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PBEM - Out of Character

By Brett Mathews

In which the author provides an introduction to a relatively new form of virtual gaming


There would be very few gamers who aren't also avid readers of Fantasy and/or Sci-Fi. It is also clear that many gamers fancy themselves as writers. Taking part in what is loosely called Roleplaying by E-Mail is one way to live out this particular fantasy, (another is of course to submit something to PTG, PTB) however, it does not fit neatly into the normal idea of what constitutes roleplaying.

Many contemporary Fantasy writers are or were avid gamers, Raymond E. Fiest (Magician, the Riftwar series) being one of the most successful examples

I have been trying out a PbEM (in this case BEM does not stand for bug eyed monster) since we published the last edition of PTG, PTB. Previously, I had only ever tried strategy games by mail and via snail mail at that! I was somewhat doubtful about the idea of roleplaying by e-mail and some of my concerns turned out to be well founded. I did have a good time, but not at roleplaying.

The title Freeform Roleplaying is there to attract gamers I suspect, but in truth the experience is closer to cooperative story writing. The problem being that unless people really understand the nature of the game it doesn't work particularly well. It also doesn't strike me as a particularly good marketing strategy, because many of the customers will be immediately dissatisfied with the product as it is not what they expected.

Many of PbEM's are subtitled Interactive Fiction and this is the more accurate title. The contributor/player still plays through a character though and is free to write most things. However, it quickly becomes apparent that for Freeform Play by E-Mail to work contributors need to be more dedicated to creating a good story line, rather than advancing their own character.

Freeform PbEM allows much the same freedom as MUD's so, yes, it does include the possibility of having affairs, for those who read Brett's MUD article in the last issue

Firstly let me explain the basic mechanics of the game (please indulge me if you are familiar with the genre). People post successive parts of a continuing story about their character, in a bulletin board type structure, with each new post supposedly taking into account previous contributions. The fact that you are not writing about a group of characters but you are each writing about your own character within a group, is what makes it approach roleplaying, but also what can make it confusing.

The stories usually follow an adventuring group and there are many groups in existence at any one time. Each story is called a conversation and the group posts to the specific conversation they are involved in. Conversations have a geographic location, so there is the "Boor Tavern" conversation and the "On The Edge of the Pits of Despair" conversation etc. When there is more then one conversation going on in a specific location (which is common) it creates an unusual situation, because you are aware of the posts in your own conversation, but not the others in your geographic location, unless you take the time to read the others.

To get a better idea of how this works in practice, why not have a look at this site

There are a few locations where only one conversation takes place, usually the taverns. What this means is there are lots of people all posting to the one place. While this does recreate the effect of a tavern, where you catch snippets of what other people are saying, the sheer bulk of posting can make it confusing and hard to hold your own discussion, which is too much like a real tavern!

In locations where there is a lot of people and thus a lot of postings it is not always easy to know when someone is addressing you and it's also not always easy to get someone's attention. Likewise it is relatively easy to be ignored, or ignore someone else. The intention is that these places allow people to meet up and form groups and it can be just as awkward as real life.

Actions and events that occur in one conversation should spread out to effect other communities, however it's my experience that the usually don't. You can basically walk through a war zone if you don't pay sufficient attention to previous posts. In many ways the game would be improved if a summary or even a note on major events in the area, was provided.

There is a person who moderates the overall game/story, however they are not a GM and if contributors stand around waiting for a story line to be created for them, it ain't gonna happen. The Game Controller generally only intervenes when there are problems, so they are more accurately described as a moderator rather than GM. Contributors are solely responsible for creating storylines themselves. Which is not a problem but something of which gamers should be aware.

There seems to be only one general rule of PbEM's and that is to have a good time but not at someone else's expense.

If you're a MUD fan, you may enjoy this site

What this mean is that you should get the contributor's permission before doing anything to their character. This is certainly not the style of play most role players are used to and takes a bit of adjusting to. While this is a problem for gamers it can be particularly hard for MUDers, who are used to sneaking up on other player characters in an effort to do them gross bodily harm (hee hee hee).

The problem is of course that everyone wants their character to be the legendary hero and it's quite easy for anyone to write, "Goroth broke off Conan's arm and beat him to death with the wet end." However it's precisely when people do this that the story falls apart. There are two problems with this: firstly it's implausible, and secondly Conan didn't get a chance to respond. This is when the game moderator usually intervenes.

So unlike many MUD's there are no player killers here, unless contributors agree to let their characters be killed. However, contributors can easily write in anyone or anything that they want to kill.

If this sounds like fun, why not give it a try? The game we've been playing most is called Lands of Aniada. It's pretty good.

The way this works, which takes a little getting used to, is that you post the actions of your character but not the effect this action has on another player's character. So I could post that, "Goroth lunged at Conan's arm with a mad glint in his eye". However I should stop there and let Conan post back with the impact of my action on his character "Conan steps nimbly to the side and avoided Goroth's charge." It is the same with any other attack; the other person decides the results. However, this can mean that no one ever gets wounded, dies or robbed, which gets rather dull. It takes people a while to realise that it is a more interesting story line to be robbed and to make it your life's purpose to recover your father's signet ring than to be just too damned good to ever be robbed.

The strength and weakness of PbEM is that each player has a character. Without this PbEM would be genuinely cooperative story telling. The character provides something for the contributor to write around. However it is worth reiterating that for Freeform Play By E-Mail to work contributors need to be more dedicated to creating a good story line rather than the advancement of their own character.

If you disagree with Brett and think that Play by E-Mail is role-playing, why not write in and tell us?

PbEM can be great fun but participants need to remember that it is a significantly different style of play to most RPG's and particularly MUD's. Generally PbEM's include some advice on how to play, and these are worth a read. I've given a few tips below which I didn't find anywhere and I believe should generally improve the games I've been involved in.

Tips for the First Time PbEMer:

  1. Unlike MUD's it doesn't matter as much if you play with people in your own time zone, however it does mean that an entire *encounter* can happen while you're asleep without your input. Which can leave you standing around looking silly.
  2. It's fairly important to get an idea of how frequently the group expects you to post and I find it's better to post with people who post about as often as you do. It is certainly possible to dominant a group by posting a lot.
  3. There needs to be a player in each group who takes responsibility for the storyline otherwise you just wander around waiting for people to respond to you.
  4. Contributors should really read previous postings carefully, otherwise they can miss the subtleties within them, such as the weather conditions described. If someone describes a rain storm your character should get wet and cold and have to deal with walking around in mud. Otherwise the game loses continuity.
  5. It is best to finish a post leaving things up in the air for others to springboard off, people who are always closing off encounters make it hard work for the others.


Ed's Notes: It should be pointed out that not all Play By E-mail games use this sort of freeform style; indeed, many of them take a much more traditional approach. As with table-top gaming, the level of input from the gamemaster varies widely between each game. So if you're interested in on-line gaming, you're sure to find a PBEM that suits your tastes. To help you get started, The PBEM News is a very good zine on the subject, or you could try The Great PBEM List to find the best game for you. The Great RPG Archive also has a list of PBEM's here, while a list of freeform games can be found here.

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