Text Quest: Play-by-Forum at RPG Geek
Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and produced a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM.
One of the most common pieces of advice given to GMs who want to improve their craft is to join a game as a Player. I struggle to find the time for my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign, so it would be difficult to schedule another regular game. Therefore, I joined a play-by-forum (pbf) game at RPG Geek. This essay reviews my initial experiences with the game.
I am sure you are all aware of the huge online resources at RPG Geek, and its sister site Boardgame Geek. The website describes itself as follows:
RPG Geek strives to be the premiere database and forum for all tabletop RPG enthusiasts. This includes News, Reviews, Sessions and Play-by-Forum along with the world’s friendliest community.
Over the years, I tried various play-by-mail games, I even had a brief stint working in the industry. With the development of online forums, it was inevitable that this format would be applied to gaming in the forums. It is a fundamental truth of our hobby that when gamers gather together, there will be gaming.
The basic format of a pbf game is that the GM posts a description of the current situation, and the Players respond by posting what their character does, or a piece of in-character dialogue. The forum format allows for previous posts to be quoted by the Player, enabling everyone to follow the conversation. Progress is slow compared to face-to-face (ftf) gaming, but the plot gradually develops over time.
RPG Geek facilitates the hosting of pbf by embedding digital dice in their forums. It is a simple process to add a roll to a post. The GM subsequently responds to the Player’s roll with a roll of their own, then narrates the appropriate outcome. This is the standard back-and-forth of an RPG, only conducted via text in the forum.
The game I am playing is a HeroQuest: Glorantha game run by Harald Smith. We are exploring the Colymar campaign, focused on the Orlmarth Clan in 1617. I have participated in the game for many months, but time is much slower within the game. Our clan’s holy ritual was disrupted, and the Heroes have ventured into the wilds to learn more about the attack.
Harald displays an impressive knowledge of the setting, including a broad range of histories and cult myths within the story. I know enough about the setting to appreciate the depth of game Harald is creating. I am lucky to have found such a supportive and creative GM for my first pbf game.
Playing in the Forum
In many ways, the experience of playing in the forum is broadly similar to a ftf game, only at a much slower pace. Rolling digital dice is not the same as physical dice, but we are still invested in our characters and thus care about the outcomes. There have been moments of amusing inter-player banter. Just like in a ftf game, I am exploring the personality of my new character.
By the nature of playing in a forum, we deal with Players in different time zones. However, as I check back on the forum regularly, it is less of an issue when someone posts. Likewise, real life intervenes and Players can be busy some weeks. The ensemble of Heroes shifts through the story, but Harald keeps the plot moving and it all works.
RPG Geek is large enough to allow us to run multiple threads for the one campaign. The main action is described in the In Character (IC) thread, which Harald separates into sections for each new Chapter of the campaign. Additionally, there is a thread dedicated to our character sheets. I have a copy on my laptop for convenience, but it makes sense to have a version also listed on RPG Geek.
Finally, there is the Out of Character (OOC) thread. This is the forum for direct contact with the GM, rules clarifications and general chatter about the game. We often include some of this conversation in the IC thread. I am sure every group strikes this balance differently, but ours works for us. The range of tools available to run the pbf on RPG Geek is a credit to the website.
By their nature, pbf games are not the same as playing at a table together. The number of posts ebb and flow according to the schedules of the Players. The drawn out nature of the game can make a long-term plot hard to sustain. Harald is very good at posting summaries as requested, but the format is very much focused on the current obstacle facing the Heroes.
Likewise, interaction with the other Players can be very limited. There is some chat in the OOC thread, and I really should participate in that more. Everyone has been friendly and welcoming, especially our long-suffering GM, but there is not that instant bond found in real life. Again, this is the nature of forums.
As is so often the case, many of these perceived drawbacks represent a failure to manage expectations. Playing by forum is a lot of fun, but do not expect it to replicate the experience of sitting at a table throwing dice.
I am having a great time playing in the Colymar campaign. Harald has shown me how to create an engaging setting full of Gloranthan lore, which feels very real. Beorht is a fun character, and I really hope to follow his journey for a long time. It is also brilliant to watch another GM run HeroQuest. Experiencing how another GM runs your favourite rules is always worthwhile.
Have you ever played a forum game? How did you find the experience? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.