PBeM rpg – lessons learned

(Trigger warning: references to rape in fiction)

Over the past year I’ve written many versions of this blog post. Some angry, some sad, some self-righteous, some self-loathing. Reflective writing is like that I guess, personal and emotional. The last day of 2018 seems an appropriate time to get it off my chest.

Some background: PBeM rpg – play by email roleplaying game – is a method for collaborative story telling where each player writes dialog and description for their own character(s), and shares it in email ‘posts’ with ‘tags’ for other players to fill in. Part of the attraction is that – unlike stand-alone fiction – as a player there is an immediate (small) audience for everything you write. Emphasis is on the created story, so first-draft-quality prose is acceptable. PBeM rpg can be the perfect venue for writers who want to write just for fun, who don’t relish the stress of Writing-With-Intent-To-Publish.

A year-and-a-half ago a friend from my old Dragon Age PBeM rpg invited me to join a Romulan ship, part of a multi-duty-station Star Trek PBeM rpg. I have always loved Star Trek, and the prospect of roleplaying a character in a technologically ultra-advanced matriarchal warrior culture appealed to me. Plus I really wanted to write with this friend. So I joined.

I discovered that one aspect of PBeM rpg that appeals to certain players is the freedom to ‘write what you know.’ Unfortunately that meant a twenty-year rpg history of characters and ongoing background saturated in twentieth-century rape culture. According to Star Trek ‘cannon’ male and female Romulans are completely equal, Romulans are xenophobic and keep slaves, and a Romulan’s honor is more precious than his or her life. And yet on that far-future Romulan ship, slavery was obviously modeled on the slavery of Africans in North America – for no logical world-building (cultural, economic, political) reasons. Female officers were assumed to get advanced positions because of who they had sex with, and male officers were expected to rape slaves for recreation – especially the irresistible human-hybrid female slaves genetically engineered to be addicted to sex.

Roleplay a red shirt in a veteran player’s fantasy… or quit.

I wish I could say that I recognized what I had walked into right away and quit immediately. But it took about four months before all of that underlying misogyny was revealed. My friend kept reassuring me, and I trusted her. Meanwhile I had become invested in the new adventure plot that I was trying to help her push forward. In the end the worst part of the entire experience, by far, was the feeling that my friend betrayed me – that she was complicit all along.

By the time I quit the Romulan ship, I had joined another (human-based) ship in the multi-duty-station group. The Game Master (GM) promised it would be ‘safe’ to stay and complete what turned out to be a truly interesting, fun, and immersive adventure. I developed a character that I deeply enjoyed roleplaying. But then the next adventure comprised two short away missions. The first planet was run by men trying to solve survival-threatening sabotage while the women – type-cast as petty, selfish, and stupid – worked against them. The second planet experienced the same sabotage but was run by women – horny farmgirls – because a virus had killed most men and rendered the remaining men effeminate. The GM defended these plots as ‘reverse sexism for humor’ when I complained and refused to participate. Soon after the GM announced a joint plot with the Romulan ship (where it turns out he has been the functional GM for years). At that point I quit the group completely.

I will note that there are other active duty-stations in that group, and I have reason to believe they are not like the two I played with. I have purposely refrained from identifying the group publicly, but if you’re reading this and want to know, contact me. miriah(at)live(dot)com

Soon after I joined a different PBeM rpg group for five months: Starbase 118. That group has a comprehensive player handbook with enforceable guidelines to prevent sexism and racism, and actively promotes inclusivity. I loved that community – it’s over twenty years old and has grown and matured with the times. I endorse Starbase 118 whole-heartedly. But I found the posting structure (rewriting the scene from each character’s point of view in script format) cumbersome. Plus I was already feeling burnt-out when I started.

So, here’s what I learned.

– It probably takes three to five months of active play to find out what a PBeM rpg group is really like.

– If the group doesn’t have a comprehensive inclusivity policy with clear implementation guidelines and you identify as female, pretend to be male for the first six months.

– Set your expectations for social awareness low. As a science fiction and fantasy writer and aspiring author, I actively try to be aware of the way marginalized people are depicted in fiction, and do my best to portray people who are other than me (cis-white) with sensitivity. I research, I try to listen. I don’t assume that I understand some aspect of an other’s reality because my understanding feels right to me. For some PBeM rpg players, that is way more effort than they are willing to give.

– Not everyone is open to examining their world view and stretching their writing beyond what they know. Before calling out a PBeM rpg player or GM’s sexism etc., ask if they want feedback. Even if they says yes, assume they will get angry and defensive. Most PBeM rpg players are cis white.

– Just because ‘Star Trek’ is on the webpage, don’t assume the stories written by that PBeM rpg group embody Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a hopeful future.

He’s the GM, not a Social Justice Warrior


In spite of all that PBeM rpg can be really fun when all the players are dedicated to creating an inclusive adventure. The weird thing is, a part of me wishes I could still play. Another part of me is glad to focus my efforts on my own, stand-alone fiction.

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