PBeM and “Stellar Region”

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series RPG Gaming and Me

Having discussed those times when I gamed with other people in live RPGing situations, I figured I might as well also talk about my limited experience with PBeM RPG gaming. That is, Play By e-Mail. It’s an offshoot of the older PBM gaming that developed before the internet, but I never played that. My first experience with remote gaming was online.

At some point during my first three or four months of using the Internet–which puts this back in 1995, I think–I discovered the website Mormegil’s Scrollworks (now defunct, do it’s a dead link) run by Christian Walker, a wonderful guy with whom I struck up my first online friendship, and who went on to found the Scrollworks RPG zine. Christian ran a PBeM RPg game with my ex and me for a while.

Her character was a young child, if I remember right, and mine was a mentally unstable goblin mage, except of course goblins aren’t smart enough to learn magic, so he was just a zero-level goblin moron. He believed that his power came from tubers growing in his garden, and always carried around a rutabaga, I think it was; the poor fellow proudly presented to everyone he met a scroll that he believed was the title deed to some famous magical grove in a nearby forest. (He’d bought it from a passing warrior, and in fact the scroll said, “I am too stupid to live. Please kill me.” Somehow, nobody ever did it, though; they probably felt sorry for a helpless, stupid goblin who believed he was destined to be the world’s next great “Ark-Mage.”) Christian was a kind a patient GM with a greaty sense of humor, and we had a lot of fun for the short while the game lasted. (I’m not sure what caused it to fizzle: Christian got married at some point, but I also was studying music composition and it was a pretty all-encompassing thing at many times.)

I returned to PBeM once more, this time as a GM, sometime during my studies at graduate school in Montreal. This was in my second year in the city, 1999-2000, I think. I remember clearly working on the game at my apartment on Rue Hutchison — in fact, typing up the collated weekly game turn for my subgroup of characters on my PowerMac while listening to Bjork’s “Pluto” on a loop.

This game was called “Stellar Region” and I co-ran with my friend Kat Feete. Kat was a lifelong gamer, and an aspiring SF author as well, and we met on the Brin-L, a mailing list that was ostensibly full of David Brin fans discussing his works, but ended up being full of all kinds of SF fans discussing all kinds of things except Brin’s work, until… well, I won’t talk about that, except to say a lot of us transferred over to the Iain M. Banks mailing list (The Culture List) around the time of Stellar Region. Kat and I recruited players from the Brin-L, and then ran what ended up being a somewhat literary PBeM.

Not literary in the sense of James Joyce, mind, but, it was a weekly exercise in fiction writing. Players would have a chance to hold dialog during the week, to which we would respond when we could, usually within a day or two. Usually, things would jumble together, actions colliding and clashing, and Kat and I would not only report dialog as it took place, but also do the choreography that involved characters and their actions running into one another. Then the cycle would begin again.

I think Kat and I actually began worldbuilding on Stellar Region quite some time before we actually launched the game. There were a number of player character races, one of them cribbed from my friend Karen Smith’s writing (a furry humanoid from an ice planet, called the Ktiath), another species designed by Kat which was basically a ripoff of that humanlike alien at the beginning of the original Men in Black movie, and the others Kat and I made up ourselves. There were about five major humanoid species, plus one or two of what we’d now call post-Singulatarian species, one of which were called, I think, the “Atheri,” who putt-putted around the galaxy on slow, impossible-to-board ships.

There were all kinds of neat GM secrets that Kat and I thought up, too: secret backstories about both of the major alien species (yes, an intertwined history with a war and an uprising, and genetic tinkering related to all those humanoid player-character species); weird locales, like one planet that was itself a Big Dumb Object (the intelligent species that had created it had retreated into a nanotech-fueled solipsism, which they emulated from the safety of nano-networks housed in the nervous systems of the major species living on the planet); and of course local politics among one group of characters who were on a human colony planet.

We started the game out with two groups of characters, on different worlds. They were supposed to end up being joined at some point, but gameplay was so slow that this never happened. I don’t remember how long we ran “Stellar Regions,” but I do know that it was incredibly time-consuming, which was the reason, finally, we quit running it.

And yes, I was the one who named Stellar Region, specifically after the Stellar Regions album by John Coltrane. There was no connection, other than the CD happened to be on my desk when I was trying to think up a name for the game setting, and the name sounded cool.

I’m sure I have archives of the original game setting stuff somewhere, on some CD-ROM or something. If I find it, I’ll post the archive for anyone interested. Heck, if I have the email archives too, I may even throw them in, so that any interested individual could snag a few GM secrets for gameplay… or former players can see a little bit past the veil behind which Kat and I ran the game. Not that I imagine many of them will go out looking for anything on “Stellar Regions” after so long. I suspect most players were a big disappointed at how slowly gameplay progressed, and at how abruptly it tapered out. By the end, I was exhausted–and I suspect that was how it was for Kat, too.

Still, PBeM was fun at the time, but I found it lacked something integral to the RPGing experience–the interaction and spontaneity so central to pen-and-paper RPG gaming. I don’t regret the experience, and I learned things from both games.

And in my next post in this series, I’ll turn to that theme: what I learned from RPG gaming in general.

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