Pitt Crandlemire


A Question of Style

I'm back this month with a slightly more scholarly (or so I hope) look at the Great Game. In fact, this article was originally written as a thesis of sorts as qualification for a Doctor of Diplomacy award from The Institute of Diplomatic Studies. (So now it's Dr. Dipper to all youse bums...;-) Anyway, the topic this month is an analysis of the stylistic differences between Face-to-Face and Play-by-Email Diploamcy.

I am aware of work by at least one hobby veteran who has visited a related topic (Jim Burgess, In Search of the Cult of Personality Part 5 - Play-by-Mail Diplomacy vs. Play-by-Electronic-Mail Diplomacy: Some Differences in Style and Feel, Diplomacy World #79). However, my focus here will be on stylistic differences between Face-to-Face (FTF) Diplomacy and Play-by-Email (PBEM) Diplomacy. Moreover, while I am undoubtedly influenced by my knowledge of the experiences of other players who have both FTF and PBEM experience, I wish to make it clear that the arguments and conclusions I make are uniquely personal and based almost entirely on my own experience, as will be seen through the comments and examples I cite. Further, though my experience in PBEM is greater than most, my FTF experience is more limited. Yet, at the same time, to the best of my knowledge, there are few players who have any significant experience of both areas, at least at the higher echelons of play. To what extent, if any, that qualifies me to embark on this thesis, you, gentle reader, will have to decide. In any event, I hope to describe and explain a phenomenon which will speak to all hobbyists. Nonetheless, caveat lector (let the reader beware).



What is style? The American Heritage Dictionary defines style as follows:

Noun - The way in which something is said, done, expressed, or performed: a style of speech and writing.

That seems a quite apt definition, particularly the example noting differences of speech and writing. These are the characteristics which are most directly involved in stylistic differences between FTF and PBEM Diplomacy.


The American Heritage Dictionary defines face-to-face as follows:

In each other's presence; in direct communication: spoke face to face.

The most important part of the definition is "in each other's presence". There a number of ways to engage in direct communication through remote methods but, at present, none of them offer the immediacy and visceral presence that FTF contact does, nor do any of them require the control over physical cues and actions necessary to ensure that the medium doesn't become the message in FTF contact.


I can find no handy dictionary definition of play-by-email but, then, I think we all know what it means, don't we? Well, perhaps we do but I think it best if we be specific. The best way to do that is to break the phrase down into its constituent parts. Thus, mail is defined as

Noun - Materials, such as letters, handled in a postal system.

Electronic mail further refines the definition:

Noun - Mail delivered by use of a computer network in electronic form, i.e. not physical, and usually characterized by rapid, near instantaneous delivery.

Thus, PBEM could reasonably be defined as:

Use of an electronic mail system to exchange text-only messages in the conduct of a game.


Now that we've defined our terms, we need to outline the important differences that follow by virtue of the specific characteristics unique to FTF and PBEM Diplomacy.


The significant characteristics of FTF communication are as follows:

- Communication is uncensored and interactive
While thoughtful consideration prior to communication is certainly possible it is not practical to routinely anticipate all of the potential, or even likely, responses or reactions you may encounter when diploming. As a result, you are frequently required to "wing it", formulating plans, answering queries, and lying outright without opportunity to fully prepare. The duplex (2-way simultaneously) nature of the communication ensures that your opponent will have ample opportunity to interact with your comments and responses as you are making them, further limiting your ability to present a fully prepared, duly considered presence.

- Communication is immediate
No matter how prepared you may be, you will still have to follow through on your plans. There's considerable difference between planning on lying to an ally, for example, and actually doing so successfully. It's much more difficult to overcome our cultural conditioning against lying when doing so in-person than it is to do so in a carefully crafted letter.

- The medium can become the message
Every aspect of your physical presence communicates something to your opponent. Your body language, tone of voice (anger, frustration, doubt, etc.), and speech characteristics (hesitation, repetition, etc.) all play a part. Additionally, when communicating in-person, you have the opportunity to draw physical connections between your speech and playing aids, i.e. maps.


The significant characteristics of PBEM communication are as follows:

- Communication is rapid but not immediate
Even in situations where both players are sitting by waiting for an incoming message and then respond forthwith, there is no opportunity for one player to observe the reaction of another. Nor is there any opportunity to speak or act in a way which will elicit an unconsidered response from another player.

- Communication is censored and considered
While email communication is interactive in that players exchange multiple messages on the same topic, it is simplex (1-way at a time) and it is not real-time. This allows for an opportunity to consider and reject any number of potential plans and responses at leisure before deciding on the ultimate action.

- Communication lacks depth
Written communication has no body language, tone of voice, or speech characteristics to convey subtle meaning. The analogues that do exist tend to be manufactured (smileys or emoticons, for example) or more prone to misinterpretation.

You may have noted that I've described most of the characteristics of PBEM Diplomacy in terms of a lack of something; lack of immediacy, lack of subtlety, etc. The overriding factor in PBEM communication is that it is written text only. By virtue of this fact, it is inherently more limiting than the richer, more varied FTF communication. This is not to say that detailed, subtle communication is not possible via email but, rather, that is much more difficult to achieve. Moreover, for the most part, it is extremely difficult to form the subtle impressions of intent and character in an email message than it is via a FTF conversation.



I played in the FTF Colonial variant championship at WDC VI. In my game, as Holland, I established an early non-aggression pact with Japan (which I didn't violate until he couldn't do anything about it) and a strong alliance with France. At the same time, I laid the groundwork for an alliance with Britain, since I didn't know how things would work out with France and Japan. As the game progressed, however, I consistently lied to Britain, never once following through on my promises, though I didn't actively attack him. Nonetheless, he continued to work with me well past the point where I was in position to make a direct stab, which I ultimately did with great success.

Now, you might write this off as the actions of an inept player but, in fact, this player was reasonably skilled and did well in the overall tournament. So, why then did he continue to trust me and let me set him up for a stab? I discussed this with him after the game. He said that there were two factors that lead him to continue to trust me. One, he was in a tough spot on all fronts; Turkey was bumbling about and acting threatening, France was overtly hostile, and China and Russia were preoccupied with each other. As a result, he was receptive to any friendly overtures. Two, even after I had failed to meet my commitments several times, I had not actively attacked him. Moreover, I almost always spoke to him first after each turn processed, I was frequently up front about my inability or unwillingness to take actions he desired, even when this might gain his enmity, I always had a reasonable excuse for my apparently unfriendly actions, and I always had ready answers to his hard questions, even if those answers weren't always to his taste. As a result, even though he recognized the precarious nature of his position, he felt that I was his best chance.

The key aspects of FTF play that worked to my advantage here were:

- Immediacy of the communication
He didn't have time to stew over my unfriendly actions because I was alway's pulling him aside to explain them and plan for the future with him.

- Use of physical presence
I was able to "read" him fairly well and I could tell when he was upset or unsure. I used all my diplomatic skills and charm to allay his concerns and put his mind at ease. This required good plans and reactions, of course, but, most importantly, it required the opportunity and ability to see and feel how he was reacting, something that is rarely possible in PBEM.

- The medium can become the message
In my profession (I'm a private investigator and security consultant), I am frequently required to dissemble and act. Whether engaged in an undercover investigation or interviewing a potential suspect, it is important that I successfully play a role and, when necessary, mislead or just plain lie to one or more of the parties involved. As a result of this experience and my own innate ability (he said immodestly), I'm quite good at it. Therefore, it's relatively easy for me to do the same in a game of Diplomacy (exactly how is a topic for another thesis). The British player in this game said he never had any idea when I was lying and when I was telling the truth. This ability is much, much easier to exercise face-to-face.


I recently completed a PBEM game for experienced players where the difficulties of PBEM communication (or my inability to overcome them) significantly hampered my ability to take advantage of a significant strategic opportunity and, ultimately, cost me a shot at a solo victory.

In a nutshell, I formed an early alliance with England and we all but eliminated Germany by 1903. At the same time, Austria and Russia went after Turkey, while Italy just sort of tooled around in the Mediterranean. Shortly thereafter, however, Russia stabbed Austria with Italy's help. Italy was convinced that I was friendly and had thrown everything he had to the east, including sending his two fleets towards Turkey in order to get in on the action there.

The situation that developed was that England and I were in need of selecting new targets. I wanted to send most of my forces southeast towards Italy and I asked England to go northeast after Russia. At the same time, we would both move east through Germany and see what happened. England agreed in principle but then got hung up on the disposition of Brest (he wanted a commitment that I wouldn't build there at all) and Belgium (he wanted me to move my army in Belgium east and leave it vacant thereafter). I wasn't happy about the request not to build in Brest but I said I would consider it if he wouldn't build in London. I also said I would happily vacate Belgium if he would vacate Holland or the North Sea.

It was all down hill from there, believe me. We went through a number of counter-proposals, none of which were acceptable to both of us. More importantly, the whole process of trying to decide these issues put a serious strain on our relationship and, ultimately, lead to the dissolution of the EF alliance. In the long run, the game ended in an EFIR draw.

At the time all this was happening, I didn't know the identity of the English player because it was a gunboat game. After the game ended, I saw who it was and, since I knew him, I gave him a call to discuss what had happened. It turns out that both of us were, in fact, seriously committed to the EF alliance at the time. Moreover, while both of us would have happily taken a gift solo, we both were willing to play for a 2-way or 3-way draw. It hadn't happened because we both had misinterpreted each other's intentions and goals expressed through our email. Had either of us been able to better express our goals, recognize the level of distress caused to the other before it was too late, and put the other at ease, we might well have ended in a 2-way EF draw.

The key aspects of PBEM play that worked to my disadvantage here were:

- Communication is rapid but not immediate
I had no opportunity to discern his real intentions through direct observation.

- Communication is censored and considered
While this can often be a good thing, in this case it worked against us. We both gave a great deal of thought to our replies, offering detailed plans and suggestions. The end result was an overwhelming amount of detail presented in a somewhat lifeless manner.

- Communication lacks depth
This was the real crux. If either of us could have simply seen the other and experienced the manner and intent in which the plans were being offered, we would have immediately understood that they were not really threatening. We could have then hammered out a workable plan and moved on to other goals.


While it is not possible to draw a final conclusion regarding the merits between FTF and PBEM Diplomacy due to the differences in ability and temperament from player to player, it is possible to draw two important conclusions.

One, FTF offers a broader spectrum of communication opportunities.

Two, PBEM offers a greater opportunity for more thoughtful, considered action.

Which style is preferable will depend your own strengths and weaknesses. For me, there's no question - FTF is my forte. However, advances in electronic communications will likely complicate the issue even further. What will be the effects of videoconferencing or virtual reality modes of play on Diplomacy? Will these pseudo-FTF methods offer the benefits of real FTF? What disadvantages will they have? At present, I have no idea but, if they become readily available, I'll be playing them and another article on the topic won't be far behind.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with these thoughts on style. Take what meaning you can find.

It is most true, stylus virum arguit,--our style betrays us.
    Robert Burton

Le style est l'homme même (The style is the man himself).

Pitt Crandlemire
The Big Dipper

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