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Roleplay History – Play By Phone

The more I delve through my new collection of magazines the more I learn. The 80’s were a weird and alien time, a world practically without computers or mobile phones, where hair was something to be experimented on in perverse and potentially dangerous ways, where music was never better or worse depending on who you talk to.

And my own favourite hobby was in the process of exploding, but on it’s way to maturity, it went through some odd phases.

Play By Phone

Amidst the vast array of PBM adverts and groups looking for players, I discovered a genre that boggled my mind. Play by phone adventure gaming is exactly what it sounds like, players call and play out a game, interacting via the dial-pad, receiving feedback via narrative and sound effects.


F.I.S.T, Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone was a game created by Steve Jackson of Munchkin and GURPS fame, it boasted a medieval fantasy world of terror, trapped within a dark labyrinth riddled with the undead, filled with realistic sound effects. The first F.I.S.T was Castle Mammon: Lair of the Demon Prince, and was released in 1988. It proved successful enough to produce a sequel, F.I.S.T 2 The Rings of Allionand were both based heavily on Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy novel series, a choose-your-own-adventure style game with greater gameplay focus.

The game included a broader range of options than the format might suggest. Aside from the options presented by narrator Tony Jackson, players could listen again at any time by pressing 0, and even save the game to the game’s server, hear their inventory of items and hear other options by pressing 9. Calls were not cheap however, and the first game also required players to sit and pay to listen to the long introduction scene at 38p per minute (with the sequel offering hard-copy books to read to start the adventure).

F.I.S.T was not alone, Steve Jackson also released a gladiatorial combat game where the number pad correlated to locations on the body to strike or defend. Much beyond that it’s hard to find other examples of play by phone games, the format died rather rapidly despite it’s success, an investigation of BT by the Competition Commission caused major problems for the operating company – Computerdial.

How Things Have Changed

I’ll go into this further at a later date, but computer games changed, and were changing dramatically. The realism and diversity of options offered by F.I.S.T gave way to increasing visual immersion and fewer limitations in gameplay, and sound quality improved faster than anything else.

Unlike play by mail, play by phone can’t really claim much by way of a lasting legacy, except that Steve Jackson continues to create new and interesting games, bringing his own unique stamp to board games and role-playing, and in some way these games must have furthered his already impressive career. The idea of an audio only form of gameplay may seem interesting, but really only as a novelty these days, certainly nothing that anyone would pay 38p per minute for, even taking inflation out of the equation.

Sadly, the grand summation of F.I.S.Ts legacy may well be a few obscure wiki pages, and these adverts in old magazines.


2 responses

  1. I can only imagine the phone bill for anyone who completed this game.


    September 3, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    • Prizes were given to high scorers, but you have to wonder if they’d have that much cause to celebrate

      Liked by 1 person

      September 3, 2015 at 3:41 pm

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