Carol Mulholland's definition
What is PBM?
PBM stands for Play-by-Mail. The basic idea is a simple one: instead of meeting your fellow players around a table in the same room, you post your orders for each turn to an impartial moderator. The game moderator (who’s called a GM, for short) processes them along with the other player’s orders and sends you the results, ready for you to brood over before you post your orders back for the following turn.
If you’re used to tabletop games this may seem a strange idea at first, but PBM games are designed to make the most out of their medium.
They can handle a larger number of players than it’s easy to gather for a tabletop game, so you’re not restricted to people nearby and can write your orders at a time that suits you. Games can last longer, too, than is generally convenient in a tabletop session. Indeed, though many PBM games end when appropriate victory conditions have been reached, there are some games which are designed to continue indefinitely. In most PBM games there is a wealth of information and options to think over during the time between receiving your results and sending in your orders for the next turn: most PBM games have considerable depth.
A big difference between PBM games and tabletop games is that for each turn in PBM you usually get individual results which are relevant to your own position, not an overview of the whole game. Therefore it’s often necessary to contact some of the other players in order to swap information, agree on frontiers and to ally for mutual protection - or the opposite! This need to interact between turns is called “diplomacy”; it’s not necessary for all PBM games, but it is an aspect of PBM gaming which appeals to many players because it’s a way of making friends who share your interests. PBM is strong on sociability!
Some GMs moderate their games wholly by computer, some use computers to assist them, while others moderate “by hand”. Each method has it’s own characteristics, so you’ll need to decide which suits you best. Many of the computer-moderated games are competitive games which will end with a winner, and many of the hand-moderated or computer-assisted games are long-lasting, open-ended games. It’s hard to generalise, though, as the choice is so huge. There are over 200 PBM games running in Britain alone, and many more by email worldwide!
Yes, you do have to pay for your turns, up front (Briny en Garde is free to play). But competition among a huge range of games keeps prices reasonably low for what you get back, so as hobbies go, PBM is an inexpensive way to have lots of fun.
Do you want to play a king, a spacefarer, a mage, a soccer manager, a mercenary, an enchantress, France or a bug-eyed monster? These opportunities and many more await you, Playing-by-Mail.
(The author of this introduction to PBM, Carol Mulholland, is the editor of Flagship magazine.)