Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: The Tribes of Crane

Coming from issue #61 (May 1982), we have The Tribes of Crane. This is another one of those ads that fascinated me to no end, but not enough that I ever thought of paying for the product it offers. Unlike all of the previous ads in this series, it didn't matter that The Tribes of Crane never appeared on my local hobby store's shelves, because it wasn't a physical product at all. Rather, it was a play by mail game -- one of many that I saw regularly advertised in the pages of Dragon.

Back then, the idea of playing a game by mail was completely alien to me. I'd never done it or known anyone who'd done it, so I couldn't really wrap my mind around the concept. Likewise, I found the idea of paying to play a game on a per-move/per-turn basis equally bizarre. And yet issue after issue of Dragon featured ads just like this one, so someone had to be playing these games, even if my younger self didn't really get the point. Of course, that fact made play by mail games appear all the more exotic to me, which likely explains the strange fascination The Tribes of Crane exerted over me.


  1. Paid play-by-mail: What lonely recluses did before the Internet?

  2. I always wanted to try the play-by-mail games I saw in Dragon, but never did. I wonder if any are still in operation?

  3. Play by mail has largely been supplanted by Internet technology. There are quite a few "play by e-mail" games out there. I have seen a couple of Diplomacy clones that use play by e-mail. There are even some "play by Twitter" games; indeed, that is how Words with Friends works.

  4. For a few months in 1998 or thereabouts I played in one of the British ones, Quest. It was a hex-crawl type game, but I was never quite satisfied with it. I just had a look, and it seems to still be going.

  5. Flying Buffalo, who put out Tunnels & Trolls, still advertise their play by mail/email games, and they seem to actually be the same games from at least the 90s.

    I've seen various attempts to start En Garde! games, but most of them seem to die after a few turns, I think because of the large amount of work involved from the GM. I did a bit of work towards setting up an automatic system for playing an En Garde!-style game, but I didn't finish it.

    From what little I've seen, modern massively-multiplayer games don't seem to actually be more sophisticated in pure game terms.

  6. I played Crane briefly, but much moreso its cousin StarMaster, also run by Schubel & Son, as well as a variety of other PBM games through the 80's. I Played StarMaster for years and ended up working for the designer when he bought back the rights to the game. I even took a stab at designing and running my own for a while-- "Sail the Solar Winds", complete with ads in the two (!) print magazines that supported the PBM industry at the time. In fact, I write about that corner of the hobby a couple of years ago on my own blog:


    PBMs are, of course, not nearly as popular now as they were then, thanks to the internet. Of the games that remain, most have converted to PBeM, but there are still a few out there that still require an envelope and a stamp.

  7. I played DuelMasters for a time (gladiatorial combat in a fantasy setting) in the early 90s by Reality Simulations, Inc. I see the game is still going, but now it's called Duel2. That game has been going at least since the late 80s, and it appears they still have plenty of active arenas. Their website indicates they also have a Hyborian War and Forgotten Realms turn-based strategy games.

  8. I tried out a couple play-by-mail games back in the 80s - just out of curiosity. "Lizards", from Flying Buffalo, springs to mind.
    I also remember playing briefly in a Pendragon-inspired PbM.

    In any case, it was an expensive and generally unsatisfying experience. The expense was two-fold - not only would you pay the per-turn fee, but you'd also pay to establish contact with other players of the game. Alliances or truces were often made with the other players - which involved many letters back and forth or expensive long-distance phone calls. It wasn't a requirement, of course, but playing 'individually' usually meant that you were a quick and easy target for allied players.

  9. @kelvin: I remember that game! It was fun for awhile, and really seemed to have a neat flavor to it.

    Played in another for a bit, can't remember what it was called but the books for it were cool. You could either start out as a fairly mediocre guy and an army all the way down to a Conan-type wandering hero (who was way powerful, but alone).

    Also played DuelMasters, which was an absolute riot of a gladiator game. As time went on, the descriptions of battle got more and more over the top -- though some were recycled on occasion, leading me to believe that everything was fed into a computer and then it spat out results. Still, it was fun to see if you could min/max what the computer gave ya to make a character that could beat other, human-controlled gladiators.

    I just got started in a couple Play-by-Post OD&D games that are really fun!

  10. ECI used to have a game called "Power, the Star Throne Beckons". A friend of mine played it and showed off the turn sheets. It was a fascinating simulation lying somewhere in between roleplaying and strategy (you even had to take your character on vacation every once in a while to relieve the stress of trying to become Emperor of the Galaxy). The game is now online as a free PBeM called just "Star Throne".

  11. This post has me wondering if your readers can help me out with something:

    I have very dim recollections of a short fantasy story about a boy playing a PBM game with a barbarian character who then comes to life. I'm fairly, but not completely, certain that the story was published in Dragon in the mid-to-late 80s. I've been trying to track down this story FOREVER, but my Google-Fu has failed me.

    Anyone out there have any leads?

  12. Saladin: If you have the patience, this thread (http://www.therpgsite.com/showthread.php?t=13824) goes through every single issue of Dragon published in the original run -- I think they generally give at least some description of the fiction. If you start by looking at the DragonDex list of stories (http://www.aeolia.net/dragondex/fiction.html#titles) you might save yourself a bit of time.

  13. I played Earthwood for a while. It was okay. One of my friends got into it, and then ended up playing in a bunch of PBMs.

  14. I did about a year's worth of the Illuminati PBM before they sacked the game (due to some conflict between Flying Buffalo and Steve Jackson Games), and I had a blast.

    But I gotta confess that I never really understood what I was doing and what was going on...and the only thing I really remember about it was spending hours filling out the arcane and complicated turn sheet (which was perfectly in theme, so I didn't mind). I ended up ranking pretty highly, I think, but I can't claim any credit for that whatsoever.

    I've been waiting about 15 years for them to relaunch it, and the replies to my triennial emails to Flying Buffalo say "they'll be starting it up again any time now."

  15. Does anyone remember the name of that PBM game that turned out to be a giant scam? It was fantasy-themed, that's all I recall. Some ancient gaming mag finally blew the whistle on it in an editorial.

  16. I remember the days when PBM games seemed so cutting edge, LOL. I definitely wanted to play Tribes of Crane but I couldn't afford it back in the day.

    I did pay and send away for start-up in another Fantasy PBM game; it must have been advertised as cheaper than Tribes of Crane because I went for it instead of ToC.

    Checking my "list of stuff" files I see that the game I tried out was called "Lords of Valetia" by Gamemasters Publishers Association. It's been quite a few years since then but my recollection is that I received a digest-sized book and information on how to submit my first turn. IIRC I sent off that first turn and got back an apology letter saying that the company was having cash-flow problems and my turn would be delayed (I don't remember whether there was a "pay extra to expedite your turn" request or not). Never heard from them again.

    Anyway, that was the sum total of my experience with PBM (it would be an understatement to say I was extremely hesitant to give it a second try).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.