I almost called this “In Defense of the Play-by-Post”, but I realized that title corrodes my thesis quite badly. The play-by-post (PbP) as a gaming medium doesn’t need defending. Instead, the play-by-post needs to be championed, because there are things you can do in a play-by-post game that you cannot do in a traditional roleplaying game.
Play-by-post (or forum game, or play-by-email, or RP blogging, etc.) gaming was born out of necessity back in the Usenet era. Like mail chess, play-by-post gaming was developed to overcome the geographical constraints of a game designed to be played in person. As such it was considered to be a lesser form of gaming, and if you’re running a dungeon crawl it may in fact be a lesser form to meeting in person and having a map, physical dice, and combat turns that take less than a day to resolve.
Newsgroups didn’t just allow for asynchronous games of D&D, though. Newsgroups were also one of the first places where you had text-driven, freeform roleplaying occur online. I don’t know and don’t deign to speculate on freeform RP’s relationship to RPGs as they came from D&D; the two activities likely could have evolved completely separately. I’m not much for freeform roleplay, but the goals of writing and developing characters are equally at home in a more structured game. Thanks to the vagaries of the internet both new and old, PbP/PbEM communities playing both freeform games and rules-driven ones cross-pollinated. PbP as it is now is heavily driven by writing, not only because of the literary motivations of players but also because running combat-heavy games via forum posts is an unholy pain in the ass.
When running or playing PbP, everything can be more thoughtful and deliberate. Players and GMs alike have more time to expand on their characters and their settings, and can add details that would be glossed over or forgotten in-person. The game as it exists becomes a rich story, easy to refer back to thanks to a permanent record. And everyone has a chance to be a writer, an ephemeral but vital difference between running a game in text and running it face-to-face (physically or otherwise). And play-by-post games, with that focus on writing over acting or gameplay, are not lesser games, not at all. They are merely different.
My biggest mistake with PbP was that the games I ran were always marketed as an alternative to an in-person game when logistics made one impossible. PbP is a different beast entirely, and different people will be attracted to it. I personally find that PbP is more likely to scratch an itch of mine that takes a lot of effort and time in more traditional games: the desire to collaborate on telling a story. When I play a conventional game, I often find I’m helping the GM to tell a story rather than tell my own. When I run a conventional game, I find a large amount of variance with how much my players are willing to put story elements on the table. In PbP, the story must be collaborative and the players must be willing to stick their necks out, narratively speaking. The mechanical tension which drives games played in real time is greatly minimized, so the momentum must come from narrative for everybody.
In a traditional game, you can have a story-driven game or you cannot; there are ways to easily do both or either. In PbP, unless the players are willing to step up with writing the game will fall apart and cease to exist. In a conventional game, not having a character who is empowered to change the story won’t make the game fail, it’ll just mean I’ll spend more time playing Candy Crush during sessions. That doesn’t make the game bad (I fidget in all games I don’t GM, even fantastic ones), it just means it’s more about play, and players care more about play when it’s their turn. Play is the thing PbP can’t do well.
This is why PbP is seen as a lesser form of gaming. There are many things that people really like about RPGs that PbP falls flat with. A mechanically heavy game with combat, stealth encounters, even mechanized diplomacy (like Social Combat in Exalted or Duel of Wits in Burning Wheel) is going to drag horribly in PbP. Basic things like ordered actions (Cleric, what do you do? OK, Thief, what do you do?) become incredibly difficult. One person ignoring their email for 48 hours can torpedo an entire campaign.
But when it works, you’re writing. You’re four or more people creating a great story. PbP helped me realize that an Israeli spy and corrupt cop from the dark future would become frenemies, a level of relationship depth that did not exist in either of the campaigns the characters were originally written for. PbP helped create a character whose ego was so large that the other players embraced plotting his downfall. PbP helped me mold a vision of a world where Elvis Presley is a vampire. PbP gives a palette on which to explore characters in depth, by writing for them and about them.
I could not give up my gaming for an all-PbP existence. The table experience of a roleplaying game is my favorite organized social activity, and that is only partially connected to the game itself (one reason that, while I’m very self-critical about what and how I GM, I will play in basically any game my group proposes). But PbP lets me combine my love of gaming with my love of writing. I remember how frustrating it is to run a PbP game, especially when it begins to fail. At the same time, I’ll read what was produced in any of our forum games, and immediately yearn to run another. Both because of what it adds and what it takes away from the traditional gaming experience, PbP is a uniquely satisfying way to create stories with your friends.