Every bad play-by-post or play-by-email game is slightly different, but most of them have one thing in common: the GM. Sure, crappy players can make for crappy gaming, but my experience is that game-ruining GMs outnumber game-ruining players by at least 10 to 1. Of course, a bad GM has an advantage in screwing up a game; while the game can work around any number of defective players and still survive, a bad GM or DM brings everything to a screeching and immediate halt. Liber Fanatica tackled the topic of online gaming in WFRP in their third volume, providing hints and tips on organizing and running online games. Here's my companion advice.
How to Run a Terrible Play-by-Post or Play-by-Email RPG
- Write Like Sling Blade: Not everyone is a great writer. Not everyone is a great real-life Gamemaster. Ideally, a great online GM should be a little of both, but in a pinch I'd take a better writer over most other things. Players rely on the GM more than usual for description and to set the scene in an online game. While there might be a map to look at, there aren't miniatures, player handouts, or books to look at. Furthermore, the pace of online games means that a GM who leaves out important details from his descriptions is going to bring the game to a halt while players either a) pester him for more information, or b) attempt actions that don't make any sense because they don't understand the situation (Player: I attack the orc. GM: Um... The Orc is in the room next door.). Finally, the GM is likely to be doing more writing than anyone else in the game, and it's simply painful to have to look at screen after screen of confusing, misspelled, a-gramatical drivel. I'm not a wunderkind among spellers myself, but honestly folks, it's 2006. My microwave oven has spell check, and if you're playing an online RPG so do you.
- Constantly Surrender the Initiative to Players: Nothing kills the pace of a game faster than a GM who insists on pausing any time a player has failed to respond to the latest post or request in a timely fashion. I once watched a game wither and die before my eyes as the DM sat back and waited for each and every player to roll a Reflex save. His commitment to player participation was such that he let his board go inactive and let the game sit for over a week waiting for every single character to take the hint and log in, rather than use the character sheets that he had to make the roll for the laggards and move the game forward. If a player has forgotten to make a particular roll make it for them. Yes, it's good to let players participate in these sorts of things (some people continue to see rolling the dice as the most exciting part of playing RPGs. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But one word for you folks: Yahtzee.), but not at the expense of the pace and momentum of the game. Likewise, if players aren't responding to an "open-ended" message at all, it's generally a sign that they aren't sure what to do and are waiting for more instructions or details from the GM. While really character/player driven games might work for experienced players who have been together for a while, online games need some help in finding and keeping direction, particularly in the early stages. If things aren't moving, give them a push rather than let them flounder.
- Make Players Wait on You: In a related issue, GMs need to be mindful that their participation is what makes the game keep going. If a game seems to have stalled, go through your messages with a fine-toothed comb, making sure that you have answered every question that has come to you OOC, that all the NPCs that you are running have responded appropriately to the players, and that every player action that requires your attention or intervention has been resolved. Make particularly sure that you have done your research before you complain to players about the rate of play. In the game I recently left, twice(!) in the span of as many weeks the DM complained that no-one was posting, and I had to point out that I had posted something days before that he had never responded to.
- Overcommit Yourself: Any time I see a new game forming that advertises that they are looking for more than about 6 players, I move on past. The larger, more ambitious the plan for an online game is, the greater the odds that one of two things will go terribly wrong. Either the sheer number of players will bog things down, as everyone sits back and waits for character creation and other pre-play rules diddling to be completed, or the GM will realize that he has bit off far more than he can chew and quietly slip out the back door while the players are talking among themselves. GMs new to play-by-post often have grandiose notions of what they can accomplish in an online game. They don't realize the effort involved in keeping even a small game running, and that running a game (particularly on a large scale) involves a commitment of many, many months- during some of which the game may not seem to be making much progress at all.
- Draw Out Combat: A hard one to avoid at times, especially if you're intent on keeping players involved in the game, but... A player I know pointed out that most of the games that he has been in tend to die off during the first combat encounter of the game. The reason, more often than not, is that the person running the game is trying too hard to directly translate the experience of running combat around a table to combat on the computer. Each player rolls initiative. Each player declares actions and rolls to hit, or what have you. Players decide if they are going to parry or dodge attacks aimed at them. Players roll saves and damage. Six months later, you have one lightly wounded goblin and a one dead game. Speed things up when the swords come out. Roll for players when you need to. Have them send you multi-round strategies instead of individual actions. Focus on narrating the combat, rather than resolving each individual cut and parry. You may have to take some tactical decisions out of the players hands in order to make it work, but it beats having to look for new players.
- Make It Up as you Go Along: Yes, it's easier to improvise a game online than it is around the kitchen table. Yes, you have more time to figure out what your next move is going to be, and plan for your players unexpected responses. No, that doesn't mean that a worthwhile gaming experience will materialize in your lap simply because you posted an advertisement for players. Games that are improvised without a strong, detailed setting that the players and GM can fall back on are predisposed towards stagnating. At best, they degenerate into a series of meaningless encounters that aren't tied together by anything, and that scream "generic fantasy setting" at passing pedestrians. At worst, they just grind to a halt when no-one knows what to do for sure, and the GM realizes that his initial germ of an idea has played itself out without giving rise to any new or interesting possibilities for the players.
As is always the case, this is not an exhaustive list of ways to fail.