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.

Keeping the players entertained

One of the many pitfalls with running a PBEM game is to make sure the story keeps going forward and evolve. For this to happen, the players need to be kept entertained by the story.You would not keep watching a TV series if it was not good enough to keep your interest up, would you? The sme thing goes for a PBEM game. if you do not manage to keep the players’ interests up, they will stop posting or even leave the game. It is not an easy task, mind you. Remember there are very few TV series that keep going for several years, just as there are few games that manage to keep going for that long.

The game most often rely on the players to write posts that keeps the story going. If there players does not post, the game does not move forward and eventually fall apart. Therefore, you need to keep your active players interested in continuing the game.

What can you as Game Master do to keep the players interested in the PBEM game? Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

You can start by setting a good example yourself. If you are actively posting in the game and bring the story forward at a steady pace, it gives the players more opportunities to post.

Keep feeding them ideas. You have to take an active part in encouraging your players to write posts and participate in the game. If you are one step ahead, you can help them come up with things to write about if they are having problems.

Take care of the players. If you take good care of the players that actively participates in the game, there is a better chance they will stay on. One way of doing that is to offer incentives to be active. For example, promotions (if applicable) or give them a chance to greater influence the choice of future stories/adventures.

Make sure the stories/adventures are fun and interesting to their characters. There is nothing more uninspiring than to not be able to post just because there is nothing to post about.

Play By Email (PBEM) in a larger perspective

For those looking for a PBEM game, it is probably no surprise that the term PBEM is used by many different types of games. Going back to the very basics of PBEM games, we take a look at the different types of games that all fall under the category PBEM.

There are basically two types of games that both deserve to be called play by email games. The first type of games is such games as war games, strategy games and board games. The other type commonly referred to as Play by Email games are role-playing games played via email.

Looking at the fist type of games, they are typically games based on turns where each player sends in their actions to the Game Master. The Game Master then processes the input from all the players and sends out the results. Depending on the type of game, players can control all sorts of things but from what I have seen, war games where they player controls an army is the most popular.

These games can range from simple games focused on the movement of a unit or a couple of units, to more complex games. Other examples are games where the player needs to care for their units by purchasing food and weapons. In the more advanced variants, the player leads an entire country, with all trade and politics that comes with it in a global perspective.

Other types of non-role-playing PBEM games are different types of board games. Dating back to way before Email and even computers, correspondence chess was popular.

The second type of Play by Email games are the ones we focus on at, role-playing games. Taking the classic role-playing games online provides some challenges and there are different ways of implementing it. Role-playing games can, strictly seen, be broken down into two categories: Free form or Game Master controlled. Of course, the boundaries between the two are not set in stone, and different game groups have their own style.

Like in a classic role-playing game, some games rely heavily on the Game Master to control and bring the story forward. All vital decisions and all events needs to be done according to the rules and often by letting the dice decide. In a free form game, the focus is less on the hard rules than on the role-playing itself. Less is decided by rolling a dice or having the GM decide and more is written as a story.

Setting up a game for success

By Cixtian S. Trybe
It is important, in the whole scheme of things, to set up a game properly –before- play begins, so that success (A long enjoyable game life) is possible, and players understand what is to come and what is expected of them during play.

The first thing I advise all Game Masters to do is develop a set of house rules. These are rules of play that the Players should read, and agree upon before the game ever begins. This keeps everyone on the same page, as far as how and when the game is run, as well as what is expected, and what is appropriate for your game.

In some games the House Rules, are called the ‘Play Contract’, and represent a document comprised by both the players, and game master to erect an agreed upon set of objectives and rules. These documents tend to sew a bit of solidarity with the group, and the GM because they are both putting forth effort toward the success of the Game.

Other games have Rules listed by the game master, and are immutable laws that can and should not be broken.

Air, and attitude
The air and attitude that is used to comprise your list of rules is a very important aspect. It is the language, and manner used in writing these rules, and it’s important because it tends to convey the very nature, and attitude of the people who are running or moderating the game.

In general we advise that a list of rules be written in a friendly, non-imposing manner. Stating the list of rules in an empirical, or unbending manner gives the player the sense the GM is himself, empirical, and unbending… a trait that is quite undesirable in a game master.

Conversely, an attitude of silliness, and joking apathy, tends to cause people to wonder at the seriousness of the game master, and thus the game.

To strike a good prose, it’s important that the GM write things as if he understands that this thing he is doing, this master piece of writing, is just a game in most of his players eyes. Make your points, and be direct about them, but don’t be tyrannical, or iron fisted. It’s understandable to want things your way, but flexibility, and openness goes a –loooong- way in a game.

Listing Rules
It’s important to format the rules so that the players understand what each rule is. Write down each bullet point as a single, clear, concise sentence, and then elaborate on them in sub paragraphs. I know this sounds ‘anal’, but a player wants to get into the meat of the game as quickly as possible, so by bullet pointing the main rules, he can, if he wishes breeze through them to get the general ideas… AND when something catches his eye, that he doesn’t quite understand… he can delve further into the ruling.

Adapting Rules to the play group
While it is in no way a mandatory thing, I suggest that a GM grant all players the option of adding rules of their own to the list, or even suggesting changes to the established rules. This serves three purposes:

FIRST… it gets the players involved in the heart of the game. (In another article I talk all about getting good players, and keeping your players in the game, mind body and soul. Read it!) They start to feel like more than just players, because they see that ideas and decisions they have are changing the face of the game.

SECOND… it covers bases you might not initially think of in your own writing. These players are often coming from all over the place… all walks of life, and they are joining the game and dragging their likes and dislikes of other games with them. You want the best game you can have, this is your source of material. Use it.

THIRD… it let’s you know what the players want, and weather or not you are truly up to the task at hand. If your players all think that one of your rules is wrong… LISTEN TO EM… you’ll find it easier to keep good players if you aren’t holding stringently to that ‘You must post in the nude’ rule.

In essence, keep your group in mind through out the development stage of your game, and especially when devising house rules. It’ll save you time, heartache, and possibly save your game.

Content is an important aspect to the House rules list. It’s useful to know that the players understand what you expect as well as –why- you expect it, and it’s also important to get this understanding across in as clear and concise a way as possible.

On a house rules document I tend to place ## Areas of content:

Posting Conventions – This lets players know what I expect to see in a post as I get it. This tells them what to put in the subject line, how much writing they should do, how they should close, and how they should edit the ‘saved content’ in replies.

Characterization – This is the area where I talk about the appropriate ways of interacting in the game. It deals with arguments, player properties (Such as characters, props and NPC’s), and consequences of in game conflicts. One of the first things I push in this section is –I AM THE GM SO WHAT I SAY GOES-. Of course I don’t phrase it so empirically but the point is gotten across.

Taboos – These are topics, and behaviors that are big –no no’s- in the game. It’s important because one players action can completely alienate an entire player base in a game. In Taboos I tend to post
Advancement – Advancement is important, because it let’s players know that they aren’t don’t this stuff for nothing. Put advancement rates, and the likes here.

Making the darned thing available
The main point of this thrust is “MAKE SURE YOUR PLAYERS HAVE READ THE RULES!!!” Some people add the house rules to a packet of info that is sent to every potential player of the game. This is a good idea because it gives the players a chance to read them early, and decide if they can live with these rules.

Below I present a sample of house rules I’ve used for a game I was planning to run. The game calls the Game Master the ‘Holly Hock God’, and there are other conventions that may not make sense, but the general gist is there.

Sample House Rules
Keep in mind that there are several key points to any game that I run. These are things that hold my concern above anything else.

The first thing would be ‘Player enjoyment’. If, at any time, you’re not having a good time, email me privately, and let me know what’s missing. I’ll do my damnedest to supply it for you.

The second thing would be ‘the story’. The game is being run for the sake of the story, so keep that in mind as we play. I want an interesting story to be the result of this game.

To support these ideas I present the following house rules.


* 1 – Post only once per every 2 or 3 posts, or once every 4 hours.
The point here is to be sure that no one is able to highjack, or impede game play, and plots. By only posting every 2 or 3 player posts we insure that everyone gets a chance to post, and respond to your posts. By opening it up every 4 hours, we grant players the ability to move forward even in a player isn’t available to post.

* 2 – Post at least 2 days in the 5 day week.
This rule goes along with rule one, but we should keep in mind that not everyone can post every day, and constantly through out the day. We should also keep in mind that other players may be counting on us, so don’t skip out on us in mid scene, please. If someone –doesn’t- post in a week period, their character will be slept (Moved from the scene, and put off somewhere until you return). I don’t like kicking people out of the game, but don’t be surprised if other players don’t respond so well to you or your posts.

* 3 – Posting is not mandatory on weekends.
Everyone needs rest sometimes. Weekends are best rest times for most of us. This doesn’t mean you –can’t- post on the weekends, but don’t –expect- responses.

* 4 – Please keep post between 2 and 5 paragraphs
This is to aid the Hollyhock god in workload, and posting and keeping from going insane. There’s nothing more deterring than to jump on and find one player who’s posted a 30 page post, and expects some response… imagine that 3 or more players did that… regularly? Who has time to read all that, let alone, reply? The flip side is getting a single sentence post. It’s frustrating, cause it shows a lack of interest in the game.

* 5 – Digests will come once a week, on Saturday evenings.
Digests are quick run-throughs of the action for the week. The HG will plan on doing it, UNLESS some player wishes to make some extra Pips one month, and takes on the task. HG will determine how much such a player deserves every month, but trust me… it will be lucrative. In cases where multiple players do Digests, the situation will be handled in one of 2 ways… player vote… or, in the case of specific digests (IE Diary’s from character POV) separate pips will be awarded.


* 1 – Hollyhock God rulings are law and word is the final say.
Ok, this is basically to say that the HG is the GM, so don’t argue with him/her/it. I don’t like kicking people out of the group, but I will if there is definite undermining of the game by any player. Keep in mind that there is a difference between argument, and debate. Debate if you will, but know that HG is the last word.

* 2 – Players Characters are players property and responsibility
I typically like to run games where the focus is the story, and not the characters. When I have run those games in the past, I instated a sort of ‘Post Editing’ rule, that says that to keep the game moving, a player may make assumptions about other players characters actions, but that at any time the original player can edit that post to what his character actually does. I’m –NOT- instating this rule in this game, unless players agree on it. Instead, players may post –only- for their characters, unless the subject characters player grants permission. Don’t post for other people unless they ask you to. The consequences will be… dire.

* 3 – Props are open for the game
Props are characters, items and things that do not specifically belong to a specific player, or the GM. These are not called NPC’s because Non-Player characters are very different things. Props are normal, average people, spirits, and other minor creatures, and items.

* 4 – Non-Player characters are like Player characters in all respects.
NPC’s are the property of the GM’s or the PC’s, and are listed as such on character sheets. NPC’s are subject to the same rules as PC’s, so keep this in mind during play.

* 5 – Playing the board is encouraged.
Playing the board is the concept of describing an area, behavior, or scene logically, although the HG has given no information. For example, if the HG says “ You stand in a large kitchen”, it’s not unheard of for a player to decide that there is silverware in the drawers, or that the water runs. The trick is to make sure that you’re playing the board so that it makes sense. You aren’t building plot twists, or anything; you are just filling in blanks left by the HG. Similar things can be done with character backgrounds. And the worse that will happen is the HG will say “no, that’s not exactly true.

* 6 – Character death –can- happen.
As simple as this sounds, a lot of people don’t really appreciate this. Take a stupid action, and you could end up dead. Don’t be surprised just accept it.


* 1 – Advancement will happen once a month.
The Date of game start will mark the date each month that advancement will happen. I’ll set up a notice that will alert everyone that advancement is happening. Advancement lasts 1 week, and list of enhancements must be turned in for them to be established.

* 2 – Experience is awarded in character point fragments called ‘Pips’
Each Pip is worth 1/10th of a character point. As such an attribute would cost 30 pips to raise by one, so on and so forth.

* 3 – Characters (not players) receive a pip for every post made during that month.
A Post is considered viable if it follows all the posting conventions (See above), and is between 2 and 5 paragraphs long. Hopefully this will encourage players to post regularly.

* 4 – Hollyhock will supply more pips for other things, such as interesting story, role-play, and game play.
I try to appreciate my players, and when something interesting, unexpected, or well played happens, I’m rather giving with the pips. Be careful though, funny and corny are not far apart on the spectrum, and you get no points for corny. Also running gags give you pips once, maybe twice, but make sure it doesn’t get old. Bad guy characters can win Pips just as easily as good guy characters.

* 5 – Players are encouraged to keep track of their own Pip totals.
I make mistakes, and you may do things that I don’t think of come Advancement. Feel free to remind me, but keep the first characterization rule in mind. If I say no, better luck next month.

* 6 – Characters (not players) my expend Character points during advancement ONLY.
This should be pretty self explanatory. I don’t want people ‘manifesting’ useful powers at crucial moments. They only advance at advancement. And Characters –should- have some explanation for the enhancement that the characters gain during advancement.