Play-by-email role-playing games. Remember those?

In the late 90s, I got involved in a couple of well-established Star Trek PbEMs. I don't remember the ships' names and have changed computers enough times that no email has survived, but I do remember the characters. Albert Michaels was a pretty innovative holographics expert, at a time before Voyager introduced the EMH, and Skoid was an odd Bolian counselor filled with tough love.

But since I've always been more of a GameMaster than a player, I had to start one of my own. And so was born Moncton Supers.Moncton is where I live and I reimagined it as a vast metropolis à la Astro City or City of Heroes. Various sections of the city were repurposed as ghettos and mystical mountains, so that any kind of super-hero story could be told there. Using egroup technology, I launched 4 teams, each their own story and genre, and I played a character in each of them. The conceit was that you could create your own character or you could take one from any source, wholesale or with the details filed off. The four teams were:

The Justice League
Epic superhero comics in Morrison JLA mold. I played Green Lantern John Stewart (as if the only GL ever on Earth). Other members included the Jester (a Flash/Joker hybrid), Captain Marvel (until his player went all porno and we had to shut him down, prefiguring Judd Winnick's take on the Marvel Family), Doc Manhattan and the Undertaker (yes, the wrestler). One big story arc involved the JLA going on an outer space adventure and another Justice League full of vigilante types rising on Earth (mine was Gamma Man, an Ultra-Man/Hulk Amalgam). There was going to be hell to pay when they came back, but the game collapsed before that could happen.

The Titans
Angsty superhero soap opera in the Marv Wolfman/Chris Claremont style. I played the Tangent version of Flash, great fun. She had a huge rivalry with Flamebird, who, just like in the comics, was only in the team because Nightwing was. Our accompanying website even had diary entries in which the two girls (Flamebird, at least, was actually played by a girl) wrote scathing remarks about one another. Original creations filled out the team. Stories felt a lot like RPG modules, with lame villains and cookie cutter plots, but this was all about the interaction between the characters, which is where it shone. The peripheral (NPC) characters were pretty cool too, including Flash's judgmental mom Celeste and the Kryptonian Batman from Speeding Bullets.

Hero Hotline
Superhero parody and silliness. I played Zeep the Living Sponge, the sad Dial H for Hero creation that made a cameo in the actual Hero Hotline mini-series (I wish DC would do a sequel). A lot of original creations in this group, from a guy who only had powers where he was drunk (and was the only one with a driver's license) to the Tintin/Haddock mash-up who's only real power was getting hit over the head. The Hotline had such bizarre employees as Dr. Duck (no relation to Howard) and Noo-Noo from the Teletubbies. As you might imagine, this was the most fun of the lot, completely ridiculous.

The Defenders
Gritty and mystical, the Vertigo section of our shared world. I played Daredevil in this one, but the star of the show was really Doctor Mi's John Constantine. He and the other players managed some good creepy prose, shifting between mob-inspired stories and pure horror. I think the addition of Carnage was a mistake, and a dire warning to any superhero PbEM group allowing psychotic/anti-hero/vigilante loner characters in their midst no matter how cool the nerd herd thinks they are.

The campaigns collapsed twice, usually because of time constraints, but now we're on the cusp of starting over (it's all in French, so this isn't an invitation to my blog's readers) on our improv forum. Some of the old players, lots of new ones, and I'm already fighting off the interest in such luminaries as Punisher and the Goddamn Batman. Sigh. I've already called dibs on Ambush Bug (Hero Hotline, knows he's in a PbEM), Iron Fist (JLA, epic martial arts), Tangent Flash (remains in the Titans, I liked writing her too much) and Rom Spaceknight (Defenders, which I think will be renamed Watchmen... Vertigo Rom? Well, the Dire Wraiths seem perfect for it). My most loyal player wants to use Plastic Man and a teen Metamorpho, so I guess he's got a thing for polymorphism.

I might chime in again and let you know how it works out.


Martin Léger said...

I'll be posting my invented (yet totally borrowed) character later tonight!

Jeremy Patrick said...

I've always been curious how a play-by-mail campaign worked--how does it not take forever to handle role-playing and combat encounters?

Siskoid said...

Those I've been involved in have been completely narrative-based. It's like writing a few paragraphs from a shared novel every time you post. There are no rules except respect of other characters and tone. Certainly no dice rolling etc.

While you are completely in charge of your own subplots, and often have partnerships with other players to advance certain storylines (some even co-write conversations before posting them), administrating players (captains or team leaders, often) are usually the ones that start the major story arcs in which everyone must participate.

Often, you're writing from your character's point of view, but you can use other characters within reason (throwing them a ball they would then hit towards you). As long as you don't mischaracterize someone. NPCs, including villains are all you too. You're not just a player, you're part of a team of GameMasters too. Everyone contributes to the story.

Hope that clarifies things.

Doctor Mi said...

Thanks for the kudos.

PBeM RPG was a short-lived genre. Guess it was replaced with blogs, right?

Brings back some (fond?) memories of using Eudora on MacOS 8 as a mail client.


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