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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.