What Is PBEM Roleplaying

It’s a dark and stormy night. The intrepid dungeoneers are huddled around a table, trying their hardest to shelter themselves from the wind, the rain and a never-ending torrent of monsters, traps and curses that the impossible mission that they have undertaken is throwing at them…

It’s a dark and stormy night. The intrepid dungeoneers are huddled around a table, trying their hardest to shelter themselves from the wind, the rain and a never-ending torrent of monsters, traps and curses that the impossible mission that they have undertaken is throwing at them…

…well, in reality, it’s probably a Tuesday. The heating probably isn’t quite up high enough and the only huddling is around the solitary bowl of fizzy sweets that’s on the table because the Doritos and Jaffa Cakes have already gone. The dungeon isn’t responsible for throwing anything at the dungeoneers, that honour falls to the DM. He’s probably a bit sadistic. He’s even more likely to have a large ginger beard (and if he doesn’t then you’re missing out). Either way, whichever scenario you find yourself in, your friends are in the room with you, and your dice are the last line of defence between you and the slathering creepy crawlies that are hell bent on your destruction.

And no, that was not a reference to the DM’s beard.


So let’s imagine that whoever is DMing life (cue existential discussion) decides that the best way to scupper the characters in the game is to scupper the playersoutside of said game. That the best way to prevent them from working as a team is to move them to a city where they don’t know enough people to make a roleplaying group. And those pesky critical successes? Well, weighting the dice is one efficient way of preventing them from happening, but taking them away altogether? With the dice gone and the players isolated, there’s a very mean DM sat evil laughing to himself – very, very lonely and hollow, but safe in the knowledge that roleplaying has forevermore been ruined for anyone who doesn’t happy to have a legion of buddies who are into the same genres of awesome geekery that they are, strategically planted in houses less than five minutes away on foot. (Because let’s face it, why spend money on taxi fare when there are sourcebooks to save up for?) The world is a darker and more miserable place, roleplaying dies out, funeral march and they all lived sadly ever after, right?


Because somewhere else, a benevolent life-DM (who may or may not be clean shaven and less angry at the world) went ahead and invented the internet. Some of us are old enough to remember the dark days before it became something that civilians and non-aliens were allowed to use, which we like to refer to as the Renaissance, but pretty much everyone now spends a large chunk of their life cruising the cyber highway, enriching their lives and broadening their horizons by assimilating information that they would otherwise never come into contact with in ten million years. Or watching cats singing and playing piano on Youtube.

Unsurprising, then, that those downtrodden masses broke out of isolation and started to use the internet for their roleplaying groups. Score one good guys! At that point, evil life-DM retaliated by giving us back our dice and gently whispering in our ears that cheating is a thing. “No, honestly, I did roll a 20. Yes, I’m aware it’s the fourteenth one tonight and I’ve only rolled the dice thirteen times, but I assure you it’s still mathematically possible. Honest, guv.” Good DM then proceeded to provide us with webcams. Bad DM reminded us that they don’t always have to be pointing at the dice when you roll them. Then Good DM remembered a little game that we used to play during the Renaissance and had an idea, which brings me to introductory tangent #2.

Back when some of us were 8 years old, we were introduced to a game called Consequences. For those who’ve never played, the idea is simple. You write a story, but you do it collectively, with a group of other players. You each start the game with a piece of paper, and write down a boy’s name. Then you fold over the top piece of the paper to obscure that name and everyone passes it to their left. Then you write a girl’s name, and repeat the process. Each time the paper gets passed round, you add an extra element to the story. Location. What the boy says to the girl. What the girl says to the boy. What happens in the end. Introduce the game to someone too late (early teens) and the final round is usually best omitted. Propose a game of Consequences to anyone over the age of 16 and they’ll probably tell you it’s boring. But those same people will still happily sit on a forum thread and contribute to Consequences’ younger but more awesome sibling, Three Word Story. Or Five Word Story. The number is largely irrelevant, but for the fact we’re still in the same territory of collaboratively telling a story. Of course, this still has the propensity to get a little raunchy and include material, like flashing your ankles at a member of the clergy. Oo-er!

The Relevant Part

So, this “telling a story with a bunch of other people” thing ought to be familiar, because that’s what happens in a game of D&D, or Call of Cthulu, or Pathfinder, or any number of tabletop roleplays. Sure, the DM or the sourcebook is ultimately in control of that story (usually) but the players all have a say in what happens. You all take turns, which may or may not be in initiative order. You have a chance to deliver some characterisation – you could be playing a smashy barbarian, a sneaky assassin or a gung-ho nun with an RPG of a completely different kind than the ones we’ve been talking about in this article so far. The dice, and the DM’s rulebook, tell you whether or not you succeed or fail in actions and make the universe fair. By the end of an adventure, you and everyone who was involved will have added depth to your characters, and you will have become attached not only to your own imaginary creation, but probably to the others that they choose to hang around with.


So now let’s take away the dice, and the need to be in the same room. We can keep all of those elements. All of those feelings of reward. All of the uncertainty, surprises, traps, tricks, funny moments, like-minded people and sense of reward. You can even keep the bowl of fizzy sweets. You’re now playing a PBEM, or play-by-email RPG. There’s still a DM, who will send out the first email to everyone, probably via something like google groups, and he or she will provide you with a clear opportunity to respond. It might go something like this…


:The wind howled, battering the shields of the rain-soaked dungeoneers and threatening to tear them from their grasp. A flash of lightning burned the sky, momentarily illuminating two rusted gates in the castle walls. Above the one on the left sneered an angular, demonic gargoyle, fangs bared dangerously and claws and wings outstretched. Above the other, the statue of a grim, hooded angelic figure with a scythe stood watch, its eternal, faceless gaze fixed on the portal beneath.:

Angharad the Heroic: We’ve come this far – there’s no turning back now! Which of the gates should we try?

Gavin the Cowardly: ?

I feel, at this point, that I should add a small disclaimer to indicate that not all Gavins are cowards. Neither are all Angharads heroic, I suppose, but one tends not to have to apologise for being complimentary. Either way, the example above shows one example of how a play by email RPG can be set out – in a script style, with the chance to add in text to describe the surroundings and your movements. It uses a method called ‘tagging’ to let you know when it’s your turn (kind of like moving in initiative order in a tabletop RPG). More than one player could be tagged in an email, but the idea is that you then send back a reply with your own actions and dialogue added. Just like Consequences, or that Three Word Story only infinitely more awesome, because it’s a full-blown RPG. Here’s an example of how Gavin’s reply might look.


:It was cold. It was wet. The freezing rain had finally soaked through to Gavin’s grundies and he was dreading having to sit down. At this point, he was worried that he would never dry out. When lightning flashed and illuminated the Grim Reaper and his demonic best friend carved out of stone, the wet sensation in said grundies became a little warmer, for reasons that Gavin would never, ever admit to. Ever.:

Angharad the Heroic: We’ve come this far – there’s no turning back now! Which of the gates should we try?

Gavin the Cowardly: Umm… how about the gate that leads back into the beer garden at the One Legged Pony? They have a perfectly good cellar we could all cower in, and if I asked the barmaid nicely I’m fairly sure she’d root me out a pair of clean drawers.

:His cheeks flushed red as he realised he might have just given away his secret.:

Angharad the Heroic: ?

Which Brings Us To The Inevitable Question…

So, that evil life-DM we spoke about earlier is now rubbing his hands together. There are no dice involved here, and we already said that they’re the thing that regulate the universe and stop one person from being able to accomplish ridiculous tasks. In theory, this could happen.

:Rain, wind, lightning, yawn, snooze, bored. This was all in a day’s work for Mary. This may only have been her first adventure, but why should a little bad weather, intimidating sculpture and insurmountable danger bother her?:

Angharad the Heroic: We’ve come this far – there’s no turning back now! Which of the gates should we try?

Mary-Sue the Overpowered: Left. Let’s go with left because… because we should have left Gavin behind is why! HA! He is so owned right now.

:Mary waltzed up to the left hand gate, which, of course, slid open without any traps going off because it was a normal gate. Then she sauntered into the courtyard, side-stepped a blast of flame from the 3,000 year old elder dragon that was waiting for them as if it was nothing, and hurled a nearby barrel of water into its mouth. Smoke billowed forth, the dragon was taken by surprise, and she ran her thirty-foot broadsword between its eyes one-handed… because two would have been far too much effort. With the dragon dead, all of the enemies fled, terrified, from the castle, leaving the nobleman they had been paid to rescue to walk calmly down the stairs to freedom.:

Mary-Sue the Overpowered: There we go. All done. Barely broke a sweat. And can anyone else smell urine? GAVIN?

Gavin’s non-cowardly writer is now fairly angry that his character’s “secret” has been broadcast, but probably not as angry as DM Angharad, whose adventure is ruined. So how are things regulated if there are no dice? How do we prevent this from happening?

Rules Help Control the Fun

Any Friends fans will recognise that as a quote from Monica, as she pleaded with her buddies to keep playing a game that she was running like the third Reich (again, apologies if anyone from the actual third Reich is somehow still around,reading this and feeling like they’ve been mischaracterized – I’m not having a very good day re: offsiding people). The idea, though, is that everyone who is part of a PBEM takes part with the understanding that they need to play fair. There’ll be group rules that will dictate what counts as fair, along with guidelines or tutorials on how to make sure things are realistic. Sure, every once in a while you’ll pull something impressive out of the bag, but if you do it every other post you’ll probably get a message from your GM asking you to maybe dial it back. Good roleplayers will also acknowledge the fact that their characters are fallible. Maybe the entire group is relying on them to succeed in a specific action and they fail. Why did they fail? Because their writer decided that it would put everyone in a very interesting position and give them a chance to show how their character would react in that situation.

It takes discipline, it takes practice, and it takes a desire to really engage with your character (and those of you who really love roleplaying know that you do like to engage with your characters – you’ve probably got at least one or two who you’re now thinking you’d like to try something like this with!) but believe it or not, it works. Without dice. And yes, you can do what I do and just put some on the table next to you so you don’t feel like you’ve gone cold turkey. No-one can see you because you’re behind a computer!

But put those ankles away.

Gimme the Shinies

Of course, if we’re missing dice, it’s logical to assume that we’re also missing EXP and a level-up system. Well… depending on the game, you may be right. However, PBEMs are able to venture into places not often visited by tabletop RPGs, which is the realm of achievements. If there’s anything that massive online games like World of Warcraft, or well-established videogaming systems like your X-Boxes and Playstations has taught us, it’s that players like random rewards that flash up with a pretty noise and let you know that you did something special. It makes us happier than Scooby Doo in a box of Snax. Real life is shamefully devoid of such things and, if we’re being honest, putting together an achievements system that could be regulated and maintained in a tabletop RPG would be a heck of a lot of work.


That doesn’t mean it never happens, it’s just easier to do when all of your characters can read up on the available awards and then add them to their character’s wiki page when they’re done. (Yes, I said wiki page!) Couple that with a forum and/or chat room that players can use between (or during) writing their emails and you have an environment where the hilarious banter and general catching up doesn’t actually interfere with the game! Not to mention the fact that your wonderfully created home-written dungeons can be preserved for all eternity, with graphics if you so wish, and revisited without the need to describe everything again from scratch (score another point for the wonders of wikis!)

Why am I telling you all of this?

Here comes the sales pitch – concentrate!

I’ve been involved in play-by-email RPGs for around 16 years (yes, I was around in the Renaissance playing consequences and crying in the corner of my hovel). I fell in love with PBEM roleplaying before I even had a chance to play my first game of Dungeons and Dragons (I think most of us can identify with having been in an environment where being a ‘geek’ was not really accepted by society). You can guess what the punch line to all of this will be – and if you can’t then I need to tell you that I’m currently the GM of my own PBEM RPG, which goes by the name of Outpost Eden.

Outpost Eden is a Star Trek themed roleplay, set after the events of the Hobus Supernova (seen in Star Trek XI, aka Star Trek 2009) but in the Prime Universe. That’s the one where Jean-Luc Picard and friends had TV series that were generally devoid of so much lens flare that you couldn’t see what the hell was going on. We currently have three groups – two ships and the afforementioned outpost – but we have plenty of room to induct new players and welcome them into our community (more on that later). We have a wiki and a forum, offer a levelling up system that has some familiarity with a tabletop system (you start at Ensign and have a chance to be promoted right up to Captain and beyond as you complete missions) and we’re in the process of implementing an achievements system, as mentioned above. All of our staff have at least 2 years of experience of online roleplaying, and we’re always happy to help players who are new to either play-by-email games or the Star Trek genre to cut their teeth. There’s more information about our setting on our website, and I’d encourage you to come take a look – there are links that will grant you access to our members’ posts, information about our ships and our monthly podcasts. You can look through our wiki pages at some of our characters’ bios, or drop into our chat room to say hello to our members, who are always keen to answer any questions that people have about our game.

And finally – that word, “community” that I mentioned before? We have members in the US, Canada, Australia, Continental Europe and the UK. There is always someone around and about and online, and most people who join games like this end up making life long friends. A shining example of that is one of our staff members, who lives in the UK and is now happily married and settled with his American wife. He met her through PBEM roleplaying, one thing led to another, and now she’s immigrated to the UK to be with him. I can’t promise you a life partner, or a new best friend, but I can promise you a friendly bunch of like-minded writers and a whole heap of fun.
logo with white textSo… what are you waiting for? You’ve listened to me drone on for almost 3000 words about how PBEMs work, so why not give it a try? I dare you not to get hooked when you find out just how engaging and immersive it can be. I feel like I should go out with a cheesy, rhyming slogan… how about…

“Once you go PBEM you’ll never be the same again?”

No? Half-rhymes don’t count? Shucks.

Ed Brown aka Admiral Diego Herrera


Author: GeekOut Media Team

GeekOut Media is made up of Joel and Timlah, with extra support from friends and other writers. We often write Top 10 articles together, so join us for some strange Top 10 lists across all geek content.

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