When our geeky ancestors ventured into the late 20th century unknowns of bulletin board systems and CompuServe, it was inevitable some would act out their collective Star Trek fantasies. While the particulars of the first play-by-post online role-playing games have been lost to time, enough fragments remain to paint a general picture of the rise of our hobby.
Play-by-post online role-playing is essentially a fanzine or offline role-playing game – like Dungeons & Dragons – adapted to the online medium. The basic premise is the same – people come together, play a character, describe their actions, and work to complete a quest.
For as long as the electronic medium has existed, people have sought to bring role-playing online. MUDs and MUSHes have been around since the mid 1970s, affording individuals the opportunity to navigate a text-based world. In 1988 and 1989, Tracy Reed wrote the QuantumLink Serial, a hybrid fanzine and online role-playing game for Quantum Link, the precursor of AOL. Quantum Link also offered Quantum Space, an early play-by-E-mail game, from 1989 to 1992. By 1990, CompuServe offered areas where offline role-playing games, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and RuneQuest, could be played online. (1) While not as well documented as corporate creations, private ventures were no doubt numerous. The Adventurers Guild, which originated in 1989 as a play-by-snail-mail game, ultimately transitioned to a play-by-e-mail game.
However, if we were to plop ourselves into one of these early games, we would notice the style and pacing was different from what we are familiar with today. For example, the Adventurers Guild was “turned-based,” with submissions due every two weeks. In the QuantumLink Serial, Reid would take suggestions from the audience and depict how they interacted with the fictional characters.
Yet, with each iteration, people refined or discarded offline elements, moving closer to developing a play-by-post system ideal for the online medium. Eventually, online role-players dropped the methodical trappings of offline role-playing in favor of the collaborative, free form style familiar to us today.
When this occurred is unknown, but we can surmise a date – 1991 or 1992. Before those years, there is no documented evidence of a modern type of play-by-post online role-playing game, but plenty of evidence for primordial forms. Subsequent to those years, examples of modern games abound. Equally, evidence from the years 1991 and 1992 document the rapid growth in popularity of the modern style of play-by-post online role-playing. No doubt, once people had hit upon the winning formula, the basics were communicated from person to person, and the need to organize the growing number of gamers into a coherent group became paramount.
The best documentation of the conversion from the primordial endeavors of the 1970s and 1980s into a world of large, organized gaming groups comes from STF, a Star Trek group that originated on Prodigy in 1992.
Prodigy executives envisioned their service as a shopping and news portal. Yet, its social elements – message boards and e-mails – proved the most popular, but least profitable. To prevent its servers from being overwhelmed by people idling away their days interacting with one another, Prodigy introduced a number of restrictions in January 1991, and banned role-playing until April 1992.
In his history, No Regrets, Jim Midyette, one of the early president’s of STF, reports that STF started as a collection of Star Trek fans who gathered at a particular message board to supposedly talk about Star Trek, but mostly to defend against fans of other shows who raided their Star Trek board, and go off on raids against non Trek boards. There was a particularly fierce rivalry against the 90210 fan board.
To foster these ‘military’ actions, a leadership of admirals and captains was created. However, some of the members of the message board were more interested in peace, and they wanted to engage in role-playing. When Prodigy finally changed their policy and allowed role-playing games to occur on their bulletin boards, the various captains and admirals began to run their own games.
The lifting of the restrictions by Prodigy unleashed pent up demand, and chaos. Mr. Midyette discusses a number of in and out of character intrigues. Equally, simple challenges of how to keep threads separate had not yet been resolved.
The situation was partially acute in STF given the number of admirals, captains, and self-appointed demigods running around. For an organizational plan to be successful, it not only had to resolve mundane issues of how to separate threads and organize gamers, it also needed to accommodate the high-ranking officers. Jim Midyette reports that, in July of 1992, Admiral Kowalewski came up with a radical plan that solved both the population problem and the high-ranking officer problem. His plan for STF, quite simply, consisted of “a ship with an actual crew.” It was such an unorthodox plan that Mr. Midyette, a normally detached author, comments that he “hated the plan with a passion” because it “called for a radical new concept.”
As all of this was unfolding on Prodigy, chat room based role-playing – or in the parlance of AOL, “simming” – was taking shape on AOL. Simmers would come together at random, sim for an hour or two, and part at the end of the mission. Sometimes, people would form E-mail lists to organize a meet up, or they would just informally agree to meet again at regular intervals. According to Warin Trekker, (2) founder of the Star Trek Sims (STS) group, “There were only a few ‘organized’ groups (in 1992 and 1993). Most sims just happened on the fly. I only attended one or two ‘on the fly’ sims before I decided to start a group. Actually, I didn’t know it would turn into a group. I just asked a whole bunch of people if they’d like me to mail them when I was going to have a ‘get together,’ i.e., a sim. It grew from there.”
Like the early days of STF, Trekker’s sim was largely a jumble. Several ships simmed together at once in the same chat room, with maybe just one or two people assigned to each crew. The sim was one big fleet action, where nearly everyone was a captain.
However, the situation was untenable. Trekker’s sim strained under the weight of its popularity. In 1993, Beaufort N’fo joined the group. A naval veteran, NFO believed STS would benefit from a structured, military feel that recreated Starfleet in all aspects of the sim. NFO wrote a guidebook and proposed organizational changes, which were quickly accepted. Further, NFO was given permission to spin off the ship he used during Trekker’s weekly sim, the USS Lancelot, and develop it as a separate sim within STS. Soon, STS was running individual sims throughout the week.
This is not to say STF and STS were the first play-by-post online role-playing groups, or that their leaders should be credited with fundamental innovations. Nor were they the largest or most successful club of their time – the story of SFOL will be saved for a future post. Trekker spoke of a “few ‘organized’ groups” existing on AOL in 1992 and 1993. Having been a member of Prodigy myself in the 1990s, I role-played among groups that traced their lineage back to the earliest years of the decade. Claims have even been made about an organized Star Trek sim group on Quantum Link in the late 1980s. It is just that STF and STS are simply the best-documented early examples.
From it all, though, the general picture becomes clear. Sometime around 1991 and 1992, play-by-post online role-playing underwent a change. It dropped its more restrictive offline trappings and developed a format ideally suited to the online medium. Once that occurred, the basic tenants spread rapidly, demanding the organization of formal groups. In short order, other groups sprang up. I know of at least a dozen groups that began in 1993 and 1994 – and by 1996, one could find a play-by-post online role-playing group to satisfy any interest.
I, obviously, am fascinated by the early history of our hobby. If anyone has any further documentation that they can share, please do!
(1) CompuServe Almanac: An Online Reference of Online Service: Sixth Edition
(2) Quotes and information from Trekker and NFO about STS are derived from a series of interviews I did with them in 1998.