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10:32am on Friday, 24th January, 2014:



The reason I was looking at old play-by-mail zines yesterday was Elsinor. Elsinor is not a zine, it's a game. It's one of those games that has a mechanic (if you can call it that) which can act as a catalyst for discussing game design theory — or it would, if only game design theorists knew about it.

The rules for Elsinor were published in a zine called Son of Bellicus, which was a spin-off from Bellicus that merged back into the main zine a year later. Sadly, I can find no online copies of Son of Bellicus, but the rules were summarised in Bellicus 19 as follows:

Elsinor is a fantasy game in which anyone can write as much as they please, provided it is consistent with what has gone before, and it makes interesting reading. Anyone may play, and for as long as they wish: all they need to do is submit sagas for their characters or nations when they feel like it. When players' sagas conflict with each other, the better written will generally prevail. The GM retains the right to alter factual and numerical information as he sees fit, though in practice he hopes such rights gain little exercise.

There are some maps in Bellicus 19 to bring readers and potential new players up to speed.

OK, so this is a game in which what players say becomes true by fiat. Although there is a gamesmaster (the editor of Bellius, Will Haven, hence the use of "he") to stop random griefers from exploding the planet and destroying everything, the existence of such a role meant that no-one ever did send in such contributions.

Like Mornington Crescent, Elsinor is the Magic Circle incarnate. It's entirely freeform. Players can literally (hmm, and since they're writing I guess that's literally literally) make anything they want to happen happen. That they don't is because they realise that if they did that the game would end. They don't want the game to end, therefore they don't do it. They continue playing only because they enjoy the world they are collectively constructing, the story they are collectively writing, and the drama they are collectively enacting through their competitiveness.

It's like a modern wiki story. However, it isn't one: it's a game. Players are trying to improve their character or country at the expense of other players (the maps mean there are limited resources over which to compete). Their goals are personal, not shared; they share the context as a precondition to playing, but they have no reason to desire that Elsinor has, say, a beginning, middle and end. Story structure is irrelevant. They decide what they want to achieve, then set out to achieve it. This is in the knowledge that they could achieve it in one sentence if they wanted to, but where's the fun in that?

They players of Elsinor dropped in and dropped out, but the world and its story-now-history lived on. It was eventually dropped from Bellicus because too many new subscribers hadn't been following the story and objected to paying for 2 or 3 pages of partial story they didn't understand each issue. I don't know what became of it.

A story-telling game that's held together only by the imaginations of the players, though: what a concept!

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Copyright © 2014 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).