Sunday, February 21, 2016

Our Great RPG PBeM experiment (December 1998- November 2006)

(My opening sentence in the very first Dimensional Patrol RPG campaign email)

Around 1992 or 1993, my teenage role playing group that started in 1980, finally dissolved.  By 1993, my friend Jim and I were in our 20s, and life's pressures and responsibilities finally caught up with us.

He shortly got married and moved away to another city. My other friend Craig no longer wanted to RPG either, and the other 4 guys were long gone as well. I myself had my own responsibilties. Still, I was interested in the hobby, but not at the feverish pitch that I had in the mid-1980s. So I bought the occassional Gurps sourcebook, read it and discussed it with Craig but that was about it RPG wise.

Fast forward five, six years to the Christmas season of 1998. I finished grad school and was working as a professional. After many many years of grueling study, I finally came up for air and - perhaps nostalgicaly -  was interested in playing over the internet.

I read an article that year about PBeM RPGs which I found intriguing, called "Running a Successful PBeM Campaign" "Copyright 1996 by Harrigan" and thought about doing an RPG by PBeM (play by email).

My friend Craig did not have a computer and/or email in 1999 if I remember correctly, and my spider sense told me he was not interested, so I don't believe I asked him. I emailed my other friend Jim in late December 1998 a proposal to revive our old WEG Star Wars campaign from 1987-1993 (off and on).  To my astonishment, Jim accepted the PBeM proposal. (As an aside, I did a similar gaming proposal to Jim about 10 years later on boardgaming, which he also accepted. I keep underestimating his interest in gaming in general for some reason.)

Harrigan had some good pointers in his article, as his table of contents suggests:

1. The Nature of PBeM
a) What are PBeMs?
b) If You Are New to PBeMs
c) What Works; What Doesn't
d) Choosing a Genre and System
e) Choosing a Format
2. Choosing Players
a) Deciding What to Look For
b) Player Information
c) How To Find Players
d) What To Ask For
e) What To Watch For
f) What To Watch Out For
g) Guest Stars
h) Know Thy Players! And Their Characters!
3. General Tips
a) Starting Up
b) Keeping It Rolling
c) Encouraging Player Interaction
d) Plot Hooks
e) Planning and Consistency
f) When Things Go Wrong
g) Turn Lengths
h) Tardy Players
4. Keeping Things Going
a) Character Development
b) Character Driven Plots
c) Pacing
d) Dealing With Problems
5. PBeMs and the Web
a) Why the Web?
b) Putting Your Game On The Web
c) Encouraging Player Involvement

I was a Gurps fanatic since 1986 but reading Harrigan's post made me realize Gurps was not going to work through the drips and drabs of PBeMing. He writes:

c) What Works; What Doesn't
This is pretty straightforward. Since the turns are coming out at *best* a few times a week (and more likely once every week or ten days), it's fairly easy for people to forget exactly what's going on. It's this reason that combat- intensive games don't come off well on the net. Games like GURPS, where a combat round is one second, can take FOREVER to play through email. This is certainly not to say that you shouldn't have combat (god forbid; it seems about 90% of gamers want to kill stuff) or play GURPS on the net (Steve Jackson's game remains my favorite system). Keep the combats short and intense so you'll have the players attention, and things don't get bogged down because 32 more 8hp Deep Ones have just arrived. I try to fit several combat rounds into each written turn, so things move along at a more even pace. Some PBeMs have the players send in responses for each and every combat round, but I prefer to have a "set" of actions a character can perform. I'm getting a little ahead of myself, but this is where knowing the players characters and how they would react in particular situations comes in.

WEG Star Wars on the other hand, is a lot easier mechanics-wise than Gurps. Unlike Gurps for instance, it takes 2 minutes to make a WEG character.  Jim was and is a big Star Wars fan, and besides, he never tried Gurps, so WEG it was or nothing.

Anyways, in early January 1999, I found myself back again as a GM after about 6 to 7 years being out of practice. This time, it was not to be face to face, but by email.  I had no experience in non-face to face play, but somehow, I wasn't daunted by it. Email per se did not bother me. I was on the internet since I joined Compuserve in October 1993, so the internet email thing was getting old hat by that time.

Old hat in one respect, but still a bit of new ground in other respects. I heard of people playing chess, and saw ads for playing a "Hyborian War" wargame by snail mail, but this was RPGing, which is a lot more dynamic and fluid. We were weren't going to be licking stamps and sending letters to each other like young ladies from finishing school, but instead through quick turnaround emails.

But I didn't have anything to fear. To my surprise, our PBeM RPGing lasted all the way
to November 2006.

We did 3 WEG Star Wars adventures and 2 WEG D6 Dimensional adventures (virtually identical rules). I GMed all but one of them.

You might be asking how did 5 adventures last about 7 to 8 years. Well, for one thing, each of these adventures lasted about a year each surprisingly enough. Then there were moves to another city, getting a job, etc. PBeMs are part-time endeavours, suited for adults, so there are drawbacks not for the impatient types, but there are pluses in PBeMing.. Lots of pluses, namely rich role-playing.

One year per mission is a long, long time and it introduced a new experience for us face-to-face gamers. In the old days, an adventure would be over in two to three sittings and then quickly forgotten once the experience points were divvied up. Now, with thoughtful posts and counterposts, the RPG experience was richer strangely enough, than it would have been face to face. PBeMs emphasize story telling and less about the mechanics. Something neither Jim nor I expected out of it, but were pleased to experience.

As I said, the drawback is the time it takes to experience it, and if you're a munchkin, the agony of waiting to level up. Unlike 2 or three weekends, you only get your experience points a year later at the end of the adventure, so expect sloooooooooooooow character growth.
For WEG Star Wars, we resurrected our 1987-93 "face-to-face" characters: Jim's minor Jedi Knight James Lancer, and my smuggler, Kelly Dukes.

The Dimensional Patrol campaign focused on Jim and his team opening up alternate-Earths for the benefit of Earth-Prime...

For the campaign, Jim rolled up a new character, James Spectre (an old name he liked to use) and I resurrected two NPCs I built for this campaign years earlier for fun, Jim Kelly and Elaine using the Gurps rules.

There were some back and forths with Jim explaining the alternate Earth setting and Dimensional Patrol campaign.  Jim and I even did S.O.P.s for the Patrol.

Some further work on my part explaining the interdimensional cartography of what was out there was also need to be done prior to the campaign. I pulled some ideas from Gurps and Fringeworthy, as well as the TV show Sliders. I never settled however on the numbering system (use Earth #s, do it like Stargate "P2X 153" or like Gurps, "Gotha-12") before the campaign ended.

Original Emails to Jim:

The Interdimensional Jump Belt idea I got from a Marvel short story which fired my imagination as a kid in the 1970s.

The main villains of my campaign I lifted off the TV show Sliders.. the Kromaggs.. who conquer and plunder alternate Earths. Excellent villains that I milked for all they were worth.

Kromagg Dimensional Hopping Ship

The adventures (all ad libbed) were:

WEG Star Wars - The Collector  - about a mad collector who wanted to trap a Jedi Knight (Jim's character) into his permanent collection.  This was our first adventure and both Jim and I greatly enjoyed this one. 

WEG Star Wars - Crisis - An adventure GMed by Jim for my smuggler Dukes, who finds, like usual, his reputation preceding him in the underworld of the Star Wars universe. 

WEG Star Wars- The Argovia Strike - Jim's minor Jedi Knight infiltrates a secret imperial base that is testing a phantom zone device as part of dealing with its prisoner problem.

D6 Dimensions- Declaration of War - Jim's Dimensional Patrol crew on a routine alternate Earth scouting mission are the first to encounter and be taken prisoner by the Kromaggs.

D6 Dimensions - A Fistfull of Droids - Jim's jump belt malfunctions and he finds himself on an uncharted old West alternate Earths with descendents of Alien Greys and Robots who crashed on Earth centuries ago and are oppressed by the people of the 19th Century.

Harrigan's post was light on details on the day to day mechanics of RPGing by PBeM.. Do I number the emails? Does Jim number them back? How much of an rpg scene per email do I type? Do I colour-code some text when I am speaking not in GM-voice? What about the die rolls? This was stuff that Jim and I worked out in short order, with practicality being the guiding principle.

We tried at the very beginning with each of us numbering our posts and replies, but it got confusing, so we developed protocols that worked well for the next 7,8 years.  The GM would number all posts and the player just responded and not renumber.

Thus, I would title an email

SW: The Collector - 43    to indicate this is the GM's 43 email on this.

Jim would not renumber it, but just simply respond. The GM would have to keep track of the numbering of the posts and continuity of course. 

I found the plain text at the beginning needing some pizzaz, so I started to make and put headers on every post, like these for example. (See the bottom of this post for all surviving PBeM headers)

We didn't bother with some of the gimmicks. I saw this CD-software for instance, on a store shelf and it promised that you can role play over the internet. It was called GRIP and emailed Jim about it.

I bought the software I think for $20, but somehow, it seemed awkward and we never seriously considered it, even with custom templates found, like for WEG Star Wars or Traveller.

At first, I would break the dialog and ask Jim to send me a die roll and then wait for him to send it to me to see what happened and continue the dialog.  He would go to a secure website, where they would send me encrypted die results by email so we can both be assured that the roll was above board.

But we found this method too slow, so eventually, Jim would then send me batches of rolls which I would then mix up blindly in an excel spreadsheet and then use them in order.

When I was in GM speak, I would use one font colour and when I was not I would use a different colour and put it in brackets typically to indicate I was talking to Jim and not his character.  Jim would usually put his dialog in a different colour.

For example:

If the skill roll was one-off, I would embed the roll results in the dialog in a different colour, but major rolls like combat, we would dialog it out and then show in the appendix to the email, the results of the rolls


another example:

Appendix example:

Mass combat and or an importance of where the character is standing can easily be done by PBeM with a map.


Pictures were routinely put into the dialog to help the player.


Another example:

One thing PBeM does better than face-to-face is to build tension with "Cut-Aways" of a scene far removed from the player to build tension with the players, like you would see in a movie or TV show. This is assuming of course, the player knows he can't RPG that cut-away scene knowledge.


Another Example:

I quickly added audio and then video clips. I would ask Jim to open the .wav or avi file in a different font colour. 

Example of a wav opening request:

Another example:

Example of a video opening request:

Email RPGing can be very rich indeed, in terms of audio, video, wordsmithing, etc. Jim and I were pleased how it went and it lasted 7 years. Seven years of slow RPGing catered to our adult busy lives in comparison to the 13 years of face to face play (1980 to 1993) that started off intense for the first seven years and then off and on for the other six. 

Erratic or slow and steady? That is the question.

All in all, I can say that our PBeM experiment was a success. 

25, 26 years was a good run. Jim and I were the last one standing when I finally ended our 5-6 year experiment in PBeM (Play By Email) RPGing.

November 16, 2006 email:

Well Jim,

                  That as they say, is that. With the last PBeM posting, as discussed, this is the end of the campaign, the end of PBeMing, and the end of the RPG hobby for us.  

                  I feel I need to add some closing words.

                  First, I’d like to say that I liked this mission and am glad I got the urge to scratch the Kromagg [Dimensional villains] itch. I wanted to GM them since I first saw them. I hope you honestly liked it.

                  I also always wanted to do a dimensional campaign, and am glad I got to do one. I did a partial dimensional campaign with Craig’s [FASA Star Trek merchant] crew of sociopaths, but this one we just did was 100% dimensional hopping.   

              It’s a strange feeling to do everything you wanted to accomplish in a hobby. It was a nice ending to a hobby that I was all geeked out about in the 80s.

            The time has come however, to put it aside and focus on other things. Yes, work is stressing me out, but it’s more than that. I didn’t put my finger on it until this mission. I think in my postings and your counter-postings in the PBeMs, we were going through the motions. I think it was more an imaginative and academic exercise for both of us. It was interesting, but the passion of the old days is not there. We both aged, and can’t and don’t want to, go back. Which is fine. We are both now at the age of the characters we played when we were teens. The age, I think, where the only people we want to role-play is… well.. our real selves. I have no current dreams of adventure and I don't want to be anyone other than me.

            This campaign, like everything else in the hobby, came too late. Always, with RPGing, everything came too late, as Craig can attest. I caught the RPG "bug" just as the RPG gang was on it last legs in 1984. And it seemed only after the gang dispersed, that the fine Gurps supplements came out. Craig and I would sit there and talk for hours about the excellent Gurps Space, etc and complain if we only got it earlier. The same with Space:1889, Star Wars, etc and now, with this campaign. Perhaps we peeked too early when the hobby was still in its infancy, with it's really bad amateurish publications.

           Oh well, I still won’t trade my RPG memories for anything however. The hobby is dying in the face of computer games and CCG, but I’m glad I was “there.”

            My fondest memories however, are RPGing the FASA Star Trek RPG universe, especially with Craig’s crew. The short-lived Starfleet and even shorter Klingon campaign were good as well. I have a confession to make. I was less a general RPGer than a FASA Trek RPGer. I can only say I dabbled in RPGs before FASA trek. I came far too late for TS [TSR's Top Secret] and Jer took off in the middle of JB  [James Bond: RPG].  But FASA Trek, well, it was my first RPG love and it fuelled my enthusiasm for the hobby. Something in me “clicked” and I never looked back. I fondly remember going through the snow with my black briefcase full of FASA publications to Elizabeth Street to play Starfleet with you guys. And 10 sided dice at the time I found so… futuristic! :-)

          Laughing now, I can honestly say I was so nervous when I faced you and Craig as GM for that first time. It was the very first Kruger mission, and you were there..[...]. I quickly got into after that afternoon.  I didn’t care afterward that the old gang dispersed as Craig for some reason, kept wanting to play despite [his family and work obligations], and so I doggedly hung on to the [FASA STar Trek] campaign despite everything. By 1991, we did all we could in Trek, and when that ended, it was really the end of the face to face RPG years.

                  If I didn’t play Trek, my interest in the campaign was limited. We had a lot of stillborn campaigns in the late 80/early 90s to prove it; Traveller:2300,  Twilight:2000, Autoduel, Space:1889, Dimensional Patrol (we played half of one mission), etc. I called them stillborn as they were dead even before they were born. When I started [graduate work at University], I was totally busy and had no desire to play any more stillborn, non-Star Trek campaigns. Gurps reading was sufficient for both of us, though the running joke for years with Craig was when we will start our "next campaign." Nevertheless, I was doubly surprised last year [in 2005] when you wanted to do another PbeM. I was willing to go along, due to the strength of the [WEG Star Wars home made adventure] "Collector." I got into it and started adding things I haven't seen in any PBeM faq, such as headers, wav, video etc. I kicked myself however because I forgot that I wanted to resurrect Captain Douglas, [Jim's FASA Starfleet Captain]  only to send him as part of a Starfleet dimensional exploration team. 

      Man, what fond memories I have of the good stuff!:

  • The look on Craig's face when I introduced the "Silver Twist" for the first time, or when he spaced the Klingon everyone called "Whiskey" or when the NPC villain Soloman Kane stole his ship and stranded him on a jungle planet;
  • The never ending battle Craig had to control his temper with respect to his merchant crew;
  • The ongoing trust/don't trust banter between Craig and "El Papagayo" or between Craig and Akalzed, the Orion arms dealer.

  • The hilarious laughter from you, Craig, Skippy, and Caz when I took 20 minutes from the mission to list all of Kruger's crew's crimes in the  FASA 3 team Doomsday device mission with you, Craig, Skippy and Caz at each other’s throats;

  • The final  years-in-the-making  face-off between Kruger, Kane and El Papagayo;
  • The meeting between you and Kruger in Star Wars:  Jedi Knight Lancer went over to the assigned ship and met one of Kruger's crew, McMahon, drunk and almost puking on your shoes while Kruger was across the docking bay.
  • The anger and hurt the night all our Klingon and Romulan characters killed each other, or when the USS Excellence was destroyed (before being revived a year later), because a lesser GM both times, was at the helm;

  • The ad lib mission when I sent Douglas to the alt where Khan won the Eugenics War. (Remember being labeled an "ordinary"?);
  • The look you and Craig exchanged when you crashed a Star Wars Imperial Officers Mess, only to be told that "Servants by the back door."
  • The "Collector" mission.

           The PBeMs were a wonderful revival with the mission “The Collector” a great starting bang.  But it’s time to move on and I’m glad we leave on a positive note. I "Declared War" in the mission, and now I would like a "Declaration of Peace."        

           All I can say was that it was fun, guys. Thanks to you both for the memories.

The Final Header:


The surviving PBeM headers:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, long read ... but worth it. I remember a lot of it as I was getting cc'ed in the emails.