Play-by-post is a way to play RPGs over a mail, chat, or messaging service. Play-by-post DnD is specifically using this play-by-post system in tandem with the DnD rule set. While there are some alterations to the normal DnD rules, play-by-post is fairly accessible for anyone who wants to play DnD. If you’re interested in learning how to run a play-by-post game successfully, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s look at both how to run a play-by-post game and what the advantages of doing so actually are.
This play-by-post article was written and developed with the help of Critical Fayle DM & The Goons. You should definitely go check out their podcast on Spotify and Apple podcasts, Tik tok, Youtube, Twitter, Twitch, Instagram, and their Patreon.
The Advantages of Play-by-Post
Before we address exactly how play-by-post works, we want to touch on what makes play-by-post worthwhile in the first place. If done correctly, playing by post can be extremely rewarding.
Play-by-post DnD allows you to preserve the story of your game. No additional scribing or recording is needed to keep your game’s story whole. If anyone forgot what happened last time, they can simply look back in the chat and see what happened.
Outside of keeping a log of your game, play-by-post DnD also lets you divide your meta and story conversations very easily. You’ll see later on that we recommend handling your game with two chats. This can be a bit tricky at first, but the reward is one nice, clean channel of story and a simple channel of rolls and table chat. By handling things in this way, you can easily look up information you need and handle rulings without breaking up your story or inserting cumbersome pauses in the game.
Finally, play-by-post also facilitates the same advantages that any online play has. There’s no need to travel to a location to get together for a DnD session. This helps people get their schedules aligned, allows for more time to play, and improves accessibility to the game for most people. While playing DnD in person does come with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, play-by-post is a good middle ground that can help you play the game even when getting together in real life is difficult.
The Difference between Synchronous and Asynchronous Play-by-Post
Play-by-post DnD can be done as synchronous or asynchronous games. Synchronous play-by-post games are done similar to normal DnD sessions where everyone is online and playing at the same time. Asynchronous games are done as people have time to play and no more than one person has to be online at the same time.
Running these two types of games are different.
Synchronous is easier for long stretches of continuous play, but asynchronous has some advantages in that you don’t need to schedule anything at all.
Asynchronous games typically need someone to control the flow (the DM usually), and that person helps to maintain who needs to take the next action or role play section.
Both synchronous and asynchronous games have similar styles, but we’ll cover how to adapt to an asynchronous game at the end of this article.
How to Run a Play-By-Post DnD Session – Step by Step
Step 1. Find Your Players
Finding the right group of people to have a play-by-post session with is the most vital part of the experience. This is where the DM should take the most time to decide carefully what type of game they’re going to run. You can’t cater to everyone in play-by-post and this style of gaming is not for everyone.
Initially, smaller groups are preferable and you will want to try it with about three to four individuals. Part of this comes down to how much reading and writing is involved, but also understanding how your players play the game. Smaller groups are just simpler starting out.
On top of that you’ll want to find players who are excited to play-by-post and are familiar with chat room logistics. You may also want players with DnD or other TTRPG experience for your first play-by-post game. While neither skill is required, having one or the other will make the experience easier for everyone.
Once you find some players who are interested in play-by-post, you can get them up to speed with the rules you are using. We’re talking about DnD, so you’d hand out 5E rules and discuss what channels you’re going to use when you play, as laid out below.
Step 2. Set Up Your Chats
Play-by-post DnD can be run in any chat that has a log. It could be on a messenger app just as easily as it could be in a web forum. Some people even play-by-post in public wiki style websites!
While you can use just about any chat program, a server and channel base chat like Discord works best for play-by-post DnD. This gives you privacy in your chats, long term logs, and the ability to spin up multiple channels for both role play and out of character talk.
At minimum we recommend having two channels: one for role playing and one for side talk or out of character meta. Some people add a lot more, including channels for roles and rules, inventory management, maps, etc. You can make these as complex as you like and Discord facilitates this really well.
Step 3. Preparing to Play
Play-by-post works just like any module based TTRPG system. In module based systems, sessions are built around concrete starting and ending points. For play-by-post it’s the same and you want to plan each session with a clear starting and ending point. This assumes you are playing synchronously, and that is what we recommend for most games. Sessions can be as long as you want, but you should prepare enough content and plot points to fill the time that you will be playing in.
Really, as a DM, you only need to know the two mile markers that are the beginning and the end for the session. These are not necessarily to railroad your players, but they’re made to help you guide a session that is more text heavy and less agile than an in person game.
If you have a more pre-determined plot, you can have mile markers that are pre-typed sections you are ready to pull up at certain intervals during the game to keep your game on pace. These are not necessary, but they are very helpful for both introducing NPCs and developing story points without you tiring your hands typing on the fly.
No matter how many pre-written sections you add, you at least need to know the general idea of how you want things to progress.
Hand warm ups are also a nice idea before longer sessions.
Step 4. Starting Your Game
To kick off your game, make sure everyone is in the chat and ready to go. Next you can start the game with a pre-typed introduction to set the scene. While you could post this before the game started, what you really want to do is hold off to let your players all get equal footing as they read the scene you have set for them.
After that it’s up to your players to decide how they introduce their characters. Some players get right into things and interact with the scene. Other players may want to take things a bit slower and start with dialog and chatting in character. No matter how they decide to play things, it will still start off much like any other DnD session.
As this gets going you’re there to guide rules and rolls behind the scenes, but you also get to control the pace and when new events and scenes begin and end. Just like at the table, you’ll be running the game behind the actual game play.
Step 5. Playing By Post
Now you’re into the thick of it.
Your most important role as a DM is controlling the pacing and the story of your play-by-post game. You have a lot of narrative control, but you also speed up or slow down the game based on what you post, how quickly you post, and through asking questions in the side chat that affect the main story chat. While players can push things forward, play-by-post has to wait longer for the DM to resolve actions or narrative plot points that involve an outcome, so this will mean you have much more direct control over the actual pace.
Outside of the main plot role play interactions, you also control Initiative, turn order, and narrative.
Some parts of the game still require normal initiative to run. This can be managed however you like, but it can easily bleed out of the game’s combat systems and into other parts of the game. Sometimes in play-by-post you might want to use initiative order in roleplay sections. It’s up to you to decide if it’s necessary, but it’s often best used to control the pace of the game when players don’t read or type at the same speeds.
Combat happens nearly the same way it would in normal DnD, but it needs a lot more oversight in your rolls and out of character channel. You want to make sure people roll initiative, report their numbers, and get them recorded and set up as fast as possible for your game. This is way easier if you have your players’ character sheets. The main thing you have to do is ensure that people are making rolls when you need them and not clogging chat before the mechanical interactions are cleared. If you have trouble doing that, you may want to break up your side chat and mechanics chats into separate channels.
Speaking of side chat and out of character discussion, side chat or out of character chat is where you can handle most of the non-story items in the game. Side discussion is important for play-by-post because it is where you house the game mechanics, but also where you check your players’ vibes. This is where they tell you out of character how things are going and if they have issues, disputes, ideas, questions, etc.
Critical Fayle, who helped us with this article, also recommends using this chat to check for possible trigger warnings and any areas where your game might make some people uncomfortable. DnD is for everyone and we want to make sure everyone has a good time playing the game.
Managing meta in play-by-post relies on understanding that the rules are more like guidelines, as play-by-post is already a homebrew adaptation of the game. Some things should stay out of your chat. For example: discussing battle strategies that rely on real world knowledge the player’s character would not have access to. Beyond this it’s really more of an honor system, so make sure to tell your players when they’re moving in a direction that is not good for the game.
To make your life easier, we recommend trying to get your player’s character sheets ahead of time if you can. You will create and use character sheets just like you do with a normal game, but if you have them handy you can save yourself a lot of heartache. Some games might even separate out their character information into channels of their own to make tracking this information easier as characters progress or you need to call upon very specific information.
When it comes to handling rolls, the best way to do so is by keeping things simple. If you’re using discord you can add a dice roller, or you can use the honor system and have people roll dice and report their numbers. Sure you can do more complex things with dice rollers and bots, and if you want to you should, but it is not a requirement to make the game function. On top of this, because play-by-post can be more prescriptive you may find yourself “adjusting” more rolls on your side of the table anyway, so a roll and report system will aid you there the most. You should reference our article on the correct way to fudge rolls in DnD if you’re not familiar with how to best adjust for mistakes or unplanned issues you may have caused in the game.
Step 6. Ending a Session
Ending a session really comes back to the pre-established plot points you’ve generated at the very beginning. When this comes up or you’ve made it to the end of the session, you drop in your pre-written session closer, ideally one that ends on a cliff hanger when you’re going to play multiple sessions. You might have to tweak this description a bit based on how the game went, but it is unlikely that you will have to throw the whole piece out. Some people even like to over prepare and have different pre-written sections to use based on key decisions the players may have made throughout the game. This makes it more of a “choose your own adventure” style ending where the players directed the narrative, but you knew what types of outcomes were in the realm of possibility before the last rolls of the game took place.
By ending on a cliffhanger you’re more likely to keep your players engaged with the story and give them time to think about how they’re going to continue the story next time you play. There’s a reason it works in TV shows.
Play-by-Post Tips and Tricks
Choosing the Right Chat Client
You can use any chat client you want but we really recommend Discord.
Choosing the Right Players
Excitement is the number one item you’re looking for in a new player. Honestly, it is just like regular DND and you need to find individuals who are going to be engaged and want to play.
Adapting to Asynchronous Play
If you are going to try asynchronous play you have a lot of room for things to go wrong, so be ready for that. It does involve a little bit more trust and having people agree to certain norms and rules. Asynchronous play obviously helps facilitate different schedules, but it also allows for longer, more involved writing at a slower game pace. This can add a lot of detail, and as long as no one player pushes the time forward too much, this can be a lovely way to get more thoughtful storytelling.
Since time is a shared resource in asynchronous play, make sure all players agree to a time jump before someone rockets to the future in chat. As the DM you will ultimately get final say on the passing of time, so be sure that your asynchronous game lays down the rules for the flow of time right at the start to keep things consistent.
Beyond having to manage the flow of time, you also will have some rolls and items of a mechanical nature that need to be resolved. The easy way to do this is to check in on the rolls/meta chat frequently or increase notifications in those windows so you can manage them as they come up. Sometimes rolls might sit unresolved for a while, but players will want to move forward. In these cases you can allow some “self-DMing” to take place where you post DCs and any other items players need to know to resolve a roll ahead of time. This can lead to some unfortunate meta gaming and takes a lot more trust, but at the same time it makes the game more asynchronous for everyone.
Beyond that, asynchronous play is mostly the same. The nail in the coffin for these games typically comes in the form of players disappearing for weeks. To avoid this you can set up “fall back” conditions for when the DM takes over a player if they disappear. But anyone who is excited to play will continue to engage even if it takes them a few days to get back on. Another way to avoid this is to clear player-gated events in the side chat before they take place so that you know the other party is ready to resolve them ahead of time.
Tips on Managing Rolls and Meta Conversation
Avrae is a Discord bot that is free to use and can do a great many things for your game. We highly recommend using this if you are playing on Discord. In its most basic form it is a dice roller, but it can do more! You can use Avrae to manage character sheets, establish more complex rolls and commands, or even track initiative. When you pair this with other bots you could hypothetically even set up some form of Auto DM, though that would be much more advanced.
In any case, Avrae is going to be one of the easier ways to make the mechanics portion of your play-by-post game much easier to manage.
Troubleshooting and Play-by-Post Challenges
Trouble with Players
Trouble with players comes in all different forms. Remember: we are all here to have fun. If you or your players are not having fun playing, there may be issues that you need to address.
In a play-by-post game, it can be hard to get a read on your player’s emotions. You can’t see their faces so you don’t have an easy way to tell if they’re enjoying the game or not. This makes it much more important to check in with your players privately. As long as you keep in mind that you’re trying to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves and know to talk through difficulties you should be fine.
Additionally, some DM control is given up a bit when you play-by-post. Your players have to abide by the rules without immediate or swift intervention from a DM when they don’t. With this in mind, trust needs to be shared on all sides of the table. Trust is the number one thing that helps keep a play-by-post game together.
For more serious issues, see our article on how to deal with problem players. Hint: it’s communication.
Trouble with Pacing/Story
The easiest way to control pacing is to step into the out of character chat and tell people to pause or hold as needed. Rarely will things be going too slow, but often you may find excited players going very fast. Some players also type exceptionally slow, so keep this in mind if you find some players falling behind. Even within our own group reading speeds vary greatly, so watching for signs that you may want to pump the breaks helps you know when a pause is necessary and useful.
Trouble with Chat Management
Managing chat can be exhausting because there can be a lot going on all at once. If you ever run into issues with going out of pace, arguing, or having rule disputes that you can’t keep straight, remember to tell your players to pause and work through the issue. Chat can pile up so it’s okay if you have to stop and take a breather. Don’t let chat trouble sit and wait because it can amplify the problem. Even if it’s a breach of rules or chat room edicate, be sure to pause and resolve the issue swiftly to ensure the game state remains intact.
From Game to Book
A play-by-post session leaves a unique record of events for a TTRPG. With this, you can easily turn your game into an actual story for others to read with a bit of editing and some elbow grease. We think this is a great idea, but remember, before turning collaborative works into something public, always ask for the consent of everyone involved in the game. It’s a jerk move to publicly broadcast other people’s role play without them wanting you to, so always ask for consent first.
If everyone is on board though, you’ve got yourself a fantastic blog, an outline for a comic, a collaboratively written novel, or just a fun story to share with others. This is one of the unique and underappreciated benefits of play-by-post content. If you’re in the maker space for DnD or other TTRPGs, this is a rare creation you can build with friends.
Where Can I Try Play-by-Post DnD?
We recommend you try spinning up a Discord server and trying this with friends. It’s easy to do and completely free. Your first few sessions might be terrible, but it’s a learning experience and you should be okay with being terrible at something at the beginning. Being bad at something is just the first step towards being good at it.
Beyond that, Critical Fayle DM and the Goons have a wonderful Patreon community starting at just $5 a month full of play-by-post opportunities. From Building Together, a massive Barovian survival camp play-by-post consisting of 12 different chats, to The Arena, a combat specific play-by-post with characters testing their mettle against various monsters in a gladiatorial style arena spanning three channels! They also have a more selective play-by-post setting called The Past Adventures of Drogar where occasionally some community members get to be part of a past adventure that Ned’s character, Drogar Stonebreath, a 528 year old Dragon Cleric, joins you as he facilitates a more intimate and personal play-by-post experience.
There are tons of other play-by-post opportunities out there for you as well. They may not all be the right fit for you or your group, but you should definitely give them a try. You’ll eventually find one you absolutely love or even learn enough to run your own very successful play-by-post game in no time at all. So what are you waiting for? Go give some play-by-post games a try!
Special Thanks to Critical Fayle DM for help with this article
Critical Fayle DM is an inclusive and safe community where people can explore and begin to dive into the wonders of Dungeons and Dragons. They pride themselves in being one of the most down to earth and relatable Let’s Play groups out there with one goal in mind: DnD is for everyone. You can listen to their DnD Let’s Play, the Strahdcast, a podcast where the Goons find themselves transported to the mysterious realm of Barovia in their run through The Curse of Strahd DnD Campaign Module. You can find them Sundays anywhere you listen to podcasts or catch them live on Twitch every Wednesday at 6PM EST.