Journal gaming guide for PBEM players

By Ginger Stampley

Journal games tend to involve one journal per character and one or more communities where play is conducted, plus an out-of-character community where players can communicate, plot, and post absence notices.

Most journal games are moderated rather than GMed. This means the game has one or more moderators who play PCs but also handle administrative tasks, set game rules, approve plots, etc. They may also have final arbitration rights over disputes among players. Moderators tend to lead by persuasion rather than by authority; while they have the power to remove players from the game, they often don’t have a lot of power without resorting to that, which leaves them leading through social acumen if they can.

Most games seem to include a conceit of journals or blogs. A game set in the present day might say that the journals are the characters’ actual livejournals or blogs, where a Harry Potter game may describe them as magically linked books. Characters can write in the journals in first person and get responses in first person from other characters. This is, I’ve found, the hardest concept to get across to email gamers.

In addition, there’s actual roleplay. I’ve seen journal-only games, but most games also include the option to roleplay in either storybook (third person, past tense) or asterisk format. Asterisk format is very different from anything I’ve ever seen in an email game. The dialogue is written without quotation marks and actions are enclosed in asterisks.

Here’s an example of play written each way:

Storybook (actually written present tense because I stole it from House of Cards)
She nods. “Did we mention the mess with her affine? With all of the excitement concerning Meg, I think that might have been overlooked.” Lilly thinks on it a moment. “If we are traveling past Ygg, it might become important. Dealing with that thing will take more than finesse and steel.”

Martin shakes his head. “If you did, I missed it. Fill me in.” His voice is resigned.

Lilly: *nods* Did we mention the mess with her affine? With all of the excitement concerning Meg, I think that might have been overlooked. *thinks for a moment* If we are traveling past Ygg, it might become important. Dealing with that thing will take more than finesse and steel.

Martin: *shakes his head* *resigned* If you did, I missed it. Fill me in.

As you can see, the two styles are very different, and I suspect they work out to have some implications for how the game is played that are beyond the scope of a newbie introduction.

Roleplay in journal games generally occurs in one of two ways. First, a player starts a post and play proceeds in the comments to the original post. Second, play can happen over an instant message service and end up posted as a log. Many journal gamers come from chat-room gaming (think Elf Only Inn) and are very familiar with instant message play. Again, the choice to play in one medium or another has implications for play style that are out of scope for an introduction to the style.

Which sort of play goes in which location is up to the individual game. I’ve seen several different implementations, each of which has pros and cons. Most common is putting the roleplay threads in the community and the journal entries in the individual character journals. This allows players to clean out and reuse the journal if the game fails or the player leaves.

Rules in journal games tend to emphasize cooperative play rather than mechanics. Most games are rules-free by tabletop or email standards because they don’t require mechanical adjudication most of the time. Conflicts are mostly social. It’s a form of bad play never to let yourself lose.

The lack of adjudication brings up one of the most difficult concepts of journal gaming: god-modding. God-modding is defined a number of different ways, but the common denominator is one player forcing another player’s character to act in a particular way. Writing an action for another player’s character can include things like the results of a combat action: for instance, that a punch lands instead of stopping with throwing the punch and letting the other player decide whether it’s a hit.

While it’s generally obvious whether someone is god-modding at the micro level, at higher levels, people argue about what the term means. Avoiding consequences that a player doesn’t like is generally god-modding. But some people define characters discussing their PC in a way they don’t like (e.g., lying about the character, suggesting the character for plots that don’t interest the player) as god-modding. Since god-modding is universally reviled, the accusation of god-modding is a method of short-circuiting whatever action the accusing player doesn’t like.

(God-modding is also a bane of moderated email games, in my experience, although it may not be called by that name.)

Journal games have two main strengths over open list email games that I’ve noticed.

First, it’s easy to manage large group events by having one post for the event and everyone commenting in subthreads underneath. Compared to the nightmares that I’ve had running scenes with 20 characters in email, almost every social event I’ve been involved with in a journal game has gone very smoothly.

Second, it’s much easier (for me, at least) to manage large quantities of game material. If you prefer your game material coming to you by pull, not push (and I mean those in the technological sense, not the gaming jargon sense), you’ll love journal gaming. It’s also great for people who prefer to read completed logs rather than reviewing as people play, or who (as many do) prefer to ignore things that don’t affect their characters.

They have some downsides, as well.

First, they’re sprawling in a way that’s not conducive to traditional tabletop/email GMing or to rules-based adjudication. Journal games almost require near-freeform style and limited adjudication.

Second, while it is possible to play asynchronously, journal gaming culture discourages it. While the immediacy can be positive (as it is in email games), it makes it really difficult to run a thread with a player in Australia, one in Europe, and two in the US (one East Coast and one West Coast), to cite a real example I’ve been involved in. I’ve played threads like that in email and it’s been much easier for me to manage.

Last, but not least, one item that’s neither an advantage or disadvantage: compared to tabletop or even email gaming, journal games are highly female-oriented. I’ve seen games with no men in them at all. This tends to skew the types of play to heavily social games and put a heavy emphasis on relationships (romantic, friendship, and familial). There’s a lot more slashiness than I’m used to in email games, although I’ve heard of heavily-female email games that have a lot of it. That may also be due to age, which, in the circles I play in, at least, skews younger than a lot of the email games I play in.

Written by Ginger Stampley
House of Cards
Posted here with permission from the author.