Dateline: 10/08/97

Once upon a time, there was just one way to play: everyone gathered around the folding table in your parent's basement. The Game Master would be hiding behind a cardboard screen and the other players had about twenty dozen six-siders piled around their character sheets. The guy that everyone wanted to leave the group but nobody had the guts to ask him would annoy the others with his Misanthropic Lone Wolf archetype-based character. Dice would be rolled, and actions would be shouted across the last greasy pizza slice that everyone wanted, but nobody took. Someone forgot their character sheet. Someone else left thier bucket of dice at home. Interparty conflicts would continue to boil. About two in the morning, someone would knock over a cup of Mountain Dew. The game centered around violence, guns, and dealing the most damage.

It was the era of Twinkies and Munchkins.

I first started gaming the same way you might have started, sitting around that table (sometimes it was in the dining room, other times it was a coffee table and we'd be sprawled on the floor), eating my share of pizza or chips or popcorn. Eventually we all moved on, to college, to work, to another life.

And we found another way to game. On the computer -- access to the internet made PBeM, MUD, and Chatroom gaming a popular alternative. Granted, not as much can be done in a two hour game session in a chatroom as you could do in a face-to-face game. If you didn't know where a gaming group was meeting or if you wanted to play right then, you could go on-line and join up with a group.

Back when I was on GEnie (now Genie), I was a semi-regular on the TSR Roundtable where I played in a few PBeM-like (message based) games. The way PBeM games differ from face-to-face (FTF) games is that in the FTF game, the GM is right there along with the other players. You get instant feedback. In PBeM games, the players send in their orders/character actions, and the GM combines all the player's actions in one e-mail message. The players then read the e-mail message and send in their new actions.

Of course, the major downside to this is your game takes a long time to run. A simple combat encounter could take several postings to resolve, especially in a game like Shadowrun, where one character can have something like four actions in a single three-second combat turn. The way most GMs and players get around this is by incorporating several actions in the course of one post. An example:

Tuck is a PC who is in a dead-end alleyway. She's pinned down behind a dumpster by two goons with guns, one in the alley behind cover (White) and one on the fire escape on a building off to her right (Black). Her motorcycle is just two meters away, but it's out in the open -- no cover. Tuck's player sends in the following:

Tuck pulls out her SMG, and fires at Black.

  • If Black backs off, she'll lob a smoke grenade at White while running to the motorcycle.
  • If Black doesn't back off, she'll throw a smoke grenade just on the other side of the dumpster so she can get to the motorcycle in the cover of the smoke. When she runs to the bike, she'll be firing at White's direction.
  • If she gets hit, she'll stay under cover and concentrate on firing at White.
The GM would get this post and incorporate it into the next post and Tuck's player would find out what happened to her character.

The good thing about PBeM games is that you have a copy of everything that's happened. You can archive everything and look back to see if the GM slipped in a clue way back when.

You'll also be able to act more like your character would in real life. How many times have you decided your character would take one course of action (say, throwing a grenade at someone), only to change your mind because three combat phases earlier the 14+4d6 initiative street samurai just killed the opposition.

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