PBM : Your portal to the core of your imagination


by Charles Mosteller


Browsing through issue # 40 (January/February 1990) of Paper Mayhem magazine, I happened upon a half-page article authored by C.A. “Red” Beam, from Salt Lake City, Utah. The article was titled, “On Inequality.”

It’s a good article, I think.

I cannot but help to wonder whether old Red is still with us, seeing as how he explains in the article that he was playing PBM chess in the 1930’s, when it was the only game around. My daddy was born in 1933, and he passed away a few years back. Red Beam was a true pioneer of play by mail, if he was playing chess via the postal medium around the time that my daddy was born. Go big Red!

In his article, Red discussed things such as equality and play balance in PBM game design. From what I can tell, all these twenty years after he authored that article, Red was on to something.

Red favored variety – lots of variety. He favored play balance over equality in PBM game positions. He did not seem to be a fan of equality in game design for positions in PBM games.

In Hyborian War, a play by mail game of imperial conquest in the Age of Conan, run by Reality Simulations, Inc. operating out of their ancient stronghold located in Tempe, Arizona, it is the lack of equality in the thirty-six different player kingdoms that helps to imbue that game with its lasting appeal.To imbue a position in a PBM game with uniqueness, a certain degree of asymmetric nature must be incorporated, I think. The one thing that I think should dominate in a PBM game, above all other factors of game design, is something that I term the fun factor.

If a game is not fun to play, then how much of a future did it ever have, even when still in the womb of imagination? Conversely, if a game is fun to play, then its errors and its excesses can often be forgiven.

Of course, what constitutes “fun” can vary widely from person to person. The same game is very unlikely to appeal to everyone, no matter which PBM game is in question.

A lot of browser-based games of the modern techno-age invariably come across as boring, no matter what their respective themes are. They tend to quickly become exercises in perpetual tedium. The satisfaction that derives from the immediacy of their turn results is all too often quick lived. These games have their moment in which they have captured your attention, and then suddenly – they are gone. Gone from your appetite. Gone from your focus. You play them no more.

PBM games – those that are the wonder children of the postal genre – have a tendency to cast spells of anticipation upon their players. Far from being on its deathbed, it might be more accurate to describe play by mail gaming as a genre that was premature at birth. The genre was not nurtured sufficient, and consequently, its growth was stunted.

Play by mail games, those of the postal variety, are a form of intellectual nourishment on an entertainment level. They are the sweet nectar of gaming. They are the forbidden fruit. They are the Holy Grail.

That’s right. You heard me right. That relatively few of us, oh so proportionally few, even bother to search for them in order to play them, these days, makes them no less the Holy Grail of gaming than at any point in our genre’s proud and glorious history of gaming.

My cell phone bills of the current advanced techno era pale in comparison to the days of yore, when plots and schemes and war plans of immense scope shook the foundations of the PBM world back then. I spent far more on phone bills, it seems, than on turn fees for PBM games. Go figure!

Players lying through their teeth to you on the telephone, and all the while you being fully aware that they are lying their asses off, only added to the aura and mystique of PBM games. Behold, these Lords of the Land of Schemes!

To me, equality in PBM game design conjures up images of play by mail becoming a rather pointless exercise in futility, in the form of Chinese checkers writ large. Who wants that?

Where was Wikipedia, back in the heyday of play by mail? What if the Internet had preceded the birth of what we casually refer to as PBM gaming? What if our PBM fore fathers had had today’s computers available to them, way back when? You want to talk about a Golden Age of PBM gaming? You can’t even begin to imagine what great works would have been wrought.

A mailbox – a standard, traditional postal box – is nowhere near becoming obsolete. Much like the Internet which we all tend to take for granted, today, that postal mailbox in our yard out front, or at the end of our driveway, or in the lobby of our apartment complex, or just plain wherever it is, today, that there is a portal.

No, it doesn’t look like a portal. But, it is a portal, nonetheless. It’s not a transporter, like the kind that you see on Star Trek. It’s not a portal that you climb in to. Well, maybe Bob McLain climbed in one, once, but that’s a whole other story, I’m sure, assuming that it even happened in the first place.

My friend, just as we did in years and decades past, we can still access that portal. It still works, the same way that it always worked. The temptation never fully fades, I don’t think. It is very doubtful that the Old PBM Flame dies completely inside of us. That portal is still there, and it’s still waiting on you. If you use it, you can lose yourself once more in a universe that’s bigger than ever – the universe of your imagination.

In space, no one can hear you scream. In PBM, you can bring a friend to dream. They can share your treks and your journeys and your travels and your adventures. Whether allies, enemies, or neutral parties to one another, in the realm of play by mail, they can remain your friend, even as they war endlessly against you and your hosts, legions, and teeming minions.

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can experience it for yourself. It’s waiting on you. All that you have to do is seize it!

Life doesn’t have to be boring. There’s still PBM!

NOTE: Originally posted in 2010 on the old PlayByMail.Net forums.

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