How To Play By Email (PBeM) or Play By Post (PBP)

Playing games by hangout can be an absolute wonderful thing for people that live remotely or in small towns.  It can be a brilliant thing for people that do not want to get too attached to a group OR try a new game system.  Where play in person is not possible it seems to be the perfect solution in this day and age.  However, this is not always the case as circumstances may culminate in hangouts not being the perfect option for some people.

I started a PBeM in 1999 (they seem to be known as PBP now) when hangouts were a thing of the future.  I started it for my in person group as I moved far away from them and I was not ready (and neither were they) to let go the Earthdawn campaign I had been running for six or seven years by that stage.  I was moving to a place where I knew no-one so it was the perfect opportunity for me to continue gaming.  I soon had my players disappear one by one as the wonder of playing by email is in reality a laborious and slow process at times.  But I forged on and hopped on bulletin boards to get new players and my PBeM has continued to this day.  Often it has been slow progress but the players I have really love the game and we move in fits and bursts.

I had always thought that it was the story that kept my players in the game but I found out that one of my players is partially deaf and so cannot play in a standard hangout.  I think a couple of them are also in a place where internet is unreliable or not fast enough to be able to play via hangout.  I would like to think a couple of them are there for the story too.  So remember that hangouts are great but not for everyone.  So, let me move on to how to run a PBeM game as that is what I promise in the title.


  1. System: Pick something you want to play.  If I were starting a new game today I would likely pick a game that has a lot of flair and is free and downloadable.  Something like Atomic Highway or the like.  It really does not matter how complicated the system is in a PBeM as the GM handles all the mechanics and by and large the players just speak in their character voice and suggest what they want to do afterward.
  2. Posts:  There are a bunch of places where you could facilitate this type of thing like Obsidian Portal or simply by just setting up your own email group.  I was lucky in that one of my players was very IT skilled and joined the group early.  He has an apache mail server running my particular game on dedicated space for free :).  This allows us all to email one address and it sends the email to all subscribers.  It also adds security by only accepting email from subscribed email addresses.  It also sets up a neat archive so you can see all posts that have been sent over the entire game.
  3. Post Headers:  I would strongly suggest that you use a standard format for your post header.  For example, my Earthdawn game posts come out in the following format;   Earthdawn PBeM ANH 11.2 Last hope… Hopefully the Earthdawn PBeM is self explanatory.  The ANH is an abbreviation of the adventure stage (in this case abbreviated for A New Hope) followed by a number that denotes chapter and post (so this is chapter 11, post 2) with finally a bit of flavour text to entice the player before reading it.  Using this standard format helps your bookkeeping and understanding which post a player is relating to when they reply to a post late.
  4. Timing: I would suggest rather strongly that you set up a regular cycle to a game too.  I am really bad at doing this but when you get it right it will keep the game propelled at a reasonable pace.  At the height of my isolation from the gaming world I was running the game at a biweekly pace that was alittle too frequent in my opinion.  I think a post a week would be a good pace to use, though you will find yourself as the GM wanting to postpone until all players have replied.  You must fight this urge.  They snooze, they lose.
  5. Characters: This has caused me the most problems in game.  I think I have been through three personal websites and a bunch of different systems of Earthdawn since starting and character sheets have been my biggest bugbear.  Keeping a current character sheet in a place that both you and the player can access is no simple task (though is getting simpler with dropbox, copy, drive and similar cloud services).  the amount of bookkeeping that has been involved has driven me to frustration at times.  So, try to pick a game that has simple character sheets or decent free character generator.  One of my online PbEM gamers +John Constable found me a 3rd Edition Earthdawn character generator in Java (means it works on every platform) and if he were not halfway around the world I would have kissed him.  They all now have current character sheets and it took me about a half hour to do.  I have mentioned it once and I will mention it again, I have a man crush for Mr. Constable after that awesome find.
  6. Advancement: This can be as abstracted as you want in game.  I tend to move my players forward in circles (Earthdawn’s version of levels) in fits and bursts rather than keeping accurate tallies of Legend Points and the like.  This may change though now we all have access to a reliable character tool.  The other thing that is great about this is the players really do not have much of a focus on power.  The group that is playing together currently range from a tenth circle character to a fifth circle character, and I can almost bet none of them know which is which.  That is because they all focus on character rather than mechanics which is spectacular.
  7. Content:  You do need some ability to write well.  The bonus to this is the fact that you have time to sit, consider the players actions and then frame the response.  This style of game gives the GM hours to respond to a series of interactions rather than seconds that is usual for a game.  This generally means you do not have thoughts of “if only” like you do when you walk away from a hangout or in person game sometimes.  If you are creative and good with words though you can frame up some exceptional material to keep the game exciting for the players and include all the interactive material that they put in place in their posts.
So, there you have it.  Seven Rules that will keep a PBeM on track.  It is a slow process playing a PBeM as it takes a week to progress what would probably take five to ten minutes in an in-person or hangout game.  This style does have the bonus of being basically inclusive for everyone though and can provide the fun of waiting for the next post to see how you handled things.  I strongly recommend you give it a go if you have a love of writing and a love of gaming!  Oh, and if you are after the link to the Earthdawn Character Generator click right here.  Until next post, keep rolling!

4 Comments


  1. Hello Folks, Heath here, one of the long term players within the PbeM game that Mark is running. I have read what Mark has penned here and thought I would pipe up in support of the format, should you be considering joining a game or even running one. (I still cannot believe you admitted to the Bromance though Mark.)
    Mark has touched on why people join a play by mail/post game, so I will not go into that too much. For me when I started in his game nearly fifteen years ago by my reckoning, we were still using dial up modems! My main reason was the fact that Earthdawn was my chosen system and I was not able to find players or a group within striking distance. Added to this, I was (and still) work a shift roster, which is flexible and precludes me from committing to any kind of regular meet up in any way. These were perhaps the two most significant factors, which made me seek out a game to play in the PbeM format. I had previously experienced something similar with a play by mail (snail mail) game known as Quest, which was run by Peter Read out of a Dapto address. With that particular format, players (there were hundreds) would mail in a “punch card” with their moves for their party and his computer would auto generate the reply. It was a fun system I have to admit and I used to wait patiently for the reply letter, which would come every week. Undertaking the PbeM format, I found that I would wait with just as much excitement for the replies of Mark or the other players. So I probably took to the format much easier than some players who have come and gone in the game since.

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  2. I have always been a writer in one form or another, so the lack of any real face to face game play did not pose too many issues for me. However, I have found that since playing the game, my style of writing has become more…sympathetic and engaging with the other players. As you do not have the subtle non verbal cues that you would normally have in a face to face game, I have learnt to adapt my writing style to support those who get in first (as replies are first in first served really). So I generally have to work about the GM’s post as well as the other players. When I am first to fire off a reply (which is common as many of the players in the game are in Europe or the US, so they are asleep when Mark generates his posts) then I make sure that I engage with them and leave them open to interact as well. You have to be mindful of the fact that they deserve the ability to act and guide the round as much as you do, which was admittedly was something I did not initially grasp entirely. However, I do admit that it has in fact made me a better writer in the long run and a better gamer, as I have to work harder to describe what I am doing, particularly as Mark is more invested in “role playing” over action. The format also has a bias towards this form of play, which was difficult for me as prior to this, I was definitely more action oriented. (I still am in many ways.) However the format also allows me time to write something, think on it, review it and re touch it if I need to.

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  3. The friendships that I have made out of the game has also proven to be long term and resilient. It is a fact of life that there are some significant geographical hurdles between all of us, which would prevent getting together and having a game. However I count the people who I play with as some of my closest friends. (It seems odd to me as a generation X’er that some of my friends, who I engage with regularly, I have never met face to face!) Mark, the GM is probably one of my best friends, who I trust the most as through many of the hurdles life throws at you, he has been a constant and has always been there to offer support and friendship however he can. Likewise, the other two Marks in game, are people who “get” my Monty Python’esque humour and our shenanigans in game have no doubt caused the GM a little bit of head shaking as we often go off on tangents. Despite this though, it is one of the things I look forward to the most, getting my head together with them and just letting my mouth (in game) run off with me. It is with a sense of genuine delight that I open emails to find out what they have set up for me or how they have responded to my own prompts. So I would not allow the fact that it is not face to face perturb you, as I am certain, without any shadow of a doubt that were the seven of us to meet in a pub for a pint or six, then we would get on like a house on fire. (The GM may even post bail for us.)

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  4. In closing though, I will say this, I have the utmost respect for the GM and the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for a PbeM game. At one time, I did attempt it myself a few times across Earthdawn and Cyberpunk 2020 formats. Now that I am older, I can categorically state, that it was a dismal failure. The preparation that goes into it, is not insignificant. Likewise, you have to be adaptable, to account for things not going how you planned. Likewise, you have to realise, that you need to relax control a bit. The issue that I struck was that I had a narrative that I wanted to get out and the game turned into a one sided narrative, with minimal input from the other players. It left some confused and others were not very keen to continue with their own input. Perhaps it was my inexperience and my inability to see that I had to let go a bit more…however I did learn from it none the less. There is, despite the ability to write, review, retouch and post, still swags of preparation that go into a PbeM and despite all your work, sometimes you have to let go a bit.

    Anyway, that’s about it from me. Peace out and watch out for that sketchy looking Ork in the corner, I hear he has wandering hands and deep pockets to fill.

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