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OTOH: PBEM Revisited

by Brett Mathews

In which the author expands his narrow world view into some more of the marvellous gaming possibilites the net can provide


I received a fair bit of feedback on my Play by E-Mail (PbEM) article in issue 4, much of which humbly suggested that I may find it fruitful spending time investigating the subject further.

Some of these comments have appeared in our forum pages

Initially, I considered writing about the different types of gaming available on the web in general, and while such a work would be useful, I quickly realised that this was a huge task. A task which could not be dealt with in sufficient detail in one article, nor be rigorously researched in the time available between two issues. So I scaled my expectations down a bit and decided just to write about the different types of PbEM available, and in particular, attempt to clarify some of the terms related to PbEM which are in use. I'll take my previous article as a point of departure.

PbEM is a deceptive term, firstly in that while these games can be played by e-mail, very similar games exist in a web-based format or via the use of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). While different types of games may be predominate in one or more of these formats, they are not exclusive. Thus terms like PbEM do not prove to be a particularly useful distinction. So even though I am describing PbEM type games, I'm going to have to put aside the term "PbEM" as a useful descriptor from the start.

Perhaps if we look at this whole collection of games on a continuum. The continuum which I think is the most useful is based on the extent to which these games rely on a set of predetermined rules.

Firstly, there is strategy gaming, which involves games like Diplomacy, war gaming or even chess, over e-mail. Here, each player has various pieces, which have a well defined set of possible moves on a predetermined board. Each person performs their move or moves in turn. These moves are posted between players or to a moderator.

If you think you know more about these games, why not fill us in!

Secondly, there's pseudo-strategy gaming - which still involves some type of board, playing pieces and turn structures, though often more abstract. The objective is still to marshal forces and so on, but some character play comes in as well, with people roleplaying the leader of their forces etc. This is similar to PBM games like It's A Crime (in the UK) and Middle Earth (in the US).

Thirdly, there are the traditional role-playing games, just like table-top ones (if that makes any sense). Players post their actions to a GM, who decides results and handles combat rolls and the like to save the time of posting and re-posting for each dice roll. The nature of theses games generally require that the game system rules be fairly strictly enforced.

Then there are the RPG's where the rules become looser. The GM has a limited role, providing a direction, major story events, and perhaps making decisions at critical points. The players then simply tell the story within that framework, writing posts describing how their characters got from A to B.

Next there are the games which I was describing in edition 4, which focuses primarily on in-character story-telling and where the moderator has a very minor role. The story lines/adventures are very free flowing and the only rules usually involve etiqutte and player interaction.

Finally, there is shared storytelling, where a group of writers is in charge of a group of (usually predetermined) characters, and the players/ writers combine their ideas to create a story. The important difference from the previous type is that here the writers do not have a character that is solely their own. This is far more a group effort, where all participants need to have a clear vision of what they are working with.

Now it is clear that wargames, though the genesis of role-playing, are not roleplaying games. It is a matter of debate if a solely computer moderated game (not to be confused with a combined machine and human moderator as in MUDs) can involve true role-playing, an issue we deal with elsewhere in this issue. What is of greater interest here, and seems to cause even more confusion, is the issue of where roleplaying stops and story writing starts.

If you can't track down any games fitting these descriptions, mail us and we'll send you the addresses of some of our favourites

This subtle difference is hard to define. In the games where the moderator has a subdued role, both can exist together. In each individual case, the players have to come to some kind of understanding of which they are concentrating on. For example in unmoderated role-play, even though there is no GM, one writer often assumes a more dominate role, creating the general framework for the story which the others follow or modify.

The type of game I was describing in my previous article is defined by its creator as "Interactive Fiction/Never Ending Story/Freeform Roleplay". This is useful because these three descriptors are the most commonly used to about these kind of PbEMs. Below, I've tried to define them somewhat, although it should be pointed out that none of these are used consistently across the Web.

Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction is a nasty term, because it has so many meanings. It has been used to describe text-based computer games and the like, and even straight tabletop roleplaying. It's name, however, implies a commitment to storytelling rather than role-playing. This is how it is used in most PBEMs. Under this definition, it is the players responsibility to describe their environment (e.g. weather conditions, landscape, nearby events) and situation details, and to work with the other players to develop an interesting story.

Some have no overall story, and so have no equivalent to a "GM". Everyone simply posts their responses to what has gone before. Others have a usually self-appointed moderator, who has an overall plot in mind. Some moderators will share relevant plot developments with appropriate writers beforehand in order to focus on the story; in such cases, the story is very much a cooperative effort with one "head" writer. Other Moderators prefer a more roleplay-like approach, forcing the other writers to solve puzzles and win battles in order to move the story along. This is where it approaches role-playing.

'Never Ending Story'

XYZZY News equates Interactive Fiction with text based adventures run by an external machine

This term really refers to the style of play more than the actual game. In the Never Ending Story style one person posts a segment, and another person posts in response to that, and so on, continuing a story. Thus this implies a very limited role for the moderator. Though usually used for interactive fiction, there is no reason freeform role-play can't be played this way.

When used in interactive fiction, a story is typically started by one player and is built upon by other players. Each player takes a turn adding parts to the story. Although many adventures may take place within the story, play continues on until the players quit or it is agreed that a new story should begin.

FreeForm RolePlay

Freeform Roleplay is where players assume a character and respond to events around them through that character. The best example of this on the Web is MUDs but it can be done in a e-mail or Web-based format. These games usually don't involve a moderator, or if they do, their role is marginalised; the players control the game. Although a general set of guidelines is agreed upon before hand, play is based on trust between players. Many role players on the web encounter Freeform Roleplay as implemented through IRC, or are first introduced to it that way. However it exists across all the formats.

Most good PBEMs have a clear introduction where they explain exactly what terms they use and what they take them to mean, to aid the beginner

But back to the real question: where does interactive fiction stop and role-playing start? In my mind, role-playing occurs when a player responds to illusionary situations that are put before them in the way most appropriate for the character they have developed. So the dividing line is particularly blurred if you maintain that freeform role-play can be done outside the IRC format, because players, even though they are using a character, also describe their environment.

I think the problem arises because of the nature of e-mail/bulletin board systems. They are half-way between a phone and a letter, neither one nor the other. In a letter, you put down all your points and then the other person responds to the entire letter. With the speed of email, a system of turn-taking often develops that reflects a phone conversation. Even when someone makes several points, people can address each point in turn. This is also due to the ease with which you can reproduce the words of others and thus you can show people which piece of their text you are responding to.

This system produces perhaps a new communication dynamic - half speech and half writing - and as such introduces new laws about role-playing. In these games, the players are both telling stories with descriptions and roleplaying with actions. Here, the line will always be at least slightly blurred.

But in the end, the difference between role-play and writing is merely a state of mind. You can write through a character or write a whole story: it is writing. Only when you do it cooperatively does it become confused. But I think true on-line role-playing can only exist where there is limited outside contact between the players about story design i.e. e-mail's of what they plan to do next. And thus the players are responding to situations based solely on what they believe their character would do in that situation. As soon as they know too much beyond their situation, they become complicit in the progress of a narrative, and story telling begins.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.


Many thanks to Rick Felty, Dan Davenport and our long suffering editor Steve Darlington, for their assistance with this article.

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