Thoughts on the Evolution of PBM
Article by Shannon Muir with John C. Muir
Copyright © 2001
The Play-By-Mail (PBM) industry has gone through a lot of evolution in the ten years I've regularly been gaming in it. Recently, I realized my father probably has seen even more changes, having been in the PBM business for over 25 years. So, I decided to ask my father some questions and find out. While a couple questions are in here to familiarize you with my father, most of these I asked for the first time, so I learned a lot from this as well.
SHANNON MUIR: What's your early knowledge about the history of Play-By-Mail (PBM)?
JOHN C. MUIR: It was already a few years old when I started playing in the mid-70’s. By most accounts, Flying Buffalo had the first commercial games, but didn’t advertise widely at that time. Of course, some traditional games, like chess and Diplomacy, had been playing postal versions for years to decades. There were a number of PBM games up and running before role-playing games took off.
For an interesting take on Flying Buffalo’s Starweb ® game by a major author, try finding Fred Saberhagen’s Octagon. My copy is an Ace SF paperback edition dated 1981.
Schubel & Son, in Sacramento, CA, had the first widely advertised game that I encountered, Tribes of Crane ®. It was originally hand-moderated (and it was pretty obvious that the world was laid out in 1” squares on a 4’x8’ piece of plywood). Schubel computerized their operation and used a game engine to generate a host on new games. Several other companies came out with games between 1975 and 1980 that were relatively crude but good to play.
SM: How did you first get into PBM?
JCM: I had seen occasional advertisements during the mid-70’s, in a science fiction magazine I read, for a game based on barbarian tribal conflict. I was mildly interested but rather busy with real life at the time. I vaguely remember reading the ad the first time while walking around burping you at some unghodly hour. About five years later, in Japan, my wife developed medical problems and the medications she took knocked her out by 6PM every night. You girls were down not much later, and that left me quite a few hours to sit around looking for mental stimulation. Reading is good, but more passive than creative. I ran into the same ad again and decided to give it a try, along with a couple of others that also advertised. Schubel’s Tribes of Crane ® responded promptly, had a reasonable premise, and allowed written “special actions” at extra cost. It had promise, allowed exploration, gave some interaction with other players via mail, and even gave some local social activity as two other Navy people tried it, and then we learned that there was a nest of Coast Guard players in the LORAN station when they were overheard in the chow hall. I was mostly interested in exploration but got pulled into player politics. Schubel was smart to have defined player factions that could be role-played. I think that role-playing, the special actions (SAs), and the later development of a computerized play-engine that could be used for many different games were the basis of Schubel's early success. They released games on many themes that could attract a niche playership and brought in extra income from SAs. They also made an effort to offset mail delays by requiring at least ten days between turns, even if you were in the same city (Sacramento). That kept those of us operating from the back of beyond from being overrun by closer players. I played Schubel games for about ten years under many of their formats. Tribes of Crane got most of the attention, however, and had the best exploits and an excellent set of players. I made a lot of friends there, become a leader in the Grand Alliance, and put out a regular newsletter.
During the same period, I played games from Jon Clemens for quite a while. No special actions, but they had a flexible coding input on scanned cards. Some people liked that and others found it difficult to prepare turns. Then I moved to Hawaii in 1980 and got seriously involved in Beyond The Stellar Empire (BSE)®, a role-playing space-opera, for five years. That included a regular newsletter for about four years for the Frontier Exploration and Trade Company (think Han Solo clones at play and war).
Then I retired from the military, moved to Washington state, went back to college (which seriously limited gaming time), played quite a few different games and reviewed them for magazines, and wrote background for the Midgard rulebook. After college, I continued to play and to edit rulebooks for various games. Many of my favorite games have folded and I now play only two, both of which offer plenty of data gathering and good players.
SM: Did your interest in strategy board games come before or after that? I remember growing up with tons of them around the house. We even tried playing them sometimes.
JCM: The board games definitely preceded the PBM games. When I was a single sailor in the barracks at Adak, Alaska, there wasn’t much to do except work, play chess and drink. I found a military board game in the Exchange (store, to civilians) called Tactics II ® by Avalon-Hill. I bought it and, with several of the chess players, explored the rules and worked out optimum tactics. We quickly got to the point where we ran variants to keep some suspense. There was also an ad in the box for some additional games and we bought a couple by mail.
I went from there to a school in Maryland, then to Pensacola, FL, where I met your mother, and on to married life. Board games languished, but I kept an eye on what was in the stores. Married guys don’t gather as much for all night board games with friends, I guess. It is hard to find players under most circumstances, which is why I am encouraged to find board games converting to PbeM format.
What you mostly remember are the Strategy & Tactics ® magazine games that I started getting before we left California for Japan. I ran into an ad somewhere, took out a subscription, and then signed up for a lifetime membership (their lifetime, as it turned out). I mostly just read the magazines and looked at the games; sometimes I tried to play against myself to see how the system worked. It was hard to find players interested in niche wargames. You and your sister liked to play Lord of the Rings ® for about an hour, but only after I made game cards with your pictures and abilities on them. I still have the games and magazines and was pleased to see that many are being done as PbeM. Maybe one of these days, with a better computer…
SM: Even after you got out of the military, you stuck with PBM over finding more "traditional" RPG groups. Any particular reasons why?
JCM: That was mostly the family situation. My wife wouldn’t have been interested in participating nor in hosting a group gathering.
SM: What do you think makes a good game, one worth sticking with?
JCM: That is very subjective. PBM players play for many different reasons and enjoy/hate aspects of their games that don’t bother others. Speaking only for myself, I like games that offer more exploration than combat, that encourage mapping, offer enough player interaction to be social but not overwhelming to real-life, and have interesting premises. Good opponents and allies are important and an interesting storyline is what makes me stay on.
I’m not put off by coding input (and accepting responsibility for my typing errors fouling up my turns) but that turns off some people. A game where the Gamemaster (GM) is impartial, fair, and acknowledges errors is very important to me. I was in a game last year where the GM failed to process turns for one team, though they had been received. This is a GM with years of impeccable work and he acknowledged the error but wanted to be fair to everybody. All four teams agreed to rerun the turn and accept the new results. We did that and completed the game with respect all around.
I have always liked games where I could write narrative actions, but they are very expensive. It takes a dedicated GM to handle those, is labor intensive, and costs the company money. Without that, I like to have some mild roleplaying through a game newsletter or other outlet.
I prefer strategic games to tactical, but am currently playing one of each. I like games with a lot of information to organize but not a lot of math required. I tried one where you had to design each of your ships with so many tons of structure per engine, per weapon, etc., etc., et everlovin’ cetera. I lasted about two turns and threw up (my hands).
I like reasonable scoring/rating systems so players can estimate how they are doing relative to other players, especially in close-ended games (limited number of turns and a winner is declared). I originally played open-ended (unending) games; in those, I figure that having fun is the measure of how well you are doing. When it stops being fun, it is time to move on.
Most important is having a good player base with relatively little animosity between players. I’ve left a few games just because of the player interactions; mostly this goes sour in the open-ended games.
SM: What games have you stuck with the longest, and why?
JCM: I have played the longest in Renaissance, a 14th century exploration/trade/warfare game because it has an immense amount of data to keep organized and because some of my oldest PBM friends play in it. I have played in CTF2187 ® for about ten years (can it be?!) because it is an easy to play tactical combat game with out-of-game roleplaying, a great GM team, and exceptional players. And each new closed-end game is a new map!
My favorite was Warp Force Empires, which has folded, because it was a great mix of everything I like (except no player interaction). Sinbad’s Games ® ran a series of games at the hobby level (hand moderated) that I liked, but he has closed shop. I stuck with Tribes of Crane until it got old after seven or eight years. Beyond The Stellar Empire was an enthusiasm for a long time but I can’t decide if it was some of the players or the GMs that finally turned me off. It had mapping and roleplaying and lots of data. You remember my 3x5 card files!
SM: What got you into writing articles for the gaming magazines?
JCM: They were there and it looked like fun.
SM: Growing up, I always thought you were really honest and fair when you reviewed a game, no matter how long you might have known the GMs or anything like that. One of the things I remember strongly that reinforced that was when you did a review for PAPER MAYHEM of a game that you basically said needed to go back to the drawing board. The GM of the game (whom you'd played games from for years) wrote a Letter to the Editor saying he agreed with you and pulled the game for redesign. How did it feel getting reaction like that?
JCM: I was very pleased with his honesty. It is a pleasure to play with a company that has integrity. I feel a reviewer has to be honest, too, even about the work of an old acquaintance. A reviewer delivers a report on how a game appears to him/her and another player with different ideas of what makes a good game should be able to decide from the review whether it would be appealing or a turnoff. If you are just shilling for a friend’s game it will eventually be obvious and your opinion will be disregarded.
SM: In your career, you've only published one piece of gaming fiction (in 1996). Why did you finally decide to give it a shot, and did you enjoy the experience?
JCM: As best I remember, that came about because you were taking finals and needed filler for your fanzine, Sisterhood [now folded, alas -- SM]. I stepped in with a fiction piece about a CTF2187 female pilot so you could make deadline and you liked it enough to get it republished in Paper Mayhem for a larger audience. The piece described the 2nd International CTF2187 game, where your sister sponsored my pilot and insisted on a female pilot named for a rock group, so I created Allison Chaynes.
I definitely enjoyed doing the piece and have mental scenes from the life stories of several of my CTF2187 pilots more or less plotted out. There isn’t much of a market for that work right now, but I keep polishing the pieces that I have and thinking that I might do something with them someday.
SM: Now I want to ask you about what you see as the future of PBM. Many games are run via email now, which has coined the acronym PbeM (for Play-By-eMail). Do you think this has changed the landscape of the industry?
JCM: I do think that rapid communication has changed, and will change, the industry. I hope that there are not too many potential players who don’t have e-mail access, but it is becoming widely available. Loss of a mailed alternative would deprive those people of a social outlet.
Basically, I see three kinds of internet-enabled gaming. Only two depend on e-mail, and I consider those as requiring more thought and coordination. The third type is interactive gaming (call it IG), which includes all the real-time MUDs and shared-world team games (mostly questing or shoot-em-ups) that require you to stay online for long periods of time to keep up with the action. I’m not sure, but I classify the new Majestyk ® game here, though it comes outside your direct computer interaction to make phone calls or send faxes to you at times when you are not logged on. That would not be good for me.
The ones that would use e-mail seem to fall into two categories. The first (most commonly called PbeM now, from what I see) is the traditional board game between two or more players which has been adapted to computerized play and uses a common random-number generator (RNG) that everyone agrees is neutral-biased. The involved players can submit turns sequentially, run the moves against the RNG to determine outcomes, agree on the positions/status of remaining units, and turn that result over to the next player for his/her turn. Turns can be submitted by agreed deadlines and there is no GM required, unless you need an arbitrator to interpret the rulebook for that game. This works for chess, Diplomacy and most board games with published rule sets and game pieces. It is good for players with favorite games but no local opponents.
The other type would be the current PBM game arranged for electronic submission and return of moves, which requires a GM to receive and sequentially-process or batch-process turns from players and return the results to all participants at the same time. These generally involve more players and are usually processed more or less simultaneously, so that you don’t see your opponent’s moves before you submit your own. The biggest problem, in the past, was ensuring that a dishonest player didn’t forge orders for an opponent. E-commerce seems to be providing an answer to that with readily available digital signatures to verify the originator’s identity. The main problems remaining seems to be to choose a frequency of processing that will allow players to communicate with opponents and teammates between turns, give some leeway for people with real life schedules (hmm, sign on for turns due tonight or take the wife to her birthday dinner…??), and allow an alternative way to submit if your computer breaks down.
I’m in one game where I submit turns electronically and could receive results by e-mail but choose to get them back by mail about two days later. The GM has a printing program that formats the output much more readably than the text file that he would send me. I’m so seldom in combat that the early returns are not very important. If I’m afraid of combat, I can pay extra for a turn to get the results both ways.
SM: In your opinion, are there any inherent problems with the PbeM format?
JCM: The major problems that I see for board game PbeM are converting the maps and units to computer format and then advertising availability and finding an opponent. Getting together with an opponent will probably be hardest, but I can see sites being set up specifically for that purpose for many games. Where there is a scoring/rating capability, I foresee that there will have to be recognized bodies who will record and track ratings and publish them. Such services already exist for postal chess and Diplomacy. Development of multi-player games will be more difficult to accomplish, but are far from impossible.
Converting PBM games to a PbeM format will involve verification, scheduling, and emergency turn submission problems. Choosing a processing schedule will be a tough one because there are so many real world considerations. At some times, I'd be happy to start a CTF2187 game that ran a turn a night for from seven to ten days, if I provided all the members of my team. If it involved other players on my team, I’d want a minimum of a two days between turns, maybe more. Getting the right number of opponents available for the same seven-to-ten days might be a major problem - shifting it even a couple of days either way might cause me to have to pass. An opponents’ bulletin board might partially solve the problem, but not entirely knowing who the other teams are at the start is part of the fun.
SM: With more real-time gaming coming online, getting more and more complex, do you see an end to PBM/PbeM anytime soon?
JCM: No, there will probably always be very interested players who need a slower paced game that doesn’t require a long online time to accomplish. There are people with fewer distractions who can spend lots of IG time, but that won’t last their whole lives. CD-based games can be very exciting for a while and will get even better as more advanced game-engine (even artificial intelligence) systems are developed, but having a real opponent to compete against is more satisfying, even if he/she razzes you when you lose.
SM: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. But one last thing, what's it been like gaming alongside your kids?
JCM: It may not be the typical father-daughter bonding experience, but I think it did serve that function. It also gave a chance to teach everything from probability, to ethics, to human nature, to Machiavelli, and beyond. I’ve seen you get through some pretty tough combat situations, especially since you identify more than most with your pilots’ characters. So far, we have always gamed on the same teams, so I suppose the ultimate test would be what would happen when we found ourselves looking over laser sights at each other. I hope our gaming then would make us even prouder of each other.
And you did a pretty good job of running a city as a pre-teen.
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