Learn from your old PBEM posts

A good way of learning and improving your writing skills is to go back and re-read your old PBEM posts. On a PBEM game where the story always flows forward at a steady pace, where posts comes in from your fellow players every day, it can be difficult to find the time to reflect over how you are doing. This makes it very easy to get stuck in the same writing process and the same mindset. Remember, getting a lot of posts out is good and all, but it is even better if those posts are of great quality!

Taking an hour or so once in a while to sit back and read selected parts of your PBEM posts or just think about what you contributed to the story can help you achieve even more writing skills.

Some things to consider:
Were there any posts I wrote that I feel are bellow par in terms of quality?
Read those posts again (yes, it can be painful but it will be over in a second or so) and see what exactly makes you see them as bad posts. Did you rush through them? Did you focus too much on your own character? Did you make any misstakes with the story?

Then do the same thing with the posts you felt were the best you produced during the same time. What was it that made them so great?

Now would be a good time to write down a few notes, comparing the two categories. I did this with a bunch of old posts of mine, and I will share with you a few of the notes I made:

Bad posts:
Used only my own character to find something
No feelings
No open hooks for others to follow up on
Boring language

Good posts:
Described a lot of the surroundings
Left a really good hook for another player
Made the story go forward

As you can see, based on these short notes I can come to a conclusion about what I need to think about in the future. Next time I have a moment to do the same thing, I can see if I improved any.

Describing the surroundings

Describing the surroundings to the reader is more than just putting words on it. To describe something as “beautiful” is not enough to get the reader understand how beautiful something really is.

It can perhaps get the reader to understand that the character feels something is beautiful, but it does not convey that feeling over to the reader.

Word like “beautiful” or “scary” perhaps describes the scene in broad, general, terms, but in order to write better the player needs to show the reader what it is that has these properties.

“While the sun climbed on the sky, its light made the grass, still wet from the morning dew, sparkle further and further in the meadow. The ground was like a thousand stars as Miranda slowly walked towards the tree line, admiring the beauty”.

You have to agree that do sound better to you as a reader than a simple:
“The meadow was beautiful, Miranda slowly walked through it as the sun climbed on the sky”.

It can, of course, be too much. No matter how beautiful something sounds, filling page after page with descriptions just gets too much. To compensate for the lack of a few, clear descriptions that convey the feeling, with paragraph after paragraph with words hardly help the reader. Like strong floodlights, they do not enlighten but dazzles.

In conclusion, what is it that makes a description good? Try to say as little as possible about how the reader should feel and experience the surroundings. Instead, describe what it is that is so beutiful.

Using NPCs (Non-Player Characters) in your PBEM

A character that is not primarily and actively played by a player is called an NPC. Even though they are not the primary character of a player, they can be quite important to the story and to the game.

In some games, the Game Master (GM) does not play a character of his own in the game. Then he can use a number of NPCs to introduce problems or to move the story in a certain direction. It can for example be the wealthy merchant that hires the players to protect a shipment of gold, or it can be the shady rogue the players hire to guide them through the forest. In any way, the Game Master can use the NPC to have the players move into the intended direction of the adventure.

Depending on the rules of the game, players may be allowed to create NPCs themselves. If for example, for some reason their regular character is not suitable for a specific idea. It may also be a good idea to create a NPC to post for to get a change from posting for your regular character, a change of scenery of sorts. The specific rules concerning NPCs varies with the game, so be sure to consult your Game Master on this.

From my experience, NPCs can be categorized in two ways: by their importance and by who ‘owns’ it. An important NPC is often given a proper name, a personality and a more detailed description while an NPC that the players will not meet again does not receive the same attention.

Named NPCs – An NPC that is important to the story, a key character, will appear in several posts and perhaps over a longer period of time – maybe even spanning over several adventures. Such an NPC is most often given a name (but not always) or at least a title to identify that it indeed is the same character.

Unnamed NPCs – A character that will most likely never appear again, or does not play important enough role to warrant a name, is preferably left unnamed. While naming an NPC adds to the ‘feeling’ of the person and story, it can be problematic in the long run. Usually it is enough to refer to them for example by characteristics (“the brown-haired guy”) or by its function or title (“The barkeeper”). Giving them names can ‘tag’ them as NPCs that can (and perhaps will) return. Having too many named characters “on standby” can be confusing and hard to keep track of.

The second way to categorize NPCs is by who owns and/or created it. The rules for this are usually different from game to game, but in general an NPC can either be either restricted (“owned”) or free-for-all.

An NPC that is considered restricted is usually owned by someone, either a player or the Game Master. They decide what happens to it. Depending on the game rules, these characters can almost be seen as a player’s secondary characters. NPCs controlled by the Game Master can usually be considered ‘untouchable’.

An NPC character that is “free-for-all” can be used by all players in their posts. They are usually NPCs that are very general and plays only a supporting role in the game. It does not matter to the story in general if something would happen to the character.

Unless a character is specifically said to be free-for-all, it may be a good idea to ask the Game Master for permission to use a specific NPC if what you intend to post can have any long term effect on it. It is often safe to apply the same rules as you would to using another player’s character. Take care when considering what to write and as for permission if you are unsure.

Managing mistakes

Mistakes happen! Sooner or later in the game, there are going to be posts that contains errors or creates other problems. As a player (and, for that matter, as a GM) it is important to stay on top of things and manage these problems instead of letting them ruin the game.

There are several things that has gone wrong on games and probably at least as many that will go wrong in the future. In this article, I am going to deal with three types of problems to give you examples of how they can be handled and what to think about. This article is both for players and for GMs, since it is a collaboration between us all to avoid or deal with these types of problems.

The first problem is when two players posts at the same time, or without reading the latest posts first. The story described in the posts can be conflicting, causing uncertainty about which one is correct.

This is a situation that is best fixed by the GM. He or she can fix this in a couple of ways. Either by canceling on of the posts, either keeping the first on or keeping the one that fits the Game Master’s idea of where the story should be heading best. This is really up to the GM to decide. The Game Master should quickly send out a message informing all the players of the decision so they can continue the story. If the GM is actively participating in the game, he can send a post of his own to clear things out.

As a player, you should probably first try to inform the GM of what has happened and let him take action. If, for some reason, the GM is not available there is a possibility – depending on the rules of the game – that the player who posted the last post can retract his post. However, this is something that can be a bit tricky. It is important in this case that it is the player himself that retracts the post and not another player. This to avoid confusion.

Another problem that is bound to happen sooner or later is that a player screws up some important part of the story, background, or any other type of fact that needs to be correct further on in the game. This can happen by mistake, the player was not aware of how it was supposed to work. This is especially common in games set in in context of a TV series or other types of well-known fiction.

Again, it is important to act quickly. If an error is allowed to be carried on in more posts, it becomes an established fact that is very hard to change later on. The GM, or the player, should send out a correction. It is important however, not to put blame on a specific player. Keep it in general term and be professional about it.

A third problem that can happen in PBEM (Play By Email) games that allow players to include other player’s characters in their own posts is that a character is used in the wrong way. This problem can easily be avoided by checking in advance with the player who’s character you want to use. If you, however, have found someone else to be using your character in a way you do not approve of, you should act on it.

The most polite way is to contact the player who write the offending post and discuss the problem. Note that I said discuss, do not accuse them of anything or blame them for the problem. Keep it on a friendly basis. If the two of you can’t work it out, contact the GM and ask for advice. One way of fixing the problem is for you to write a post about the same situation and change a bit in what your character says or does. Be sure to make it clear to the other players though what the purpose of the post is, just to avoid further confusion.

To sum things up, you can deal with pretty much any problem by
– Contact the GM
– Act fast
– Be polite.

Making yourself understood

As most Internet users are aware, it is harder to convey what you mean in written text such in a PBEM game than when using live, spoken words. Since Play By Email is a form of text based communication, there is a chance the other players will misunderstand your intentions if you are not careful. Keep this in mind when writing your posts.
In a face-to-face situation, you immediately get feedback from the person you are talking to. You see if that person understands what you are trying to say, you get feedback on how much you need to describe and when it is enough. When role-playing your character in a live game, you use your entire body to describe your characters feelings, actions and reactions. You use your voice to do the same when your character is talking “through” you.

Imagine your character saying “Yeah, right” in response to a question or comment from another character. How can you be sure the other players understand that your character just gave an affirmative answer, and was not being sarcastic? “Yeah, right” can mean different things depending on the tone of your voice. This is not a problem in a regular role-playing situation, but in a written context it is harder to make this point. Again, the problem is that written words can not express feelings the same way as spoken words can.

There are a couple of ways you can make sure your readers understand what you mean. The first way I am going to tell you about is the most simple of them. Just tell them what you mean! Why make it harder than it is? “‘Yeah, right”, she said sarcastically.” Explains exactly what you want to express. No more guessing!

Another way is to “write around the problem”. By using other words that better describes what you mean, you get rid of the problem. The downside is that it can be hard to find words that fit the characters.

A third way is to explain the situation in more detail to make it obvious what the character means.

It does not really matter which one you use, or if you perhaps combine them all, the important thing is that you are understood.

The anatomy of a post for a PBEM game

In traditional story writing there are certain phases in the story. For example, you begin by creating an interesting introduction, a hook to get people to continue to read. When you are writing a post for your PBEM (Play By Email) game, it does not have to follow the same pattern.A post is something very different. Think of it as more like one chapter of the book or story. Perhaps not even a chapter but only a page. It is one part of something bigger. Because of this, you can often not use the same plan as if you were writing everything by yourself.

If we analyse a regular story we start with the hook as I have already described. The story then continues by exploring the conflict. A conflict can be on many levels, but it is almost always the main problem of the book – the main element the entire story is based upon. How the characters relate to the conflict and how they deal with it makes up for much of the story itself. Describing reactions, emotions and actions are what the story is built of.

Once the conflict has been fully explored, it needs to be resolved. Something needs to happen so the book can end. Most often a book has a very clear ending, something happens that fixes a problem. This ‘something’ can be virtually anything but a twist at the end is very common. One of the characters turns out to be someone else for example. The ending of a book is important to make the reader either be satisfied with the story, continue to think about the story or – as it is often done in the movies – want to see the sequel.

A post is very different. Instead of being based on hook – conflict – resolution it is often based on background – action – continuation.

The beginning of a post often describes what has happened. This is important to place the post into the timeframe where it takes place. Since a PBEM (Play By Email) game can move the in-game time very slowly, describing where the post fits in is important to make sure the reader remembers and understands what has happened.

The background can also describe how your character reacts to previous posts. If you did not have the chance to post a reaction right away, you can start out by having the character think back or write about it or something similar.

The next part is where all the new content is added to the story. This is what brings the story forward. It is the most important part of the post. If you fail to add something to the story, it will never go forward and will not give the other players something to post about.

In the action part you can describe what happens and how your character reacts to it. Depending on the rules of the game, you may also be allowed to write how other characters react. You will want to bring the story forward a bit, but not too much. It is a hard balancing act.

The last part of a post is almost as important as the action part, but much harder to master. While writing what happens requires a lot of imagination, it does not require all that much pure thinking. The last part is to think about the continuation of the story. Ask yourself how can the other players continue on my post? Is there something I can write to help the other players getting ideas?

The more you help them, the easier it will be for them and the sooner you will be able to post again.