by Joel Finkle

I am a casual player, probably only a couple dozen games since I discovered it in the late 70s. I've played FTF, a "private post" game with a human adjudicator, and a number of play by email games, using the Judge, and most recently, Martin Bruse's Droidippy. I really, really love playing by email: no need to get seven people together, the time commitment is manageable (although it can straddle vacations, frustrating my wife who prefers internet-free traveling).

In an FTF game, you can get a pretty good feeling who's on your side and who isn't: they're not talking to you, or when they do, they aren't making eye contact, etc. It takes a pretty good sociopath to negotiate with everyone face to face and get away with lies, subtle or otherwise.

Email, on the other hand, can bring out your inner sociopath. I've had games on the Judge where I had a different persona develop, a different writing personality, with each player I'm talking to. I'll talk to everyone: friends need coddling, threatening, bribing; neutral parties (at the start of the game that can still exist) can be sounded out, compared; but enemies can be blustered, tested, wheedled, or are just good conversationalists. You can't expect to be silent with someone for six turns and then suddenly just start bargaining for a new alliance.

In my most recent game, though, I noticed a new pattern of behavior: "OK." That's a bad sign. Asking your neighbor for support, in return for later support, or suggesting a target for cooperation… and getting "OK"… has usually turned out badly. It's the signal that my friend isn't any longer, that I'm going to get threatened or stabbed.

It's partly a sign of the texting times (I'm lucky it's not just "K") — people type less. But take a little effort even if it's hard to thumb a message onto your phone, and you may fool your victim.

So what do I mean about sociopathy, anyway? First of all, you need a flexible version of reality (experience with roleplaying games helps). Create a version of reality that's best for you: England supporting you as Germany into France in 1901… and another where France helps you keep England out of the low countries. Then play Schroedinger's Diplomat, and choose the reality that you think is most likely. You're only lying after you make that decision, and if the orders are in, your conscience is clean.

With a PBEM game, you've got time to consider your writings, you've got opportunity to craft separate messages. The key is not to shut up. If you aren't negotiating, you're not playing the game. Keep writing, and keep consistent with each player. In my most recent game, I was messing with one player for the first few years, just keeping him busy fighting people other than me, while I bided my time setting up an attack. That attack never materialized as I got stabbed by another neighbor. This guy turned out to be a long-term ally, never realizing that he was being played for several game years. That wouldn't have been possible if I'd just shut up.

So sharpen your writing skills, folks, it's what the game's all about: Diplomacy is just war carried out by other means, and what great means they are. OK?

Joel Finkle

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