Roleplaying Resources

Running a PBeM (Play-By-Email) Game

Posted by Zioth to the WotC boards on 9-24-03

I've been DMing an email game for seven years now, and it's been a lot of fun. Email does change the dynamic of the game though…


  1. Major combats can be a lot more dramatic, since you have plenty of time to think out responses.
  2. There's a whole lot more role-playing when people have time to think. I suggest you increase role-playing experience a lot, since that's most of what will go on.
  3. The increased planning time will also result in a more internally-consistent world.
  4. I personally consider the writing aspect to be an advantage. I get to write nice dramatic storylines, which players can read at their leisure.
  5. Things are not as easily forgotten, because you can always look back at old posts.


  1. Minor combat is impractical when it lasts more than two or three rounds. If you like fighting, you'll be disappointed.
  2. The game is a lot less personal. You'll have less joking, and less friendly banter when people aren't face-to-face.
  3. Things can get SLOW. Some players will only respond every couple of days, which can really take up a lot of time. My game has gone on for seven years, but that equates to only two or three months game-time.
  4. I doubt this is a problem for a group of friends like yours, but it's a lot easier to cheat. On the other hand, it's a lot easier to hide your own rolls, and convert them into descriptions.

A previous post suggested that you use a WotC thread to run your game. I know that many DMs like threads and message boards, but for me, it makes things a lot more confusing, slows things down (people check boards less often than email), and can get tedious. I prefer the direct email approach, combined with a web site. For my own game, I have an email alias that goes out to all the characters (an address book entry would have the same effect). As far as the game text goes, I collect all the emails, and, when we reach a nice cliffhanger or enough time has gone by, I clean up all the text, write it up as if it were a chapter in a book (called a 'turn'), and post it on my web site (see the links in my signature).

Playing in a PBeM

Kismet Rose wrote a very nice article targetted at PBeM players.

Tips on Running a PBeM

Another site with a a lot of useful tips for DMs and players.

The following was written on 6/30/2004, regarding a specific game.

Basic format

There are a lot of different styles of PBeM, but the basic format is pretty simple. The DM sends out a post establishing the scene, and the players respond. When additional player posts won't add anything, the DM jumps in and sends out a reply. It basically works the same way as a tabletop game, except that there's more opportunity for elaboration by the players, and the DM has to simplify some of the rules to keep things moving quickly. For example:

  • Chris: Hurricane opens the door into a room that seems as much out of place in this musty, decrepit dungeon as a green dragon in a cormyr town council. The vaulted ceiling is held up by curved beams of exotic wood, and the marble floor is polished to a shine. Fine, golden sconces are set high up into the walls at intervals, providing flickering light with their thick beeswax candles. Shiny suits of armor line the walls, each holding its drawn sword high into the air, and elaborately designed flags hang at an angle over each one. At the other end of the enormous room is a double door, finely carved and recently polished.
  • Dustin: Bokuden, surprised as everyone else at the appearence of this room, marvels at it, mouth agape. After a few moments, however, he shakes his head and turns around. Whatever the purpose of this room, it wont do to leave the entrance unguarded – who knows how many of those creatures heard the sound of the last battle.
  • Eli: “This room doesn't belong here,” Albatross says. “And those suits of armor… how are they holding their swords up? And who's been maintaining this room when everything we've seen so far shows that no one but disorganized bands of monsters have been here for centuries?”
  • Scott: “This could be the entrance to an underground castle of some kind, but you might be right.” Toben casts detect magic on everything in range, starting with the suits of armor.
  • Jason: Hurricane approaches the far door. If nothing special happens before he gets there, he listens at it.
  • Eli: Seeing Hurricane walk to the far door, Albatross follows at a distance, ready to use any necesarry protective magic if anything bad happens.
  • DM: All of the suits of armor detect strongly of magic, and Hurricane hears nothing at the far door. When Dancing Albatross gets to the middle of the room, a low rumble begins, and slowly increases in volume. Albatross lifts his foot and sees that he's stepped on a small black button that blends almost perfectly with the floor.

Little details, like whether to play in second person or third person, or in past tense or present tense, are up to the DM. My preferred style is third person past tense. When I get all the responses, I combine them into a few paragraphs of prose, add my own response, and send the whole thing out. That way, I can write up turns as if they were chapters in a novel (you can read my turns at The style in my example, though, requires less work on the DM's part, and is much more common.

Making Choices

Basically my questions are just about how broad we make our 'choices' over email and how much time they should account for.

You generally use your judgement on that. There may be some situations where you can branch out your response, but generally, it's easier to deal only with the immediate situation. Let's see if I can make up an example of branching…

  • Chris: Bokuden gets to the door first, and finds that it's locked. Some of the orcs are caught in Albatross' web spell, but most of them are in close persuit, and will be in fighting range within a few rounds.
  • Dustin: Bokuden hacks at the lock with his sword, and keeps doing so even if the orcs get close enough to fight. If they actually hurt anyone significantly, he pushes to the front and defends, yelling at Hurricane to finish the job. If he can't keep the orcs from passing him and getting at the other party members, he'll fall back and try to form a line with Lee and Toben, to block the hallway while Hurricane breaks the lock.


How often will we be asked to send out responses?

That's up to Chris. He's suggested a 24 hour limit, but I think 48 hours might be more realistic, given my experience. It's polite to send a response as soon as you can, since things can get very slow with six people playing.

How long will encounters (both rp and combat) take in numbers of emails?

Depends on how Chris runs things. Roleplaying encounters can vary a whole lot, and combat encounters can easily get tediously long. It's possible to speed them up by requiring players do describe several rounds of action. The DM can then roll all the dice himself and send out one big post. If the scene changes enough that actions become invalid or unrealistic, he can stop mid-way and ask for more responses. He can also run it round-by-round, but with six people, a ten-round combat can easily take two or three weeks.


Eli, if you can send out an example of PBEM combat that would be much appreciated.

Hm… Too bad I don't save the posts from my game. There was a combat pretty recently.

Okay, so there are two ways I know of to run PBeM combat – round by round, or DM-resolution based on player outlines. There are also two ways to apply the rules – strict rules like in standard D&D, or more flexible roleplaying-style combat. I'll try to make up some good examples here, and I guess I should post both this and my general “how PBeMs work” email (which I only sent to Chris and Dustin) on the web page.

Round-by-round, strict rules

This approach can get cumbersome in a PBeM, but it allows maximum control by both players and DM, and, like all rule-centered systems, it offers a maximum of predictability.

Note: Having players respond in initiative order will multiply the duration of combat by the number of players. It's better to have players reply all at once, and let the DM resolve any issues that come up.

  • DM: You're in a narrow hallway, thirty feet long and five feet wide. The adventurers are standing at one end, with Bokuden in the front, then Toben, then Albatross [just three players to keep things simple]. There are four orcs at the other end of the room [who look like this…] [and who are standing in this order…], all armed with swords and crossbows. Your initiative order is Bokuden, Hurricane, X, Albatross.
  • Dustin: Bokuden lifts his sword in the air and charges the orc in front.
  • Jason: As soon as he sees any gap in the line of orcs, Hurricane tumbles into it and trips the orc farthest from the party.
  • Eli: Albatross casts Magic Missile on the orc in front.
  • DM: Bokuden charges the orc, rolling an 18, modified to 24. He does 16 damage. The orc is still standing. Hurricane then pushes past Bokuden and dodges between the orcs (31 tumble check) until he's in a good combative position. He rolls a 3 on his trip attempt, and the orc rolls a 5 on his counter-trip. Both trips fail. The orc that Bokuden attacked fights back, attacking with a 29 and doing 12 damage. The next orc attacks Hurricane, missing again with a 5. The two in back shoot Albatross with their crossbows. He deflects the first bolt (after a 21 attack). The second orc rolls a 20, confirms his critical, and does 24 damage. Albatross is staggered, and can't cast his spell.
Round-by-round, flexible rules

This can also be cumbersome, but it reduces the need to imagine a battle grid, and allows characters to do whatever's reasonable. Not all actions have to mesh precisely with the rules – the DM makes rulings on the fly about special actions, and applies what rules are necesarry behind the scenes.

  • DM: Bokuden, Toben and Albatross stand at one end of a hallway just barely wide enough to accomodate a warrior with sword drawn. Twenty feet away, at the other end of the hallway, are four orcs, standing in a line and armed with swords and crossbows.
  • Dustin: Bokuden lifts his sword in the air and charges the orc in front. He swings at the orc's head when he gets there.
  • Jason: As soon as he sees any gap in the line of orcs, Hurricane tumbles into it and trips the orc farthest from the party.
  • Eli: Albatross casts Magic Missile on the orc in front.
  • DM: Bokuden charges the orc, sword raised, and sweeps his weapon down at his victim's head. The orc manages to protect his head, but the sword bites harshly into his shoulder. Hurricane rushes forward, pushing past Bokuden and the orc, to get between two of the other orcs. The momentum of the run gets him into a good combative position, but it prevents him from making a successful sweep of his leg to drop the orc to the floor. The orc tries to take advantage of his enemy's fumble, but Hurricane easily fends off the orc's arm. The orc fighting Bokuden swings his own sword, making a nasty gash on the warrior's arm. The next orc attacks Hurricane, but is again deftly dodged. The two orcs in back fire bolts from their crossbows. Albatross swings knocks the first aside, but the second digs right into the base of his now outstreached arm, and nearly knocks him to the floor, destroying all hope of casting his spell.

    OOC: Bokuden did 16 damage, and took 12. Albatross took 24 damage on a confirmed critical, and is staggered.
Player outlines

This makes combat much faster, but it makes more work for both the DM and the players. Basically, it involves players writing if-then logic for their actions, or describing an overall style of fighting.

  • Dustin: …
  • Jason: As soon as he sees any gap in the line of orcs, Hurricane tumbles into it and trips the orc farthest from the party. He does a flurry of trip attacks every round, unless all orcs around him are down. In that case, he does a simple flurry of blows.
  • Eli: Albatross casts Magic Missile on the nearest orc. The next round, he flies until he's over the orcs and casts Burning Hands from above. If Hurricane is in trouble (below 1/3 HP), he'll instead cast Scorching Ray on the least healthy-looking orc attacking Hurricane. If Hurricane looks really bad (below 1/10 HP), he'll cast Ottiluke's Resilient Sphere on him, to keep him safe from combat. Once two of the orcs are dead, Albatross will switch to using his crossbow.
  • DM: Chris now resolves as many rounds of combat as possible, and moves the action to the point where the players' posts no longer apply.


So hopefully that helps a little. Naturally, a combination of the above approaches can be used. If you have any more questions about PBeM combat, or about PBeMs in general, feel free to ask.