Playing While Not Playing

Playing a tabletop role-playing game is hard. I’m not (just) talking about the prep work and the reading/remembering of rules. I’m talking about getting everyone together in one place for a few hours to play a game on a regular basis. Apparently as you get older this becomes even more difficult because of growing responsibilities with work and family. (Note to self – idea for the future… D&D retirement community.) There are sometime periods of a month or more where one of my groups doesn’t meet. Then when we do finally get back together, everyone’s memory of the campaign’s story is vague, people don’t know what level they are, etc.

On top of all this I have to say D&D once a week isn’t really enough for me. That’s why I started this blog and host two podcasts. I love TRPGs and I want more!

What’s a DM to do when he needs his D&D fix and there are no players around? The answer is simple. Thank you Internet!

Electronic Mail

Great movie or greatest movie?

As characters develop their own stories, they want to accomplish goals outside the main campaign. Maybe they want to build a castle, start a church, takeover the thieves guild, sew discord within the city council, have a family, look into the disappearance of their mentor, etc. These sorts of things are wonderful to handle via email because they are perfect for the medium and don’t slow down play for everyone else at the table. Building a castle doesn’t require a lot of skill checks in most games, just a lot of communication between your players and you.

I also send my players emails when I want them to know a secret which pertains to the game’s story. Maybe a prophetic dream reveals the location of a much needed artifact or a PC learns his or her father is the story’s villain via a magic spell. These revelations are perfectly handled over email. Not only can the player elect to keep any information secret, the other players have no idea any information was exchanged like they might when you pass a player a note at the table or take him or her aside to whisper secrets.

Email is also great for when a player misses a session. I often write a quick summary of what happened to a PC and turn the obstacle of that player not being there into an opportunity. If we both have time, I give them decision points within that solo story and exchange emails back and forth. If not, I send them a description of what I believed happened while they were gone and then ask them if they’d like to change anything.

Emails can be as long or as short as you like. If you’re a busy person, you may not have time to write a flowery email about castle construction. It’s great if you do, but remember your player may not have the time to read a long email. Think about the person to whom you’re writing. What kinds of emails do they send you? That’s a good barometer for target length.

For short emails, bullet points are your friend. A bullet pointed email about a quest someone missed might look like this.


I know you missed tonight’s game because you had to work. Since we spent the session in town and I know you’ve been trying to join the local thieves guild, I had your character, Basil Bottom, seek out the guild master and ask for admission. Here’s how it went down in my mind.

  • Basil Bottom got in touch with her criminal contacts and requested a meeting
  • She met with the guild master, who agree to let her into the guild, provided she knock off three shops in town that very night.
  • Basil Bottom robbed three shops (let me know which three) and gave her earnings to the guild master. She is now in the guild.
  • The authorities are searching for the thief who broke into three different shops and word is they have some leads…

Let me know if you’re cool with that and which shops you want to break into.

Your favorite DM,

Boom. That’s how it’s done! If you go this route let your players know they can email each other to talk about something in character amongst themselves and CC you. You’ll be surprised what sort of cool stuff comes into your inbox throughout the day.

Play by Post

There are a bunch of great internet forums out there where you can play D&D one post at a time. Two such sites you might want to check out are OngoingWorlds and RPol. There you can find people playing entire campaigns one post at a time. Some have been going on for years! Most of these places host all systems, not just one, so whatever your game of choice, you can find a play by post group.

Those forums need not only be a place for full campaigns to be played out. Why not use them from for the time between your sessions? Email is great for one on one DM to player interfacing, but if the whole group wants plan their next move, share some stories in character, or build a base of operations, a reply all email chain can become unwieldy and difficult to keep track of. If you love play by post, forums allow for those one on one interactions you might have through email as well. That way you can keep everything in one place. A lot of these forums are designed with playing RPGs in mind, so you can roll dice and the like within the forums, which is something you can’t really do with most email clients.

If players consistently interact with each other on a forum there may not even be that much work for you. The disadvantage is that it’s not as easy as email (though it’s pretty dang close). The extra step of going to a forum and signing up might be too much work for some players. Play by post works best if all your players are on board, so check with them before you make it a piece of your campaign.

Wiki and Blog

Sites like Obsidian Portal are awesome places for you and your players to keep track of the campaign. While you can’t necessarily play your game on those sites, your players can keep public journals, create a wiki, and help track everything in the campaign. You can get your fix by doing some of the work yourself and reading what others have written. Not only is the tool great for storytelling and worldbuilding, but it’s a super helpful organizational tool that allows your players to do some of the DM work.

I love wikis and blogs, but the big drawback, even bigger than with play by post forums, is that your players need to read and write to really make things worthwhile. It can take a lot of time to upkeep something cool on Obsidian Portal, so again check with your players before you embark on maintaining an entire website for your campaign.

A Second (or Third or Fourth) Group

Of course you can always get your fix outside of your game by playing with another group. If you don’t have the time to manage two campaigns, become a player! Or run a published adventure you’ve always been curious about! If you’re looking for another group, head to your local friendly game store and ask around, or show up on a night they are having organized play, like D&D Encounters, and DM or play at a table. If you don’t have a local friendly game store near you, or everyone in it is a jerk, check out and join or start a meetup group for your favorite TRPG. If none of that works for you, check out the posts in Google+ in various RPG communities or the Looking for Group section of If you want something more casual, join a play by post group above! They’re always looking for players.

You’ve got options to get that fix. Go out there and take it!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends, share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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