Cruvis's Top 10 PbP Refereeing Tips

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Feb 2, 2018 8:56 pm
I'm not sure if people would be interested, but I recently did a series of blog articles in which I suggested some tips that I have found helpful toward running a PbP campaign game. This is my first article in a series. If it receives crickets, I'll know I've overstepped my wheelhouse. If people find them helpful, I have a more and would love to share them with an audience who would read them. After all, I did a bit of work here! ;)

Tips #1-3 - Consistency, Pace, and the Gentle Nudge
The ideal pace for an online adventure may vary greatly, but I have found that two posts from the DM per week is a manageable rate. This is assuming that the players are filling out your "off days" with their own in-character posts: rich dialogue, shared problem-solving, and decisive actions. These three elements will come up repeatedly in the coming weeks .

I like to shoot for at least one decisive action from the players each week. This keeps the game moving forward, preventing boredom. On the other hand, I don’t press too hard for actions if the players are engaged in rich dialogue. Keep in mind though, dialogue is only rich if nearly everyone in the party is engaged. If a conversation consists of a single player parlaying with an NPC while the others wait in silence, then there might be a problem.

Having established a pace for your story, it is important to remain consistent so that the players can depend upon it. They need to be able to anticipate how often and how regularly they will be hearing from you. If you know that you will be offline for some time, make sure to let your players know. Likewise, it is reasonable to expect the same courtesy from them.

At some point, your players will get bogged down trying to make a decision. This is inevitable. On other occasions, their lack of agreement may result in a lull in the usual posting pace. Sometimes, these moments can even result in character, or player, conflict. This is when I recommend summarizing. You might be tempted to help them resolve their disagreements. You might think about pushing them to take a vote. You might even feel the urge to choose for them, based on the majority or what you feel is reasonable. However, in summarizing, you will do none of these things.

Here’s what I try to do:
Send out an [OoC] (out of character) post in which I briefly state what each player in the group has said or suggested. This brief summary should simply restate what each character wants to do regarding the problem at hand. I always try to include a positive contribution from each member of the party.
Then, I suggest to them that I’d like them to be ready to move forward in the next 2-3 days.

Excerpt from "Swords of Justice," July 9, 2017.
[DM:OoC] I am just going to summarize what has been discussed so far. I'd like the group to come up with a plan of action by the middle of this week, if possible. Please contact me individually if I have not got your particular standpoint accurate and I will revise this post or reply an erratum.
[IC] Aurelias laid out the three exploration options for the group:

"Well then, it seems we have three options. We can continue down this pathway, towards the tunnels where the ghasts fled. Or we can return to where the tunnel branched, and try the other path. One of those two routes may provide us easier access to our enemy's lair. Or we can try and attempt this climb, either with magic or with skill, and see if it provides a shortcut to our goal."
He seems content to go with whatever the group wants to do, so long as they stay together. He is willing to leave Moonshroud behind, temporarily, should the group attack the Kyuss Spawn.

Galan has also been diplomatic during this conversation and is willing to go with the group so long as the group stays together. He has offered to divine which pathway might be best. The wording of his question will be crucial...

Lon and Hazim are keen to take the refuse pit shaft and confront the Kyuss Spawn from range. Lon is asking for a rope...

Falrik seems to be suggesting that the group could ascend the shaft but bypass the Kyuss Spawn.

Kylindra is not eager to confront the worm-infested undead, though her abilities will perhaps be most suited and most crucial in order to defeat them. It is not yet clear which pathway she is advocating.

I have found that summarizing, only when things are stalled or begin to break down, gives the players an opportunity to regroup, assess their options, speak up, and act toward a resolution. This strategy has allowed me to preserve the story’s pace while still empowering the players to make their own decisions. It’s simply one way to gently nudge your players to get the ball rolling again.

Pace and consistency are crucial elements for engaging players in a predictable and dependable rate of posting. When players struggle to make decisions or to take action, a supportive DM can refocus them using a timely summary. These skills will greatly impact the success of your play-by-post adventure!

Please feel encouraged to comment, challenge, defend, question, suggest, etc.. I am eager to hear from you!

...and mind the hippogriff!

Last edited March 20, 2018 12:36 am
Feb 2, 2018 9:10 pm
That's great advice, Cruvis. I think I have desparately tried the summary tactic before and I think it worked. I'll have to keep it mind if player undecision/disagrements happen again.
Feb 3, 2018 12:55 am
As a newer dm I appreciate this advice and welcome more of it.
Feb 3, 2018 6:36 am
I'm in the same boat as Sclasclemski. Keep 'em coming, Cruvis! And link us to your blog, too!
Feb 12, 2018 12:51 am
Good stuff! Look forward to the rest. Thanks for sharing
Feb 12, 2018 1:05 am
I think this is all very good advice! Thanks for sharing :)
Feb 12, 2018 1:26 am
Tips #4&5 - Critical Mass and Recruitment

Size Matters

In the world of tabletop gaming, most of the modern RPG rulesets allow for a minimum of four players. And in many cases, you can get along very well with just the minimum number of players. More than six players and the game begins to get bogged down; especially when you are engaged in combat. It’s a pain to wait fifteen minutes to tell the DM which bugbear you are going to attack.

In my experience, the size of a Play-by-Post adventuring party needs to be larger. I have found that six to eight players is more ideal for PbP. A larger party size ensures plenty of rich character dialogue and interaction. Furthermore, it helps to increase the flow of a healthy posting rate. Posting rate matters very much in PbP as it ensures that people are not waiting days to receive some interesting player posts to read. I could get into actual math here: probability, combinatorics and such, but I'm hoping you can take my word for it: posting probabilities and rates increase exponentially with each additional player.

Recruit often

It is important to know how and when to recruit. I would say that recruitment should be an ongoing effort that moves from game promotion and then becomes player recruitment - preferably before the critical mass is lost. Find ways to promote your game to other players and referees. Tell them about your story. Tell them about the great players. Tell them about your enjoyment as the referee. Invite them to ‘lurk’ or provide them with an interesting synopsis or dilemma that your players were forced to deal with recently. Build your party up by inviting others to join. Do not wait until the roster has depleted to three or four players before looking for new blood. By then, it may already be too late - especially if you have lost the steady posting pace.

Recruit everywhere

There are a number of places to recruit players and it is important to send your call out to as many sources as possible. Check in with members of your tabletop gaming groups. People you meet at gaming stores and people who like to role play or write can also be candidates. In the past I have mostly recruited my players from play-by-post sites. Recently, however, I have brought in players I have met in Facebook rpg, tabletop, and other social media sites. Many of my online players have become real life friends and I have met up with players I had only known from my game in places like Montreal, Philadelphia, and Guatemala City.

Recruit both skilled and new players

Sometimes PbP campaigns can become rather elitist. People recruit their lit. major friends or the other frat guys from their engineering class. The application process can also be a deterrent. A complicated set of requirements, in order to apply, tells players a great deal about a DM’s need for control, whether we realize it or not. This may serve to discourage new players from applying and may deter busy veterans as well. New, inexperienced, and young players bring a sense of wonder, discovery, and excitement your campaign. Do not shut them out! Furthermore, recruiting a few newbies ensures that the PbP genre of RPGs will continue to grow for future generations. Ultimately, role play is about story-telling, and good story-telling must be learned in collaboration with good story-tellers. By all means, recruit your friends, but be prepared to play with some new and unfamiliar people and share your questions, curiosity, and passion for the story. This is for the good of the game!

Having a large enough group of players to ensure rich conversations and interaction is crucial for giving your players the cooperative story-telling opportunities that they crave. Small groups may not pose enough character dialogue and action to motivate and encourage plenty of regular posting. With a larger group of players, you are creating a social environment where even reluctant players will be enticed to join in the conversations and stories.

As always, please feel free to comment, challenge, defend, question, and suggest. I am always eager to hear from you!

...and mind the hippogriff!
Last edited March 20, 2018 12:40 am


Feb 12, 2018 5:55 am
Really enjoying your posts here, Cruvis! I'm taking notes!
Mar 20, 2018 12:19 am
Tips#6 - 8 - Writing and Storytelling over Mechanics

Play by post gaming can become bogged down and stagnant if the RAW (rules as written) are held in higher regard than the collaborative story. Combat needs to be abbreviated at times. No one needs to extend the combat for an extra week of real time because there are two ghouls remaining with a hit point each! It is more valuable to describe the mayhem of a battle in great sensory detail than it is to worry over which kobold passed its saving throw. Keep it moving, keep it vibrant, and compress it if you can. Recently, I have experimented with having the players declare two rounds of actions instead of only one at a time. It has been successful thus far… I am always learning and trying new things. Now I let a player manage the party’s initiative rolls. Storytelling > Mechanics.

You do not need to love to write to run a PbP but you at least need to be willing to learn about writing. It isn’t news to anyone that a successful tabletop DM needs to be fairly strong in the communication department - particularly with speaking and listening skills. They need to be able to describe a scene, check in with the players regarding their actions, and interact with everyone present at the table. It doesn’t hurt if they have some acting or improv skills and can alter their voice for different NPCs in the story. All of these skills can be developed with time and practice.

In a parallel comparison, a PbP DM has to manage all of those skills and pieces through their writing. In many ways, the PbP DM has the opportunity, and maybe even the duty, to do all of those things better. The PbP DM has the luxury of time - to read, think, compose, revise, and edit. Take advantage of that extra time, craft your posts with care and artistry, and connect with everyone in your game. You will be surprised how quickly your writing and story crafting skills will develop and strengthen!

In running a PbP adventure, the referee needs to pay particular attention to detail. Detailed descriptions, including plenty of sensory information (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, even evoked emotions) should be included in a way that shows, instead of tells, what the fantasy environments are like. You truly want to pull your players into the story, building a detailed painting for them to immerse themselves. Try to strike a balance though. Too much detail can have the opposite impact, cluttering the description and boring your players.

Swords of Justice - June 19, 2017

Your group wends its way through a constantly twisting array of left and right bends. After walking in complete silence and near-darkness for several minutes, the stagnant odour of the subterranean stream becomes a stench, eventually reaching the point where it becomes burning to the eyes and sinuses and nauseating to the stomach. There can be little doubt about what sort of undead you will soon face.

Sure enough, when the narrow stream opens out into a pool and embankment, there is a gang of ghasts gathered around a mound of wretched decayed debris, including a bloated, white, sheep's carcass.

The putrid things are so intent upon their frantic feeding, bickering over rotted bits of entrails and sinewy scraps, they take no notice of the obscured adventurers approaching from the watery tunnel. There appear to be as many as a dozen of the stinking ghouls moving around in this fetid pool and refuse pile.

Dialogue also deserves a great deal of time and effort. Your NPCs all have different personalities and patterns of speech which should show up in the conversations you are having with the players’ characters. Take the time to craft interesting dialogue and character mannerisms. Pay attention to those pesky quotation marks too!

Finally, combat may deserve to receive the most attention of all. Make your battle descriptions exciting, full of action, confusion, danger, daring, skill, and ferocity. Rich descriptions of battle can be found in many great examples in pulp fiction and fine literature alike. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and is perfectly fine, as you get a feel for action writing. My first role model for fantasy combat in my teens was R. A. Salvatore. However, I try to encapsulate some stylistic gems from every good novel I read, and that includes fantasy, history, historical fiction, sci-fi, and other genres.

Swords of Justice - June 21, 2017

Galan steps to the middle of the tunnel, displaying a red ruby tied to a leather thong around his neck. Speaking ancient words of prayer to some long-forgotten god, he gestures at the offending abominations. A red light bathes the room, seeming to transform the frightening ghasts into pale, paper spirits, insubstantial and fantastical. For a moment, they seem somehow feeble, fragile.

Aurelias, by this time, has skirted the left side of the feeding circle, falling upon a kneeling supplicant with twin long blades. He has massacred one of the undead in a matter of seconds, seeing it slump face first into the heap of rotting meat - another offering to the putrid altar of gluttony and death.

Then, Falrik steps to his right, singing a menacing dirge that seems appropriate for this gruesome spectacle. This further bolsters the ambiance of victory and swift judgement that is about to be dealt. The ghasts actually look as though they are terrified, if such soulless predators are capable of feeling anything, even the most minimal, primal emotion.

Lon advances, summoning tendrils of electricity, which branch out like silver tree roots, immolating first the skull and then the chest of the nearest ghast. It releases a strange chortling groan before it explodes and withers in a gust of ashes, steam, and vile smoke.

Kylindra adds the might and presence of the Morninglord to the mix. The ghasts are quaking, wide-eyed, perhaps glimpsing the terror they evoke in others, if only for an instant.

Hazim positions his right foot outward, perpendicular to the targets, raising his elbow past his ear, and then releases a shaft. The arrow hammers into another ghast's back, causing it to snarl in alarm, shaking it out of its terrified stupor.


Another challenge of PbP is keeping your writing organized by message type. Know when to begin a new thread, if a topic of discussion or action phase has changed. DM out-of-character conversations should be indicated in the titles and not included within ‘In-character" threads. Also, mechanics discussions should not be mingled with either in-character or out-of-character threads. Otherwise, the story quickly begins to lose its flow and people begin to resort to out-of-character posts more often than they should and the quality of your story suffers.

In closing, make a commitment to work on your writing and use the time that this genre of roleplaying allows to craft rich, exciting environments, dialogues, and battles. Keep out-of-character posting to a minimum and contained outside of the main story thread and always choose good storytelling and pace over mechanics. Whenever possible, reduce your workload on the refereeing side so that you can focus your creative energies on telling a great, immersive story.

As always, send me your comments and questions. I appreciate any feedback.

Mind the hippogriff!

Last edited March 20, 2018 1:02 am
Mar 20, 2018 12:53 am
LOL! I just added the last installment of my blog. *blush* It only goes up to 8 Tips. How embarrassing... Maybe someone can suggest some new topics for tips.

A few possibilities:
Maybe refereeing/managing theatre of the mind vs. combat map/miniatures combat.
Launching the successful game or campaign.
Game management
Last edited March 20, 2018 1:03 am
Feb 9, 2019 1:05 pm
(Sorry if this is a necro.) These are super helpful tips, Cruvis. One topic I could use some help on is managing "clues." In the PbP I've played in and GMed, the more leisurely pace makes it difficult for players to keep up with GM clues that are intended to lead them to new locations, NPCs, etc. In a face-to-face game, there's an expectation that players are taking notes, but that's not the case when folks are playing in their free time on their phones, etc. Some guidance for this sort of thing would be great!
Feb 9, 2019 2:01 pm
The spoiler tag can work well for this. Sometimes I use spoiler tags to tell the "players" something that their "characters" may not know -- like a long-winded OOC comment. (As an example: in a real-life game, I might explain what the dwarf's examination of the corpse was -- all the players hear this at the table but only the dwarf knows it. The spoiler tag is a way of explaining what the dwarf sees and the players hear. It can help speed things up and provide more texture to things.)

You could also link to an external, shared document, like a Google Doc. I actually do this for the one game I'm running for "combined treasure." I don't update it, but rather delegate that to one of the players. You could try a similar tactic for clues? You can also link back to threads if you'd like to keep everything "in-house."

I'm not sure if this helps you or not.
Last edited February 9, 2019 2:02 pm
Feb 9, 2019 2:21 pm
Hey SavageBob, how's it goin?

I would take this one step further and say that it can be hard for players to keep up with the plot in general, even not just clues. Key NPCs, places, goals, etc.

The way I try to combat this is to basically take the notes for the Players.

Create an "In-Character Knowledge" thread, Lock it, and create at least three posts called; People, Places, Things. And just continually update those posts/that thread. Keep a running record of important stuff.

While your question is about hints and clues thatI could see as the Players not knowing whether or not they were important, I think you could pull off a similar thing with perhaps and abbreviated summary of such findings from scenes?
Feb 10, 2019 3:24 am
Hey, everyone! Thanks for the ideas (and thanks to emsquared for advertising this place over on the FFG forums!). I like the idea of basically doing the clue-taking for the PCs in a PbP. I'm thinking I might even do it as an IC document, similar to how some console games have your character keep a notebook where they jot down important notes. The reason those video games do this is to help you remember what you were supposed to be doing if you save and come back later, so it makes sense to do something similar in PbP.

I like the way the Gumshoe system designates clues as being core clues (essential to move forward) and additional clues (helpful but not necessary). I can see keeping track of those kinds of clues for the PCs as being a big help to keep the game moving.

In fact, I can see having an NPC travel with the party and do this kind of work. Nothing like a GMPC, but rather a minor hireling, or a dependent, or a droid, or something.

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