by Liz Brown
Historically, several kinds of games have been played by mail (PBM) throughout the years- from chess to roleplaying games. There was a shift to playing by email when the internet came into widespread use but now mail games are something of a novelty. PBMs still exist, run by companies such as Flying Buffalo, where you pay per turn, and maintained by fan forums in stalwart outposts of the internet. According to an article by Wired, prison inmates are a major player demographic who continue to play by mail, because access is less dependent on the internet.
Here are some ways you can incorporate epistolary adventure into your gaming.
2020 saw the Save the Post mail jam on itch.io, challenging designers to create games with mechanics based around sending and receiving mail. Two of my favorites from the jam are ForeverDex by World Champ Game Co. and Mail from Dogs by Christian Yetter.
ForeverDex challenges players to create and draw a Pokémon-type character based not on dice rolls but on the zipcode numbers of whatever piece of mail they last received. The instructions say “we don’t combat our critters here…” but there’s no reason players couldn’t trade their creations across communities. This would be a fun exchange between different classes in a school or across different branches in a public library, potentially teaching about what zipcodes are and how they’re used. The downloadable file is name-your-own price and everything fits onto one, double-sided piece of paper- meaning you could host this game in a passive format.
Mail from Dogs is a game formatted for chain-letters. One player will start writing a letter based on what they roll off a chart but oh no!- a mischievous canine has gotten a hold of their letter! Players will rip a portion of their letter (determined by more dice rolls) and send only a portion of their letter to the next player. The next player will tape the fragment they receive to a new sheet of paper and attempt to fill in the missing portions of the letter before sending it off to the next player. This is an amusing, entry-level game that can run indefinitely, provided you can keep the chain going. The only dice required are D6 and the files are name-your-own-price.
Quill is a solo letter-writing RPG set in quasi-medieval Europe by Scott Malthouse, of Trollish Delver Games. Players will select a character- such as a monk, a poet, or a courtier- and write a letter based on different scenarios. Points can be won based on skills used and different rhetorical flourishes. Multiple spin-offs and additional scenarios have been developed since the game was released- including Noir, Love Letters, and a scenario based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula– so no matter what genre you’re craving there’s probably a scenario for you. Teachers might be interested in incorporating this game into their syllabi if they are teaching different writing structures or looking for writing activities which respond to different works of literature. The game and its spin-offs are all name-your-own-price for download.
Lake is a cozy, choose-your-own-adventure sim, available on Steam. Set in the 1980’s Pacific Northwest, you play as a coder who is taking a break from your hectic job to house sit for your parents and cover your father’s job as a postman. As you explore the neighborhood delivering packages, you have the opportunity to meet the local characters. Players will choose different relationship paths to develop while getting involved in the local community before their sabbatical is up and they have to decide whether to head back to the grind of the big city or stay and enjoy small town life.
Curios: Albrecht Manor by Good Luck Press is due out this May. The game consists of letters, postcards,and other ephemera from 1993 that contain clues to the disappearance of a character named Alex Dunn. Players must sort through the documents to try to solve the mystery. This game looks like a great way to explore primary sources (without handling actual ones) and frame a discussion about archives.
Mail Time by Freedom Games is another cozy Steam game due out April 27th. You play as a mushroom-capped Mail Scout who must deliver mail to woodland creatures. Players can explore the Borrowers-esque forest while gliding around on envelopes and running side quests for the forest denizens. A demo version of the game is available for download now.