Character vs. action driven posts

One, of many, ways to categorize PBEM posts is to see if they are driven forward by the use of characters or by action. While both types are perfectly valid and accepted, players often find themselves being more comfortable with one of them. They do, however, present different possibilities and problems.

It is just like when comparing movies. Some movies, often European, are strongly centered on a character and the camera follows it around. Other types focus on the action and let it bring the story forward.

They are just using two different ways of telling the story in the PBEM game. Whichever you prefer, or whichever you use yourself does not matter as much as the way you use it. If you feel more comfortable with, or are better at, writing for example very character centric stories that is what you should do.

Characteristics of a character driven post:

* Often very clearly shows who the main character is.
* The plot always includes that character.
* Everything that does not include, or concern, the character is not included in the post, or is only briefly mentioned.
* Often emphasizes on relationships, interaction with others and feelings.

Characteristics of an action driven post:

* It is not as obvious who the main character is.
* Even if the character is not present, the post continue describing the story
* There are often many other characters included, either belonging to other players or as NPCs.
* Feelings, emotions and relationships are secondary, often not included at all.

The difference can often be very subtle, but over time problems that can arise from using one way of writing more than the other.

Problems with a character driven story:

* The story moves slower.
* If the story becomes too dependant on one character, if the player behind the character stops posting there is a risk that the story stops too.

Likewise, there can be problems with an action driven story too:

* The characters never evolve.
* Without emotion and feelings, characters and stories can be flat and dull.
* The variations in story ideas can sometimes be smaller; feelings and interaction between characters are great ways to make sub-plots.

So, go back and re-read your own posts and see if you have a tendency to use one type of writing more. If you do, try to remember it next time you write a post.

Planning ahead

Once you have started to get to know your character, the game setting and your writing is flowing, it is time to start thinking about what your plans are for the future.

A PBEM game can continue for several years, so if you do not plan ahead from the start, you may very well be painting yourself into a corner. Just like with us, our characters never stay the same. They have a life of their own and their lives tend to take the most unlikely directions. In what direction do you want your character to evolve?

A character, just like a real person, can change during the years. Traumatic experiences but also other, more common, experience changes the way we see the world. Do you want your character to, over time, turn into for example a bitter person fighting his inner demons? Unless you want this change to occur over night, you will have to set it up for a long time. Gradually introduce a new behavior and new emotions and give your character a reason to change in that way. It will also give you more to post about if you let these changes happen over time. Imagine a series of posts, over perhaps a year or even more, where you describe and add small parts of the character. It is a perfect opportunity for character development.

If you start thinking now about where you want your character to be in a year, you will not only be able to focus more but you will also get plenty of opportunities for posting. Are there are any special events you want your character to experience? We all go through some defining moments during our lives, occasions that forms us as individuals and that shapes us. A special event does not necessarily need to be a defining moment; it can also be more commonly experienced things like graduating, being promoted or becoming a parent. A child does not happen over night and being promoted usually requires some hard work.

So again, you need to start thinking about where you want to take your character maybe a year from now in the PBEM game.

Naming your character

The character you play in your PBEM (Play By Email) role playing game is the most basic foundation of your participation in the game. Your character sets the boundaries for what you can do and how you can act. One of the first things someone notices about a character is its name. A name can send many signals, it is therefore important to carefully consider your choice.

The name of your character should reflect its personality. In the real world, we are pretty much stuck with the name given to us by our parents. This is quite different in a PBEM game. There you not only get to shape your character, you also get to give it a suitable name.

Take, for example, a name like Mary. I am pretty sure the first image that pops into your head is not of a hard criminal or a strong action hero. Instead, it signals other values. The same goes for other names. Often, short name such as Rick, Ted or Jack is associated with tough characters while a longer and more complex name such as Malcolm or Theodore makes you think of ‘dry’ characters with higher education.

Famous names
I strongly advice against using names that has already been used in the books, TV-series of movies your PBEM game is based on. There are several reasons for this. Your character should be an individual, a unique person that you have the freedom of developing in whichever direction you want.

A character bearing the name (or part of the name) of a more well known character would create a ‘link’ between the two. When you hear the name, you would not think of your character first, but of the more well known character. There might also be a possible legal problem, but that is too complicated for the scope of this article.

Last names
The last name of your character is also something to put a lot of energy and thought into. If your PBEM game is set in a fantasy world, perhaps you can use the last name to further describe your character or its abilities.

If you are looking for modern names, or human last names for sc-fi games I suggest you look in the 1990 US census for a good list of names (

Help the other players include your character in their posts

In your game, there are probably at least 5-10 other players. They all have characters, just like you do. But what makes your character stand out? It is hard enough for you to describe your character in your own posts, even harder for the other players!
In a movie, all the characters are dressed differently, they speak with accents or dialects, the move in different ways and they are automatically seen as different characters. In a written environment, it is not as easy to distinguish between the characters. Have you not had to stop reading in the middle of a post to think about which one of the characters it is about? I know I have.

If you include small descriptions of your character, everyone will eventually be able to include your character in their own posts in ways that better explains your character.

For example, if you write in your posts that you character tilt its head to the side each time when he or she is thinking, it is a signal that this is something that is unique and identifying for your character. Next time on of your friends include your character in a situation where it thinks, they can write that too. This gives the more life to the character.

If the Game Master allows it, it can also be helpful to include such instructions in your character’s character sheet or background page. By helping others use your character in their posts, you open up for more possibilities for yourself to follow up on their posts.

The importance of a character background

Your character’s background is something that will follow your character and influence the way it acts. Therefore, it is important that you have a solid background already thought out for your character.

The number one thing to remember when writing a background for your character is to keep it believable. Nothing can cause so many problems further on than a background that is unbelievable. The background defines your character. Just like in real life where our education and experience makes up much of who we are as a person, your characters background defines how to play your character.

One of the most disturbing things in a background is when the character has already saved the world twice before even graduating. Okay, maybe that was a bit too exaggerated but you get the point. This “hero syndrome” creates characters that are unrealistic and extremely hard to play. If you are going to have fun posting, you need to meet challenges and conflicts. A character that breezes through everything without problems simply is not fun to post for.

The thing to remember is to write your background so that you do not limit the possibilities for posts and storylines. For example; unless you have a very specific reason, you should keep as many of the character’s parents and relatives alive in the background. You never know when you are going through a dry-spell (posting-wise, that is) and need to make a filler post. Perhaps you need a way to give your character more depth, explain the character’s feelings or past. Then it is always good to have a lot of supporting characters for your character’s background available to use. For example to write a letter to, visit or just happen to run into.

Don’t limit yourself with bad choices for character background

Our character’s background is something that will follow your character and influence the way it acts. Therefore, it is important that you have a solid background already thought out for your character.When writing the background it is important to keep it believable. Although we have to remember that we often play characters that are among the very best. Therefore, we have to have the background true to who the character really is.

One of the most disturbing things in a background is a character that already has saved the world twice before graduating from school. Okay, maybe that was a bit too exaggerated but you get the point. This “hero syndrome” creates characters that are way too good. If you are going to have fun posting you need to meet challenges and conflicts. A character that breezes through everything without problems simply is not fun to post for.

Another thing that is widely popular no matter what kind of character you have is to have it have a shady background. While this can make for some great posting ideas later on, it is often not believable that a character that freely roams the streets is wanted for severe crimes or has connections with several criminal organizations.

One of the most common things I have seen in a background is having all the character’s parents and relatives being dead. In some cases, this can be necessary but often it is not. In addition, keep in mind that having several relatives described in your background you can use them in your posts later. An excellent way of describing a character’s background while in the game is to have the character write a letter to a relative or friend. So do not cut down on your options too early.

Your character’s background is something that you have to stick with so be sure not to limit yourself even before the game has started!

Remember who you are and who your character is

Most of us probably started playing a character that was rather similar to ourselves. No matter how it looked on paper, it was still played like an ordinary person. If you want to take your character to the next level you need to separate it from yourself!
Always remember who you are and who your character is. It is important to always keep in mind that the two of you are not the same. Make sure that when you write for your character you keep that in mind so that you do not project your own opinions and actions on to the character. Let it live a life of its own!

Make it clear it is your characters opinions and actions you are writing about. Your personal values, even if they are important and you probably want to keep your character within what you feel comfortable with, are not the values of the character. Just like your background has formed you into who you are today, the fictional background of the character has formed it into what it is today. Most likely is it you who has written most of that background, so now you have to live up to what you have written.

A character with a very dark and disturbing background does not react the same way as a character that grew up in a loving family at a protected location.

Think about whom you are portraying and write the characters actions and reactions based on that. You will find that your character will be a lot more believable and perhaps even easier to write for.