RPG Power of PBM: Social

This post about RPG and Play by Mail Games (PBM) continues on from the previous article RPG Power of PBM: Time.

When discussing PBM RPG, occasionally someone will be concerned that there is a lack of social interaction in such a game type. They envision a lone player reading something like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book. Even before the explosion in email access or the World Wide Web took off, PBM games were very social. Granted some players were playing smaller games with none of their local friends involved, so they had to wait for a letter to arrive by post from other players. Whilst phoning someone was possible, back then the cost was off putting, particularly an issue for younger players; the further back in time we go the more likely players did not have easy telephone access. For the vast majority of people these days, these are no longer concerns, if you have access to email or the web you are able to be involved in any number of games.

It’s understandable that some players of tabletop games, and in particular LARP, would assume that socialising is an issue in a PBM game. Consider how many people refer to the online world as not being real, there is just something disconnecting about a lack of physical presence. This lack of face-to-face interaction, however, does not prevent a PBM player from developing strong social ties. Besides curiosity, many games promote alliances, and given the strategising power of PBM, contacting other players is normal in all the various games I’ve played. Obviously other players are going to form alliances, and information gathering is vital.

Like with Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) RPGs, meeting somebody in game randomly could lead to long-time close friendships. Many people will be familiar with online players deciding to meet up, going to large group events, and some players forming close relationships or marriage. This level of friendship has been happening with some PBM players for decades.

Direct social interacting, face-to-face, whether physically or virtually, is not something everyone wants to do. There could be any one of a number of reasons, such as: chronic illness/injury (whether minor or full bedbound), social anxiety, autism, and returning to the previous article’s point: a lack of time. Please don’t think of PBM games as being only suited for people with health issues, non-neurotypicals, or any type of disability, this list just highlights another benefit of this game type.

Virtual Socialising, Diversity and Identity

Another interesting aspect of PBM is that of identity, how we present ourselves and how others perceive us; of course sadly some people find any discussion of identity as an excuse to attack others, particularly minorities. For many of the diverse PBM games a player might choose to hide their identity, present themselves how they want, which some people feel is their best course of action even nowadays. This is another advantage that PBM games can offer.

During a tabletop game, and even more so with LARP, the emotional intensity and sense of connection can be quite intense. It may seem that PBM will lack this level, but just like with any other role-playing games, whether playing with others, or reading a turn result by themselves, players can still achieve emotional highs from succeeding or failing. Given the strategy aspect I previously emphasised, having a long-time ambitious plan succeed certainly provides an emotional high. Other players also tend to be interested in what is going on in the game, so for those that want to there are still plenty of chances to socialise with others, as well telling friends and family about your latest game exploits.

The raise of the modern Massively multiplayer online (MMO) owes it roots to tabletop RPG, Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), and PBM. Within these games large number of players come together to form alliances, either to compete with other players, or the game world. Organising things with other players is a big part of the MMO genre: fleet co-ordination in EVE Online, dungeon raids in World of Warcraft, etc. The same applies to other competitive games: FPS, RTS MOBA, etc., it is normal for players to organise themselves into teams/clans.


As mentioned above, players were forming alliances in PBM games decades ago, and some professional games were quite popular leading to massive groups. Playing a bigger PBM means more players to interact with, and this scaling of game size translates to more people to keep up to date with, as well as game positions to track. The end result being a player could choose to spend a lot of time communicating with other players, and this certainly addresses the query of socialising with a PBM. For some players they can be communicating with many players a day, all year, a level of socialising tabletop or LARP rarely achieve.

My first PBM game was Quest by KJC Games, which I eventually ended up running and redesigning as a moderated RPG. As a kid I had seen PBM adverts in the old White Dwarf magazine (Games Workshop), but the money I earned from my paper round went on RPG books and wargame models. Whilst at college I met some other gamers, and via these people I eventually gave Quest a go, which also led to me trying other games like the massively success game It’s A Crime. Their Quest alliance consisted of only people they were close friends, but also to keep in game information secure.

Information security and trading is a major part of socialising and fun with most PBMs.

Before a tabletop gaming session they often discussed their PBM plans and this co-ordination eventually resulted in devastating attacks on their enemies. When Magic the Gathering came along, the group would often bounce PBM ideas around whilst playing cards; fun times. I appreciate I was lucky with regards to joining such an organised group of players. Out of the many groups that I played with, this PBM & TTRPG social group (plus a bit of wargaming) was a big help in regards to developing ideas and eventually getting a job at KJC Games. Working at my local games shop Tower Models also helped.

In a future article I’ll tackle a question I have been asked many times: “But how do you actually role-play during a PBM?” Due to the sheer diverse types of PBM games I view this as a complex question, although the easy answer is: make a character, play it 😉

Author: Batjutsu

Writer, role-player, games master, martial artist, programmer, disabled but not giving up.

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