This article originally appeared in Pyramid #2
Play-by-mail gaming, made a small industry in the '70s, has grown and floundered in the years since. Countless lives have been lived in the pre-digital cyberspace of the U.S. postal service, and soon, they will all be changed.
Play By Mail: The Infancy of Cyberspace
by Bob McLain
Eight years ago, Steve Jackson wrote an article for my old magazine, Gaming Universal, about the future of play-by-mail gaming. No one can predict the future, but he did come close.
"Play-by-mail," he said, "is about as big right now as it ever will be; what's more, it will be nearly extinct in five years . . . and none of us will even care."
Well, play-by-mail gaming has gotten a lot bigger since he wrote those words, but it certainly hasn't gotten much better. And, of course, it is not nearly extinct, though perhaps not many of us care whether it lives or dies. But Steve wasn't wrong; he was just hasty. If I may make a prediction: play-by-mail, through the U.S. postal service, will be nearly extinct in another five years . . . and, more than likely, none of us will even care - because the people who like PBMs will have something more.
As Steve said, way back when it was hard to envision such things, "it is the computer that, having `made' play-by-mail gaming, will soon destroy it." That's exactly right. Five years from now we will find a shrunken hobby, its market consumed by play-by-modem and the inchoate stirrings of virtual reality. Just as the computer made complicated PBMs possible, and later sullied the reputation of play-by-mail by letting players become moderators, it will be the computer which offers the next generation of traditional PBM games, retaining their appeal and curing their infirmities.
But play-by-mail, the direct ancestor of virtual computer gaming, is alive today. With a little patience, and a little money, you can find a game that's right for you. Though the future isn't here yet, that shouldn't stop you from having a little fun right now. There is a living, thriving industry that exists today; whole worlds on paper that only exist between your mailbox and that of your moderator, in the nether region of information that we will call cyberspace.
Maybe you know what play-by-mail gaming is, and maybe you don't. Whatever you've heard probably made little sense or else left you indifferent; we'll try to repair the damage. Maybe you know where PBM came from and how the hobby fares today. And, if you've never played a game by mail before, or if you have but picked a lousy one or got burned by a bad moderator, then you may want to know that good games do exist, and you can have a great time playing them.
After that, we may give you a peek at games to come . . . they're closer than you may think.
Play-By-Mail: A Primer
In play-by-mail gaming, either snail mail or electronic mail, you will do three things over and over again:
1. Plan your strategy, negotiate with other players, compose your orders.
2. Mail your orders to the moderator.
3. Receive from the moderator the results of your orders.
These three activities compose a turn cycle. For games with finite play, a variable number of turn cycles (usually 15-20) equals the game cycle, or the point at which the game ends, and someone is declared the victor. For games with infinite play, the turn cycles continue until either you or the moderator get tired of playing; the game, in theory, never ends, and so you must establish your own goals within the game. Your personal victory cycle is the number of turns it takes you to achieve your goals.
Usually, each turn cycle takes two to three weeks, much of that time eaten by mail service between you and the moderator, so you'll have plenty of time for plotting, planning and communicating. So much time that in the span of a single turn cycle you could have played a state-of-the-art computer game, delved through the grimmest dungeon or taken a second honeymoon. But play-by-mailers like the slow pace. It lets you make an adventure part of your life rather than the transient entertainment of a slow weekend.
And that "slow pace" is why you will or won't play by mail. Forget the jargon and the cycles; you'll learn them if you think the effort is worth it. For now, all you need to know is that play-by-mail offers a unique type of gaming experience, one not found anywhere else, and perhaps one not destined to last for much longer.
WHO LICKED THE FIRST STAMP?
Naturally, conflict has arisen over who first started play-by-mail. A Roman consul-in-the-sticks who sent chess moves by barbarian messenger to his opponent in Rome? Or the warlord who couldn't get up a good game of Go in Manchuria? Or those Diplomacy folks? We might as well ask where all the dinosaurs went.
A better question here might be, who started the professional industry of play-by-mail? For that question there is a definite answer. In 1970, Rick Loomis shut the door on his coin shop and inaugurated a more lucrative venture - Flying Buffalo, Inc., the first professional play-by-mail company. For about 25 cents per turn, avid fans could fire missiles at one another in Nuclear Destruction, the first professional play-by-mail game, a design perhaps inspired by the ideology of Loomis' political hero, Barry Goldwater.
Later, in 1978, George Schubel surfaced in Sacramento with Tribes of Crane, based loosely on John Norman's Gor series, and offering an element absent from the Buffalo games: "special actions." Special actions let you include narrative instructions with your turn; the gamemaster responds in kind. With special actions came "special fees," charged for anything you did beyond basic play. Serious Crane players paid hundreds of dollars each turn for multiple positions in the same game.
Later still, in 1981, Jim Dutton gave us Silverdawn, a fantasy game played entirely by special action. You wrote several pages of instructions for your character, the moderator responded with several pages of results. Inevitably, as the player base grew, the moderator couldn't write fresh material for every turn, so much of the response became all-purpose boiler-plate, bearing some slight relationship to your original instructions.
The history continues, with variations on the three game types above, and with the inevitable debut of play-by-mail magazines, newsletters, licensing deals for properties like Illuminati and Conan, trade associations and conventions.
Play-by-mail flowered, however briefly, in the 1980s, though the effort to bloom exhausted the energies of George Schubel and Jim Dutton, who faded from the scene, taking with them the notion of an "Old World Order" based upon several large, stable moderators leading a pack of smaller, slightly less stable moderators. In the midst of the tumult, immune to it all, Rick Loomis maintained and expanded his business, and a few of the smaller moderators, most notably Adventures by Mail, Game Systems and Graaf Simulations, enjoyed spectacular growth, making them the heavy hitters of the "New World Order."
Today, by conservative estimate, you can choose from over 200 play-by-mail games, most of them astonishingly bad and most offered by moderators unlikely to survive more than a year or two. And that's just in the U.S. Overseas, most particularly in Great Britain and Australia, play-by-mail gaming has enjoyed an unprecedented growth spurt, and with it an unprecedented failure rate among new moderators.
Qualitatively, play-by-mail has entered not a Golden Age but an Age of Cellophane, so flimsy you can poke through it with your finger. It would be a waste of your time, were it not for two things: first, you can have fun playing games by mail if you pick the right ones, and second, in a few years, a decade at most, you can expect a far more robust environment to rise from the dry bones of play-by-mail gaming. Until then, it is an insider's racket.
HAPPINESS IS A GOOD PLAY-BY-MAIL GAME
Finding a good - and by "good" I mean professionally run, with well-written documentation and imaginative concepts - play-by-mail game is like finding a good book on DOS or Windows: too many choices, not enough quality.
I offer these recommendations as a guide to help you find honest, efficient moderators who won't sour your first experience with play-by-mail games. I've limited my recommendations to one game per major genre, e.g., science fiction, fantasy, historical, warfare and "power," and I've further limited my picks to computer-moderated games of minimal complexity (if you're a newcomer, you'll want to start on something you can easily handle, and tackle the big stuff later).
Science Fiction. Starweb. Almost every PBM player has experienced this simple game of galactic conquest, fought among six exotic character types: Empire Builders, Merchants, Pirates, Berserkers, Artifact Collectors and Apostles. The rules are so simple, so intuitive, that I still remember how to load and unload raw materials from my starships almost a decade after I last played the game. Unfortunately, Starweb is an old game, first released in 1976. Many of its features will seem primitive to players used to slicker interfaces, but it has such depth that you probably won't mind. Rick Loomis is a top-notch game designer whose acumen goes unrecognized outside his own field. $4.00/turn from Flying Buffalo, Inc., P.O. Box 1467, Scottsdale, AZ 85252-1467.
Fantasy. Alamaze. If rumor holds true, this game began on a spreadsheet, but its design was so good that the moderator wisely turned it into a program and changed the way most people play computer-moderated fantasy games. You direct the fortunes of your kingdom (each unique, with realistic limitations depending upon its type, e.g., Barbarian, Warlock, Dwarf, etc.) across a gorgeous five-color map, choosing from military, economic, or political options. Turns are expensive, far higher than for most play-by-mail games, but with Alamaze you're actually getting a bargain. $7.00/turn from Pegasus Productions, P.O. Box 248, Waynesville, NC 28786.
Historical. Feudal Lords. As a baron in medieval England, you take the throne of a single fief, guiding its economic and military fortunes against those of your fellow barons, who all want to beat your claim to the kingship of England. Like Starweb, the rules are clear and intuitive, the action fast; unlike Starweb, the printout is a marvel of clarity and clever organization, so good it will spoil you. $4.00/turn from Graaf Simulations, P.O. Box 96, St. Clair Shores, MI 48080.
Warfare. World Conquest. The new "threshold" in play-by-mail gaming is graphics; everyone is sick of printouts with nothing but lines of data. World Conquest supplies you with plenty of data, but each turn also comes with a disk, called WCVIEW, that lets you view your position in full, glorious color on your own computer.
The game itself, apart from the graphics, is swift and solid, with over 30 types of combat units, simple economics and even weather reports. $4.00/turn from Prime Time Simulations, P.O. Box 5074, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-0867.
Power. PBM Illuminati. Draper Kauffman wrote the rulebook for PBM Illuminati, the single best manual ever written for a play-by-mail; even if you've never played by mail before (or, for that matter, played Illuminati before), you'll become an expert overnight. The play-by-mail version is faithful to the original, with fine printouts and flawless moderation. Of all my choices, I put PBM Illuminati on the top of the list for newcomers and old hands alike. $4.75/turn from Flying Buffalo, Inc., P.O. Box 1467, Scottsdale, AZ 85252-1467.
Write to these moderators for more information about their games. Mention Pyramid.
Even if my recommendations don't inspire you, each moderator offers other games, spanning the full range of genres and prices. Remember, the important thing is service, service, service. No matter how great a game sounds, you'll quickly lose interest if the documentation is poor or turns aren't processed on time.
To learn more about these games and loads of others, some as good as the ones I've mentioned, I suggest you subscribe to Flagship, a long-running, professionally-produced magazine about play-by-mail gaming. It's $20 for four bi-monthly issues from Flagship, P.O. Box 454, Fair Lawn, NJ 07401-0454. But don't spend your money just yet: you can get the latest issue free if you drop them a note and say you've read this article.
DIGITAL KILLED THE PLAY-BY-MAIL STAR
Now you know how play-by-mail works, where it came from, and how to find the better moderators. Maybe you're even enthusiastic. And so it is with a heavy heart that I must report the imminent demise of traditional play-by-mail. Its doom is its one-time savior, the inexpensive home computer.
In 1970, when professional play-by-mail began, no one had a personal computer. Rick Loomis shared time on a university mainframe to process Nuclear Destruction turns. Even more than a decade later, in the early 1980s, personal computers were rare, and those who owned them thought in terms of 48K. It cost real money to buy the equipment necessary to run a PBM game, and real skill to program a good design in limited memory. Few games appeared, and of those games which did, most were moderated by hard-working, conscientious people with a substantial money and labor investment in their product.
Now almost everyone owns a PC equipped with plenty of memory and plenty of speed. Programming is no longer an arcane skill; the kid down the block knows C++ and secretaries spend their lunch hours designing macros. As a result, many people who couldn't have put a PBM game on the marketten years ago can easily do it today.
With entry barriers reduced, quality and professionalism have deteriorated. Hobbyists try to become businessmen - but they know little about business, and often treat the whole venture as an extension of their playtime. They fold quickly, often not refunding customer accounts. Those customers then leave play-by-mail, convinced it is nothing but a bunch of amateurs soaking up turn fees, or worse, a big scam. Word gets around. Moderators squabble over an extant customer base rather than repairing the reputation of play-by-mail among the far larger base of people who need to be led gently back into the hobby.
A simple illness, but difficult to cure. For play-by-mail to enjoy a future rosier than its present, the leading moderators must begin to advertise not themselves but the hobby itself. So far, apart from a few terrible attempts, underfinanced and unmarketable, they have not done so, nor is it likely they ever will.
Just to survive in a hobby glutted with amateurs hawking but rarely delivering fantastic new games, the leading moderators must constantly struggle for market share. If they don't, their players will sample the new fare and either divide their finite gaming dollars among more moderators or quit the hobby altogether after getting suckered. No one, it seems, has the time or the money to expand the frontier.
And, of course, even if all play-by-mail moderators were pros, offering superior services and products at reasonable prices, the hobby would still find itself threatened by solitaire computer games and interactive modem games. The modem games, in fact, present the greatest threat, since they give instant results and don't require tedious and sometimes arcane coding of orders.
Play-by-mail, play-by-modem; it's all the same - so PBM doesn't have to die. Maybe it can change its spots to avoid the new predators.
Dare we say it: play-by-mail is dead, but PBM lives on?
Consider this possible future version of Starweb. Rather than mail your orders to the moderator, you call up a pre-formatted turnsheet on your computer, fill in the blanks, and then squirt it to Flying Buffalo by electronic mail. Buffalo holds all the turns until the due date, just like it does now. Maybe it sends electronic reminders to players who haven't submitted turns (can't do that with surface mail). Then, on the appointed day, all the turns get processed, and you get your results back in a return message. You could use E-mail for diplomacy with the other players, too. A normal turn cycle is cut at least in half. It's simple, it's less labor-intensive, and it preserves the one aspect of play-by-mail worth saving: the leisurely pace between turns.
In fact, one of the games that I recommended, World Conquest, already uses E-mail for turn submission and retrieval. It was one of the first traditional play-by-mail games.
I don't think play-by-mail via the U.S. Postal Service will ever die out completely. Every industry has its purists, and the soon-to-be-archaic play-by-mail industry does have a future, however bleak.
Inevitably, though, the computer will transform play-by-mail. The change is underway even now. There are many forums that have on-line role-playing games today - Compuserve, America OnLine, GEnie, the ocean of the Internet - but it will be several years before they coalesce into an industry.
As a society, we're learning to do without the postal system, either through its real-world circumvention (FedEx, for example) or moving towards a digital medium. As Scientific American said recently, junk mail is the only thing keeping the post office in business. The move towards a paperless world will not happen overnight or completely, but in coming years we will deal with our fellow humans more and more from between computer screens . . . or more accurately, in a small corner of the Net where our lustier, craftier, mightier selves will meet for epic adventures - and no one will ever need to lick a stamp again.
Article publication date: August 1, 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.