Home > Interviews, Other types of roleplaying, PBEM games > Before the Mast, roleplaying in the Age of Sail [Interview]

Before the Mast, roleplaying in the Age of Sail [Interview]

Before the Mast sailing ships

Before the Mast is a forum-based roleplaying game set in the ‘age of sail’, a term I’ve only recently learned – I’ve previously just called it “pirate times”, but it’s clear there’s a lot going on at this time in history, which is where Before the Mast RPG comes in. Fixing itself firmly in history, this is a roleplaying game (or “writing community” as Elena prefers) for history fans.

The game has been running since the 6th of August 2010, and Before the Mast has been very active especially on Twitter and Facebook. I interviewed their moderator Elena Vasilescu and asked her about the game.

Do you have any other administrators? Or do you do this alone?

ElenaIt was not easy until December 2010, when I found Moru, after several advertisements on all resource sites. I love her, we are getting along well, I couldn’t have wished for a better co-administrator.

Why did you choose to use a forum, instead of the other options?

ElenaI wouldn’t have chosen a real time chat, because it isn’t feasible. We have members from 3 continents, each person with their own time schedule too, and the forums are the ideal place for people who can write in their own time. Being all online at the same time and especially writing directly, without thinking it previously, without researching the subject or merely looking some words in the dictionary (1/3 to half of our members are not native English speakers, me included) would have been impossible.

A yahoo group or play-by-email (which are, in essence, the same thing) are complicated from the story flowing point of view, therefore hindering the storyline. A forum has each chapter (ie thread) shown in its proper sequence, to read all posts existing already and bring your contribution there to the point, while the e-mails come to the inbox/ yahoo group how they have been written, one from a thread, another from another thread… A forum gives more the impression of order, of a book with several chapters, exactly how I see the story. And a forum is also more conducive to a community feeling, I think.

Actually I prefer to call our community more “a writing community” than a “game”, and “writers” instead of “players”, because this is what we are in essence, several writers writing together an interactive story, while the terms “game” and “player” might suggest less commitment, more flimsiness – “It’s just a game, I’m not playing with you anymore, I take my toys and go.”

You have 4 ships, how much do these interact with each other? Or do these act like individual RPGs that never cross-over?

ElenaNo, the story is only one, and all the ship stories intersect somehow. The French Navy ship and the British Navy ship are allied, and fighting the pirate ship (which had attacked and defeated once the French Navy ship). The privateers had been allied with the Navy too, before the mutiny. The three allied ships had a plan and they had captured two pirate ships in May 1719. The next encounter (beginning of July 1719) will be between the privateer ship and the pirate ship, and they will negotiate a kind of truce.

How much control over the story do your players have?

ElenaI’d say 60% or 70% and we go to the communication and negotiation principle above. I mean, they have control over their characters’ personal plots (and they receive help when needed) and over their characters’ actions within the greater story, but sometimes a date they had time-stamped the thread gets changed to happen another time due to timeline conflicts, for example.

Of course, everything should stay within the realms of historical fiction (not historical fantasy), speaking concept-wise. I mean, I wouldn’t accept a plot which is completely illogical for the setting.

I am also open to suggestions from all members and I am thinking how to actively include them into the story. Up to now, a flogging, a mutiny, a festival, a prison break, mercenaries dismantling a girls’ trafficking network, happened at the suggestion of other members. Other suggestions which haven’t happened YET, but they are kept in consideration and will definitely happen later, include a conspiration, the involvement of East India Company (I am contemplating how to mix these two different ideas), a treasure hunt and others.

Your story is set in 1719, how accurate is your story to the time period? Are you following actual historical events or are you making it up as you go along?

ElenaWe are striving to keep it within the limit of historical accuracy, but some writer’s licenses are allowed in the benefit of the story. We are usually slaloming among actual historical events, and mentioning them tangentially. Our adventures happen among those from history, not denying them. We don’t accept female pirate captains, exactly because there have been only 2 in history and none in the Caribbean, we check for historical facts, for weapons which existed then… But there are some smaller details which might be slipped over in the interest of the story.

For example, our governors are NPCs and they are the ones who actually existed. Their families aren’t written in the available chronicles, so the one in Havana and the one in Port de Paix got daughters who have been played characters. And in the interest of the story, the part of the chronicles where the French governor got, in truth, replaced in July 1719 got skipped over – we need him there. It is a writer’s license of the kind Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, Paul Feval, Michel Zevaco or Victor Hugo had used too, so I am not ashamed to admit it. But I wouldn’t deny or change outcome of a known battle, for example.

What’s been your best and biggest story to date?

ElenaWell, the biggest (ie longest thread – 17 pages – and with most views – happens during Saint John’s festival in Port de Paix and it is called “Light my fire” (because it starts with Saint John’s summer fires being lighted by the Governor). It got voted as thread of the year too, because of the high number of characters involved and the activity. It comprised several love stories, sailors of various allegiances drinking together, some business arrangements too, funny moments, a specific game of boules which is still played nowadays in Lyon area…

My favourite one (and which ranked second at the vote for the thread of the year, and also second as views) is “When the hunted becomes prey”. It was only of 6 pages. It happens on 1-st of March 1719, in the open seas: the French Navy ship had been disguised like a merchant ship in order to get close to a Spanish ship and attack it, because the French captain wanted to be a hero at any price. They succeeded to sink “La Princesa” and take its cargo and the Spanish admiral’s daughter as a prize, but a day later they get attacked by the pirates and the pirates win against a crew already decimated and tired by the other fight. But the pirates had been tricked by the look of the “merchant” ship; they wouldn’t have attacked a French warship, and especially the flagship, because they had secret deals with the French governor. They were selling their prey to the merchants in Port de Paix, protected by the governor. So finally the pirates loot the ship, but set it free. The admiral’s daughter prefers to go with the pirates by her own will instead of remaining a war prisoner, and the French Navy captain has the surprise to learn that the rich merchant he had befriended during a ball of the Governor’s two months ago is, actually, the pirate sailing master… who has the hots for him and, before parting, steals him a kiss in the view of the whole crew. Of course the result was that everybody thought the French captain had bought his ship and the freedom of his crew whoring himself out… And he had been discredited in Port de Paix until he succeeded, two months later, to capture two pirate ships…

What are the roles of your administrators?

ElenaFrom “Before the Mast” I have learned how to apply management and marketing knowledge creatively. And also what I call “damage control”.

According to our Staff Agreement, we have Fleet Admirals (the two administrators), and ship captains (which are a sort of moderators). The Fleet Admirals are the individuals responsible for the general welfare of the game. Their duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Technical maintenance of the board (i.a. archiving old, closed, and/or abandoned threads, moving/ deleting topics as needed, inserting new elements on the board, etc.)
  • Updating list threads (face claims, ship rosters, who’s who, board calendar, character masterlist), plot thread and statistics
  • Approving new applications (after consultation with the ship captains). A consensus of at least 2, but preferable 3 staff members, including the relevant ship captain if the application is for a ship, is required for any final decision. An initial response to applications should take no longer than 24 hours.
  • Deciding on the upcoming events on the board, including the site-wide plot development (in cooperation with the ship captains)
  • Welcoming newcomers and answering questions. Players’ or guests’ questions should be answered as soon as possible. If they need consultation, an acknowledgement to the player that the question was received and needs discussion will be sent.
  • Promoting activity on the board and setting the tone of the board (i.a. through keeping their characters active and also playing NPCs when needed, especially with newer players)
  • Advertising for the site and gaining new members
  • Enforcing the code of conduct (i.e. dealing with potential conflicts or breaking of rules)

We have a cartographer too (coding and graphics expert) which is Moru, my co-administrator, having as tasks maintaining and supporting the coding and graphic services that support the role-playing.

The ship captains’ tasks are:

  • Undertaking a fair and measured review of all applications and express their opinions;
  • Reading all the threads their crew is involved in. See if there’s any you should reply to, any way you can be helpful for the integration of the new members and report any potential problems to the fleet admirals.
  • Deciding on the upcoming events on the board, including the site-wide plot development (in cooperation with the fleet admirals) – which mean checking for War Council-related posts daily. This shows the rest of your team that you support them and are invested in the well being of your board.
  • Welcoming newcomers and answering questions. Players’ or guests’ questions should be answered as soon as possible.
  • Promoting activity on their ships and in the harbour where they are anchored, setting the tone of the board with quality posts (i.a. through keeping their characters active and also playing NPCs when needed, especially with newer players, as well as through creating new plot opportunities)
  • Getting involved in the community life and contributing to advertising for the site and gaining new members

Given that I am playing two of the ship captains, I decided also to hire a moderator (the position is still open) because sometimes I need more support with various things. Life commitments can sum up and the tasks on the site can get overwhelming sometimes. The pilot’s tasks (how we call the moderator) are not much different than the ship captains’, in name… The main difference is the access to the moderator panel for updates.

  • Undertaking a fair and measured review of all applications and express their opinions;
  • Welcoming newcomers and answering questions (task common to all staff). Players’ or guests’ questions should be answered as soon as possible. If they need consultation, an acknowledgement to the player that the question was received and needs discussion will be sent.
  • Getting involved in the community life, promoting activity and setting the tone of the board with quality posts (i.a. through keeping their characters active and also playing NPCs when needed, especially with newer players, as well as through creating new plot opportunities)
  • Deciding on the upcoming events on the board, including the site-wide plot development (in cooperation with the fleet admirals and ship captains)
  • Enforcing the code of conduct (i.e. dealing with potential conflicts or breaking of rules)
  • Archiving old, closed, and/or abandoned threads, moving/ deleting topics as needed
  • Updating list threads (face claims, ship rosters, who’s who, board calendar, character masterlist), etc.
  • Contributing to advertising for the site and gaining new members.

So for example, what are your daily duties?

ElenaOur duties are not necessarily daily, given that we have a small community. I think writing (and researching for it) is the most important duty, and anything else comes by need: some days I have applications to comment on and approve, lists to update, board calendar to update; other days I have advertising to do, the first week of the month is dedicated to the newsletter with priority… I think what I also do daily is browsing the game requests on the resource directories and post my ad.

Some administrators push the story along themselves, and some privately email other members with story ideas. What do you like to do?

ElenaI believe in discussion, negotiation, and pooling creative resources. I do push sometimes the story along, especially when it happens that some players vanish mid-thread and I have to think damage control, other times other characters are more suited to push the story along. We exchange ideas, and I am open to their suggestions too. I am no dictator. Again, I think that in writing a story together with other people, negotiation and compromise are the key words. (Some see compromise as something bad, they give it a negative meaning. No, I don’t mean that kind of compromise, but giving and taking mutually, and meeting the others half-way. And some people are really willing to do this, others unfortunately don’t have a flexible thinking.)

Does the Captain of each ship have control over the storyline of that ship?

ElenaYes, he has. Of course this is a collaborative project, so the stories should match like domino pieces (not like puzzle ones, which means only one opening to match tightly; any of the two sides of the domino can go to any of the two endings of the row). Therefore, the administrators should know about the stories and propose how they match, but yes, they have control over the storyline and they are highly encouraged to show initiative in this sense.

Do you have a quality control process to make sure those new members don’t ruin the story?

ElenaYes, the character bio is accepted only when it gets logical enough and historically plausible. We are willing to work with the applicants, to give them constructive comments how to improve their bios, where to get inspiration for strengths and weaknesses, what parts of the history don’t make sense and how it would be more logical, etc. All the staff comments upon the bio.

Do you have a summary for new members to use to catch up on? Or an archive of stories?

ElenaWe keep an archive of everything written IC. We have the board calendar which shows our story chapters (I see each thread as a chapter in the whole story) in chronological order of the story logic/ timeline. It is very useful, because it is how it should be read, while the story has been written not in chronological order – eg we have now ongoing threads dated May, June and July 1719, some being finished before the previous ones those are grounded on have been started.)

We have a summary called “The story so far”  which follows only the main story, leaving aside most of the side plots. Also our monthly newsletter, the “Histories and Chronicles of the West Indies” shows in greater detail the monthly progress in each thread, so it keeps with all the subplots and it is construed as gossips. Sometimes the gossips are exactly far-fetching and speculating media-style on the objective facts, so the chronicle’s gossips reflect things how they seem to an outsider, more than how they had really happened (eg two people might have never had an affair, but the gossipers had combined them ten times based on details which had other true meanings; a casual encounter might be seen as a well-planned date with evil intentions, etc.)

You can find the Before the Mast RPG here.

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