The Hivemind of Play By Mail


by Charles Mosteller


It’s a thankless task, but somebody’s got to do it, I suppose. Then again, maybe somebody’s already done it, but they are hoarding the details – guarding them steadfastly and with vigilance that would make the Omega Dark Guards of the famed Krulang Krang of Galaxy:Alpha proud.

In issue # 77 of Paper Mayhem magazine, Marguerite Dias of the PBM company of the same name stated, “We personally would greatly fear for the survival of PBM gaming if Paper Mayhem was not around to trumpet its presence.” Sage words, indeed!

The gravity of the situation demands action! With PBM fans scattered to the furthermost reaches of time and space, the Internet has acted as a fundamental law of the new PBM universe – exerting its decentralizing force with great effect. In brooding tones, the PBM seers of yesteryear prophesied the coming of Postal Ragnarok – the Doom of the Internet was bearing down on them with ever-increasing speed, its fury a splendid thing to behold. The devastation was great.

The great prophesy fulfilled, or so it seemed, play by mail’s prophets suddenly found themselves unemployed. With the Golden Era of play by mail behind them, they began to labor anew to exploit the technological mother lode that the Internet had delivered into the palms of their hands.

Fast forward to the present day.

In hindsight, play by mail has survived its appointment with Ragnarok. Bob McLain was last seen holed up in his Fortress of Solitude, a PBM-proof bunker constructed from the souls of the PBM damned. All attempts to lure him out have failed. It is eerily reminiscent of the Hell Gate, for those of you who played Galaxy: Alpha in years gone by.

My voodoo doll of humor of old, Bob McLain, aside, it is pretty evident and intuitively obvious to any who are willing to explore the PBM landscape for themselves that play by mail is still with us. As Jerry Clower might say, we had a rat killin’, but the genre of play by mail gaming is not graveyard dead. Incredible as it might seem, both play by mail and the Internet now co-exist side-by-side.

Welcome to the Promised Land, people.

The Internet assimilated some. It scattered others. Some, it anointed. Others were simply overwhelmed by the technological assault en masse on every fiber of their existence.

With the commercial sector of play by mail leading the way, the postal genre was eroded – bit by bit and piece by piece. The technological revolution underway was too tempting to resist. The Bane of Postage had met its match, and the Sword of Internet would slay this foul beast, freeing PBM of its never-ending curse.

Just as humanity embraced the aliens in the old V miniseries, PBM’s commercial sector embraced the Internet. They intended to exploit this alien Internet technology in full. They could discern the advantages that technological domination would confer upon their respective companies. Rather than riding the wave to prosperity, the scene was more akin to watching someone stand on the beach, preparing to catch a tidal wave with a baseball glove. The ensuing “progress” of play by mail’s commercial sector was not a pretty sight to watch.

Before sampling the lotus of the World Wide Web, in some cases, PBM’s game moderators experimented with computer bulletin board systems, or BBSs as they became commonly known. The transition to html and php only worsened the addiction. Technology was the Savior. It would save them all.

The carcasses of many PBM company websites now litter the Internet landscape, the actual casualty count unknown.

With each advance in technology, the commercial PBM companies led their players by the hand into the future of PBM. Somewhere along the way, most of the former thousands upon thousands of PBM players let go of their game moderators’ hands, opting to explore the Internet landscape for themselves. Most of them haven’t been seen since.

An industry Hell bent on dismantling itself, and focused on remaking itself for the dawn of a new technological era, should not feign surprise nor indignation at the eroded landscape of what was once a very promising commercial play by mail habitat.

Nonetheless, the search by the commercial sector for PBM’s mystical El Dorado of Technology continues to this very day.

It’s really not too difficult to find the last vestiges of play by mail’s commercial sector, if you look for it. Just use the Internet. Unfortunately, this Jurassic Park doesn’t feature a lot of dinosaurs. Most dinosaurs of PBM’s commercial sector went extinct years ago. What remains of them are only a few fossilized remains. You might even be able to find some of those old highly-touted PBM games that are no longer on the market, if you search the Tar Pit of Time long enough. Good luck on that.

Of vastly greater significance than PBM’s commercial sector, PBM’s player sector survived Ragnarok relatively unscathed. There were games aplenty for them in PBM’s Promised Land, aka the Internet. There was just one eensy weensy problem – most of these new games were not postal genre games. Thus began the Exodus.

Marguerite Dias was very prescient, it seems.

Once upon a time ago, both Paper Mayhem and its arch-competitor for PBM audience share, Flagship, illuminated the play by mail landscape with the unmarred light of postal genre purity. Silmarils, were they.

Paper Mayhem’s light was abruptly extinguished, with the passing of editor David Webber. The fate of Flagship’s light was a different tale. Its light was lost gradually. At most, the postal genre of gaming has endured under a pallor, ever-diminishing light – and its fauna and its flora have withered until now, we are left with a landscape sore with desolation.

We are lost in the wilderness, anew. In this much reduced light, the Death Globes of competition resemble Picts, savages who war for the sake of war. If there is to be a flourishing commercial PBM sector, then it will have to be rebuilt. In the meantime, we of the PBM Clan have this world virtually to ourselves. One man’s world of desolation is another man’s world of adventure.

In David Webber, one can see glimpses of Gil-Galad. David was play by mail’s Star of Radiance, and he fought the good fight for our genre of gaming. He was truly the last High King of Play By Mail.

In Carol Mulholland, one can glimpse Galadriel. Carol is the Lady of Light of the genre, but the realm of play by mail suffers under a growing darkness of the technological Sauron that we call Internet.

But, what of that thing that I refer to as the Hivemind of Play by Mail? It is scattered, with part of it seeking sanctuary in fortresses of forum sites and arks of discussion groups, and the remainder still wandering and exploring as individuals in the new wilderness of Internet gaming.

Can the pieces of the PBM Hivemind be made whole? Or is it a task impossible?

Prepare yourself for the arduous journey to come.

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

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