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Getting to sit down and role-play with your gaming group isn’t always easy. Even when you move game to virtual platforms, just getting your friends together can have challenges. Scheduling is a bitch. But in the end, I just like gaming too much to not role-play. So when quarantining and whatever else presents role-playing challenges, life finds a way.

Erica and I started gaming by email. We call it eRPG, and it lets us keep gaming — at least with each other — when the time or circumstances aren’t available to play a table-top game. Gaming by mail isn’t a new idea, but it’s a different kind of role-playing than we often do or write about. Let’s start changing that!

First off, Erica and I have only ever done eRPG as a one-on-one game, we haven’t tried it with a group yet. It’s something I hope to try out — with no idea how it will work out — but Erica and I are still adapting our role-playing style to written games and that’s enough to work on for now.

Image: A half-closed laptop glowing with colors.

How does it work, then? Well, I take extensive notes and create detailed outlines for all of my games. I always write out descriptions and sometimes even some dialogue. Not as a script to read, but a guideline to remind me of details that I wanted to mention, or so I don’t forget some cool line I came up with.

But eRPG is entirely written. After I outline my game and Erica makes her character, it’s more like writing a novel. I flesh out those descriptions from my notes, setting the first scene, kicking off the first events. And then I hand it over to Erica.

It’s still a role-playing game. If I start things off with an NPC approaching Erica’s character to ask a question, then it’s her turn. I shoot the email off to her and she writes out her character’s response. Maybe it’s even just one word, then she passes it back to me. Sometimes we’ll write in a flurry, sending a dozen little segments back and forth like a furious game of ping pong. Sometimes we’re busy — I still have a full-time job, after all — and the story sits in my queue, waiting for a spare moment to get back to it.

The eRPG pace can be halting. You don’t get the real-time back-and-forth of in-person of even virtual gaming. But hey, at least it’s not physical snail-mail. It’s a bit on and off, but we manage to keep continuity. We’re taking turns writing lines, paragraphs or scenes. So if I haven’t been able to check in on our eRPG in a while, all I have to do is read back over the scene up to where Erica gave her last dialogue response, made her last decision, or provided the results of her last roll.

We still roll for things on dice, just like we would in a table-top RPG. When we come to something in the story that Erica needs to roll for — to notice someone concealing a lie, a crisis to escape a falling tower, or a fight against bandits — I add a document comment and give her whatever roll she needs to make for her character. When she fails or succeeds in noticing that the ambassador is lying, one of us writes that as prose. When there’s a crisis or a fight, we write it out just like a scene in one of our novels, basing the action on the rolls.

Combat is the part that changed the most between traditional table-top and eRPG. We’re not mapping combat on Roll20 or anywhere else. It doesn’t work very well for me to write down the health of all the antagonists and mark off damage blow by blow like we would in a table-top RPG scene. The first time playing an eRPG, we tried combat normally… but it was weird and didn’t work out well. Combat is less tactical and more narrative when you’re writing it out.

Instead, eRPG combat has become more like a crisis scene. The enemy NPCs will try some tactic — flanking Erica’s character, attacking from range, rushing her, using a magic spell or special ability — and I’ll give her a roll to avoid some or all of it. If she fails, she may take some damage, get disarmed, or she may be on fire. Sometimes it’s a simple defense roll, or sometimes Erica’s character gets tackled off a ledge and rolls to land safely in the lake below instead.

On Erica’s turn, she can attack. I keep track of her successful rolls, with a certain number of successes defeating her opponents. But she can also feint, try to push the enemy off the ledge instead, use her own special abilities. Whatever she does helps form the flow of the scene — and when she’s accumulated successful rolls, she wins!

It makes for a different flow of game, and not just because we’re passing emails back and forth in our spare time — but it works. We’re still ironing out kinks and the final shape of our eRPG games may change. But when we’re done with a few scenes, we have a chapter in the ongoing novel of our story, and it’s been fun to build together.



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