This post follows on from my overview of Role-Playing Game Types (RPG), and is another step towards finally publishing my role-playing guide. I think play-by-mail (PBM) is awesome, and despite what some claim it has not died out. To help justify my opinions on why PBM can be such a powerful way of role-playing (RP), I’ll explain some core aspects that form the essence of this type of gaming.
Over the decades PBM became an umbrella term covering more than just games played via a postal service. The term PBM has variations like: play-by-post (PBP), play-by-email (PBEM), play-by-Internet (PBI) or play-by-web (PBW). PBEM has probably been the most common playing method since the 90s. I prefer to use the PBM abbreviation as an umbrella term for all the types. Whilst PBM can be a way of running downtime for a tabletop group (TTRPG) or Live-Action (LARP), I am focusing on dedicated PBM RPGs.
I’ve found that trying to explain what PBM is, by giving diverse game examples just complicates matters. Many PBM games have nothing to do with role-playing, such as chess or Diplomacy. Chess and similar turn based board games are easy to envision being played by post. Introducing a PBM RPG to a few role-players is met with confusion, their initial thought is that someone writes they rolled a 6, and then imagine a really slow postal conversation filled with tedious haggling about results, rules, and a line of character dialog. PBM games are generally a lot more sophisticated than this, and from a certain point-of-view RP is carried out in a similar fashion to a tabletop game; more on PBM and RP in a future post.
I’ll quickly clarify that PBM can run any style of role-playing. Whilst it may be obvious that the medium excels at strategy, I have in-depth court dramas, romance and exploration games as well. Whilst PBM is brilliant at games set over vast time periods, little moments of RP brilliance are still possible.
Well designed and run PBM games excel at Time Management, Depth & Convenience.
For many role-players, organising a gaming session is usually the biggest problem. This can be a major problem for LARP due to the number of players involved, the issue of booking a location, and the travel it entails. This is still a common issue for a tabletop game, even if the players are playing online. As gamers get older this problem tends to increase, a player’s busy adult life makes it harder to allocate time to a gaming session; there is also the additional issue of an increased likelihood of having to miss sessions. Timeslot issues are rarely a problem when playing a PBM. A player can ponder game information and orders during quiet moments, such as when travelling, waiting in a queue, preparing food, et cetera. Players then just need a bit of time, usually a few minutes, to finalise their orders and send them off.
Players do not need to allocate a block of time for a PBM game, like an evening for TTRPG or LARP, or even longer.
With experience a player can read game information and work out their next plans quickly, even for complicated games. Time also relates to health and/or social commitments, which I cover in the next post. The time saved can be allocated to discuss the game with others, including co-ordinating complex plans.
Just like with TTRPG or LARP a PBM game can vary in duration. How long a PBM is played generally comes down:
- Until a particular win condition is reached, like Civilization.
- Until a set number of game turns are reached, for example a turn a week for a year.
- A game could be open ended; some professional PBM games have been running for decades, and there are possibly amateur games with similar timeframes.
A game turn could represent a character’s day, a scene, an overview of a week, or a more abstract number of time units. The general idea is that only events of note are described. This applies whether a player is running a single character or vast empire, like Civilization.
A PBM game tends to work by providing a player an initial starting turn, the player then works out their plans and issue orders that they submit in time for the turn deadline, and then wait for the turn result. A turn deadline could have any timeframe; many of the games I played/ran had a weekly turn deadline, some allowed a smaller daily turn whilst others one big turn a month.
Anticipation for the results of my next PBM turn was something I always appreciated.
I think the key advantage of any PBM game is that they give you time to think about different strategies. This is why PBM Chess works so well, and has been played for centuries. As one of the best-known strategy games, and a tool commonly used in movies to highlight a character’s intelligence, I think chess wonderfully highlights the power of PBM with regards to thinking time and strategy. Of course every type of role-playing game allows for some strategising, but with the vast majority of PBM games a player has the luxury of time to explore different ideas. Even for very knowledgeable and quick thinking players, having more time to think is beneficial, and most of us aren’t that reliably brilliant.
Whilst not every professional PBM game involves software making running and playing the game easier, many benefited from doing so. I found that the games that used software generally allowed for better focus on strategy, role-play and storytelling.
Next time, the power of PBM with regards to physical and social considerations, RPG Power of PBM: Social.