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 a smaller game with none of their local friends involved, and 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 telephone access. These days, none of these concerns are an issue, if you have access to email or the web you are good to go.
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 detached about a lack of physical presence. This lack of face-to-face interaction 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. Obviously other players are going to form alliances, and information gathering is vital.
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: illness/injury, bedridden, social anxiety, autism, and returning to the previous article’s point about time. Please don’t think of PBM games as being just for mental health sufferers, non-neurotypicals, or the disabled, this list just highlights another benefit of this game type.
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 in the game, so there are still plenty of chances to socialise with others and froth, as well telling friends 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.
As mentioned above, players were forming alliances in PBM games decades ago, and some professional games were quite popular. 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. The end result being a player can 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. Their Quest alliance consisted of only people they regularly hung out with, partly to keep in game information secure, and partly just because they were friends. Before a tabletop gaming session they often discussed their PBM plans, and this 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 a organised group of players.
In the next article I’ll tackle a question I have been asked many times: “But how do you actually role-play during a PBM?”