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I have a group of friends who enjoy playing TTRPGs together (primarily D&D 5e) but who do not live near each other. We are looking for ways to play together more often, but some of the group members can't or prefer not to play online campaigns, so we are limited to playing in person a handful of times per year. We love playing one-shot campaigns but would like to have something that lets us flesh out characters and stories more, even if the timescale is long.

An idea we discussed was running a campaign in which the characters themselves had some reason to gather together once per (game) year but were otherwise doing things on their own the rest of the time, probably using a different/extended ruleset. An example of something like what we're imagining, in case my description here isn't clear, is included at the end of the question.

I'm looking for asynchronous rule-sets/extensions or 5e game extensions that could be dropped in or used with infrequent in-person D&D 5e sessions to enable this kind of play. I would welcome good subjective response about what did or didn't work with such rules also.

Example Gameplay Concept

This is a very basic example of how we would like to run a game; it was quickly invented and is not meant to hold up to scrutiny, just to portray the game concept w.r.t. how in-person vs. asynchronous play would work. I'm interested in rules that could accommodate these levels of asynchronous/in-person play with D&D 5e (or something very similar) even if the kind of game we would play asynchronously is much different.

  • Each PC begins the campaign as a low-ranking member in a particular guild/political organization/faction;
  • The campaign starts with an in-person session in which all the PCs have some reason to have traveled to [capital city] where they are inducted into [secret society] that is trying to save the world from [BBEG]; the PCs are a "class" in this secret society and they are tasked with preparing their respective guilds for [coming conflict].
  • After this session, the players and the PCs all travel home to their respective locales, but the game continues asynchronously over email/phone/discord. The PCs are managing resources, making decisions, writing letters to local authorities. This might be more like a strategy/resource-management game or a game of politics, and it would have to be flexible in that I wouldn't want to punish a player who only had time for a few minutes of this kind of play per week, but I would also want to be able to reward a player who really got creative with this kind of play. I'm not looking for any specific mechanical requirements here aside from that players be able to engage with this part of the game at their own pace asynchronously.
  • This section of the campaign might also include occasional 1-on-1 sessions or small-group sessions, as the story-line and player availability allow.
  • Six (real-life) months later when all of the players are again gathering in the same physical place, one (in-game) year has passed and the PCs are again in [capital city] for [important event] at which [BBEG] has something sinister planned. The PCs must leverage their guild resources as well as their personal abilities in order to foil [BBEG]'s plans. This likely plays out over something like a long one-shot session.
  • After the session, everyone again travels home, and the asynchronous portion restarts, though it will of course have been changed by the events of the session.
  • Repeat until the campaign concludes.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Might also help to clarify where you draw the line between "a ruleset" and "opinions about what would be fun to do." Rules are basically just formalized opinions, running the gamut from 5e RAW down to someone proposing rules in an answer here, with third-party content and off-site homebrew falling somewhere in between. I don't think there are any official 5e rules for this, so what part of that range would you accept? \$\endgroup\$
    – Shivers
    Nov 28, 2022 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ For now I've voted to close as a shopping/recommendation question. I think if you focused the question to the concrete problem you are trying to solve, without asking for rules or systems to just drop in, you've got a workable question. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2022 at 21:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I’m confused, you’re saying your players do not want an online game but then mention a game over email/phone/discord, that is an online game, do you mean that you don’t want a game that’s solely online or something else? \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 29, 2022 at 2:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I was traveling yesterday, and now that there are upvoted answers I'm hesitant to edit the question more (but fundamentally I'm fine with that suggestion). \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Nov 30, 2022 at 17:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnnaAG It's about in-person vs. asynchronous not whether or not it's online. Email (asynchronous not in-person) is fine, a tabletop (synchronous in-person) is fine, zoom/facetime (synchronous but not in-person) is not. \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Nov 30, 2022 at 17:35

4 Answers 4

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I'm currently a player in something somewhat similar: a West Marches campaign on a dedicated Discord server. Characters live in D&D Beyond (one of the GMs splurged on "all the books", which was quite nice), but could live just as easily in Roll20; they could also live in a Google Doc or even as posts in the Discord server.

We have about a dozen players, some of whom have two characters. Each player is a member of a faction and has some reason to have come to "hubtown" (a lightly plot-armored village that acts as the hub of the campaign).

Each real-world week represents two in-game weeks. During an in-game week, a character can perform one downtime activity and/or go on an adventure (some adventures require downtime, some don't).

Downtime activities include:

  • currying or spending non-faction favors (characters have a limit on these; they're less formalized than faction favors, and are generally intended to be used fairly quickly)
  • gaining or spending faction favors
  • gaining a proficiency
  • making money
  • buying/selling magic items
  • doing explicitly plot-relevant things that don't fall into the above categories; eg.: we currently have a salvaged airship that we're repairing

Most of the downtime activities are in Xanathar's Guide to Everything; most that aren't are reskins of "make money", where the thing you're trying to do has a GP cost (eg.: repairing the airship requires 1,000 gp; I can either spend a week making bricks to earn 20gp then donate that to the ship - paying NPCs to do it - or I can spend a week working on the ship and earn 20gp towards its completion).

Adventures can provide gold, magic items, and faction favors with the various factions (and are the fastest way to gain any of the above, by far). Acquiring (not holding, but acquiring) sufficient faction favors increases your rank with that faction (it's theoretically possible to be a member of multiple factions, provided they're not opposed to each other). With higher rank, you gain faction benefits (eg.: my fighter has a ring that gives him a couple of cantrips and a bonus on checks using the Athletics proficiency that scales with his faction tier) and can turn in favors (and, potentially, gp/downtime) to gain more potent benefits (specific magic items, a feat, information, etc.).

In-character activities are encouraged between adventures. The GMs (there are 2) kick off some activities ("a mysterious stranger enters hubtown"), but players are encouraged to start their own, too.

Adventures use the full 5e combat system (non-adventure stuff theoretically does, too, but combat in town is frowned upon). They're run whenever a GM and 4-6 players (1 character per player, even for those with two) can agree on a time (generally, GMs propose 1-3 times and players vote). Adventures run over Discord voice chat and Roll20 for tactical stuff, dice rolls, etc..

Adventures are run "con-style": no cliff-hangers, with a fixed end time (though a sequel is plausible). The GM may elide an encounter entirely or abstract it by simply charging a few HP and maybe a spell slot or similar to get to the boss with enough time to run that encounter before the end time.

Everything that happens in a real-world week happens "during the two in-game weeks". Any character who wants to be involved in an IC RP event can be there even if their downtime activity would have them out of town for the whole real-world week. Downtime activities are locked in at the end of the real-world week, giving players a chance to respond to the results of an adventure or IC RP event.

XP progression is modified from 5e's standard. Gaining a level requires 100 XP, regardless of level. Every real-world week, a character can gain up to 30 XP: 10 for engaging in at least one IC RP event, 10 for performing a downtime activity, and 20 for joining an adventure. Characters who are below the average campaign level gain a 50% bonus (which can put them above 30/week) to help catch up.


I've been a member of the campaign for about 3 months. It's worked quite well during that time (with the occasional lull in activity, especially with Thanksgiving weekend here in the States). A lot of the people involved did something similar that ran successfully for at least a couple of years. So, a system like this can work well in the long-term.

Using fuzzy time per real-world week helps everyone stay involved at all times. Even if one character's downtime activity for a real-world month would have them out of hubtown, it's assumed that they were back for a visit whenever an IC RP event happened that they wanted their character to be involved in (even if travel time would be prohibitive, though the immersion-breaking aspect there is limited by putting most "out of hubtown" downtime activities in a larger city that's just a day or so away). In principle, a character could be gone for longer, but that's been handwaved thus far.

Simplifying XP lets those whose schedules don't lend themselves well to joining adventures still stay mostly caught-up with the rest of the group, which it sounds like would be especially important for the in-person sessions.

With Discord, you could have private channels for any relevant set of players, so their characters can plot without other players simply reading the chat (whether you'd want to isn't entirely clear from the question, but I got the impression that you might). And, of course, you can have an "other" channel or two, for chatting that isn't directly about the campaign. IME, having an "other" channel is critical to keeping the players engaged: if they can come and chat about whatever, they're coming back to that server and will see the channels that have new in-character stuff waiting for them; they'll also be reminded that they care about the story (hopefully).

There's no particular reason that an adventure couldn't be run for fewer than 4 players (or even for a single player) (or that such an adventure would have to go to Roll20 and use the full "minis on a map" tactical detail that that provides). The campaign that I'm in hasn't had any 1-on-1 adventures that I'm aware of, but there's talk of it in the campaign rules docs.

There's also no hard rule that says that the characters need to live in hubtown (though it's probably a good idea). They should have a reliable means of communication, but homebrewing a magic item that facilitates that would be pretty simple (from Star Trek style comm-badges to magic email/Discord). Letting the characters keep in reliable contact and have reasons to engage in in-character chat will (IME) strengthen their players' attachment to the characters and the campaign; it also helps with trickling out the plot. So: I'd recommend that they live in hubtown and make excursions further afield, but it's not a hard requirement (that said: could the characters' locales be regions within a city rather than far-flung cities?).

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    \$\begingroup\$ A march is an oldfashioned word for a borderland, so it could be either. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Nov 29, 2022 at 1:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd put money on "Marches," as West Marches is an increasingly-popular (it seems to me) style of campaign/session to run, or at least to discuss. "Salt Marches" then becomes a nice little play on words: a West Marches campaign played in the Salt Marshes =) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Nov 29, 2022 at 2:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yep, West Marches. Updated. \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Nov 29, 2022 at 3:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is very helpful and has given me a lot to think about, thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Nov 30, 2022 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ A great post and interesting and informative all by itself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Nov 30, 2022 at 20:26
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Frame Challenge

If the majority of your game is going to be conducted over e-mail, or discord, or some other text medium, and the minority of it is going to be conducted in person, maybe you should focus on a primary set of rules that is amenable to being conducted over a text medium. In my experience these are referred to as PBEM ("Play By E-Mail") even if the text medium is something else.

My best experience with these have been relatively rules-lite, diceless games. Two examples would be the Amber system, and the Everway system. Note, these are examples not recommendations because they may not support the tone you want-- Amber, in particular, has a very specific setting attached to it and is very dated even in its diceless mechanics. Also, neither was specifically designed for PBEM, they're just what worked for me. The point is not to elevate those particular games, the point is to get you to think a little differently about what you are trying to accomplish.

What you would lose in moving to a more text-friendly, rules-light, diceless system is the crunchy mechanical fights that 5e and similar games support... but you're only engaging in that once or twice a year anyway. (And as a relevant aside, I will tell you right now that stage-managing four or five players in separate plot threads so that they all converge at the same time and place is substantially not easy.)

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You could do a play-by-post game combined with occasional in-person sessions

I was once in a somewhat similar situation to yours, where a group of my friends and I wanted to run a campaign, could only align everyone's schedules once a month or so but wanted the campaign to progress faster than that.

What we did was run a hybrid sort of game that was mainly asynchronous play-by-post on a discord server and then once every month we would meet for a real-time session. It required modifying the campaign somewhat but worked quite well. We ran it in a similar way to what you seem to want, I set the game up in such a way that the real-time session was when the party would be brought together, receive some quests, leads to follow and other information they could act upon and then during the rest of the month everyone would write in discord what their characters were doing in response to the hooks received during the session, a lot of the time each PC would go off by themselves to chase some particular plot point but there were also some that they tackled together as a group.

I think play-by-post would work well for what you're trying to do, especially as you want the PCs to split in between the in-person sessions, that makes it less important that everyone posts with roughly the same frequency as you can just reply to each person in isolation. In our game the understanding was that if someone doesn't write for too long, the time advances and they keep doing whatever they were doing at the point of their last post but you could just as easily track time for each of them separately if they're all going to be in different cities and not interacting with each other.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was my gut response to the question as I read it: PbP is the tool for this job. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2022 at 17:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! This is very much in-line with what I was thinking; are there rules about play-by-post or suggestions on how to manage it? Or discussions about these topics somewhere? It doesn't seem like play-by-post rules are part of the official game, so I'm curious how you did it. \$\endgroup\$
    – nben
    Nov 30, 2022 at 17:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nben it’s not really that different from the usual game loop of players describing what they want to do, dm narrating the results and maybe asking for a roll in between, the main difference is that players are usually allowed to be a bit more descriptive about the environment and things than in an in-person game would be the dm’s area. It’s also common for the players to roll dice in advance if they do something that they think might merit a roll. You also need some rules on how you’re going to measure passage of time and how often are people expected to post \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 30, 2022 at 20:16
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There's a third-party supplement for D&D 5E called On Downtime and Demesnes. It should provide some ideas for things to do, if nothing else.

Some other RPGs with downtime mechanics for inspiration

There's a Swedish-only RPG called Svavelvinter, which has what they call a "Game of Shadows". This is basically a mini-boardgame, where each player controls a powerful faction and the events of each turn of the boardgame affects the next RPG session, sessions that can be separated by months or even years in-game. Pretty much on the nose, but unless you speak Swedish or are willing to translate the game from Swedish, that's a no-go.

The Forged in the Dark games, Blades in the Dark in particular, invest pretty heavily in downtime mechanics. Since the whole thing (more or less) is available online, this should be a good starting point. Note the menu on the left, which rendered a bit oddly on my phone.

Downtime is divided into four parts, which are resolved in order:

  1. Payoff. The crew receives their rewards from a successfully completed score.
  2. Heat. The crew accumulates suspicion and attention from the law and the powers-that-be in the city as a result of their last score.
  3. Entanglements. The crew faces trouble from the rival factions, the law, and the haunted city itself.
  4. Downtime Activities. The PCs indulge their vices to remove stress, work on long-term projects, recover from injuries, etc.

As you may notice, the themes of that game are centered around the PCs as a criminal outfit, so the words used are rather evocative of that.

The Payoff is basically getting the loot or getting paid for performing a mission. D&D handles that well with WBL.

The Heat is notoriety/fame, which increases based on the actions and deeds of the player characters. There are few ways to decrease Heat, except for prison time, which is basically another type of adventure. If you want something similar in high fantasy, you might want that to be more anonymous duties - maybe joining the King's Guard for an adventure, where that unit "takes the Heat off" the PCs.

The Entanglements part is trouble arising randomly, based on past pursuits or as a consequence of Heat. In Forged in the Dark, that might mean prison time, but in high fantasy, that might mean more questgivers, wannabe hangers-on, relatives/henchmen of past exploits...for instance, if you've got a BBEG, the more fame the group gains, the more likely the BBEG is to start investigating and, possibly, counteracting them.

The Downtime Activities are two per downtime, selected by each player for their character. Here is the list:

  • Acquire Asset
  • Long-Term Project
  • Recover
  • Reduce Heat
  • Train
  • Indulge Vice

Each of these have a mechanical effect while asking for a good description of exactly what goes down. Is the Heat reduced by the PC acting as an informer on a rival gang? Does the PC have a trainer, or are they training alone?

Since they are supposed to have mechanical effects, these would have to be translated into D&D-terms for that game. "Train" sounds like "Level up", to me, while "Long-Term Project" might be magical research, Recover could be finding a Cleric to fix what ails the PC, et cetera.

There's also some ideas on what the GM can have NPC factions do during downtime, using a similar action system as the players use.

I could include more information from that system, but as it is available online and I'd just be citing from that, just check it out if the description sounds interesting.

Honorable mentions

Mouse Guard, which is shamefully collecting dust unread on my shelf, uses the concept of Player Turns and GM Turns to similar effect.

I personally enjoy the Lame Mage games, like Kingdom, which is a separate game focused on co-creating the story of a community, small or large, for instance the proverbial Kingdom. It's slim and quite rules-light.

An oldie is the Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth. It is a bit like a very, very expanded version of Kingdom, but unfortunately one where they chose to invent new words for every third concept you'd otherwise recognize. Why did every RPG of the 90s have to think up their own word for game master?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is why shopping questions are bad, but mostly I just can't see an answer with 7 links where all the key info is behind each link is much use on its own. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Nov 28, 2022 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Agreed, to me, this probably qualifies as a "link-only answer"; the answer doesn't really attempt to explain how any of these proposals actually solve OP's problem. Without experience in any of these systems, I don't see how you could reasonable expect someone to just drop it into their game and fix the problem they're having. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2022 at 21:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Voting against deletion: This is an honest attempt at answering the question and, if expanded beyond mere recommendation, could potentially be useful to the querent. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Nov 29, 2022 at 14:40

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