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Good GM Practices – in Play-by-Post RolePlays

Game master and players.I’ve recently encountered an unexpected request in my Mentors Want Your Help To Help You topic on RolePlayGateway. The request was for more GMing, better GMing, and GMing advice. When most people who are familiar with the umbrella term “roleplaying” hear “GM” they think of the archetypal dice-rolling, page-turning, player-managing game master. Well, ever since play-by-post roleplaying was popularized and the focus shifted from live-action to writing, the game master is now the plot-writing, story-moving, player-managing participant. The job carries far less power, but in some ways, more responsibilities.

The GMs of the dice games relied heavily on planning – but after an intense planning session, they could fill out most of a storyline complete with several foreseeable forks. After the (admittedly intense on the creative lobes) preparations were done, the GM role involved guiding players such that they could discover that GM’s genius plot. Some improvisation was necessary.

The GMs of the play by post roleplay are up against a set of completely different expectations, ones that are not always explicitly clear to them. While dice-rollers knew that the GM of their games would lead the story, the writers in a play-by-post RP all appear to be on equal footing (but have unequal strengths and weaknesses). Some players expect the GM to create the plot and move the players along it, while the players themselves plan to just fill in the gaps. There are also those who wish to exercise their creative spark, veering the plot off of the GM’s course for their own devices – so as to make the story more fun and dynamic for everyone (they think). How are you, the GM of a play-by-post roleplay, supposed to cater to an audience whom you cannot gauge as the static, dynamic, or mixed until the story is already underway? There are no proven methods that work, but I have been having a pretty good experience so far with Verdanus and Tertius: War of the World (see the Activity tab for the actual roleplaying) and want to share my “good practices”.

Create a setting and plot that you are interested in. As writers, we often have creative sparks that we can whip into an introductory post to a roleplay – but ask yourself, could you see yourself enjoying another plot in the same setting? Another character? A world that isn’t intrinsically interesting to you will eventually sap all of your creative juices, leaving you contemptuous enough to abandon it. I’ve experienced that quite a few times – but not so with the Verdanus story: I want to novelize it. It’s the kind of story I would (did, and will) keep writing even without others.

Give yourself (and others) leeway. While dice-roleplays had to be linear (straight, curved, zig-zagged, but always moving from A to B to C), there is no such necessity with play-by-post. Players posting in the same roleplay need not have their characters interact, or even appear in the same location. The mere possibility of one affecting the other in the distant future is enough to warrant coexistence within the roleplay. Give your players multiple starting points, and as the GM cycle through all of them, periodically adding content. This lets players avoid interacting with those with whom they don’t jive – and lets you, the GM, use some untouched segment of the roleplay as your idea spawning pool. It also allows for more writers to participate, disintegrating the ~6 player limit in dice games.

Emphasize writing over anything else. If you were inspired by a fantasy great like Tolkien or Zelazny, or a sci-fi grandmaster like Heinlein, Asimov, or Dick, you probably judged their writing as top notch. Their grammar, literary devices, and dialogue were the sugar that helped the medicine go down during the slower bits between critical plot events. Imagine if their spelling was shoddy, their punctuation misplaced, and their sentences run-ons or fragments? Would that have deterred you from reading? I assure you that having to trudge through poor writing from your players will kill your creative appetite, and vice versa for them if you’re careless.

Fight the “role playing” mentality. When dice rollers came together, their character sheets gave them an identity that they had to maintain. It was an escape from their daily lives into a wondrous world where a natural twenty saved you from the direst poison. Well, escapism isn’t as worthwhile a hobby as is writing (which has gotten some writers very very rich). Rather than focusing on a single character to live vicariously through, encourage your players to make active use of NPCs. When a character walks into a convenience store to buy a twinkie, the clerk is the NPC. No player’s character needs be present for someone else to write about that clerk’s run-in with the local gang, all of whom are also NPCs. In fact, if there are no “player’s characters” then every character is up for grabs – the plot becomes the focus, rather than the metagame. (With seven players in a traditional roleplay, all seven are trying to turn their characters into the “main” character. With seven players in a plot-centric roleplay, all seven have a hand in the “main” plot, yielding collaboration rather than competition.) However, some players might have an affection for some characters – let them reserve them, so long as they remember to focus on plot.

Find the perfect posting length. If you’ve had the chance to read my article on Building Mood through Preconceptions you will know my stance on both one-liners and fluff-hills: they make for crappy writing. When I wrote that article, I had no idea how to achieve the perfect medium. Having spent over a year on Ficly.com however, I think I now have the solution: a 1024 character limit. The number is somewhat arbitrary to use with writing, since it only carries significance in data storage, but it is less than the ~350 words of a paperback page (actually a little more than half on one page). As an experienced reader, you likely recognize how difficult it is to expand on several different topics in only half a paperback page. And as a roleplayer, you know that a post without a punchline is boring to read. By imposing a limit, like the 1024 of Ficly, you force yourself and your roleplayers to keep your posts focused, concise, and interesting. The strain of fitting into 1024 characters forces some ideas to be put on hold – yielding only more raw material for the next “microstory” to add later into the roleplay. And, with a limit being imposed, players will feel a subconscious yearning to get as close to that limit as possible – I myself fall between 1017 and 1024 every time, after some revision and syntax decisions, and I’ve found that my roleplayers do the same (unless they forget about the limit, in which case they feel bad enough for breaking the simple rule that they avoid breaking it again). The limit also makes for easier reading – no one has to suffer through walls of text like this article that are tl;dr.

In summary, I encourage you to use (or modify) my rules for roleplaying, especially if you are using Eric Martindale’s Roleplay Tab system. I use them in Verdanus and Tertius, and my friend uses them in Despot (both of which are open for your participation!). Here they are:

0) The plot is more important than any character.
1) Write no more than 1024 characters per post, or no more than ~ one paperback page at a time.
2) Make every detail count – don’t fluff it up, but do make it sound interesting.
3) Any character that appears in the Characters tab is reserved by that player.
4) Any character NOT reserved is then free reign to roleplay as anyone wants.
5) Avoid contradictions, and correct them if you are made aware of them.
6) Spelling and grammar make everyone happy.
7) Talk things out with others over PM or in OOC when involving their characters.


2 comments for “Good GM Practices – in Play-by-Post RolePlays”

  1. Well, I’ll say something then.

    Most of your rules are right, and are good ways to help people completely new to roleplays write. But there is (in my opinion) a rule that should fundamentally be on every roleplay helpguide : Rules are meant to be broken! Some rules, such as spelling, don’t IC market a product, etc. are common sense, and are hard to break, but, for example,

    “Write no more than 1024 characters per post, or no more than ~ one paperback page at a time.”

    I think I have broken that rule every roleplay I have been in. The lengthy pieces of writing are necessary in, say, a key romantic scene, or explaining the entrance of an important character, or a long (subjective) scene. Already, I have, according to your rule, am half-way to my bare maximum.

    Remind people how rules are useful as a base, but they are meant to be broken in some cases! In fact, the best of the best do it wholeheartedly. Quentin Tarintino, when writing Pulp Fiction, for example, broke all the rules of script writing; writing things that you cannot act out, for example, writing a characters history, etc. Once you get the hang of something, then you can start twisting it and tweaking it until you get it juuust right, and anyone who says it disagrees with current rules, well, they aren’t being creative, they are being technical!

    Anyway, I’d like to stress how much I like and agree with most of what you said (especially how it is newb friendly). Just try and avoid saying number limits, because I know people who have taken that literally. Like when I said to try and use no more than 2 adjectives per 500 words, people just wrote storyline, and I almost cried at the lunacy of the situation (it turned from the big, strong, bald white man carried his furry grey dog hurriedly to the large, underpaid vet to “The man took his dog to the vet. The vet cured the dog.”

    P.S I probably went on quite a bit there…

    P.P.S 1556 characters.

    Posted by Steve | March 9, 2011, 5:46 pm
  2. I think I have broken that rule every roleplay I have been in. The lengthy pieces of writing are necessary in, say, a key romantic scene, or explaining the entrance of an important character, or a long (subjective) scene. Already, I have, according to your rule, am half-way to my bare maximum…!

    Posted by games 24 | April 4, 2011, 5:06 pm

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