IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE
I started gaming in the summer of 1989. It was right around this time that I also discovered the local BBS scene in Rochester, MN — most notably the North Castle BBS. At the raging speeds made possible by a 1200 baud modem I was able to plug into the ADND FidoNet echo.
For those of you unfamiliar with FidoNet, it was similar to Usenet: A set of completely text-based messageboards. However, unlike Usenet, the individual BBSes that made up the FidoNet were not in perpetual contact with each other. Instead, during each day, the FidoNet systems would call each other during the ZoneMailHour (ZMH) and exchange messages. Local systems would push messages up to regional hubs and those hubs would circulate the message around the world and then push them back down to local systems.
Which meant that sometimes it would take you several days to see a message posted by someone else and sometimes you would see it immediately (if the person posting it was on the same BBS you were).
One of the features of the ADND FidoNet echo were the campaigns that were played through it. This was my earliest exposure to the concept of Play-By-Mail (PBM) games.
My first experience with roleplaying games was when I created my own. My second major experience was the true old school play of campaign-hopping characters, whipping out dungeons on graph paper, and playing during every possible stolen moment of the school day. But my third major experience was watching and playing in the PBEM (Play-By-Echo-Mail) games of the ADND echo.
Because of the asyncrhonous nature of communication, the ADND games all followed a similar structure: The DM would post a lengthy summary of events and then the players would respond. If they were facing a physical challenge or combat, player responses were usually tactical in nature — summarizing a strategy for the next several rounds of play instead of specifying particular actions. If it was a conversational situation, players would just start responding to each other’s messages.
But the asynchronous communication, of course, meant that not all of these responses necessarily meshed. (For example, you might have two characters both respond to a straight line with the same joke.) So, at some point, the DM would draw a line in the sand and end that particular phase of play. They would then gather up all the responses and summarize the official version of events. These summaries were referred to as “Moves”.
From my understanding, this system is similar to the original Play-By-Mail games which were played by physically posting letters — but with the added advantage that the players could actually talk to each other without the DM acting as an intermediary.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying: PBeM games had a major impact on my formative years as a gamer.
But, on the other hand, I profess that I have never seen a PBeM campaign end successfully. Even keeping a tabletop campaign together is difficult, and while it would seem as if the non-intensive nature of a PBeM would help keep it running… in practice the lack of any physical demand for attention means that players tend to just wander away and interest tends to atrophy.
Which is unfortunate, because — in my experience — PBeM play has some unique strengths. It lends itself particularly well, for example, to a more contemplative style of play. In ongoing tabletop campaigns, I’ve found PBeM to be a good way of dealing with certain types of side-action. It can also be used to fill in the occasional lengthy gap between playing sessions.
All of these features made PBeM play ideal for launching the Ptolus campaign: The characters were separated, the contemplative style gave the players time to ease themselves into their roles, and we had a gap of time before the campaign could start because of incompatible schedules.
(And if anyone reading this happens to have an archive of old FidoNet ADND games — particularly those run by Bruce Norman — I would dearly love to get a copy. I used to have a substantial archive myself, but it was wiped out by a bad floppy disk. Now I only have a handful of random moves that were tucked here and there.)