Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Play by Email, and Losing Touch

Glutton for punishment that I am, I think I'm going to start up a new play-by-email campaign. If and when I do, I might advertise it here, so keep your eyes peeled.

It's no exaggeration to say that play-by-email is the only reason why I'm still in the hobby. I don't get to play face to face very often, especially over the past five years that I've been in Japan, and with the marital and work commitments I have. There are quite a lot of English-speaking role players over here, but finding the time and opportunity is tough.

Moreover, when I first came to Japan I'd actually been away from the hobby for four or more years, and had lost touch entirely with what was going on. When I first started playing PBEM games back in around 2003, believe it or not I didn't even know that a Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition had been released. I was astonished to find out that TSR no longer existed, that there was no more Planescape or Dark Sun or Al Qadim, that half-orc barbarians were now core rule characters, and that play was now dominated by something mysterious and awful called an attack of opportunity. It was only through a now (sadly dead) site called pbem.com that I came back to the fold and started involving myself in rpgs again. My first game was a 3rd edition one that lasted for two years and was thoroughly enjoyable, mainly because the DM was good enough not to bother enforcing most of the rules. I played a dwarf fighter called Gorky, who spent most of the time insulting his comrades and charging around swinging an axe. I was re-hooked.

Play-by-email is a funny thing, of course. It's not to everyone's tastes. But it would be wrong to call it a poor imitation or alternative to tabletop play. It's just different - like comparing television and radio. You don't remember the great sessions, because there aren't any sessions. Instead, you tend to remember fun interchanges (carried out over the course of a few days!) or great posts people have made. And the brilliant thing is that you can go back and review those great posts in years to come. (I run a game that's now over three years old, and I'm looking forward to one day downloading the 4000 or so posts everyone has made and reading the whole sprawling madcap thing together.) This isn't possible with tabletop role playing, much as I wish it was.

The anonymity is interesting, too. I've 'known' some of the guys I game with for over four years now, but I have no idea what most of them do or even how old they are. They're just "the guys". It's an odd sort of relationship that you develop with somebody who you know almost nothing about outside of the game - not exactly a friend, but a kind of comrade in arms. Surprisingly, it isn't an unpleasant thing. It's strangely pure, in a way. You both like to game, and that's the beginning and end of it.


  1. I've been thinking in the past few days it might be fun to start up a new PbP-type game and invite only the blognards into it. Could well be an interesting experience.

  2. Reading about so many people who love gaming but can't find a reliable offline group makes me think that WotC really is on to something with D&D Insider and the online game-space thingy.

    A friend and I played Icewind Dale II and Neverwinter Nights for a couple of years, and it was our only outlet of gaming pleasure.

    Also, I recently played in a Play-by-Post and found it to be rather enjoyable!

    I think this newfangled Internet thing has become an excellent means by which for gamers to connect and play.

    [Sssshhhh...no one mention MUDs...]

  3. Ah yes, pbem.com.

    No that was a great site, and it's a terrible shame that it's gone.

  4. arcona: Not if I beat you to it... ;)

    the_myth: Too bad they messed it all up. What they would really do if they were clever would be to make DDI free. They won't, but that would be the way to attract a lot more people to the game.

    sir harrock: Yeah, and without a real explanation, either.

  5. I joined a PbC game lately and found it to be superior to PbP. It just seems to flow smoother...

  6. I played in a couple PBeMs about 10 years ago. If they're run by a competent GM they're every bit as fun as table-top (although apples and oranges, like you said). I even briefly participated in the quasi-legendary VikingSaga, but the post volume was too much for me to keep up with at the time. (Incidentally, the "Posting Guidelines" at that link are an interesting example of one approach to message formatting.)

    Oh, and as for being out of touch with the hobby, don't feel bad. My friend recently went into a game store and asked where their Ral Partha miniatures were. Yeah...

  7. PBEMs pretty much sustained me through high school, when I was not mobile enough to find my own game group. At one point, I participated in two PBEMs and was ramping up to GM another. I'm sure I could easily slip back into the mindset today...but lately my creative efforts are (fortunately) reserved for tabletop RPGs.

  8. My only experience with PbP was game with my old high school group, scattered by college. It didn't last long, and my interest in the form was never properly satisfied. There's some talk of reviving it, but a larger, more "game for the game" sort of group might be more successful.

    If Insider ends up with a tabletop application that works as advertised, and the Dragon articles stay as good as they've been, I'd be very tempted to pick up a subscription. But at the moment, I have doubts as to whether they'll ever switch over to the subscription model; I don't think they'll be able to get the programs working well enough to justify it.

  9. Odyssey: D&D Insider worries me. WotC really don't seem to know what they're doing when it comes to computers, which is a shame.

  10. I prefer play-by-chat, and even in that format, the "anonymity" you mention is clear. You end up talking to Thorak the Not-so-Swift rather than John from Back-in-the-Day. In fact, these days I prefer play-by-chat over face-to-face for immersive games.

    In fact, if you didn't live in Japan, I'd strongly suggest PbC, but I imagine the time difference would make it difficult.

    - Brian