To complement this month’s introduction to RPG, IAN LACEY has been arm-twisted into giving an overview of PBM for those not already addicted. But first, the miserable young so-and-so has a whinge about Christmas...
YES, IT’S THAT time of year again, when all those annoying cards with horrible, sickly covers start clogging up the post. Turn results with strict deadlines are lost in the flood and we PBMers are forced back to our computer or board roleplaying games. So if you’re new to the hobby, and send off for a couple of the cheapo games below, expect a delay!
The basic concept of play by mail games is simply that you write down what you want your character(s) to do, usually by filling in a turn sheet, then post it to the GM (game moderator). After analysing your sheet the GM (human or computer) decides what happens. The results are then printed, and posted back, restarting the whole process. Games based on this principle have been played almost since the beginning of the postal service. From chess through to various board games like Diplomacy, all manner of games have been converted to postal play. Soon, of course, people started designing their own games solely for playing by mail. Charging a small fee helped pay for the time and effort of these designers, and deterred time-wasters messing about with the games. As the years went on, more and more people thought that running a game would not only be fun, but could be financially rewarding. And so the play by mail company was born.
Nowadays if there is any sort of game you’ve ever fancied playing (whether postal or not) you’ll probably be able to find a similar PBM game. If you haven’t found it yet then don’t worry, keep reading these columns and I’m sure I’ll mention a game that appeals. Alternatively you could send off for a magazine which is dedicated to PBM (most are only available via the postal service — God bless ’em — or at conventions). The best known of these is Flagship, which is an A4 prozine dedicated to play by mail games. It’s fairly comprehensive, but often out of date by the time it arrives. It also carries a rather hefty price tag — £2 — but in the long run is probably worth it. The latest issue is Number 18.
Alternatively you could try one of the two bigger fanzines dedicated to PBM. Firstly there’s PBM Scroll which is now on Issue 6. It’s 40, A5 pages long, a little scrappy in presentation, and overpriced at £1. Nevertheless it does give an ‘alternative’ view of the hobby and covers some amateur games that get little coverage elsewhere. Send your cheque to to John Woods.
The second fanzine is slightly harder hitting and covers a wider range of topics. I’m not sure if I should be mentioning this at all, since I edit it! Judge for yourselves. It’s called Start-Up (+2 Free Turns) and Issue 1 costs £1 (overpriced? Nah!) for 60, A5 pages. It contains PBM reviews, fiction and coverage of many other areas of gaming.
Magazines and columns such as this aren’t the only ways to get into the hobby. There are two associations which will deal with queries. The first is mainly responsible for organising conventions, but are generally a helpful bunch. They go by the name of The British PBM Association. The other group are called the Postal Gamers Association (PGA) and produce a newsletter/magazine which is very good (A5, 44pp, 75p). They can be contacted via the GM of Raiders Of Gwaras, Mike Richards.
I’ve tried to find some games tor beginners which have start-up packages well under £5, and turns priced at under £1.50. Most of the games are Computer Moderated (CM) because PBM companies find them easier to run, as well as making them cheaper for us.
Trolls Bottom: Free start-up with two turns. Turns £1 or £1.50. CM. You take on the persona of a Moon Troll in the wild and whacky land of the title. Good for beginners. KJC Games.
Creephouse: Free start-up with two turns. Turns 80p. CM. You are a Creep in a crazy haunted house. Can you escape? A very different game. smoothly run with some hilarious turn replies. Project Basilisk.
Crisis: Start-up £2. Turns £1 (Fast — seven day turnaround). £1.25 (Slow — ten days). CM. Based upon the boardgame RISK, but with nuclear missiles and numerous other innovations. A great introduction to PBMIng and wargaming alike. Mystery and Adventure Games.
Skullball: £8.50 for ten games (turns) with the possibility of more if you make the finals. CM. A fun variation on soccer-management games making you head coach of a Skullball team. A game where the players use every part of their bodies to get the ball near their opponents’ goal. On The Brink.
Jetball: Start-up £3.50. Turns £1.50. CM. Similar in concept to Skullball, but your team is a group of hardened jetpacked thugs, attempting to become the champions of the galaxy at this violent, futuristic sport. Alchemists Guild.
Raiders Of Gwaras: Start-up (plus one turn) £3. Turns £1.25. HM. One of the best Roleplaying PBMs to my mind. Unbelievably long turns, at a very low price. No other professional game at this quality can match Raiders on value for money. MJR Games.
Now to a game much-mentioned in previous issues of CRASH. Our favourite novice, Mr Anon, returns to give us an idea of what The Chronicles Of The Knights Of Avalon is really like...
The start-up kit contains a newsletter, the basic rules and various starting sheets. The newsletter makes interesting reading and keeps you up-todate with happenings in Avalon, and other Jade games. The basic rulebook (advanced rulebooks cost £1, from turn five) is nicely presented, ‘designed only to give you an idea of the games mechanics, the game expands for the player through gameplay, and is designed for you to discover’. I don’t think this is a disadvantage, in fact it adds to the game, as you are forced to explore the game system. There are about sixty different combinations of orders, but the most commonly used are those concerning army movement, settlement building and expansion.
For some reason I missed the first game turn, and found that my settlements were randomly placed in my home province with my armies fixed in them. All provinces consist of a blank 10x10 grid with each small square representing an area of 5x5 miles. This province will be one of the 504 which appear in the game. While this may seem a lot, less than half of them are habitable due to sea, mountains, and the like. You have to discover the world around you, and your location within it.
The game print-out is very good, including reports from all generals and settlements.
Your main aim is to progress from Squire to Emperor. To achieve this you must increase your game rating and how to do this is only hinted at in the rulebook. In fact Avalon would prove very hard to win if you tried to go it alone, and alliances are very important. Try and expand, explore and use your initiative. On the down side the turnaround, which is supposedly 10 days, has varied from 10 to 15 days, leaving me very little time to get my orders back to Jade.
The Chronicles Of Avalon is one of the better introductions to the world of play by mail. Overall I’d give the game a good seven out of ten.
Thanks to Stuart Blake for some good questions which I’ve tried to comprehensively answer below...
Q Which is better, a computer or a human-moderated game?
A Both have their own advantages. Computer moderation is often very clinical and perhaps a little impersonal. It is however (usually) fast, unbiased and (on the whole) error free. Human moderation may be slower but gives you that personal touch, as well as often being more interesting and less repetitive than some computer games. Having said that there are, of course, games of both sorts which break the rules.
Q Can a computer-moderated game be moderated by a 48K Spectrum, or do you need a 16-bit machine?
A It very much depends on the game, and which pieces of the game you aim to run on the computer. If you have a game which is basically human-moderated, but also requires you to do some tedious calculations each turn, then a Spectrum would probably do fine. Almost every large, professional multi-player game is run on a 16-bit machine, though. I do know of a couple which aren’t (see last month’s column), but they are few and far between. If you aim to sell your game abroad then it is best to use the compiled Quickbasic language on an IBM-compatible PC.
Q How do you get a PO Box number?
A Try your local Royal Mail Sorting Office (Main area post office).
Q Does a rulebook have to be in the normal style of full-colour printing etc, or can it be just a lot of printed sheets?
A A rulebook can be in any format you like, photocopied, printed, whatever. To call full-colour printing the norm for a PBM game is perhaps a little misguided. Very few games have full colour rulebooks, or even full colour covers (two colour covers are few and far between). Most are plain and simple black and white printed booklets. Things don’t have to be colour to look good, just get a pleasing layout, some good art, and your rulebook will be well up to the standards of many professional games.
Q Does the game have to be totally unlike all others or will I get strapped over copyright laws (ie Arcadia/Earthwood).
A A difficult question. It’s sad to say that a truly original game is now very hard to find. Most games are clever and neat variations of existing games. As long as you make sure that there are about as many differences as there are similarities no-one will worry. If your game is going to run with less than 100 players no-one is going to take much notice of you anyway. It’s when things get professional and large sums of money are involved that tempers and legal threats start to fly...
If any more of you have queries, please don’t hesitate to wnte in.
Finally I must just say something for all those people out there who are just starting a PBM game and want a mention in this column. Please don’t just send photocopied adverts or whatever. To get my attention a full rule package and extra information is needed. Please bear this in mind when writing.
Next issue I’ll be talking to those people from Project Basilisk and being very nice to them, but only if they give me lots of free games and hints on how to win... Till then, keep ’em flooding...