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 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?”


RPG Power of PBM: Time

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 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; more on PBM and RP later.

Batjutsu PBM Dice
PBM is not about sending dice by post, or “I rolled a 6!”

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 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 or ran had a weekly turn deadline.

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 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.

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 and the issue of booking a location, but 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.

Next time, the power of PBM with regards to physical and social considerations, RPG Power of PBM: Social.