat to keep things interesting. That's your job. Cheat players and play some awesome plot or stick to the rules and bore them to death. A "short" plots takes roughly 3 RL months, a long one take up to a RL year (including pre- and post-taking)... so see it's worth it. You won't achieve that by being a rules-monkey, PBP is way too slow for that.
(I estimate a gaming session at the table comes down to roughly 3 to 6 months of PBP unless you really do nothing else in your life). Oh, and do not let them know you cheat arbitrarily, always let them think there are "rules", even if you do not stick to the fine game rules. Note that "cheating" also means: "Cheat in their favour, not only against them". If a player casts a fireball into enemies, let it roast them all (and create the next wave of bandits if the player stole all stuff to do from the others). Let players make their will save but tell them they just evaded a Hold Person (they'll know it "was close" but also can stay in the game and do awesome things).
Do not play with people who are rules lawyers, that simply is not working with what you are trying here (long running PBP); my experience also is that rules-guys are bad at a "lose game for fun where what matters are the character and not the mechanics or the dungeoneering" playstyle, so forget about them alltogether.

No matter what rule you use, I found an awesome thing are botches. Have PCs as well as NPCs botch in a while. There's nothing funnier than to see the PCs make fun in the OOC-thread about a botching NPC (even a boss) or to panic when a PC botched just in the wrong situation.
Do not botch too often, give PCs their over-the-top awesome actions. But do botch once in a while (that is why you still roll a die once in a while). Remember: Your job is to keep stuff interesting and to create "emotion" in your players. There's little that does those things better than Exceptional Criticals or Botches (on both sides of the battlefield).

4. The Story
Have interesting stuff happen to every character (plan a long-term character plot for EVERY char he can follow or not), independent of your plot.
Your plot does not mean anything, important is that your players... play.
Give them opportunity to talk to each other and get players who do talk to each other (and who create own conflict, who pick up their character plots and play with them).
Focus on story, talk, social situations and not only on fights or dungeon crawls. Let the players fight from time to time.
Do emotional stuff. Explore things. Keep your players happy (even if you give them cheated, cheesy Crowning Moments of Awesome, even if it's against the rules, are totally overpowered, not within the scope of their character class). Punch the characters into the mud from time to time but always be fair.
Do not kill of a character as long as it runs against the will of a player, be happy if it runs (and suggest a fitting end for a character if you think the player has fun playing that).

Throw in "bigger things to consider" (this does NOT mean you have to do epic plots). Your characters live in a world with active gods? Force everyone to pick a patron. What about morals? Make people to play their characters within the "world" they live in.

Give players choices so they have the impression what they do impacts things. The story, the world, their characters... for the most part, you'll only give them the illusion of choice (in regard to the story) but it must be clear YOU are offering them something and THEY can chose and shape. You are equals, but just have other roles.
No one wants to play a railroad plot where they see the rails. Do not be afraid to change and throw away your plot if players do something better or different. Note again: the plot is unimportant, important is that is played at all. The plot is just some mean to achieve that (but this is true for all RPG; do not play with people who did not get that).

Keep players busy. If a character cannot do something because he is in the tavern and the action is elsewhere, give him something do to as well.
See to it that every char gets to do something. If the mage blasts all enemies, see to it that some more give the other chars something to do as well.

Reflect actions by your PCs into the world. If they are level 10, they become people of note and others have heard of some of their actions. They are the leaders among their faith, reflect that.
If they "do" something, make it those things to have realistic (and sometimes) unforseen consequences. If players kill your plot somehow, at least let it go down in some significant way (Players will rather remember they put the count in prison and the entire county then fell apart and they had to fight the Red Baron due to that than playing your stupid plot for some count in Faraway and going on).

5. Misc
Have no problems when stuff is slow from time to time. Downtimes lasting a month or three where stuff is really slow (due to people's RL) does happen. Sometimes people are just fed up and bored (including you). If you manage to have similar interests you can talk about besides the game, it's no problem to just make a pause of 3 or so weeks (I usually take a break (non vacation induced) once every two or so years. That invigorates stuff.

The most important lesson is to screw the rules and focus on having fun. And to get geeks as players who stick to it.
My experience is that females make better PBP players (right now, we are distributed 2 males (1 player, 1 gm)/4 females), a mix of RL genders is a generally a good thing, though. But I think only as long as you cut down the mindless dungeon crawling and fighting, have social and character stuff happening.

A lot of the above is true for DMing in general, but with the relatively slow pace of PBP, it becomes much more important to adhere to it. When a PC would stand aside at the table for an hour or two, in PBP this can easily be a week or three. You do not have to be smart to know that players will lose interest if that happens a few times. Etc.

Never ever allow any OOC-information in the game-thread. Do not fill it with rule crap (HPs, Skillrolls, whatever). Just describe what the results are and keep the administration overhead to a seperate thread.
While I am at it, make unique threads for OOC to the game, OOC-general banter, the game, for maps or other graphics, characters' states and inventory, ...
Also split up the "game" into several threads, like acts or chapters or whatever. I usually let an act or chapter run for like 2000 to 3000 posts, even that is already a tad longish (it usually contains of some "bigger" quest and two or so smaller ones, sometimes it's just two small ones and LOTS of character-play).

Start with good bookkeeping from the beginng in a set of well-sorted files. If you play for a long time, stuff just collects (NPCs, things done, stuff looted, ...). You really want to keep note.
Good is if you can motivate a player (or make them taking rounds) to create a Journal (with links to the posts in the game in question).

Do not play here or on any non-your board. If you plan a long running PBP, get an own board, where you are moderator, can make threads, allow or disallow people yourself. Ideally, it is already "that board that connects you" and you make a sub-forum for your game there. That'll also make it easy to just recruit replacement players (you'll need them) right from that board.

Good luck with your game.