In Search of Perfection: Postmortem Examinations on the Path to Play-by-Mail Immortality
Since returning to the hobby in 2018, I’ve attended two funerals for play-by-mail games.
The first funeral was for Fantasy Tribe by Jeff Perkins, in the summer of 2018. This was a difficult funeral to attend, as I traveled on a long flight to Australia, only to learn upon my arrival that the funeral was actually being held back in the United States in the state of Indiana. Thankfully, as Australia was one day ahead of the United States, I was able to get back in time for the funeral due to the time change.
Fantasy Tribe, may it rest in peace, was a tribe-management game set in a fantasy world that was played on opposite weeks from when TribeNet turns were due. Its creator, Jeff Perkins, had developed a game in the mid-1980s called Tribe Vibes, which ultimately would evolve into a game currently in operation by Peter Rzechorzek called TribeNet, which I play.
I joined Fantasy Tribe late and took over an Elf position that was previously being played by Peter, as he no longer had the time to both actively play in this game while running his own game. I was only a few turns in and just getting comfortable with the rules when Jeff emailed everyone in June 2018 to let us all know that the game had died.
Fantasy Tribe, from what I could tell, was hand-moderated, and the way in which Jeff kept track of player data was to combine both the turn results and the turn sheets into a single Excel file per player. This was a clever idea to reduce complexity, but it opened up the possibility that players could modify the master data included in the turn files. Jeff figured out that something was amiss with a few players that looked like cheating. He gave those players the opportunity to explain their side of the story. They never did, and they quit the game. The game never recovered after that. I came in just after the drama had taken place, but there weren’t enough players like me to make up for the prior losses, from both the accused players dropping out and the collateral damage from other players wanting less personal drama in their entertainment and dropping out, too.
The second funeral I attended was for The Isles by Roy Pollard and it took place yesterday (that is, from when this article was written on October 5th, 2019). I just returned from the international flight and sat down to type at my keyboard. I’m still wearing my formal clothing, the program is folded neatly in my left jacket pocket, and I am picking out dried clods of dirt from the traction holes on the soles of my shiny, black Oxford dress shoes, from the hiking. I had to travel to Derbyshire, England, and climb up and then down the high moorland plateau of Kinder Scout in poor weather. After the ceremony, I visited the Mermaid’s Pool nearby in hopes that I would be granted immortality so that I could create the perfect play-by-mail game over several centuries, but I was told by the locals to come back on Easter Eve. The mermaid was not there in October. My wife says that it’s time for a fresh change of clothes, but I am still processing the loss and haven’t thought about my personal hygiene. A part of me has died with this game.
Roy Pollard, the creator of the hand-moderated play-by-mail game, The Isles, sent out an email notice on October 4ththat the game had been suspended (a polite euphemism for death) due to poor uptake and other issues affecting his enjoyment of running the game. While the use of the word ‘suspended’ leaves open the door that the game may be resurrected a second time by a divine miracle at some future date, for the purposes of this article, the assumption is that its burial plot on Kinder Scout will remain consecrated and sanctified.
The Isles, may it rest in peace, was a role-playing game that allowed the player tremendous flexibility each turn. The concept was clever – your character woke up in a prison cell in a new world with no memories of their former life. On the first turn, your character was released from prison, thrown out onto the street with just a few belongings, and had to make their way in the world with almost no background or understanding of their circumstances. The Isles was a refreshing counterpoint to the other play-by-mail games I was participating in that required operating large and complex systems, such as nations or empires. Having the ability to focus in on the needs of a single character felt like a necessary balance to my macroscopically focused play-by-mail games.
The Isles was a game that Roy ran over 25 years ago as a commercial endeavor, and this year he brought it back to life as a free game. Roy’s interest in resurrecting his old game seems to have reached at least as far back as March 2016 based on the Twitter account, @pbmthe, an account that I hope remains in the historical records and is not deleted. It may be deleted by the time that you read this article, as his website for The Isles is no longer accessible. Activity on this Twitter account picked up again in January 2019 after silence for those three years, at which point Roy’s interest was sustained and the game ran from March to September of 2019. He created a Kickstarter for resurrecting The Isles in March 2019, asking only for $123. While the game raised $159, the Kickstarter campaign was still cancelled, and Roy went ahead with running the game for free.
I loved seeing a former play-by-mail game creator resurrect an old game in the modern era. I learned about The Isles through Charles Mosteller back in early August and I signed up immediately. I played the game for just 52 days and four turns before receiving Roy’s email that the game was dead. A disappointment, certainly, but as someone who has from time to time in life felt overwhelmed by commitments, I am certainly sympathetic to both Roy’s and Jeff’s decisions to terminate the lives of their games.
I was planning to write an article entitled, The Lateralization of Turn-Based Role-Playing Games: A Review of DungeonWorld & The Isles for an upcoming issue of Suspense & Decision. In this article, I was going to compare these two role-playing oriented play-by-mail games to each other using the metaphor of lateralization of brain function. This is what most people know as the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the idea that the two hemispheres handle distinctly different brain functions, one for math and science, the other for imagination and the arts. The Isles and DungeonWorld fit this metaphor. They are about as different from each other as two play-by-mail games in the same genre could ever be, yet both I found (alas, I wish I could use the word ‘find’ in the present tense) to be compelling and worth playing.
This is not an article about Roy Pollard or Jeff Perkins. I don’t know Roy or Jeff and I don’t know their motivations for birthing or terminating the lives of their own games. It is my hope that either one of them would write an article for a future issue of Suspense & Decision chronicling their journeys from a creator’s point of view. Frankly, their perspective on the death of a play-by-mail game would be much more interesting to the reader than my own tale from a player’s perspective. It’s a very limited perspective, especially considering that I was involved in both games for a fraction of the time they were alive. With my stories of Fantasy Tribe and The Isles having been told, I can turn my attention to the premise of this article –
The lives of hand-moderated play-by-mail games are inherently fragile, but closer to perfection. That’s my conclusion and I offer it up to you in the middle of this article. Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware, even more so in situations where the buyer has paid little or nothing at all in the transaction. Ultimately, this is all about the level of interest that the creator has in continuing to do the hard work of hand-moderating the game, over and over and over (and over) again. You could argue that all play-by-mail games are equally fragile, but the reality is that automated play-by-mail games are less prone to this type of fragility.
From what I have learned, there have been many excellent, hand-moderated play-by-mail games over the past few decades. I’ve played in a few myself, two I have already named in this article. Another is Out Time Days, may it rest in peace, a game I played in the mid to late 1980s that has only grown in mythic status over the years and one that I dream will someday come back, hoping against all hopes that Werner Freitas, formerly of Twin Engine Gaming, will decide to come out of play-by-mail retirement to resurrect his beloved time-travel game. I wasn’t invited to this funeral as I lost touch with the family. I still have no idea how and when Out Time Days died. If you know the answer, please reach out to me.
When I got back into play-by-mail games in 2018, I did a large amount of research into what happened to the hobby and its decline between 1993-2018, in that 25-year span of time that I did not participate. If I were to write a PhD dissertation, this would likely be the topic. I purchased old issues of PBM magazines off eBay, I read years’ worth of rec.games.pbm USENET posts, I found and poured over sites such as Suspense & Decision, PlayByMail.net, and Greg Lindahl’s PBM List Index. I absorbed as much information as I could about the state of the hobby, and in that process, I found a few games that I wanted to play and a few others that I regretted never having had the opportunity to play.
One of the games that I regret not having the opportunity to play was Cruenti Dei (translated as Bloody God from Latin), may it rest in peace, created by Thom Ryng of Sardarthion Press. Cruenti Dei was hand-moderated by Thom and had a fanatical player following. Described as a play-by-mail game of magic, diplomacy, and conquest in the epic fantasy tradition. Each player begins the game in control of a Realm on the continent of Sahûl, preparing for conquest. By force of arms, sorcery and intrigue, the player’s Realm expands, always under the watchful eye of its patron god. Vast armies clash on the field of battle, and steel rings upon steel as eldritch power crackles through the air above. Who shall prove victorious? You? Or the powers who oppose you? Only time and the gods may tell… I would share more details of this game if I could do the research. Primary sources, such as the game’s website, are now offline.
The words I’ve seen written about Cruenti Dei by its former players and their lament over its premature death are probably the strongest words I’ve seen written about any play-by-mail game. Several requiem were composed in honor of Cruenti Dei. Some of the most moving and poetic eulogies ever authored were given in honor of its immaculate and short life. Pilgrimages of Compostela were taken across Spain in its honor. Thom had over a dozen books of lore and history and geography published about the world of Cruenti Dei that players could purchase. References to these books still exist on Amazon and Lulu. I believe the volumes are still available, but I have not tried to obtain them. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a thought to buy these books, but even with my phone in-hand, my credit cards are always just out of reach on the far end of the nightstand.
One could tell that this was more than just a game to Thom. He was a world-builder and he was sharing his creation with those who stumbled across his world by some stroke of luck. While the Cruenti Dei forums remained online up until very recently, posting was disabled, so I was unable to contact the former Cruenti Dei players and ask them directly about their experiences. Perhaps you played Cruenti Dei and could reach out to me so that I can understand this world and its demise better.
The other possibility would be to connect with the creator himself. Thom is someone that I hope to sit down with to better understand the rise and fall of his creation. He only lives a few hours from me, so there’s a reasonable possibility that I will meet him someday. As he has published a book of poetry called Three Black Ravens, perhaps my name will get his attention in the sea of his inbox. Before the Cruenti Dei forums went offline, I read a post from Thom, one that I cannot quote verbatim in this article unfortunately due to its inaccessibility, that the hand-moderation of the game had become unmanageable and that the only chance the game had to survive would be through some level of automation. That never came about. Thom ended the game after the final turn had been stalled in processing hell for a considerable amount of time.
Cruenti Dei, a game I have never played and will never have the chance to play, has this odd sort of symbolism for me that I can’t fully explain. It’s taken on a larger meaning for me in the hobby. Cruenti Dei is my own unobtainable play-by-mail gaming Purgatory, even more fitting considering that Thom’s online identity now seems to be fully immersed in the many layers of Catholicism. His social media posts are quite interesting to read, but I would still prefer his focus to return to Cruenti Dei so that I could partake in the Holy Eucharist of Sahûl.
I’ve thought a lot about why I was the kid in high school and on into college who played strategic board games instead of role-playing games. I certainly had my fair share of role-playing games while I was younger. I think the truth, looking back, is that hand-moderated role-playing games suffered from the same fragility that hand-moderated play-by-mail games suffer from. The number of role-playing game campaigns that never went past the first or second session for me far exceeded the number of campaigns that were completed. Board games generally had a defined start and finish, without the sense of disappointment that would come with a role-playing campaign that faded out due to a lack of game master or player interest. I think I burned out on having GMs and fellow players that were not as committed to the experience as I was and found a refuge in board games, even though they were more prescriptive and less flexible, as the experience could reach closure.
Will I play another hand-moderated play-by-mail game again? Perhaps, but I think I will go into the experience with a more honest assessment that such an undertaking will likely result in a premature death. I will approach the experience with less attachment, and less long-term planning. Hand-moderated play-by-mail games are simply not commercially viable based on the level of effort to maintain them. The truth is, not even automated play-by-mail games are commercially viable in the present era, yet they persist anyway, to my satisfaction.
What keeps automated play-by-mail games alive is low-intensity inertia. If the money that is made coupled with the enjoyment that is reaped by the moderator of a commercial play-by-mail game is equal to the effort they put into it, the default answer is to keep it alive. Hand-moderated play-by-mail games, on the other hand, are high-intensity, and the reward comes solely from the enjoyment by the creator to keep the effort going. The more time-consuming the effort, the less likely that such effort will be retained.
Perhaps the only sustainable hand-moderated play-by-mail game can come from the mind of a prisoner or an immortal. My visit to the Mermaid’s Pool did not qualify me for either option, although it could have. A person who has been given a lifetime prison sentence with an infinite supply of paper, pencils (mistakes will be made), envelopes, and stamps may be able to achieve this operating under fewer distractions than the rest of us. A play-by-mail game version of the Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough at Last, but this time, the proverbial glasses do not fall and shatter, and just enough people survive the rubble of a ruined world to act as the players.
I have wondered, on a number of occasions, if my disproportionate passion for play-by-mail games is tied to a truth that we all live in a simulation, and that the act of playing these games is an acknowledgement of the stark reality of our circumstances and a means by which to connect with this state of being. While that is not my currently-held, conscious belief, perhaps play-by-mail games are the means by which I can come to terms with this reality, by simulating the behavior that is being simulated upon us all?
Where I’ve landed through my experiences since returning to play-by-mail gaming and doing some of my archaeological research into the hobby in that time is that automated play-by-mail games are the only viable option if you want it to be a sustaining part of your personal culture over the changing years of your life. In The Glass Bead Game: A General Introduction to Its History for the Layman, the introductory chapter to Hermann Hesse’s unique novel, Magister Ludi, a history is told of a game so compelling that it has reshaped the culture of our world, and that centers of learning have been created for the study of the game. Monastic life, more prevalent than today, is focused on perfection of the art of playing.
While I hope someday that such a game will emerge from the remnants of this dying hobby, until then, I will continue to enter obscure order codes into my automated turn sheets and let the soulless computational machines flip bits from zero to one and back again in some pattern to simulate another world. These arranged ones and zeros will temporarily transport me to incomplete representations of what perfection may someday come from the likes of a Thom Ryng or a Werner Freitas or a Roy Pollard or a Jeff Perkins, or some future enlightened creator that can conceptualize a world so spectacular, so rich in detail, so infinite in possibility, that one can live fully, enriched lives, in both the physical and the fantastical worlds at once in harmony. From today until the day that such a game may appear, I’d like to avoid any further play-by-mail game funerals.
Raven Zachary (email@example.com) returned to play-by-mail gaming in 2018. He lives in Portland, Oregon, USA. Raven used to play Fantasy Tribe and The Isles before their untimely deaths, so now he just plays Middle-earth, SuperNova, TribeNet, Takamo, Hyborian War, Victory: The Battle for Europe, and Midgard. If any of those games die, he’ll have to start his own play-by-mail game.