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I have a number of RPG-loving friends, but they're unfortunately scattered around the world. I'd like to run a game with them online, using emails or message boards or something of that ilk. (like, for instance)

I've had some luck with the Cinematic Unisystem, but I was wondering if there was a better system, or something designed towards this sort of play. Recent editions of D&D, with the focus on tactical combat, don't work at all -- no map, no grid, no miniatures. Anything requiring quick reactions and interactions doesn't work well, either -- I'm looking at something that progresses on a "when I have time to check it" basis, rather than play sessions.

What systems should I be looking at?

To be more specific, I'm looking for something that can be played without requiring specific "play-sessions", preferably story-heavy, ongoing. Fantasy is preferable for setting, but not required. Casual.

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18 Answers 18

One thing that's really helpful for asynchronous online gaming is a system that allows players to (tentatively) take ownership of the entire world, not just their own character. If there's going to be a lag between player post and GM response, a system with a focus on collaborative storytelling that allows the player to write a paragraph detailing an entire interaction between the player and an NPC, subject to veto or alteration by the GM, is going to move things quickly.

Systems with a "one turn = one player action" focus are likely to bog down if they get into:

"I sneak down the hallway." (a few hours pass)

"OK, you're at the end of the hallway." (a few hours pas)

"I quietly open the door." (a few hours pass)

"You hear a deep male voice yell 'Hey!'"

The more you can handle in a single transaction:

"I sneak down the hallway and quietly open the door. Someone notices me and yells, but I duck inside before they can identify me and hide under the desk for a moment. I hear them running off to raise the alarm, and quickly find the documents in the desk. I rush out the door and down the hall just as they return with a guard, and they give chase." (a few hours pass)

"You retrieve the documents, but when you try to leave, you find that whoever saw you must have magically sealed the door shut before they went for help. As you struggle with the door, you hear armored footsteps pounding down the hall outside - there are two guards coming down the hall in the company of the mage who noticed you..."

The more you can handle in a single "action," the smoother things will be - but generally, handling more in one action means giving up some control over the world to the players. It helps to have players who are willing to write negative outcomes as well as positive ones, or a system that takes it into account by making partial successes more likely than absolute successes.

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So which systems would you recommend that meet these criteria? – Jakob Aug 24 '12 at 16:21

Code of Unaris was specifically designed to be played in chat across the internet. The rules even incorporate the ability of one player to "hack" the GM's typed messages by replacing single words under certain conditions. I don't think it's easy to get anymore, but you might find it around.

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Thanks, I'll take a look for it. – Trevel Aug 27 '10 at 13:34

Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan is specifically designed for asynchronous online play. S/lay w/Me may also work.

Personally, the lack of nonverbal communication in online play kills most "story" games for me. Conversely, D&D 4E, using appropriate tools, keeps the same feel online it's got offline (a very boardgamey feel, that is). Some friends of mine play it asynchronous on a forum, using an online spreadsheet for a battle map.

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I've run several different 'play by email' or 'play by forum' games using the OLD White wolf game system (the Old World of Darkness). Because of its flexibility and ease of use, and the focus on storytelling, it is a great system to use. I would still recomend it as a basic system even if you don't use the specific horror / modern fantasy setting it was written for.

It works well with or without dice and there are several online dice rollers available for you to use should you want to. As a game system it provides a good degree of guidance on a characters backgrounds and quirks which can allow prodigious writers to go wild with backstory and unmoderated out time if they like. Equally, players who just want to past a brief action and the dice/stats they have to do it are still covered.

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I am running a post by post at the moment based on the NWOD Werewolf so I can vouch that this works like a charm. I am playing diceless but if I need the option of dice, they are there. – thefemmedm Nov 15 '10 at 10:20

Would something like a Lexicon work?

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Lexicon won't pass for what most people consider an "RPG." But it is super-awesome and should be looked at by everyone. :) – clweeks Aug 27 '10 at 17:38
That is why I originally wanted more details. But the need for not having play sessions pushed me towards lexicons. – anon186 Aug 27 '10 at 17:48
Not what I'm looking for. Looks brilliant awesome and something I can use elsewhere, though -- thanks! – Trevel Aug 27 '10 at 18:55

De Profundis 2nd edition is designed to be played online, making the text interface part of the actual game and character interactions.

From the sales copy for the De Profundis PDF at RPGNow (emphasis mine):

Blending the imagination of H. P. Lovecraft and other contemporary horror and conspiracy writers and themes, De Profundis is a correspondence-based story-telling game that can be played from the point of view of participants from a variety of eras.

Whether you take on the role of a Victorian investigator, a soldier from the front line during WW1 or WW2 confronted by the Weird, a government investigator looking into the strange and unknown, an internet conspiracy theorist in the modern age who gets in too deep, or someone else entirely, De Profundis provides a great alternative in gaming that allows you to participate in an interactive story with friends old and new.

Not requiring the usual face-to-face aspect of most traditional RPGs, the game caters for people who find it hard to maintain a regular gaming group due to time commitments, or for those who don't have any fellow gamers in their neighbourhood.

Utilising a mix of letter writing, email and text based gaming - depending on your chosen era of play - it's a perfect game for the modern time strapped gamer.

I haven't played it, but this sounds ideal for playing over the Internet with a scattered group.

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You should consider looking at Star Thugs. It has alternate rules specifically for e-mail games.

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I've actually had a great deal of success using Primetime Adventures (PTA) online. PTA uses cards and a form of chips, but no dice. Depending on how you handle it, you can have the GM use a webcam and show the dealt cards for conflict resolution, and each player can keep track of how many chips they have on hand.

It really depends on your setup, but I've always preferred using webcams.

PTA is technically "generic", but can easily handle a story-driven fantasy series.

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Webcams are inherently synchronous. Have you had any good experiences playing PTA asynchronously with play-by-post or similar? – SevenSidedDie Aug 24 '12 at 16:16

I'd recommend three games, the last two of which I edited, so caveat emptor.

The first is Fiasco, which can be easily twisted for fantasy (you'd have to find or create a fantasy playset). It's a game about ordinary people with powerful ambition making bad decisions. This game is quick, very story-focused, and doesn't require anyone to roll dice except at the beginning (a few handfuls of d6es for setting generation). It's perfect for play-by-post.

The second is Annalise. The game is ostensibly about being stalked by a vampire, but with no effort at all, it can be a dark fantasy game. The play examples even include something of the sort. The game uses two or three or four d6es in a conflict. The rules recommend recording moments of play anyway, so it lends itself readily to play-by-post.

The third is Misspent Youth, a game about Youthful Offenders in a dystopian future standing up against The Authority. It's not a fantasy game, but it probably could be hacked a little to make it so. The players create the setting collaboratively anyway, so just give it a fantasy twist. There's not a lot of dice rolling and the GM doesn't roll at all. It would play very well by-post.

All three of these games have light character generation mechanics. Fiasco has no crunchy bits at all. Annalise characters have two attributes, a handful of satellite traits earned in play, and "claims" made during play; its mechanics are a bit fiddly but easily translated to online play. Misspent youth has a handful of traits for each character and the dice system is very simple.

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Warriors Adventure Game seems to have been designed specifically with online PBP games in mind, and even has a forum dedicated to it.

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The Pool is good and simple. You can use a "describe what happens if you succeed/fail" etiquette to keep each turn fairly meaty. This game relies on a good common understanding of the setting from all players and GM.

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I have played some quite epic games of microscope over wave and have found that it translates quite well online. While there are a few difficulties with scenes, the format of the game is such that it plays asynchronously quite quite well.

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That generation-ship game really was epic. – SevenSidedDie May 24 '11 at 17:07
Keep in mind Microscope is sort of a really fun world building engine with some somewhat unconnected RPG attached. – Zachiel Aug 26 '12 at 17:36

I'd try a Fantasy-flavoured Over The Edge, personally.

It's rules light and provides a "narrative combat" way to solve combats without prolonged attack/defense rolls (if memory serves).

The original world uses mostly melee weapons (despite being in a modern setting) and has low-key magic or supernatural stuff out-of-the-box

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We ran into precisely that problem, and decided the best option was to write a game from scratch, rather than try to work within an existing system.

Less of a solution for those seeking to run their own adventures than those trying to find a way to roleplay with remote friends.

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older editions of D&D work especially OD&D or B/X D&D. Original Traveller doesn't use a grid (it has a range band system). But I will add if you use a Virtual Table Top then your range of system expand greatly.

There are a variety of software that aids roleplaying on-line. For example Fantasy Grounds and Battlegrounds. They are called virtual tabletops. This site has an overview. When used in conjunction with Skype or another voip software you can play a tabletop game. Note that this is not playing a MMORPG or something like a tabletop. This type of software allows you to tabletop roleplaying but over the internet.

The biggest difference is that you need scans or images of anything you want to show the players. Plus the drawing tools on many of these software are rather primitive compared what you can do with dry-erase markers. So you need to prepare ahead of time.

On the other hand you get nifty things like fog of war, logs of your session if you use chat. Some automation of your character sheet and combat and so on (for example pick a skill and the VTT software will know what dice and modifiers to apply.)

I bring this up because with message boards and chats running the game very different while with VTTs you are just moving the table onto the internet. However message boards make work better if people are in different time zones.

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Unfortunately, I have the time-zone problem, or the VTTs would be a great solution. (Unless there's a persistent one I could leave open for people to check on at their leisure.) – Trevel Aug 27 '10 at 13:34
There is, actually. I haven't tried it, but check out -- persistence is one of their big features. – Bryant Aug 27 '10 at 13:42

I've had really good luck with King Arthur Pendragon. Though the combat is a little tough, the mature nature of the gaming material often brings out the best in the writers. Giving the players much artistic license and freedom with generating events (following the rules, of course) can help overcome a lot of the asynchronous nature of the online game. Again, the KAP system has a system for generating much of the story detail randomly that works when giving the players free reign to help create the world.

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BTRC's CORPS is pretty good, because most tasks are going to be in the autosuccess or 1d10 resolution.

While the game itself isn't so great, the recent Marvel Super Heroes by Marvel Comics, being randomless, works as well online. So does the (now rather long) out of print Theatrix

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Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a system of engagement that is almost easier to track verbally then it is with minis. For a web based game you're going to want a virtual dice roller. I use this one

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