Sunday, August 12, 2012

DMing for 80

As a quaint form of communication, play-by-mail has joined the company of heliographs and messenger pigeons, but in the 70s and 80s, PBM games were a viable sphere of gaming activity. Some game magazines, like Steve Jackson's Fantasy Gamer, published monthly updates for popular PBM games, like Angrelmar

It is 1984, you pick up the magazine and read:

Again the churchmen met on the Isle of Ara to solemnize the union of the four churches into the Imperial Church. Hildric of Dragona became primate of Angrelmar and head of the Council. He appointed Divor of Hatra to be Cardinal Bishop of the Imperial Church in Angrelmar. Many secular lords attended this council, including the regent, Rathal and Prince Vicor. Vicor used this occasion to denounce his cousin, Auerlus, for oathbreaking which Vicor believed cleared his own name at the same time. The council also accepted Lady Callizar's realm into the Empire as the Principality of Shalamar. That fall, at the Feast of Alfons, the lords of the South offered a crown to their Lady Callizar.

It goes on. And those were just the most significant events of a single turn in the game. At that point, Angrelmar had 80 players, each one a lord or lady with a fiefdom somewhere in a vast continent. The guy who ran the game, R., was in my wargaming group, and I played in the campaign for a bit. He received dozens of letters each month from players detailing how they were spending their incomes, where their armies were marching, and what alliances they had formed. Everything was plotted on the big map of Angrelmar, and each player received a letter from R. detailing the results of that turn's move, which represented one year of game time. And there was plenty of player-to-player communication too, via mail and phone calls. Schemes, deals, assassination atttempts...

It all added up to an insanely detailed living world of politics, economies, and war. It was so big that no one player could possibly grasp it all. You focused on your corner of the realm, your immediate neighbors, just like a real feudal lord must have done. Because a decade would pass by in a year of real time, your character would age, marry, have kids. The resulting narrative read like something out of A Game of Thrones.

Once a year or so, R. would host a council of the realm in which players would show up at a gaming con or at his rambling backwoods house to RP in person. Any big battles between players would be played out turn by turn, using lovingly painted armies of 25mm miniatures. The alcohol-fueled scheming and backstabbing would go on all weekend. Good times.

When email came in, these games continued for a while. Despite being easier to adjudicate with the help of Excel spreadsheets and instant communication, they yielded gradually to computer gaming, and have been all but forgotten. Even the laziest googler can find some that are still going, I suppose.

R. didn't do this for free, mind you. Each turn cost $3, which was fair compensation considering that running Angrelmar must have been a full time job. A monthly subscription to WoW is what, $12 now? So tell me, how much would you pay per month to play in something like Angrelmar? If I Kickstarted it, would there be takers?


  1. Wow. That's just awesome. I dreamed of doing games on that scale back in the 80's.

    I don't suppose you have any of the letters? That would be a priceless piece of gaming history to be able to see.