Running an RPG on a Forum

Long-time readers will remember my advice to use Google Calendar to find out when your friends are free to organize an online game. Recently, I’ve taken to an alternative solution: running the game on a message board.

Why a forum?

Previously, I ran games in real-time over IRC or virtual gametable software. The big challenge was finding a time slot amicable to all the players, who at one point were spread across four continents. When a player quit, we could only replace him with someone who could make the time slot, despite having a wide online community to draw from.

Last year, I started a new game in play-by-post form on a message board. Play-by-post dates back to play-by-email games in the 1960s, and even older “correspondence chess” games from at least 1804 where players sent their turns through the post.

Running D&D in this format has its own drawbacks, but it’s quite feasible. I’d like to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in the past year.

Take advantage of the slow rate of play

One thing you notice about PbB is that it’s quite slow. We’ve only made it to level 4 in a year, and that’s with a sharply increased levelling rate that sees only two or three combats per level. The earliest PbB game I ever ran was a Pokemon battle game on USENET, and it took about a month to knock out one Pokemon.

It’s important to take advantage of slow rate. The next player may not show up for hours or weeks, so the usual need to rush through combat doesn’t apply. Encourage players to use plenty of description to make use of the longer turn times. Take the time to consider strategy. Stop to look up rules when you need to.

Adapt the rules to fit the format

A vital change we made was to institute a sort of group initiative, where the player characters all act on the same initiative count and can go in any order. This ensures you aren’t continually waiting on one player, and lets you use the extra discussion time to coordinate turns.

In our game, the DM rolls initiative for each PC and once for the monsters. Anyone who beats the monsters gets an extra round at the beginning. After that, combat continues with all monsters, then all PCs, all monsters again, and so on.

Avoid using creatures or magic items that interrupt. This leaves you waiting for a player. Consider shifting his interrupt actions to his own turn.

Share information and plans in advance

Display all PC and opponents’ basic stats up-front so that nobody needs to wait for the DM to confirm a hit. For example, our game which uses 4e keeps a list of each combatant’s HP, max HP, AC, Fort/Ref/Will, passive Perception (for Stealth users) and status effects. If you’re running a 3e game, consider a variant like players roll all the dice to avoid waiting for saving throws.

We have a character with an ability that lets him shift one square to follow an enemy on their turn if they shift. To accomodate the PbP format, he tells us on his turn that he intends to use it. This lets the DM make the move for him on the monster’s turn, in case the player isn’t around.

Use an external dice script is a useful tool which will let you roll dice online, and keep a log that you can verify rolls. D&D combat relies heavily on dice so you can’t really get around the need for dice. When we tried running Maid RPG last year, the combat system made it easy for the DM to roll the dice on his own, but a lot of RPGs really require dice.

If you really trust your players, you can let them roll their own dice at home, but remember that nowadays players can take turns from the office or their smartphone, so you can’t always rely on them having dice handy.

Use an ASCII combat grid


#  wall
.  empty square
+  door
o  Orc raider  HP46/46  AC17 F15 R14 W12 P11
A  Lord Aramil HP36/36  AC19 F18 R13 W13 P14  Dazed

Here we have a sample combat encounter map. When a player takes turn, he updates the map and pastes it into his map. The stat line is good even if you’re not using a miniatures grid.

There are more advanced map solutions, no doubt, but this has the advantage of working on any forum without special software. Don’t forget to put [pre][/pre] tags around your post so it shows in the correct fixed-width. Note that under most fonts, your layout will appear taller than it is wide, so take care not to misjudge distances.

How do you handle PbP?

I’m interested in hearing what other players do to improve their PbP game. Are there any techniques or tools you find useful?

Comments (3)

shortymonster (September 17th, 2012)

First off I’ll let you take a look at the main board we use for our PBF

That started as a fun way to have player downtime during a more traditional game. it ended a bit abruptly due to the GM becoming a father, but a few of us really wanted to carry it on. That was over two years ago, and people still post there. been a bit quite for a couple of weeks, as most of the action is taking place over PMs right now as a few of us try and break into a house…

Anyway, we expect at least one PM a day moving the plot along, but once we hit the bar, it becomes a bit of a free for all, with all the players understanding that they might not get the chance to be as vocal, and if that’s the case, will let the GM know and then he can post occasionally as the player if they have relevant information. It helps that we’re all friends and game together a lot though.

Buck Fuddy (October 23rd, 2012)

I’ve been using Google Docs for about two and a half years now, and it’s been revolutionary. I keep all of my documents online and use a web dice roller.

The ways that this has improved my campaign are innumerable, but a few examples are:

You can put/paste images right into the document.

You can use different text colors, background colors, fonts, sizes, and such to indicate different characters. (I keep a separate document of all these just to keep them straight.)

You can create maps within Google Docs, cut and paste pictures of the characters onto them, and move them around as needed. Maps can be updated within seconds and reuploaded.

I have always enjoyed PBP, but with the new tools available I absolutely prefer it to live play, no contest.

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