“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.