Saturday, May 9, 2015

Stamped Adventures: My Play-By-Mail Retrospective

Back in the B.C. Era (before computers), I gamed with a local group and we had a lot of fun doing it. We tried an assortment of games, so there was always a bit of variety in my role-playing youth. But it wasn't enough. I wanted to game 24/7. During those times when my group wasn't playing (due to sleep or school or work or other lame excuses), I'd spend my downtime trying to find other ways to scratch that gaming itch. I'd create NPCs, design modules, and thumb through my well-worn issues of Dragon Magazine. That's when I saw the ad for Silverdawn.

Silverdawn was advertised as a play-by-mail game (PBM) where you could game through the postal service. It was slow, it was costly (to a 14-year-old), and it was perfect. Upon reflection, Silverdawn was unique at the time since there was a physical moderator typing up and mailing you your moves. You would replay with -- in essence -- a letter describing what you wanted to do in the fantasy world, and the moderator would read it and reply with what happens in a similar letter. (It was played very much like contemporary play-by-post games on RPG forums.) Over the years, I've kinda forgotten some of the details of the game. I recall I played a wandering bard with a silver flute who was captured and falsely imprisoned by a corrupt baron. During a jail escape is when I bailed on the game as writing up two pages of text (by hand!) to cover every possible outcome, then waiting for a month for a reply was a bit tiring. So I moved onto another game.

The next PBM I tried was It's a Crime, and it quickly became a favorite. It was more of a strategy management game where you were a crimeboss running a gang of ne'er-do-wells, trying to grab as much control over the city as you could without crossing the cops or -- worse -- rival gangs run by other players. My gang, "The Skull Stompers," was able to carve out a sizable chunk of the city before I ran afoul of a rival gang, "The Ed Grimley Clones." The Clones and I waged jolly territorial war for months, as city blocks traded hands for a while. Then, when we had sapped each other's resources, ANOTHER gang swooped in a decimated both of us. We even teamed up to try and drive them off (players were encouraged to communicate by mail outside of the game to make such arrangements), but it was too late and I was wiped out. I loved it. From the same company, I also tried Monster Island, a similar game of shipwrecked castaways trying to carve out an existence on a remote island but I really didn't get into it very much and bailed after a while. Anyway, that was back in the mid-80s and both It's A Crime and Monster Island are STILL GOING ON (though they're both now run by KJC Games, a U.K. company).

In college years later, I had that same itch to game via mail. (Electronic gaming was still in its infancy as email wasn't a "thing" yet as it was all local BBS bulletin board services at the time). I was already familiar with Flying Buffalo due to Tunnels and Trolls and such, and I recall getting a flyer for their play-by-mail games when I stopped by their booth at Origins (held in Columbus where I was attending OSU). I immediately signed up for Heroic Fantasy to wet my whistle again. This game was played as a dungeon-esque crawl, where you controlled a fantasy party exploring the dungeon's depths. I (stupidly) split up the party to cover more ground and quickly lost them to much powerful creatures. (Never split the party!) My next try was Illuminati based on the crazy-fun card game of conspiracy by Steve Jackson Games. Although I am a fan of the game (and no slouch at it either), I was horribly outclassed by the other players who quickly infiltrated by power structure and whittled me to pieces. (Although I've always wanted to give it a go again...perhaps soon.)

I've run and played in a few games via electronic play-by-post over the years, but there's just something about getting that envelope in the mail. By the time you've filled out you move and mailed it in, you've kind of forgotten about it until the reply comes a few weeks later. Then -- BOOM -- you're sucked right back into that world as you process what's happened and try to come up with a plan to overcome the newest gaming challenge. It's like waiting for the next installment of your favorite show. Sure, you can binge-watch, but I prefer the slow burn -- the build-up to the next installment, building up anticipation to see what happens next. And that's why, although somewhat archaic in today's instant message society, PBM will always be a bit more special to me.

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