“Ghosting” and Ways of Play in Online Play-by-Post Games

I think I’m “ghosted” again.

I want to game much more than I have time for. I’m sure most of us can relate. Because of work and family obligations, I’m generally confined to one night a week (mine is Monday) for gaming. This is doubly exasperating because of the welter of beautiful rpgs tantalizing from my bookshelf or from afar. Most games are built for campaign play. They cry out for long term exploration. One-shots are fleeting affairs.

I’ve tried some online relationships. To game with Roll20 or something comparable would threaten my Monday commitment, so I’ve attempted Play-by-Post, something slightly less involving. I’ve had four of these affairs. One ended sort of badly. The rest just… ended.

Here are my four PbP relationships in order of acquaintance. If you, dear reader, happen to have been a player in any of these, this in no way is intended as a slight against you. For all of these games I was the GM (online, as in real life, there appear to be a whole lot more people queuing up to “play” rather than to GM). Conan 2d20 on G+ (2-3 players). RM2 on G+ (2 players). Swords & Wizardry on Discord (a rotating roster of 4+ players). Against the Darkmaster on Discord (2 players). Even from the very first, I intuited that I would have to establish some expectations going in, and the foremost was this: everyone is expected to “check in” and post something at least once a day.

Yeah, sure, they say. It’s good to have this understanding going in. No doubt.

And it begins, a flurry of activity, multiple posts over multiple days. I have a question about this. Can I clear this with you, GM? Cool character! Here we go!

A good PbP run for me appears to be an encounter or two. At first the gamers are responsive. Most of them are complimentary of my style and adventure. Then one or more of the players miss a day: “Sorry, catching up on posts now.” By now I’ve learned that this means it’s not long till the ghosting occurs.

Why, exactly, does this happen? I would love to administer an exit survey for these gamers. One very generous player for my Conan game apologized for whatever culpability he had in the game’s demise (not much) and praised my GMing. Maybe I should have continued on with just him as my gamer. I have avoided this because I think a better game involves inter-player interaction, not the imbalanced top-down authority of GM to single gamer. But for PbP, this might be the only way I can go. And who knows, maybe in collaboration with one highly competent and experienced gamer I can create a masterpiece such as the one (face-to-face constructed) by Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont during grad school. For those who left my PbPs, I’d offer the following survey.

Why did you ghost/leave my game?

Was it you?

Was it just too much writing? Are you not used to writing a carefully worded post once per day? Would you participate again if you had more time?

Was it too much thinking? Did you find it upsetting to be cogitating about this interaction throughout much of your day? Did it interfere with your work or relationships?

Was it too much time? Did you not anticipate the obligation that posting once a day would demand of you? Did it begin to interfere with your work, relationships or other gaming commitments?

Did you get what you wanted? Did you simply want to explore the game, create a character, make new friends, and now that you have done that, it’s time to move on?

Was it me?

Am I a bad GM in the way a GM can be bad in any format?

Was it my writing? Did I write too much? Did I post too much? Was my prose intimidating?

Was it my micro-aggressions? I’m an old school gamer. I tend to talk tough. Did this seem adversarial to you?

Was it my agency? Did I open avenues for your character that you didn’t want explored?

This last survey question leads me to rumination concerning differences regarding online PbP from traditional tabletop interaction. I suspect that many PbP gamers might chiefly be interested in a lovingly crafted character and its backstory. These gamers might cool to the experience as soon as we start “playing” and I, the GM, begin to introduce elements that the characters’ loving creators never expected nor intended. Years ago (still always the GM) I was sort of like this. While world building or helping my players generate characters, fictive elements might synthesize with such power that I simply wanted to go off, away from the players, and write a fantasy story outside of the players’ communal creative influence on my personal vision.

PbP is different from the tabletop experience because the sense of immediacy is gone. With an entire day, the players and I have plenty of time to construct an evocative post or consider the implications of a character action or die roll. The possibilities resulting from all this time caused me, as a GM, to consider whether or not I was “writing” rather than gaming—even if I were sort of cheating, because I didn’t have to improv so much and easily could restructure the narrative, with careful thought, around the character actions. The gamers might have similarly been aware of how much situation analysis was available to them.

It’s clear that my PbP failures aren’t solitary. It’s also clear that PbP can be successful, with campaigns running for many years. For now, I’m resigned to be content with my Monday nights, and perhaps it’s time for some solo play.

8 Replies to ““Ghosting” and Ways of Play in Online Play-by-Post Games”

  1. I also run PbP games. One thing I tend to do is start each PC as a solo character for the first level/first adventure. So it does mean that your workload is much greater as you are running up to four or six individual games but they are all in the same game world and similar/related locations. By the time they have played through an adventure you have an idea if they are really going to stick at the game, and their posting frequency.

    There is no point in bring a player that posts once every three days together with one that likes to post at 9am every single day without fail.

    I keep every player in their own thread so they will never know who is a PC and who are NPCs. This keeps them ‘honest’. The group stays together because they need to to survive or they have common cause. They do not stay because they know that they are ‘the party’. It also means that I can “elevate” any NPC from bit part to full NPC just because a PC pretty much bonded with them.

    As for posting frequency I tend to go with whatever fits with the players. They have lives and complications.

    I have ghosted someone else’s game but not intentionally. A few years ago I was doing contract work. I took a contract that involved working away under secure conditions and I quite literally had to hand over my mobile phone and our internet access was limited to a filtered set of sites from an approved list. RPoL.net was not on that list. I just went dark and there was nothing I could do about it. I suspect that I was the last player in the game anyway so my departure killed the game.

    I am time rich, player poor. That is the opposite position to you. Rather than putting my efforts into running ever more PbP games I direct it into this blog, creating RPG resources and solo play.

    Solo play is interesting. As you say the PbP experience is different to the face to face game. Solo play is different again. You asked about it before and I posted a primer for you. It does take practice to get a real game flowing but it is perfect for sandboxed and campaign length play. Start with a simple scene, play that through, try a scene that logically happened after that. You can fill in the games as to what happened between the two scenes with a simple hand wave.

    I build solo engines to emulate the core mechanics of the game I am playing. It means I only need to remember one set of rules. I just published a set of solo rules and tables for Zweihander as I have been learning those rules and I wanted to be able to play test the game. http://bit.ly/ZweiSolo

    Solo play, if you get into it, also means that you can play every game on your bookshelf. You can also play them on a pick up and put down basis as you only have to please yourself.

    After RMu goes live I will create and publish a set of RMu Solo Rules to accompany the game.

    And finally… There is space in my RMu PbP of you would like to be a player? The posting rate tends to be once per week at times down to once every three days. Not as fast as the games you have been running.

  2. I dabbled in play by post (PbP) in the 80s and intentionally stopped. It wasn’t really the crafting of a post reply to the GM and other players that caused the problems; it was more the reduced interaction with the players. At the table, there is room for all the asides and looks that characterise your interaction both in characters and as players. It was the lack of that which began to reduce my love of the PbP rather than the GM. Like Peter’s games, I had no idea who was NPC or PC so I had no idea who was who. However, the reality of the game was that dialogue was stilted and lacked a natural flow (that may have just been the players and GM). So while I could probably manage a PbP with my time commitments, I reluctant to do so.

    1. I dabbled with PbP when it was snailmail in the 80s and it was way to stilted, as you say. PbP when it is forum posts is more dynamic feeling. It will sound really minor but the formating options make a difference was well. I encourage people to pick out their dialog in coloured text but to include mannerisms, movements and stage directions. Don’t just type what you say but describe how you say it. It makes complaining about the lack of hard facts when trying to plan your next mission much more fun if your character is pacing back and forth in front of a fireplace and jabbing his pipe at people as he addresses them rather than a just writing out all your complaints.

      1. I certainly appreciate that an online text would be a little more dynamic than the snail mail version just because of the formatting. However, I do that in the manner described, at the table or on paper, and to be honest some players are really poor at that aspect at a table. So perhaps in some ways, the mechanics and storytelling can be very similar. Yet, it is that social aspect that Gabe is mentioning that separates the two forms.

        1. Yes, there is nothing that can replace the social aspect. I have also looked at playing over skype, google hangouts and discord but the technological interface is simple not the same and in some respects worse. If you know you are posting a message that will get a reply in hours or days then your expectations are set at that level. If you are sitting down to play in real time around a virtual table top then, for me the lack of actual real human contact was even more pronounced. When more than one person speaks at once it is harder to pick up and the whole thing became significantly more two dimensional.

          I would rather play in person or play differently, as trying to get that same feeling of all being there and roleplaying cannot be emulated.

          Having said that PbP is not better or worse than Face to Face play, it is just different. The same can be said for Solo Play. These are just different aspects of our hobby just as LARP is. Face to Face play around a table is simply the way that most people think of role playing in the first instance.

  3. Peter, I remember and appreciate all the time you took with me regarding solo play. Solo definitely is a sure way to familiarize myself with other games, but my experiences confirm how, for me, gaming is such a social interaction. As far as gaming goes, solo isn’t satisfying because I make all the choices. I’m trapped in my own worldview. What I love about the tabletop is how surprising and inspirational other minds can be while focusing on a scenario.

    I would jump at the opportunity to be in your PbP RMu, though. That sounds like a great way for me to dig more into that rules set. I’m surprised at your frequency of play, though. It seems like the wide frequency of posts would be frustratingly slow, especially since, in my experience, so many posts simply are a question to the GM? How does the story ever progress?

    Maybe it’s because I don’t quite understand the format. In my PbP games, everyone has understood who the other gamers are: they’re posting on a thread; they’re roleplaying their characters.

    Finally, a bit of a caveat: do you host on an established server such as RPoL.net? I have created accounts for multiple sites like that and… This is a bit embarrassing, but for every single one I have had difficulty logging back in. I have to create a new password every time. It drives me crazy. I can’t understand the problem. My only idea is it might have something to do with my device. I prefer to use an iPad, but now I have access to a traditional PC. Maybe that no longer will be a problem.

  4. One of my guys runs a Skype game once a week and it’s been going strong for well over a year now. The convenience of not having to travel or to worry about a sitter or being unavailable for the spouse when something comes up. It allows for the social aspect and faster, free form interactions. I’ve been trying to get it done for my annual weekend game for a friend of mine down in NC. She can’t make the trip for the weekend and I’ve bene trying to get her in on the game for two sessions now.

    1. It certainly can work. I think these things work best with one GM, one Player games rather than one GM and many players. Talking over each other will always happen around a table and it is just part of being in that social situation. Talking over each other via skype or hangouts is easier to do but harder to make out exactly what each person said.

      I would rather skype play than not play.
      I would rather solo than not play.
      I would rather PbP than not play.

      I would rather not LARP.

      Each is equally valid but equally different

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