What is a PBeM Role-Playing Game, anyway?

From: draphsor@medisg.Stanford.EDU (Matt "Rollie" Rollefson)
Newsgroups: rec.games.frp
Subject: PBeM: Introduction
Summary: An introduction to the concept of PBeM gaming.
Keywords: pbem, advice
Date: 30 Sep 91 09:03:51 GMT
Lines: 147

Copyright 1991 by Matt Rollefson; permission is hereby granted to
reproduce for private, non profit use provided that this notice is
included and the contents are not altered in any way.

PBeM Role-Playing Games


What is a PBeM Role-Playing Game, anyway?

Role-Playing Games (RPGs) have been around for quite some time. So
have Play By Mail (PBM) Games. The two have, however, been largely
disparate categories. PBM games have tended to the wargaming,
intensely tactical and strategic without much emphasis on who is
actually doing the fighting. RPGs, as their name implies, emphasize
role-playing much more. That is, the players adopt the
personalities of their characters and attempt to in some sense put
themselves into the world of their characters.

One of the major reasons for this disparity is the different
formats. Tactical and strategic simulations are well suited to a
written format, with well-defined options and moves. They are, in
effect, large boardgames. Role-playing, on the other hand, depends
heavily on player to player and player to gamemaster (GM)
interaction. This is difficult to accomplish in a format where
moves are usually separated by weeks if not months.

The advent of electronic mail, or e-mail, has changed this to some
extent. Players and GMs may now exchange messages with a time delay
of minutes, rather than days or weeks. Enough information may be
exchanged in a short enough period of time to make PBeM role-playing
possible. Still, it is a radically different format than face-to-
face gaming, and as such requires some special handling.

What's so special about the PBeM format?

Playing by e-mail offers some unique advantages over face to face
gaming. One of the major advantages is the fact that all
participants have a written record of what has occured in the game
so far. Ideally this should read almost like a novel, with each new
installment eagerly awaited by both players and GMs. In some ways
participating in a PBeM RPG is a lot like writing an interactive
novel. Because players and GM(s) have hours or days, rather than
minutes, to respond to moves, there is sufficient time to respond to
unexpected developments. The GM is not faced with the classic
problem of face to face RPGs - "I designed this great adventure in
town X, but my players want to go to town Y! What do I do?"
Without the time pressure of face to face gaming, the GM can let the
adventure go exactly where the players want it to. Admittedly,
there are certain GMs who can pull this off even in face to face
gaming. However, it requires a world-knowledge and improvisational
skill not every GM has.

The written medium allows dialogue and background to take a
prominent place in the game. The GM has sufficient time to develop
background information which he provides to the characters. The
players also have the time and the incentive to develop interesting
backgrounds for their characters. Without someone you can actually
see, characters in PBeM can often be rather bland. The player who
takes the effort to provide an interesting background, whose
character gives witty speeches, who describes his character's
actions in vital prose, this player will produce a character to be
remembered. The fighter who does nothing but kill bad guys will be
much less noticeable in PBeM. Religious characters especially,
often mere healing machines, gain needed depth as they now have the
time to truly preach to their comrades.

Conversely, combat and fast action are not well suited to the PBeM
format. While speedier than postal delivery, e-mail is still not
real time. And with players potentially scattered all over the
world, it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will be logged on
at the same time. A combat which took eight rounds to complete
would probably take about twenty minutes in a typical face to face
game. The same combat, done via e-mail, would take at least four
*weeks*, and possibly more. Therefore, combat requires special
handling. Ideally it should occur rarely, and when it does it
should be short and intense. Emphasis should be placed upon the
strengths of the format: description and character interaction, not
combat tactics.

Finally, one of the most obvious advantages of the PBeM format is it
allows you to play with people who live far away from you. When
gamers move, they often have difficulty finding a new group of
gaming friends to join. At the very least it takes time to get to
know new people. If your old gaming buddies have net access, then
you can continue gaming with people you know. Gamers with net
access can play even if no one in their area plays. And the net
offers the unique opportunity of gaming with players in Finland,
Great Britain, the United States, and Australia - all at the same

Sounds interesting - what do I need to do to start one?

The first thing to do before joining a PBeM RPG or attempting to
start one yourself is to realize pbem is not for everyone. If you
live for combat in RPGs, but find description and plot development
boring, you'll probably find the PBeM format uncomfortably
restrictive. The PBeM format, from the player's point of view, is
one of intense bursts of action followed by long periods where
nothing happens. If you aren't the type who can pick up a book, put
it down, and come back to it, you may find that PBeM can't hold your
interest. Finally, a certain level of writing skill is necessary to
make the game interesting for the other people involved. One of the
main things that makes a PBeM interesting is being exposed to the
writing of others. If your writing is not very well developed, a
greater burden is going to be placed on the GM to make your actions

Running a PBeM is a demanding task. It requires, first of all, a
good knowledge of the computer system. If the GM is unable to send
mail to his players, he's going to have a tough time. He should
know how to use the mail system well, and should have at least a
working knowledge of a text editor on the host machine. He should
be prepared to spend several hours each week reading and responding
to his players' moves, in addition to the time spent creating the
adventure, detailing the world, and sending out the main moves. He
should be organized - there's nothing worse than a GM who forgets
when the next move was due, or loses a player's move. The players
don't know when to expect responses to their actions. They cease to
pay as much attention to the game, resulting in late moves on their
part. Eventually the whole thing falls apart because of a simple
lack of organization.

Playing in a PBeM isn't easy either. The player must be prepared to
read his mail at least once a day in a typical game. He must
develop an interesting, fully fleshed character and learn to express
that character's personality in the written medium. He must write
moves and get them in on time. Depending on the exact format the GM
adopts, these moves can range from a paragraph to several pages in
length. Good players typically write longer moves, giving the GM
lots of description and dialogue that he can insert directly into
the main move. Moves like "I avoid getting killed" aren't
interesting to the player or the GM - in essence, the player is
choosing not to participate.

It may seem from all this that PBeM is too difficult to even
attempt. Well, it's not true. Ordinary mortals can and do run
successful PBeM games. Players who have no relation to Zelazny or
Brust provide interesting, amusing moves. The mailer doesn't crash
every week. (Well, hopefully...) And you can get a lot out of a
PBeM. A well-run PBeM can be as much fun as a well-run RPG. While
the skills are somewhat different, the rewards are similar. If
you're still tempted to try one, go for it!

Draphsor vo'drun-Aelf draphsor@medisg.stanford.edu