Taking Charge of Long-Distance Gaming ~ December Blog Carnival

This post for December’s blog carnival on the topic of ‘taking charge’ will suggest the means and methods to establish a game, even when you find yourself far from other like-minded gamers. As I live in Korea, this is a problem I sometimes face, and the two methods which have given me the most success over my infrequent periods of drought are PBeM games and more recently, Hangouts games. While at first it can seem like nothing will be able to replace the good gaming and the close groups we have lost or left behind, a far-flung gamer can take control of circumstances, seek out like-minded individuals and establish the next best thing. 

Let’s begin with PBeM~

PBeM: Play-By-e-Mail

Not everyone is up to maintaining a forum for online, text-based gaming. I ran a forum for about 5 years and found I had to spend far too much time taking care of things I had no interest in. These days, I prefer to use e-mail. While it is not as easy to visually sort through the history of the game, there are a lot of advantages in the use of e-mail, and you can be pretty sure that there is easy connectivity to each of your players, wherever they are.

As much as you love them, do not bother trying to recruit players who are not in a regular habit of interacting with you online. When recruiting strange gamers you have only met online, consider their frequency of interaction in your shared haunts before sending the invitation.

When recruiting players, be certain that everyone, including yourself, realizes that the pace of play will be slow. While this can be a feature, like a relaxing, wind and sail voyage on a tall ship, it can also mean that a group can play for a year before completing as much as one or two typical round-the-table sessions. The point is not to replace or out-do tabletop, it is to provide for roleplay when access to other gamers is denied. That said, there are few ways more suited to maintaining control over IC and OoC knowledge among players than this. If you want to run that game of betrayal, secrets, and lies… this might be your best bet. You haven’t really played Paranoia, or Shadowrun until you’ve taken them into a digital realm where your knowledge base of the scene can be restricted to only what your character knows.

Use Gmail

  •  There are a lot of e-mail providers out there, but G-mail makes PBeM easy. E-mail exchanges in Gmail will appear as threads, much like forums and can be easily accessed and interacted with on mobile devices. Before you start play, you and your players should be aware that every 100 posts will see the e-mail chain split into a new thread. This can impact on the quick ability to find specific in-game events when you need to, but keeps the current events neatly contained in small groupings for quick scrolling. 
  • Use a consistent subject line (for fast searching for game threads) with something content specific (for easy identification of which thread you want). 
  • Tag the posts using Gmail’s filters so nothing gets lost (filter for participants, subject line, and content)

A Call of Cthulhu PBeM campaign might be given the consistent subject-line element “CoC” to make it easy to search for, and, as every 100 posts will split to a new thread anyway, start a new thread every time the scene changes. This again will make it easy to separate the individual in-game events and their numerous threads once should you have call to go back looking for a specific detail.

This may look like:

  • CoC: a nervous visitor
  • CoC: recruiting  unsuspecting help
  • CoC: on the trail of stolen evidence
  • Keep the pace moving. Poll the participants before play starts about how frequently they wish to receive replies and get a consensus. At this time, also make clear how frequent your friendly reminders will be should someone lag behind. It will be okay to post a little more often when things heat up, but the game will break down if the posting rate slows. Keep in mind that each person will need to read and digest a post before composing a useful response. They may read it at work and not get back to it for a short period of time.
  • Maintain a separate OoC thread for questions, scheduling changes, clarifications, etc. This prevents chaos and interrupted game content in the main thread.
  • Don’t be afraid to split the party. In fact, you might consider having a separate thread to handle things that some characters have an awareness of while others do not. If the characters are separated by time, space, or awareness, branch off into different (well-marked) threads for as long as is necessary. Cutting and pasting will get you through this easily as you tweak little details here and there.

Dialogue and Interaction

  • For periods of player dialogue, discussion, or especially for planning, consider a chat session very seriously. If not possible, maintain a thread for these discussions and have people post freely in it for a specific period of time, not worrying about post order or length of discourse. Make sure everyone is aware that what they enter here may not be used in its entirety because a plot element might fall through the skylight and eat someone’s brain, or the characters may interrupt each other, etc. When the posting period for dialogue or planning is over, edit everything together in the right sequence and present it to the players for inclusion in the main thread of the game. Allow them to make whatever changes might be necessary, but keep things moving.
  • Use dialogue for emphasis, and to help bring the character to life for other players. Do your best not to rely on it as a primary driver of action and interaction in your scenes. Use stated intentions and description for that.

Posting Moves

  • Have players post their intentions for immediate action/reaction in the scene, and suggest alternatives for differing outcomes that they can predict. This helps prevent endless rounds of clarification when the interactions between the whole group take the scene in unusual directions. As long as each poster is clear when they provide the intentions of their actions, it will be easy to navigate turns even when body parts are being splashed about like confetti.
  • Have players trim previous moves from their reply. When using G-mail, the conversation appears in a thread, so there is no need to include the contents of the previous messages and every reason not to. On a mobile device this is a simple toggle to include or not include. On the desktop, this is just a select and delete action. You will appreciate how much easier it is to find things without all the extra iterations of each message.
  • GM moves must be detailed, and take into account that this is a text-based medium. All you are sending is text, so subtleties like sarcasm and innuendo are easily lost. If it’s important to understanding the scene, spell it out from the beginning. Comprehension of the interactions of a scene are noticeably lower in this format than they are around a table. Plan and adjust for that. Everyone will thank you for it.
  • Establish early on what posting style you like as this will be the primary mode through which players experience the game. Even if you or one of the players volunteer to clean up and present the posts in a fictionalized form later, the game itself occurs from post to post.

Player Post Example: OoC style (bold text added for emphasis for this blog entry)

Roderick is worried that the box has more of that contagious fungus inside, so he is hoping to get it off the table before Aida opens it. She is always too curious for my character’s good! If Roderick gets there first, he’ll try to put himself between her and the table, then explain his thoughts politely but firmly (see below). He’ll suggest locking the box in the root cellar.

If she gets there first, he will yell, “Don’t touch that box!” and throw his cigarette case at her. No more hospitalization for him!

“Aida, I know you want to open it, but THIS time, I think caution is called for. After all, the last time you opened a box, I had to have 3 surgeries to remove those parasites from my bowels and eyes. I’d rather not do that again.”

If she gets testy, he’d like to try sweet-talking her, but will move over to the fireplace for easy access to a fire poker.

Player Post Example: IC style

This is too much like the last time when Aida opened a package and my eyes and bowels were invaded by parasites it took those three awful surgeries to remove! I cannot allow Aida to let her curiosity to imperil us all again. Acting even before these thoughts fully register within me, I race to the table, not even confirming if she too is rushing for the box, and attempt to interpose my frail flesh between the table and her all-too-curious fingers. No more open first and get surgery later antics!

If I fail to get there before she does I’ll have to try sweet-talking her, but I will do so once I move over to the fireplace to give myself easy access to a weapon like the fire poker. She has to realize how serious this is. If I do reach the table first, I will do my best to be diplomatic as I say, “Aida, I know you want to open it, but THIS time, I think caution is called for. After all, the last time you opened a box, I had to have 3 surgeries to remove those parasites from my bowels and eyes. I’d rather not do that again.”

GM Post Example:

You just beat Aida to the table and the force of your bodies colliding sends the package sliding a bit on the well-polished, mahogany surface. As you block her attempt to reach the package, her eyes lock with yours. She does not like to be balked!

“Aida,” you say, as she pulls herself to a more appropriate distance and tries to school her face into a mask of lady-like composure again. “I know you want to open it, but THIS time, I think caution is called for. After all, the last time you opened a box, I had to have 3 surgeries to remove those parasites from my bowels and eyes. I’d rather not do that again.”

It was not the best tack to take with her, but seeing the seriousness in your eyes, and perhaps remembering how close to death you were as a result of the parasites, she gives you the benefit of the doubt, succumbing, after 15 minutes of your best diplomacy and logic, to the suggestion to lock the box in the cellar until it can be safely opened.

Still… something in her eyes might suggest she may have other plans.

With this framework in mind, you can take charge of and run a long-term and successful campaign in e-mail. You may be pleasantly surprised at the great depth of detail and characterization you can build with your players once the game starts. This will not be entirely like tabletop play, but it will give you every opportunity for a rewarding game if you manage it well.


Gaming via Hangouts keeps getting easier, right down to the built-in support for dice rolls. That said, when you are far from where your players are, scheduling can be problematic. My most recent Hangout game had players separated by 14 and 15-hour time differences. This gave us a narrow window to play and made any late arrival or unexpected early departure problematic. That said, the game has run successfully for two months and has covered a lot of ground and good play. It will not carry on for too much longer, especially with all the holidays approaching, but it has been worth the effort.


While you would think that this could be handled by e-mail, this is not always the case – particularly if some of the participants are in a time zone where they have to wake up just before joining. E-mail is useful a day or two before the game, but on game day, the use of Social Media such as G+ or Facebook increases the odds of getting through. Going a step further and creating a G+ Community, G+ Page, or a Facebook Group and having each player set their devices to push Notifications from these groups immediately can work wonders for coordination and ongoing participation. As an added plus, posts, pictures, and other contributions can be uploaded to the group throughout the non-game days to reduce wasted time and increase investment in the game.

Before you enter into this brave new world of online gaming, set clear boundaries for the schedule.

  • Have a period of time where everyone can log in, join the Hangout, and then just chat and warm up.
  • Have a clearly established start and end time so that people know when they need to be ready to play, and do not have to feel guilty for being the first to leave.
  • If you agree to game together, agree to game together. If a player consistently cannot keep up with the rate or time of the game, make it clear that they need to bow out or not join at all. If the group wants to meet more often than agreed to, or at an unusual time and it would exclude a player, remember that this is all about being able to find a game…  right?
  • Be prepared for the likelihood of 2-3 hours sessions instead of 4+ hour sessions

Speaking and Not Speaking:

Unlike PBeM, a Hangouts game can run quite similarly to a game around the table, and can even be a mix of a group in a physical location and participants joining in online. The difference, however, is that unlike a group of rowdies clustered around the table, you cannot filter voices to focus on specific things as we are communicating with a slight delay through microphones.  This leads to all voices being presented to your ears as one voice, and it can lead to an echo. Both problems are easily resolved.

The first problem is handled simply by politeness.

  • Allow a short pause at key points when you speak so as to allow others to interject
  • Be sure to phrase your comments and dialogue so as to include interaction with the other players. 
  • Keep your eye on the other video feeds, and if it sounds and looks like someone has something to say, figure out a way to give them a chance
  • As the GM get in the habit of ensuring everyone is getting a chance to speak their piece, or resurrect the idea of having a Caller. The players can use the Chat feature to coordinate intentions and the Caller can monitor the chat text to make sure that the more vocal players are not drowning out the quieter ones.

The second problem is handled simply by headphones.

  • Use headphones


There are a lot of tools available for Hangouts now, with more coming.

  • Use them, don’t use them, it’s up to you. Arrange a time to get your group together and see how stable the Hangout is with the tools you wish to use deployed. Take time to look at the dice apps and see if you want to use them, or an honor system, or roll and show, or GM rolls all, etc. You do not need to get all tied up in a Virtual Table Top if you do not want to. The Hangout itself can be like a real extension of your table that stretches all the way around the world. You can go with just the webcam feeds, you can dress each view up with custom labels and icons to represent character names and visuals, or you can even do a limited form of green screen.
  • When you have a stable mix and know what you like, stick with it for that game.
  • Keep an eye on new developments and test them out outside of the game. If they work, and work for your game, fold them in slowly so that playing time is not wasted on fooling with “gol’durned contraptions.”

That, in a nutshell, is all a GM needs to know before deciding to take charge of a Hangout game. It can be intimidating at first, especially if you are planning to broadcast your games (this is not the default setting), but once you get a session under your belt it is no different than any other game night.

In Conclusion

Just because you cannot go to the game, does not mean that you must go without. You can make the game come to you, and with a little bit of planning, persuasion, and persistence, have a game that is more than just a ‘replacement,’ but an excellent experience in its own right.


5 Responses to “Taking Charge of Long-Distance Gaming ~ December Blog Carnival”
  1. Carl S says:

    Terrific blog. I’m definitely ramping up to get more involved in games for 2014.

  2. Murderbunny says:

    Thief! You’re stealing all the techniques that I first stole and adapted from you! 😉

  3. Murderbunny says:

    Actually, I do have a proper question:

    In PBEM, how do you suggest handling it when the party splits, and they do things on different “timelines”, then have to get back together?

    For instance, one character goes off to research a method for killing The Evil of the Week, while another attends an event where many shenanigans occur. The research is solved within a couple die rolls and an equal number of posts, but takes many days of in-game time. The shenanigans take only a few hours of in-game time, but require several (dozen) posts to resolve. The party is out of sync and one player has to wait for the others to catch up. Around the table, it’s not so bad, but in a PBEM that can mean weeks of waiting, depending on how frequently everyone posts.

    • Runeslinger says:

      This was one reason for the requirement I put on players in our mechwarrior PBeM to stick together if at all possible.

      When that fails, being sensitive to the timeline (first everyone goes to the event and then the researchers do their research. We can compress that period of research description, we cannot compress the event’s.

      Alternately, the research can be as fraught with peril as the event.

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