Turn! Turn! Turn!
Ian Miles (MIoIR) 2003
This paper explores the field of Play by Mail gaming. How has this activity
adapted to the Internet age, and to the advent of many other forms of computer-
moderated games? What, indeed, accounts for its persistence, and what might
we anticipate for its future - absorption into other genres, or continuing
distinctiveness? We attempt to combine some general analysis of the topic with
some insights derived from the career of one of the PBM moderators.
PBM originally stood for Play by Mail, and the term is still widely in use
despite changes in the technical base of the games. With email becoming widely
available, very few games are run purely by post nowadays. Most of the older
postal games have been adapted into play-by-email games; almost all new
games are based on email and increasingly a "snail mail" option is unavailable.
There have been efforts to change the signification of PBM to Play by Modem.
There are some references to PbeM, generally where people are trying to draw
distinctions between mail- and email-based (or even Web-based) gaming. But
the term PBM is now used with people knowing that it refers to what is
sometimes also called "turn-based gaming". One of the large PBM firms
(Madhouse) has started to advertise its "online phased gaming". "Phased"...
that's a neat term.
This sort of gaming would seem to be obsolete in these days of vibrantly
visualised video games and instant immersion into an immediate real-time
community. But a google on "Play By Mail" receives 24200 hits, and one on
"PBM + game" hits a cool 37,500 (5 July 2003).1 There's clearly a lot of active
interest in PBM gaming.
What is Play By Mail?
The process for a PBM game is simple enough. Players send their orders for
each turn in the game to a central moderator (the game master or GM), who
works out the results and sends them back. Moderators running big games use
computers to work out the results, though there are still text-based games which
are moderated without computers.
This simple process allows hundreds of players to enter game worlds of
great depth, to contact each other between turns for discussion and negotiation
and to play at a time that suits them. The turns may be run with a week, a
fortnight or even longer between them, and players must submit their orders by
set deadlines. In most games everybody's orders are processed together for
each turn, simultaneously, but the results that are sent back are the individual
ones for your own position. The other players won't know what you're planning
unless you choose to tell them. This offers many opportunities for joint and
covert action, which aren't available in other types of game.
There are all sorts of PBM games, with all sorts of settings: roleplaying,
wargaming, adventuring, empire-building, sports management and plenty more.
Players interested in specific themes are able to find other people to play with
and to play the game for much longer than is ever possible in F2F settings.
One interesting feature of the commercial PBM games relates to the "pay
per" regime involved. The most common model is for players to pay for each
turn they take - they don't put down a flat fee in advance for an "entire" game (as
we shall see, this might be very open-ended!). The consequence is that the
game has to stay interesting, to keep its players paying.
In PBM turn-based gaming, players send in their instructions ("orders") for a set
deadline, so that all the players play simultaneously, rather than in sequence.
The GM processes the orders of all players together, to determine the overall
status of affairs and the results for the individual players. There may be a
hundred players, each of whom gets individual information for her/his own
position. This is another difference from F2F boardgaming, where the player
sees the whole game (though not necessarily the resources that each other
player has), though 'hidden movement' is often possible in tabletop wargaming.
What made Diplomacy different, and suitable for PBM play, is that the seven
players all move simultaneously (even in tabletop play); and they are expected to
confer secretly with each other between rounds.
Between turns, players can communicate with each other to make
alliances, swap information, etc. Games with more than two players allow for
plotting and intrigue between players between the turns. This has been a major
difference between PBMs and other types of gaming.
The origins of PBM
Two-player games like chess have been played by correspondence for a
hundred years or more, but it's the emergence of turn-based multiplayer games
that led to the development of PBM. Indeed, PBM insiders do not consider
boardgames like chess to be PBMs, even when they are moderated by mail or
Most boardgames with more than two players are obviously too slow and
cumbersome for postal play - imagine Ludo played by post, yawn. However, it is
a boardgame, Diplomacy, which is widely cited as a launchpad for PBM,
because in Diplomacy the players must negotiate with each other before all their
decisions are processed at the same time. They don't play consecutively, as in
Ludo, but simultaneously, and as the name Diplomacy suggests, it is the
'diplomacy' between players that counts. This interaction allows players to pick
points in the course of a game when they can ally or backstab, to outsmart each
In May 1963, a keen Diplomacy player, Dr John Boardman, launched a
game of Diplomacy in a science fiction zine called Knowable. You may be
wondering what a zine is so, briefly, it's short for 'fanzine', a term which originated
in the science fiction world to describe any amateur magazine produced by
science fiction fans. This inevitably led to the first PBM Diplomacy fanzine,
Graustark, and the zine side of the hobby has flourished ever since. Zine games
are run for a minimal charge, and Diplomacy still remains a favourite game.
Players subscribe to the zine and sign up for specific games in it, as most
zines run several games. The games aren't run commercially but as a hobby: any
charge merely covers the cost of producing the zine and posting it. The games
are hand-moderated, and so the main cost for a zine editor isn't computer
hardware, but his time. Most of the games are based on boardgames
(Diplomacy, Sopwith, En Garde!), and they need to be fairly simple to process
so that they don't put too much strain on the moderator.
An annual list of game zines is provided under the name Mission from
So, PBM games were run through game zines from 1963. But was it
possible to run games commercially rather than as a hobby? This would allow
for full-time moderators, who'd be able spend more time on running games of
greater complexity, with lots of hidden information. Would players be prepared to
pay to receive game reports by post? We're talking about the early 1970s now:
maybe computers were the answer...
The person most responsible for initiating commercial PBM is Rick
Loomis, who introduced multiplayer computer-moderated games. His Nuclear
Destruction was the first game specifically designed for multiplayer postal play,
rather than being derived from any tabletop game. His most famous game is
Starweb, which has won many prizes because of its elegant design, and which is
still played. In Starweb, players choose one of seven character-types to play
(Pirate, Empire-Builder, Berserker etc..) and each of these types has its own
criteria for victory. (Despite this, it is not a roleplaying game.) Rick Loomis wrote
of the origins of his involvement: "PBM wasn't exactly a moment of inspiration. It
grew gradually. I had refereed hidden-movement multi-player games among my
friends in high school and wanted to do it some more, only it was too much work
and I was in the army and no longer among my old buddies. I thought of getting a
computer to keep track of things so I could play too, and did it by mail because I
didn't know anyone locally (at the fort) who was interested in that kind of stuff... I
started the first game around January of 1970. When I got out of the army in
1972 I had around 200 players..."
This number of 200 players was enough for Rick to set up his firm called
Flying Buffalo Inc (ie 'FBI') in Arizona as the first commercial PBM firm. Of
course, the example of someone making a profession out of running a game was
immensely attractive to other creative game-players, who soon used the idea of
offering turns by post in games of their own devising.
Rick Loomis describes coming into PBM from hidden-movement
wargames, but another major influence on PBM has been roleplaying games.
RolePlaying Games (RPGs)
Non-gamers sometimes imagine that playing a RolePlaying Game is like taking
part in one of those embarrassing business games. Not so: RPGs are fun! They
are based on playing a character rather than a game position, and games that
involve controlling armies (e.g. Chess, Risk) are not RPGs.
RPGs originated in tabletop games, with Dungeons and Dragons(tm) (by
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson from 1974) as the pioneer. D&D(tm) is not a
boardgame, though there is a game map. A GamesMaster (here called a
Dungeon Master, or DM, a term still used in many RPGs) conceals and controls
this map, and decides what dice need to be rolled to decide outcomes. There is
no need for game pieces (unlike much historical wargaming) apart from a range
of dice - play is mostly verbal.
D&D and the other RPGs which followed it were a totally new take on
game playing. They became extremely popular in America and then Britain in the
late 70s and 80s, especially among the student population.
In RPGs players create characters of their own devising by choosing
skills, talents, capacities, etc. Points are allocated to these, which determine how
the character fares when facing particular challenges. A game character (more
jargon, sorry - this is sometimes referred to as a Personal Character, PC) may be
a wizard, a dwarf, a thief and so on. Each one will be in principle unique. Most
RPGs have an adventuring theme, though this can vary, often with the PCs
joining together as a team. And an RPG game can continue indefinitely. It
doesn't consist of winning by fulfilling victory conditions, like traditional games do,
so it's not necessary to have a winner. Challenges come from the problems that
the DM has built into the scenario.
While many PBM games require communication between the players,
RPG PBMs can survive happily without it. Of course, there are always liable to
be a few players who'll play any PBM without communicating.
In the course of his own personal account of RPGaming (on a very rich
website) "Harry" describes how: "The roleplaying hobby... began in the early
1970s, and grew out of miniature wargaming. People got somewhat bored with
sending historical armies up against each other's forces; they had a desire to mix
it up with elves, orcs and wizards. Fantasy gaming was born. After that, some
people stretched the boundaries even farther, by playing individual heroes rather
than whole armies. Wargaming turned into roleplaying, where players not only
fought enemies, but acted out the roles of their characters, creating dialogue for
them and histories detailing the character's birthplace, upbringing and what his or
her goals in life were... The players of roleplaying games collaborated in the
creation of whole worlds, environments for their characters to adventure in, and
were usually inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard.
Roleplaying game publishers provided pre-made worlds for gamers to use, and
new supplements for the most popular of these worlds were eagerly awaited by
avid gamers. Eventually, gamers began experimenting with new genres, such as
science fiction, post-apocalypse, superheroes, horror and even Westerns as the
settings for the rpgs... The hobby has grown over the years to encompass a wide
variety of gaming methods, from hack-and-slash combat with detailed rules for
combat resolution, to intensive storytelling with much broader rules designed to
help move a story forward rather than slow it down with dice rolling." Source:
http://www.geocities.com/daveshwz/whatis.html (30 July 2003)
Indeed, with a good GM, a tabletop RPG can be one of life's most vivid
Tabletop gaming, however vivid, does have the disadvantage that a game
without victory conditions (jargon again: an "open-ended" game) takes a long
time - if not forever - to play and its players need to assemble for regular
meetings. However keen they remain, there's bound to come a time when their
real-world commitments make this difficult. PBM RPGs can help to solve this
difficulty, with the GM offering printed turns.
In the computer and videogame environment, of course, RPG is used to
denote a game where the player assumes the character of the protagonist
(usually) as opposed to simply shooting at alien spacecraft or navigating PacMan
around a maze. In some games there is scope for configuring the capabilities of
the protagonist, just as there can be in some of the sports-based computer
games. In contrast, MMORPGs (e.g. Dark Age of Camelot) fit most of the
features of RPG as outlined above. The presence of other players adds an
unpredictability which is not present in the single-player computer RPGs, where
the script is more or less heavily determined by the programmers. This makes it
closer to a PBM game, with the added advantage of greater immediacy.
A Look at the Industry
Anyone with an idea for a game can design a PBM game, which doesn't need
expensive packaging and can be launched at very little cost. A game can
develop, too, in ways that may not have been envisaged at first. That's why it's
hard to categorise different types of game - the games depend on the taste of
their designers and what appeals to players.
There are many free PBM games, some of which are highly sophisticated
while others aren't. Free games tend to be rather evanescent.
Some commercial games are run as hobbies by people with "daytime
jobs" as well, but as well as the PBM games run by just one GM, PBM also
supports full-time commercial firms. Harlequin Games
(www.harlequingames.com), MiddleEarth Games Ltd
(www.middleearthgames.com), KJC Games (www.kjcgames.com) and
Madhouse (www.madcentral.com) are the big UK examples, while Flying Buffalo
(www.flyingbuffalo.com) is the original USA firm.
The game designers are usually the people who run the games as
gamemasters, though a well-designed game may be licensed to other
gamemasters once its worth has been established. As can be seen on the
websites mentioned above, many firms issue maps and other illustrations to
accompany and support the games. Maps are often essential in PBM wargames,
but may be of one's individual position rather than the whole shooting-match.
The PBM hobby is very much an international affair. There are games
designed and run in (say) France or Germany specifically for their home markets
(or most often, linguistic communities), but because of email the PBM hobby is
international and a firm can expect to welcome players from all over the world. A
game like Middle-Earth PBM was designed in the US, but is now run from
Cardiff, for players world wide.
Pubmeets are usually organised by the game firms: KJC Games,
Harlequin Games and Madhouse all run pubmeets at present, and Harlequin
recently went to Amsterdam to meet some of their European players at a
There's one classic pubmeet story. An American firm (Adventures By Mail)
designed a game to attract novice players by being attractive and easy to play,
but with enough depth to keep them interested. In It's A Crime, the players
compete as leaders of criminal gangs in a US city. The game was licensed over
here in 1987 by KJC Games and soon became very popular. KJC held a
pubmeet one Saturday in London soon after the game had started. What they
didn't know was that it was the same Saturday as a local derby between two
London football teams. Into the pub came the football supporters, looking for
trouble. The PBMers froze in horror. But word had gone round among the regular
customers that these inoffensive-looking fellows were talking confidently about
running criminal gangs, so were obviously very tough cookies indeed. The footie
hoolies heard this, and melted away...
PBM games can be winnable ("finite" games) or last indefinitely ("open-ended"
games), and designed with any sort of background that may appeal to players.
Fantasy wargames and football management games seem to be the most
popular in the UK. Most games offer a large number of possible actions, and a
choice of different ways in which to succeed, whether you pick your own course
of action in an RPG or seek to gain victory points in a wargame. All sorts of
variations are possible: a game with anonymous diplomacy, for instance, will be
vastly different to play from one where contact details are freely available from
Unless newcomers already have a decided preference for wargaming or
for sport, an Adventure Game makes a good start. Adventure Games are usually
open-ended, so won't endanger a new player too soon, and they offer plenty of
things to do and ways to contact the other players. Oh, and they're fairly easy to
play (if not to win).
If you're interested in looking at this type of game, there's Madhouse's
Dungeonworld (with its free area, The Broken Lands) at www.madcentral.com
and KJC's Quest at www.kjcgames.com. A game that's been around for many
years and is run by various GMs is Saturnalia: www.darkwolf.ie. All these games
have a fantasy setting, but it's possible to find science fiction and historical
adventure games, too.
Keen wargames may choose the popular area of Fantasy Wargames.
Well worth looking at is Middle Earth Ltd's Middle Earth PBM, which is usually
played as a team game and therefore a good way to meet other PBM players
without being out on your own. Middle Earth PBM is not the cheapest of games,
but its materials are gorgeous, and it's a good design with a famous setting: the
chance to lead a nation in Tolkein's world has a tremendous appeal beyond PBM
Harlequin Games' Legends is an exceptionally deep game, so seems
more suitable for players with some PBM experience than for newcomers, but its
sourcebooks are breath-taking:
Of course, not everyone wants to cast spells in a game, and a non-fantasy
wargaming experience can be a particularly vivid one. KJC's It's a Crime! is an
old game, but can still make a good introduction to PBM at www.kjcgames.com .
Agema Publications specialise in a range of games that vary between winnable
combat games that are quite close to tabletop play and long-lasting games with
the chance to gain and hang onto power, like La Gloire du Roi, which perhaps
are better classed as powergames. Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
There are plenty of games with a science fiction setting. KJC's latest
game, Phoenix, sounds worth trying: the software is impressive and it's suitable
for newcomers because you can gain help from whichever faction you choose to
join: www.kjcgames.com. And there's Madhouse's Destiny, too, which
resembles an adventure game with a science fiction setting:
Sports games, especially football games, are very popular, because they
often appeal to football enthusiasts. Spellbinder 's Kickabout is a highly detailed
game, so suitable for players who love to work with football stats:
KJC Games' Extra Time has the advantage of a basic and an advanced version,
so would be suitable for a newcomer who wants to feel his way in the basic
version first: www.kjcgames.com
"Case Study" - TimePatterns
The UK company TimePatterns began when Ken and Carol Mulholland (a
University lecturer and secondary school teacher, respectively) found that
keeping a group together for table-top roleplaying of games like Dungeons &
Dragons was too time-consuming. Ken was an inveterate game-player, and
when he spotted an ad for Starweb in an sf zine this seemed to offer a chance to
play at times that suited him. This was in the days before personal computers,
so the fact that the results were computer-moderated was a great novelty. Ken
wanted to design a game of his own, and worked on the software for this while
on sabbatical in France. The first players were gathered from people that Ken
had met in the half-dozen games he'd tried. One of these (without prompting)
sent on a handwritten list of all the names and addresses he'd collected - flyers
were sent to these, recruiting a bigger base. One of Ken's motives was to have
an excuse to buy his own PC - starting off with a PET. (In later days their house
would be occupied by half a dozen computers, which took over a whole room.)
Carol was happy to start running their own game - StarGlobe - because she had
had a baby and was glad to work from home. This was in the early days of the
PBM activity, the 1970s.
StarGlobe was an sf simulation, in which players flew a starship from the
central star of a cluster of 2000 stars: all the starflight and colony growth data,
etc. was held on a computer and printed out for each player, but also players
could ask questions of their ship's computer and order their crew: Carol produced
these more discursive responses. The gameplay was in a 3D environment,
which is unusual. A frisson was added at the start of play - the player was
informed that he/she didn't have to obey orders from the (repressive) government
which had commissioned the expedition, and could go off onto quite new
activities. The other stars had a range of planets which could be colonised or
mined. Some had alien lifeforms "of the enigmatic variety" (with richly and wryly
documented cultures). Information sheets were issued as the game progressed:
at first 30 obvious ones, but eventually some 267 information sheets were
produced as the players requested that subjects were explicated. This gave the
game a depth that seems fairly rare. At its peak, there were 200 players, some
of them playing for years, meeting in "pubmeets", and a player-written game
zine, The Telepath, which ran for some years until eventually the struggle of
accumulating material for it became too much. There was even an overseas
franchise, run out of Austria. The game ran for 20 years, but had to be closed
when Ken became seriously ill in the late 1990s.
In retrospect, Carol considers that: "We learnt a lot as we continued; our
players were full of helpful suggestions, some of which we could actually use.
We started as a space-flight simulation, but of course lots more had to be added
to make play interesting: technological development, mysterious artefacts to
discover, piracy etc. With an open-ended game, it's important to be able to
introduce new players continuously, which wasn't easy in StarGlobe when they
all started from a single point: alliances and quests needed to be added. I got to
like my players - I was impressed by how bright, well-informed, fair-minded and
friendly they were. There's a lot of personal contact in turn-based games without
the strain of actually meeting face-to-face. I got to know some nice people quite
intensively, in a limited but revealing way. It was fun to run the game."
Carol runs a small wargame at present, and is working on a design for an
A Commercial Magazine - Flagship
Flagship was set up for the PBM hobby in 1983, a time when this was expanding
rapidly. It has always been a subscription-based magazine, as it was considered
too specialised to suit shops. Authors are recruited as keen game-players - the
editorial policy is one of representing players, not game firms. ("We don't simply
print press releases.") Currently it is being repositioned as a general games
magazine, which is seen to make sense in that the readers like to play all sorts of
game, and there seems to be a gap in the market here (certainly not filled by the
like of White Dwarf).
The Mulhollands became involved with Flagship as readers and
advertisers. However, they took on editorial and publishing roles when the
original editor became involved in his own political career (he is now an MP). It is
the only printed magazine that addresses PBMs; there are numerous websites,
though it seems to be the case that only game-specific ones really survive.
While still seeking to reach the PBM community, the intention now is to
promote Flagship as a general games magazine, not a specifically PBM
magazine. One benefit of this is that advertising can then be recruited from
outside the magazine's traditional base. Most readers seem to agree with this
Has PBM a future?
Will PBM survive in face of stiff competition from online games? The effects of
broadband haven't yet hit the UK market, but the gaming opportunities that
broadband allows are exciting.
MMORPGs like Dark Age of Camelot have many of the qualities of PBM
play with more colourful and much more immediate results, while players can log
in at any time to find out how the game is progressing. This is likely to make them
better than PBM for some types of game like adventure games. Interestingly the
two major PBM adventure games (Dungeonworld and Quest) have an element
of hand-moderation to maintain players' interest. Quest used to be completely
computer-moderated, and the element of hand-moderation is fairly new: gives life
to the game. Initially MMORPG players have not been able to make contact with
each other to negotiate between the turns. Such negotiations now appear to be
possible with at least some MMORPGs, too, now. Players will email, write
(written messages are called "diplos") and telephone each other, and some
games have email chatlines (set up by the firm or by players themselves). This
sort of interaction out of the gameplay is a vital aspect of many PBM games.
It's possible that the computer-moderated adventure games will dwindle.
The MMORPGs now often have forums where players can discuss things, which
allow for diplomacy between actions. Such forums may be set up by individual
players if the game itself doesn't cater for this.
Strategy games and powergames, however, need the time between turns
for players to plan their various strategies and/or confer with each other before
putting in their orders. These types of game seem ideally suited to PBM. Also,
many RPG games readily use player-written material and appeal to creative
Turnbased gaming works best for strategy games and powergames;
where players need time to work out their plans and/or confer with each other
before putting in their orders. Team games are possible, eg MiddleEarth PBM,
which increases players' loyalty to the game. In a game with competing alliances,
not even the moderator will know what's going on! It's possible to play games of
great depth using this turn-based method. Oh, and they're not as time-consuming
for their players as the online games.
The main effort for the PBM games industry lies in persuading people to
join via the web, many users of which expect everything offered online to be free.
Firms may run a limited demonstration version of their game as a free taster, to
attract players into signing up for the fuller version.
PBM seems to be doing pretty well at present: two PBM firms have
become limited companies in the last couple of years. There seem to be an
increasing number of players who are prepared to pay for professionally
designed and operated games. If people who play games like to try different
types of gaming, then any increase in game-playing will increase the numbers of
those who play PBM games.
So perhaps this is an open-ended paper...
1 The biggest list of games is probably that on http://wwwcom/~lindahl/pbm list/
2 As with many of the activities and products we talk about here, the zine is now
largely online - people sometimes talk about webzines, to make this point.
3 There are also website discussion groups for particular games. 4 We have
located, but have yet to investigate a social science site dealing with RPGs:
PBMs; there are numerous websites, though it seems to be the case that only
game-specific ones really survive.