What kills PBF games?

I've played three or four big Universalis games "by post." Each one just lost momentum and ground to a halt. They might have *all* been on various incarnations of Trevis' wiki, but I'm not sure -- the first of them were like eight or nine years ago now.

I've been in a couple of free-form by email or post games, ten or more years ago. They were kind of similar and also kind of solitaire play, at least sometimes. I think I lost interest and ditched one of those games on rpol and another we all just quit.

I started hanging around here at Snail's Pace around the time that The Mez was grinding to a halt, right as Michael Pfaff was starting up The Chateau.

I'm not clear on what happened with The Mez.

For that matter, I'm not clear on what happened with The Chateau. I emailed Michael about it and he responded but not with much detail. I'm hoping that given the time that's passed he'll be willing to talk about it a little.

Then the Menagerie croaked. As far as I know Brendan isn't around -- he hasn't been to SG since April. It seemed like he bailed for several weeks, came back with some new vigor and disappeared. So we'll only know what happened with that if he pops back in to tell us. (Or, if any of you are in contact with him and know stuff you can share, that would be cool, too.)

Trevis' game on his wiki just did a reset, largely because a single player fucked things up and it was too much investment to fix and then a couple of the players took that opportunity to bail out but a couple or three others faded away before that. The posting cycle over there is slow even by the Snail's Pace standards that we seem to have congealed around.

I played a couple of Microscope games on Google Wave when that was a thing. They played through to satisfaction but we quit the Microscope game we played here, mostly because of me, I think. I just wasn't feeling the game and continuing was a chore.

And now I think we're stopping Dungeon World. (This is what prompted me to post, but I've been thinking about this for a while.) That's sort of similar. At least some of the players clearly expressed luke-warm interest and the GM wasn't really feeling it.

I'd be interested to hear other examples, whether success stories or failures. I'm trying to categorize these "failed" games but I keep coming up with nuance that busts up the categorization schemes I work on. For sure, some of them seem like good things that they "fail" (like if people aren't enjoying them) and others (most, probably) are bad things. Even that might be tough though if some players think of a particular halted game has having been fun and others dull.

Is there anything to learn from this? It seems like I've puked up some brief anecdotes but I'm failing to connect the dots.


  • I know three of the people involved in The Mez in real life, and info from one of them led me here when google wave went away. Two of them didn't really keep up with posting, and have never come back as far as I can tell. Maybe we could have slogged in without them, but we hadn't even finished the first session yet, so I think starting another game was less work, which seemed to be borne out when three of us joined The Chateau. I think the two people I know who dropped out hadn't done PbP before or since, so my guess is the format wasn't ideal for them.

    I don't know any more than you about why The Chateau ended, but if I were posting as much as Michael did as the MC of that game, I'm not sure how I'd get any work done. MC fatigue that turned into an insurmountable lack of momentum seems like a reasonable explanation to me.

    Don't know any more about The Menagerie either. I hope it's not the regular AW group on here just burning people out posting all the time.
  • edited August 2011
    I'm MC-ing an apocalypse world game at another site which is just about to hit session 6. It's a tremendous amount of pressure, running a game pretty much 24/7. There's no anticipation of the next session or a rest between. The game is always NOW. There's almost always someone waiting for your input, and knowing how it feels from the players perspective, I really feel like I should try and give it to them.

    Few games (real life too) last forever, but I would guess it's MC burnout. The game reaches a point where you just can't keep up any more or feel you can't meet expectations, perhaps. I think there needs to be a concept of a "break" where the MC/GM can just say "hey, I need a couple days here" and that's fine and understood. But it's nice if he actually says so, so there's not the anticipation and worry on the part of the players.

    Menagerie was a fantastic game, between the MC and the players involved, it was awesome. But it died without a clear reason. Brendan my be around and although I'm dissapointed that the game died, I still have to thank him for what we did get out of it, it was great. I'm pretty sure he's still totally welcome here.

    For Dungeon World, I just admit I didn't like the game tremendously much, so it was a chore to carry on. I'd like to run another game some day (not super soon) and hope the death of DW won't preclude people from giving me another chance. Still learning to be a good online GM/MC and I find I really enjoy it, but yeah... it is a legitimately difficult responsibility to take on.
  • I agree with that first paragraph, Scott.

    I like MC/GMing but also there's not the feedback that you would get in a regular f2f game. Posting pace is tricky for me. I'm finding that a lower number of players helps. I think it might be easier for GM'd games to have fewer players online. This could totally be a personal pref thing though. You think it will be easier to manage more online, but the fact is even with three or four you've always got people waiting on you, which can turn into unpleasent pressure. Expand that and it becomes really tough. I think that I though with more people there would be more characters together interacting and then not as much expanded demand on the GM but that didn't seem to be true. It didn't help that people didn't come in all at once, so connections were thin.

    I think the feedback thing is a big deal. You have to assume that people dig what you're doing. I don't meen concious feedback and I don't think there's a good way to simulate it in our online enviornment. (unless you could like +1 every post or something, even then.) When you're in a live group you just see, hear and feel people react. You don't even have to think about it.

    Disappearing players hits me pretty hard.

    In a Gmless game I see it being easier to have more people, but then there is often some kind of turn taking involved and so you can end up waiting a while to contribute. If you try to get around that, like we did with Universalis, then you have some who post a lot and then some who post a little and fade out. I don't know what that means. Less involvement means less investment?

    I've never played any Pbp or pbem game to conclusion of the game. The longest one I was in lasted about 2.5 years. It was cool and we had some great scenes (aobut 40 maybe) but it died in the end, mainly due to one player falling out, then the GM. People have a lot of things happen to them over a strech of time like that.

    You know, I'm seeing parallels to taking online classes. I've been teaching them for a few years now. A lot of students think they'll be easier but they end up struggling because they take a discipline that just isn't an issue when you meet in a physical place for a set time. As the instructor I often have to comment on student posts, not because I have something to say but merely to let them know that they have been heard. In a classroom they would merely see me paying attention to them. Obviously they have a clear stake in the thing, a grade. And a clear amount of time to be invovled: about 8 weeks.
  • I also don't think I've ever properly ended a play-by-post game, either while playing or GMing.

    I'd put caveats on that, though, like there was an Adventure! game that I ran for a while that was totally awesome and ran for basically 3 full 'episodes', each of which was big and active and about the equivalent of a couple of sessions or a full-length film in content. Then it died on the 4th episode.

    Each episode was self-contained enough, handled somewhat as one shots (each in a slightly different pulp genre, even), so I'm really pretty happy with that. It basically worked out to being three successful games, and each worked out great, if you look at them from that "one-shots in serial" perspective.

    Pretty often, when this game-death topic has come up, it's been suggested that the way to play pbp is to play with an end in clearly sight, planning the game like a one-shot. It takes enough energy to play or run a long-term game at a physical table, and pbp play can draw that out well beyond anyone's endurance. Not always, but reasonably consistently.

    - insert: gonna start rambling now, looks like -

    Aaaand ... huh. That means that Apocalypse World actually probably isn't a great game to play in pbp, vanilla. It lends itself to just playing until it's not fun anymore, which, in my experience, is just a terrible way to run play by post. Probably the way to play it is to lay down a couple of MC questions (Will Hatchet City fall?) and use those to find a conclusion. Still play to see what happens, but don't play to see what happens next, and next, and next.

    Which is interesting. That's totally not how I'm running The Hulk, obviously. And looking ahead, I'm virtually certain that The Hulk will just die at some point. Because how else can it end? In a face to face game, we'd eventually have a session where we're all sitting down to play or after play and saying, yeah, we've pretty much played this out. And that's cool. In pbp, though, that sort of table consensus is harder to suss out, and it's harder to maintain energy in any case, so thus the likely unsatisfying fizzle.

    That's sort of depressing. Maybe I should re-examine things, and turn screws with an eye toward a concrete ending.
  • Posted By: Michael LoyBecause how else can it end?
    We could detonate the entire ship. We could heal the Earth. Just sayin'.
  • I think at some point you start to see the endgame questions, some sessions in. Characters have accomplished whatever growth they need, and the MC (or players) can bring up the subject...

    e.g. "Hey, let's see if you guys can establish the new holding and protect it from the raiders. You manage that then you have a brighter future and we can call it a game."
  • I had a long-term goal for Horse in The Mez that would have probably required making an epic journey to find some wizened medic or some crap like that. For Marlene and Wilson, "Retire to safety" was always the goal, but not until the time was right. I don't really have an end goal for Lemma in The Hulk, because I think she's actually happy living in apocalypse world, as long as her personal scarcity is kept at bay. The only outcomes I can really see for Pity are take over the island and turn everyone into mindless husks, get "cured" somehow of her night issues, or die.

    That's just my characters, though. I don't think The Mez went long enough for me to see an overarching goal. At The Chateau I kind of figured we'd try to beat God and then see if everybody lived happily ever after after that. Not sure about The Menagerie either. If Wilson could have moved to a private island with Shade, she would have left everybody else to their fates. Maybe Man would come to understand who she was before Kray burned down the whole hold? Tavi and Nickel could stick together until one of them went Maestro and started a circus? I guess the thing with Clarion and Rabbit would have to get resolved.

    And like Michael said, The Hulk doesn't seem to have a destination in mind. I guess when somebody stops posting, drop them into the glass, and carry on until there's nobody left? Lemma and Marshmallow will repopulate the earth! It will be a very Weird, Sharp earth.

    To expand on what I said about The Island, if I'm being perfectly honest, I want the game to end with everyone dead or mindless and Pity cackling in the moonlight atop a pile of bones. I don't see that outcome as fun for anybody but me, though, so I'm not going to pursue that one too hard. I guess maybe Rhyme makes the island into a decent place, where the lost and Brick's gang can live in harmony, and Gabe and Pity can get together without anyone bleeding out of their ears, and Merry can do whatever it is she wants to do? I hope to see the end of one of these one day, but until then, I guess the only way to find out what happens is to play.
  • edited August 2011
    Nah, Rhyme can't possibly make the island into a decent place. I mean, ok, maybe, but nah. I want to get out into the island and escalate shit until something breaks. And woah, wait, I'm re-reading and what the hell:
    I don't see that outcome as fun for anybody but me, though, so I'm not going to pursue that one too hard.
    What? No! Fuck that shit! You better pursue that. Either we'll stop you or, y'know, not. It's cool either way. Use Rhyme! Seduce him or something. Convince him that evil Pity is useful in a Hannibal Lector sort of way. A touchstone can break big, big things - that actually, I think, is half the point of the playbook.

    The way to see the end of a game is to pick your goals and push, hard as possible. If you don't have a goal, alright, but don't have a goal and then elect not to pursue it. I mean, man! You're sabotaging yourself, then.
  • I had a really good game of Fiasco grind to a halt because almost every scene jumped around in the timeline. It became too much of a chore to maintain the continuity and keep up with what had happened and what was going to happen.

    I played in a great AW game but then the MC had a crisis, I gather, and never picked it back up.

    I played in a Dogs in the Vineyard game where the everyone else dissapeared after character generation.

    I played in a game of Agon where we just decided that the dice mechanics were too slow and no one felt the competition that should have been there.

    And yet, I still really like PbF....
  • I think one thing I've come to appreciate about dead games of PbF AW is that when I "play to find out what happens," I try to be invested in the characters without being too invested in their success. I want them to succeed, for the most part, but I know every time I make a move that it could fail, and seeing how it fails, or how a partial success bites me on the ass, is one of the joys of collaborative storytelling. The threats and fronts aren't monsters to kill for XP, they're more like bumpers in a pinball machine. They're colorful and noisy, and you never know where you'll find yourself after interacting with one.
  • Posted By: octoscottIt's a tremendous amount of pressure, running a game pretty much 24/7. There's no anticipation of the next session or a rest between. The game is always NOW. There's almost always someone waiting for your input, and knowing how it feels from the players perspective, I really feel like I should try and give it to them.
    I think this is a very important point and partially why I ended the Chateau. I had a lull in real world gaming and that's why I came to Snail's Pace to try and pick up a game. It worked out and things were moving along nicely. But, then I started getting involved in a bunch of real world gaming, and motivation, inspiration started to dry up for PbP, while 24/7 pressure + real life gaming demands mounted.

    I ended the Chateau because we had set such a high bar in the beginning, I just didn't think I could continue that degree of focus on it. And, boy, was I focused on it. I remember when the game was active, I'd post all day, then get home and refresh the screen every 20 minutes on my laptop to check for updates.

    Here's the thing: I loved that fast pace. But, once my other games started kicking, it was hard to keep up. And, a slower pace is not so satisfying to me personally.

    Also, like Scott said, there's no rest between games. Hell, I could probably pick up the Chateau right now from where we left off, the game is still burned into my brain, but with PbP, there's this sense of continuation more so than a real world game, which might have a few weeks break, and then pick up right where you left off. That little "rest" function is important for gaming I think, and it's not present in PbP because I think people see a game that takes a long pause as fizzled, failed.

    This is a great thread btw.
  • During the time where I'd decided that session 1 of The Island was done and I got session 2 going; it was maybe ten days(?), I was kind of stressed out about the game. I needed to do all these things -- build my fronts, catalog the NPCs, daydream about what might happen next, that kind of stuff and I didn't have enough time to do it in short order. And I knew everyone was waiting. But I just needed the time and didn't know how long it would take. I wonder if there's a better way to set aside breaks than any of us have done.

    A weird aside about my above-described experiences: when prepping for my F2F game, setting aside an hour and a half between sessions was almost universally enough to roll into a satisfying next session. But I did shit-loads more prep than that for rolling into The Island's second session and it still feels kind of weak.
  • Posted By: Michael PfaffI could probably pick up the Chateau right now from where we left off
    Don't tease like that! ;-)
  • edited August 2011
    Posted By: Michael PfaffHell, I could probably pick up the Chateau right now from where we left off
    I'd go for it again, but I think a few of the others have left.
  • But I did shit-loads more prep than that for rolling into The Island's second session and it still feels kind of weak.
    More scrutiny. In face-to-face, you say less (at least for me, I describe and such a lot more in PbP, because that's a strength of the format). And nobody really remembers exactly what you said, in face-to-face. Also, if something's falling flat, you can push through it really fast, or you can change scene to another player in order to give yourself a few minutes to re-frame the weak scene in your head.

    I think almost every improv tool we develop to tighten up play in a face-to-face game is useless in a play-by-post game.

    On the other hand, prep is actually less important. In face-to-face, you do the prep so you have something to springboard off of. In play-by-post, you can generally get away with taking an hour or a day to let something stew in your head.
  • Good points, Michael.
  • Is there player prep that could be assigned to keep people engaged during periods of restful GM prep? Perhaps one player summarizes the last session while another draws or updates a map while yet another person adds to the wiki.
  • Those aren't bad ideas.

    Also, I wonder about having two games with different GMs (when the games have GMs) running with the same players, but only one is active at a time. Maybe it ends up being a switch roughly every three weeks or something.
  • I like that idea a lot, Chris. The two games rotating back and forth. "This week is Apocalypse World with Chris, next week is Lady Blackbird with Rich."

    Have the focus on the particular weekly game, and that gives the GM time to reflect, plan and recuperate during his "off week". It also gives clear guidelines for a "session" length. We've got a week to do this session. It's up to us to accomplish our ends that week.
  • Yeah, but man, a week can fly by with almost nothing happening in these games. I really kind of think three weeks is the minimum unless we were doing something to alter the way we play.
  • Of course. The specific time frame would need to be tweaked, likely depending on the posting schedule. But, yeah. The idea is neat.
  • I could see that working well for a game with quick discrete episodes. Maybe a British season of Prime-time Adventures crossed with 3:16.
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