Tag Archives: pbem

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.

Writing Just for Fun

I blogged before (here) about the play-by-email role playing game (PBeM RPG) I’m a member of.

It has been almost three years since the group started. My own first post was on 20 April 2011. This cooperative writing project has been the source of both intense enjoyment and utter frustration. It’s wonderful when everyone participates consistently, and crazy-making when one player flakes.

Pheasants on the road near Stirling, Scotland August 2013

Suicidal pheasants on the road near Stirling, Scotland August 2013

Last Autumn I was pretty fed up with the way some other long-time players were blocking story threads. At that point I had four characters. I wrote two of them out of the story, intending to back out of the game. Then the GM quit just before NaNoWriMo. One of my two remaining characters is/was stuck in limbo because two players went AWOL. My last and oldest character is/was in a slow-moving story thread with one other writer.

I thought I was okay with one, minimally active character in the RPG. After all, I had original writing to do! I shouldn’t be wasting my precious writing time on fanfiction that can’t even be published! Write? I mean, Right?


RPG writing is fun. Creative. Easy. No serious editing. It feels like writing that first draft and submitting it right away while you’re madly in love with it — without that OMG morning-after, what-have-I-done hangover feeling.

The thing about RPG in any form is, players come and go. That’s just the way it is. I realized that I really missed writing the game. And now there are new players. Game Master responsibilities are being managed by a committee. So I’ve created a new character I hope will be more active.

Of course writing collaborative fiction with the goal of publication would not be the same as writing an RPG. But, I bet there would be similarities and I hope to get to try it sometime.

Happy Writing.

writing just for fun: PBEM RPG

Elf drawing by Miriah's daughter

One of my DA:L characters, as imagined and drawn by my daughter Aly

This blog is supposed to be about my learning experiences on the “path” to becoming an author. But it’s time for me to diverge and talk about another writing activity I indulge in. It’s a play-by-email role-playing-game (PBEM RPG).

The usual response, when I explain this activity to people I know or meet, is a blank look. Most people have heard of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and yes, it’s a bit like that. The “game” is played by writing pieces of the story, and posting it via email to the other players. So unlike D & D, we don’t play it in real time, it’s more like writing a story cooperatively. I write all of the actions and dialogue for my own character(s), and the other players do the same for their characters. Chances are, if you aren’t a writer, or rpg-gamer, your eyes have glazed over by this part of my explanation.

We write in a shared world. The story is set in the world of Dragon Age, a video game, so technically this cooperative story is fanfiction. The name of the RPG is Dragon Age: Legacy (DA:L). From my point of view, PBEM RPG exists in a void between original writing and fanfiction, between a face-to-face RPG and a written story, between programmed characters in a video game and real people.

I thought I would delve a little more into what it is about this writing activity I like so much. I figure that my family, at least, might like to know.

First, I love the writing. To me it’s the best, most fun part of writing. Writing just for fun, writing to set the story down, writing to move the story along, writing to share the experience with a relatively small audience of other writers who are also invested in the story. Each post doesn’t need to have perfect grammar, it doesn’t have to be publish-worthy, it’s just fun.

Before I go on, let me just clarify something. Overall, the writing in our shared DA:L story may not be polished enough to be published as-is, but I think we have some damn good story telling going on.

The characters (all original) form friendships, experience adventures, and indulge in romance, conflict, etc. Writing a PBEM RPG is different than writing a story, because although I can influence the plot, I have no control over what the other characters do. That might drive some writers crazy, but I enjoy that part. As I have gotten to know the other writers, and as they have developed their characters, I am better at predicting what they might do, but I never know for sure.

Quite a few writers look disparagingly upon fanfiction. I totally understand why some people feel that way. I personally think fanfiction is a wonderful way to get started writing. It’s what got me started. But I will stop there in my defense of fanfiction because plenty of other people have covered that already.

For our RPG, using a world that is already extremely well-defined (it has a wiki and everything) just makes everything so much easier, like a D & D dungeon already mapped out. Each of the writers has played  throughthe Dragon Age video game(s). The world is already built; the playground is just there for the characters to explore and enjoy, ready for the writers to create adventures there, with little effort needed from the Game Master (GM) to maintain it. Many of our players (including myself) were recruited from the Dragon Age fanfiction community.

One of the ways DA:L differs significantly from a fanfiction story, is that ALL of our player characters are original. Sure, the “cannon” characters exist in the world, but on the rare occasions when one of our player characters needs to interact with a cannon character, the GM makes sure he or she behaves in a way consistent with “cannon”. So we don’t make major changes to this world that doesn’t belong to us, we are only borrowing it after all.

One of the most important habits of writing is, as I said in my first blog post, to just keep writing. DA:L keeps me writing.

In the interest of full disclosure, there IS a down side to all this writing fun. Sometimes another player will respond the same day to a post their character is tagged in. But more often it takes several days, and occasionally as long as a month. That used to bug me. But I’m over that. Honestly, when another player goes quiet for a couple of weeks, what goes through my mind isn’t annoyance they haven’t posted, but worry that they’ve decided to quit the game. Because I personally hope to keep writing it for a very long time!

Happy Writing ^_^


Dragon Age: Legacy (my own description)

The story existed in a world created and owned by a software gaming company. Although certain locations in the world were well defined visually – as the backdrop for the popular video game – most of the world was a blank canvas. The road their characters traveled was black and white, a two-dimensional line between points on a map. The group of writers used the magic of words conveyed by email posts to give it form and substance, color and emotion, aroma and taste. The world came equipped with a history and lore, predetermined races, iron-age technology, and rules for using magic. The writers came equipped with imagination, dedication, and a passion for storytelling. The writers adopted that world and nurtured it, until it blossomed and grew into something new and unique. They brought their world to life.