Articles PBM Memories The Research Column

Paper Mayhem: A Critical Resource During the Heyday of PBM Gaming

by David Spencer and Shannon Muir Broden

Although play-by-mail (PBM) gaming started in the United States in the 1970s, the industry grew rapidly and experienced its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. But communication in this period was not as free and easy as it is today, and the PBM community needed publications to help connect companies and players. Some companies published their own bulletins, but the community also needed independent journals. Gaming Universal magazine made a couple of relatively short runs in the 1980s. But two other publications endured, becoming the most prominent PBM journals of the period: Flagship, a UK-based periodical, and Paper Mayhem, a US publication.

Paper Mayhem’s success was not guaranteed at the outset. It had to engage with the community and slowly build its reputation. However, the various elements of the PBM community, from companies to gamers, benefitted greatly from the willingness of Paper Mayhem’s editorial staff to stay the course. It was a critical PBM resource during the 1980s and 1990s and the magazine’s contributions continue to echo today.

The Early Period

Paper Mayhem’s early period spans the first year or so. We don’t have issue #1, but according to the editorial in the first anniversary issue, Paper Mayhem #1 was published in July 1983. During the magazine’s first year the editorial staff had its work cut out for it. The issues we have from this era (#4, 5, and 7) show artwork reminiscent of the early works of Dungeons & Dragons. The text in those issues was largely typewritten—not a monospaced font typed in a word processing program, but actually created with a typewriter. In various cases, errors were even whited out and corrected by hand or typed over, bringing back a bit of nostalgia for today’s readers who typed term papers in college on typewriters. Another theme in early issues was a heavy focus on recruiting readers to submit material. The editors would consider just about any work: art, cartoons, interviews, opinion pieces, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and others. In other words, Paper Mayhem had a bumpy start and had to work hard to struggle to its feet. But that is exactly what the editorial staff did.

Transition Period

Over the next few years, the magazine improved significantly. Our collections are incomplete, but the issues we have from #9 (Nov/Dec 1984) to #15 (Nov/Dec 1985) feature improved cover artwork. These were matte covers, and not the slick artwork seen on covers of late editions of Dragon magazine or 5th Edition D&D products, for example, but definitely improving. And importantly, the contents in these and subsequent issues were more robust and useful for the PBM gaming community. They featured the staple of a PBM magazine: articles and reviews on PBM games—and plenty of them. For example, issue #18 (May/June 1986) had five game reviews: two for Rimworlds (one each by Joe Schell and Jim Cline), and articles on Stat-Sports Pro Football by David Webber, Stardragon by Loren Moody, and Top Ten Football by Bud Link. There was also a fiction piece called The Adventures of Brollachan and Grunt by John Kelly and Mike Scheid as well as articles on PBM games Aegyptus by H. Randall Webb and Earthwood by DeAnn Iwan, rounding out a robust array of content.

In the transition period, the magazine’s internal structure took the shape that it would maintain through the rest of its tenure. The Gameline section featured industry updates from PBM companies. The PBM Activity Corner allowed PBM companies to provide in-game updates to players. And the PBM Bulletin Board allowed people and organizations to post ads and notes of just about any kind. For example, in issue #32 (Sep/Oct 1988), “Bill” posted that he had just moved to Chicago and was looking for D&D and other role-playing gamers, using the Bulletin Board as a pre-Internet meet-up group of sorts.

There were other indicators in this period that Paper Mayhem had successfully engaged with the PBM community: gamers were contributing to the “letters” section and advertising was heavy. Additionally, the advertising was designed in many cases to be a stimulating visual experience that even today draws you in, insisting that you pause to engage with it—whether a space, fantasy, or other setting.  

Also significant was the publication of the 1st Annual Paper Mayhem Awards in issue #15 with the winners for Best PBM Game (a tie between Beyond the Quadra Zone and Starweb), Best PBM Moderator (a tie between Rick Loomis and Mike Williams), and Best PBM Company (Flying Buffalo). Importantly, these awards were based on reader votes, not chosen by the editors. This showed that the PBM community was engaging with the publication.

The magazine featured various PBM gaming firsts in this transition period. In issue #17’s Gameline (March/April 1986), one could read Pegasus Production’s announcement and description of their new game Alamaze that’s still active today. If you were so inclined to playtest SMG’s game, Mall Maniacs, you could get the information from issue #17’s Gameline as well. And in issue #18’s Gameline (May/June 1986), Zorph Enterprises announced that for the first time ever, someone “captured all three Great Jewels” for a victory in Quest of the Great Jewels.

Another key indicator that Paper Mayhem’s lens focused broadly on the industry as a whole was David Webber’s “Where We’re Heading” editorial, which appeared in every issue some time after he became the editor in chief. Webber discussed topics appearing in the magazine, but dedicated a significant portion of his editorials to writing about broader PBM topics like conventions, company changes, ethics in PBM gaming, and other areas.

Full Speed Ahead

By 1987, Paper Mayhem’s editorial staff was in full swing. The covers were glossy, the art quality continued to advance, and the content was maturing. Gone were the days of 16 to 17-page issues with a single PBM game review, advertisements so few that they appeared in the table of contents and an editorial staff practically begging the PBM community to contribute (e.g., issues #4–5, 1984). Late 1980s and early 1990s issues were now in the 40 to 60-page range, and full of articles, reviews, and information from the PBM industry. At this point, the publication indexed advertisers separately. Paper Mayhem was fully engaged with the gaming community in the United States, while Flagship primarily covered the PBM community in Europe, with some coverage in the U.S. as well.

Ratings also emerged as a key element of the magazine in this period. The annual “Best of” awards continued, but eventually the magazine added a periodic “PBM Game Ratings” and “PBM Company Ratings” list that solicited votes from readers for games they were playing. For example, Issue #56 (Sept/Oct 1992) had ratings for 84 PBM games with a high of 8.090 (Star Quest) and a low of 3.739 (Dark Blades) on a scale from 1 to 9. The number of responses per game in this issue ranged from 10 (Crystal Island) to 185 (Hyborian War) with an average of 50. Nine games had more than 100 responses (in alphabetical order): Alamaze, Duelmasters, Epic, It’s A Crime, Hyborian War, Legends, Starweb, The Next Empire, and World Conquest. Paper Mayhem used a similar method for PBM companies, rating 49 of them in the same issue using criteria such as dependability and various measures of customer service. This was important as it showed that the PBM community used the magazine in measuring PBM games and companies while communicating the results to the community at large, a key method of accountability.

Reading through these issues provides an interesting window on the period. Well, interesting for those of us who remember using the computers and accessories then, anyway. For example, in issue #18’s Gameline (May/June 1986), Quest Games asked for players to test their modem program. In issue #26’s Gameline (Sept/Oct 1987), Imagination Unlimited told their players that a hard drive and “backup floppy disk” failed, causing the loss of their PBM game—a staggering loss. In issue #27 (Nov/Dec 1987), Advanced Gaming Enterprises related in Gameline how they bought their second computer, an “8 MHZ with 1.2 Megabyte floppy drive,” along with “a fast 30 Megabyte hard disk”! Space constraints on the megabyte scale aren’t a concern for companies today, but they were real issues back then, and the PBM company Imagery told their players in Issue #27’s Gameline that they were ending their game Saga because of digital storage issues.

Paper Mayhem ceased publication suddenly on the unfortunate passing of its editor in chief, David Webber. The last issue in the authors’ collections is #89, but emails from Raven Zachary, another Suspense & Decision contributing author, indicate that the subsequent issue #90 (May/June 1998) was the final issue. This created a void in PBM coverage in the United States for some time, only partially filled by Flagship magazine and individual PBM company bulletins.

Final Thoughts

Paper Mayhem served a critical role for the PBM community in the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, it was fully engaged with the PBM community, providing the industry and its gamers with an important information hub during its heyday. John C. Muir, a PBM magazine contributor consistently active since the 1970s, told the authors that of the approximately half-dozen magazines of the period he subscribed to, Paper Mayhem “was the one [he] looked forward to the most.”

The magazine also provided a model for later PBM publications. In November 2013, Suspense & Decision helped fill the void left by its departure. Its founding editor in chief, Charles Mosteller, stated in Suspense & Decision Issue #5, in “Where We’re Heading,” that he thought of Paper Mayhem’s editor in chief, David Webber, every issue. That is another indication of how Webber’s work continues to echo in the 21st century.

Play-by-mail news today is somewhat decentralized compared to the 1980s and 1990s, when gamers had to rely on a magazine like Paper Mayhem for their news and connection to the rest of the PBM community. Today, gamers can get PBM game reviews, articles, and updates from Suspense & Decision’s website, and can collaborate more effectively than Paper Mayhem’s “PBM Bulletin Board” on and other online forums dedicated for specific PBM games. But, although the contemporary model is more diffused and decentralized, the general elements used by Paper Mayhem and similar publications can still be found today. It is hard to argue with success.

Authors’ Note

Our intent is to broadly highlight the impact of Paper Mayhem on the PBM world, and we regretfully are unable to note all the contributors over the years that were so necessary for the magazine’s success. Also, we’ve minimized the amount of detailed bibliographic information to avoid writing an overly academic paper for Suspense & Decision readers. Thus, we apologize for any related oversights or omissions of information. We would also like to thank Raven Zachary for his advice and Bernd Jaehnigen for his copyediting input.

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