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PBM

Silver on the tree

I’ve just realized that this week is the twenty-fifth anniversary of me starting full-time professional work as a game designer.

I can’t now remember exactly what the date was, but some time in early September 1985, just before my 18th birthday, I moved down to Southampton and set up Undying King Games. I’ve been in various other games businesses since, and done other stuff for a living as well of course, but UKG has persisted throughout as the badge of identity for my self-employed game gubbins of whatever variety.

Back in that misty autumn of 25 years since, it was postal gaming, also known as PBM. I was working with Sloth Enterprises, an established PBM business, designing a role-playing game that became The Enchiridion. PBM had good economics for new businesses, because customers paid in advance. The usual practice was to charge for a startup which included rules, setup, and the first few turns. That brought in some money, which you lived off while you were feverishly writing the actual game, trying to stay ahead of the customers. I don’t think I have any of the docs any more1, or if I do they’re buried in deep archive, but iirc The Enchiridion was £5 for rules, setup and three turns. Further turns were then £1.50. Not a lot of money, but then I was paying £30 per week to rent a bedsit in Southampton’s salubrious red-light district, and living on tins of beans and bacon offcuts from Safeways. And beer, at pubs like the New Inn on Bevois Valley Road, was less than a pound a pint.

The Enchiridion was an unusual game at that time, because unlike other PBM RPGs it had a closed end – it finished when certain in-game conditions were met – and offered a cash prize to the most successful players. Sloth Enterprises marketed it for me to their existing customer base, and in return took a slice of the income. I’d set it up like this because I only had a year working at it, before going to university. As it turned out, it didn’t get finished in time, so Sloth had to take it over and run the closing stages themselves.

I have a vague memory that a similarly young (although probably not similarly foolish) watervole may have been placed in the game as a reviewer, for Flagship magazine. It was certainly at some point during that period that I first met her (she was already running her own PBM, the renowned Delenda est Carthago), and started writing for the magazine myself.

To be honest, The Enchiridion was not a brilliant game – it had some good ideas, but the design constraints worked against it, and also there were lots of areas where I didn’t really know what I was doing. Some of the subsequent things have been much better, particularly after 1995 when I went back to doing game stuff full time. I’m sure it would have been very nice to have had a big hit or made a name as a designer; but as it is, 25 years of enjoying myself, and of helping however many hundreds or thousands of people create happy gaming memories, has been a pretty excellent way of spending time. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me along the way!


1 Life Before Internet! All the docs were prepared on an IBM electric typewriter, which had a correction ribbon – a vital feature. And then printed by offset litho.

24 replies on “Silver on the tree”

Whichever is the earlier of (a) the time at which you guest edited an episode of Flagship because Nick was off politicking and I took over from the previous sports editor who had just hung up his pen or (b) when we met for RPGSoc FLRPs at some point between 1994 and 1997.

A sidenote which amuses me is that the Flagship sports editor after me was Mark Labbett, who has since become more famous as one of the Chasers on ITV teatime quiz The Chase.

In my memory (which is notably poor at the best of times) you wrote to me at Flagship before you came up to Oxford, when I was still reviews editor – talking about various wrestling games you were involved with. So I already knew who you were by the time you appeared and started FLRPing etc. And perhaps we’d even physicaly met up at a con or something. But this might just be my brain subconsciously attempting to impose narrative on a chaotic stream of events…

Unfortunately my email archive only goes back to October 1995, by which time the correspondence suggests we already knew each other pretty well. And my physical mail archive is somewhere deep in the loft! Well, it’s at least 15 years, anyway.

(My guest editorship was over the June 1997 general election, so you must have pretty much finished Oxford by the time the issue came out.)

I have a vague memory of the Enchiridion, though it is pretty vague now.

PBM was a good time in my life, even though it was when the RSI first kicked in. I had enormous fun running Delenda and am still in touch with a few of the players. (You’ll have to come down for one of our games weekends some time.)

Mm, the PBM era may have been brief, but it was responsible for some amazing creativity and great community-building. I’m still in touch with some of my players too, they’re a good bunch! I’d love to come down to one of your get-togethers, but sadly my Dad’s health situation means weekends away have been pretty unusual lately. Hopefully that will improve soon.

I used to regularly read Flagship and wish I could play all of the games. Or at least some of them. I never got too play much though, and failed to keep up with the very fine Lands of Nevron (I wonder what ever happened).

I always thought Mo was some sort of elder god of gaming, reading all his reviews… 🙂

That’s what people were supposed to think 🙂 but really I was just opinionated and mouthy, and lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

More like a flying polyp of gaming 🙂

Nevron gradually faded away, I think. There are still a couple of old web resources around:
http://www.network54.com/Forum/69554/
http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/NevronInfo/

although this rather suggestive page:
http://landsofnevron.com/
may hint at further life…

Does anyone still run PBM RPG’s like that anymore (or even PBeM’s?). I could never get into KJC’s antiquated entry system for their ‘RPG’ (hack n’ slash), but some of the wargames were worth playing (Keys Of Medokh got me in, and would have been good if it wasn’t actually vapour ware)

Medokh was a very interesting case. The way it hooked so many people (me included) to keep playing it, despite knowing perfectly well that it wasn’t written, exemplifies the best and the worst things about the PBM industry.

There are still a few PB(E)M RPGs around, but I think they’re all on a hobby kind of scale – more of a social-group activity than a genuinely commercial operation.

I very much enjoyed running my own ones, but I don’t think I could go back to it; the hours/money equation just wouldn’t stand up.

It was all quite opportunistic, as I happened to make the right contacts at the right sort of time. Tbh if I hadn’t been in touch with people who were already making a living that way, it would never have really occurred to me to try and do so myself.

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