In the beginning of January, I began an experiment: to run a play-by-post D&D 3.5 campaign entirely through facebook messages, just to see how viable an option it is. I expected to play through just one scenario, then let the campaign just sort of peter out. I rounded up two good friends of mine to play. One is an actor who lives in Chicago, and the other an actor who lives in Brooklyn. These two had never met before, and would never even hear each others’ voices while playing. The one had a little experience with 3.5, and the other had considerable experience with 2nd edition AD&D, but hadn’t played since middle school. Three weeks later, they’ve finished the scenario and are demanding more! I have to write an entirely new city for them to explore, simply because they find it a novel and refreshing change from normal D&D.
What’s the secret to my success, you ask? (Because apparently I can put self-aggrandizing thoughts into your head?) While I was writing the first scenario, I recalled the lessons I learned playing and writing text-based MUDs on a dial-up internet connection in the mid-to-late 90s. For those of you who are younger than 30, play “Thy Dungeonman” to get an inkling of what things were like in the rough-and-tumble early days of the internet. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Done? Good! Now you know what I once thought of as the Next Big Thing in gaming. Just remember: twenty years from now you’ll look at kids playing with their hologames and say, “When I was your age we only had three-dimensional games, displayed on a flatscreen TV and played with a plastic controller instead of a telepathic link directly to our minds! Pull your hyperpants up, everyone can see your cyberware!”
In those halcyon days, I learned that in order for your text-based adventure to be successful, you have to keep a few things in mind. Some of them are common sense while others seem strange and alien, but they all bear mentioning:
1: Keep it simple, stupid.
The more complicated the plot, the more difficult it is to follow. Take any teen and set them down in front of an episode of “Days of Our Lives” and they’ll have no gorram clue what’s going on. The same applies to NPC relationships. Avoid the temptation to have the supervillain be the long-lost stepson of a PC’s estranged uncle-through-marriage’s evil twin. Also, avoid the temptation to have the dungeon the PCs are currently delving be so complicated that they have to keep a pad of graph paper next to their computer while playing. These things draw the player out of the experience, ruin their suspension of disbelief, and turn it from a fun game into a tedious chore.
2: Your primary goal is for everyone to have fun.
This seems like a no-brainer. If it’s not fun, they won’t want to play. However, you’d be surprised how many DMs want to exercise their power and kill off the PCs in gruesome, horrible ways. Learn how to be dangerous and unforgiving while still keeping the game fun. If you’re stuck for ways to do that, remember this rule of thumb: there always has to be at least one foolproof way out. If the PCs fail to notice it, or if they see it but think it’s a trap, learn to improvise another. It’s okay if the PCs die because of their own stupidity, but don’t put them in a no-win scenario, because unless you’re Captain James T. Kirk, that’s no fun for anyone.
3: Avoid combat at all costs.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me. One of the main complaints about D&D in general, and AD&D and 3.5 in particular, is that combat bogs down gameplay. It’s tedious, it’s redundant, it takes forever, it’s repetitive, it’s slow, and it makes you repeat the same actions over and over ad nauseum. When you’re playing around a table with physical dice, that works; but when you’re playing online and there may be hours or days between posts, waiting for the next player to finally post their attack roll brings the action to a screeching halt. If you can’t manage to run a game without dull combat, find a more roleplay-heavy game to run, like “Fiasco” or “Cat”, or use the following tip:
4: When necessary, change the rules to suit the play-style.
It’s okay to change the rules. DMs do it all the time! If you’re running a play-by-post game, combat and skill rules in almost any RPG will be far too slow for your purposes. For the love of Lolth, change them! One thing that I did to speed up my game was institute a house rule: “When entering combat, rather than take forever with rolls and initiative order, take some time to strategize together as a party, and then just tell me in plain English what you want to do. I’ll find a way to make it work with the rules, then I’ll roll the necessary dice and tell you how successful you are.” This may sound like it takes the control away from the player, but in my experience it has actually given them more control. D&D’s combat tends toward the hack-and-slashy, kick-in-the-door type of play, so adding this rule actually made them think about strategy and using the environment against their enemies more than they already would have. Also, they got really into it, saying things like “My character will take a running leap, bringing my two-handed greatsword down in a mighty swing to cleave the orc from the nave to the chops! I’ll then use my momentum to carry me forward into the next enemy, parrying his axe and tossing him into the spike pit behind me!” In game mechanics, this would translate into a charge attack, followed by a few other attack and damage rolls to kill the first orc, followed by a move action, followed by a grapple attempt, followed by a throw attempt. The first way is an exciting opportunity to roleplay, while the second is an insipid, dull exercise in rolling dice.
5: Fudge rolls.
Again this seems counter-intuitive. In D&D, the dice are king. You must always do as the dice tell you [All glory to the Hypno-Toad]. However, when you’re running a narrative-driven play-by-post game, you have to let the rules take a backseat to the story. If it makes more dramatic sense for the characters to be able to hide from the dragon that has a +30 to Spot, let the dragon roll a 1! If the story calls for a character to win the jackpot in Vegas, then by all means let him get a perfect “Bar-Bar-Bar!” On the other hand, if the story dictates that a PC needs to have a dramatic death scene, who are you to deny the story arc its natural conclusion?
Finally, 6: Prepare everything ahead of time, but make sure it’s flexible.
Play-by-post allows for tighter control of the environment surrounding the PCs than live, in-person gaming does. As such, you need to take advantage of it by planning as much as you can ahead of time. If, for example, you’re stranding the PCs on a deserted island in the middle of a world’s arctic circle, you can draw a map of the island, make a list of all the indigenous species they’re likely to encounter, plan out a weather chart so you can roll each day to determine the amount of snowfall and wind, plan out how the weather conditions will adversely affect their health, plan out exactly when and how they can be rescued (fool-proof, remember?), then watch as they stomp all over your carefully-crafted island, destroying any semblance of order you had, and push forward your timetable by several days. Don’t let that dissuade you! Instead, learn to improvise. As any actor will tell you, the secret to improvisation is preparation. Have several NPCs’ personality profiles sitting around just waiting for names. Have a few scenarios on the back burner. Most of all, Write. Everything. Down. The PCs will remember that they talked with so-and-so, and will inevitably ask questions about him. Never let them know that you have no idea what they’re talking about. Never let on that you’re making things up on the spot. If you bluff well enough, they’ll never realize that they just derailed the entire campaign.
Keeping these 6 tips in mind, I managed to write an immersive, compelling scenario that so engrossed my players that they’re now demanding I write more. I’d better get back to that. In the meantime, share some of your own tips for play-by-post campaigns below; I’m always looking for more ways to improve my game.
Image from the awesome Ongoing Worlds Blog.