Initially these problems used to be solved by play by mail, or later play by post on an internet forum. However for over a decade there has been another solution, the virtual tabletop.
The wonders of the internet have allowed an entire market segment to open up in the role-playing industry devoted to providing a tabletop experience on the computer, with your players anywhere in the world.
Virtual tabletops range in abilities from a simple text based interface that is basically a glorified chat room, through integrating character sheets and game system rules into the interface, allowing the management of handouts and campaign assets within the software, all the way to having fully interactive maps complete with counter assets for all PCs and NPCs and even fog of war functionality.
Not every VT has all of these features, and the feature set has increased over the years. So here is a list of ones I've used over the years.
- GRiP. Published by RPG Realms and written I believe by the late Hunter Gordon (who sadly passed away January 28th 2013.) I'm not sure exactly when it came out but I know I used it from mid 2000 and some of the files in the folders are dated mid 1999. There is a GRiP version 4, but I don't believe it's supported anymore. Since Hunter became ill the forums are full of spambots and I don't see any immediate evidence that anyone else is assisting in it. Anyway GRiP was basic by modern standards. It allowed the GM to build their own character sheets and program their way to making them interactive and functional. Clicking on a skill for instance could be configured to roll that skill and display the results in the chat panel. Both players and GM could chat in and out of character in the text interface. GRiP did support sending of files for handouts, but didn't support interactive maps and counters. I stopped using it in later 2003 to move onto...
- kLoOge. Yes that's how it's spelt. Anyway kLoOge was an improvement over GRiP in that it supported using counters for characters and objects which could be moved around on maps. In fact the maps were integral to the software and the players had to be on maps to interact. It has the full range of chat functions, private messaging, interaction as player or character etc. Rule sets can be loaded or configured into it along with character sheets etc. The map functionality supports fog of war revelation to the players, and free hand drawing. If you were using a popular ruleset for which you could easily get configuration files, such as D&D, it was pretty easy to use as a bit of familiarization. However of you wished to build your own rulesets it could be a nightmare to get them working. Definition files were configured in XML and if you didn't know what you were doing it could go wrong. The amount of customization and the power of it however was staggering and it is still supported and recommended. I used it actively from 2004 until 2007 when I left the UK and my online gaming group disbanded due to time zone issues. More information on Klooge can be found at http://www.kloogeinc.com/
- Most recently I purchased Fantasy Grounds. It promises to be a powerful system, very actively supported and with a sizable community. It is one of the top flight players in the field today and does pretty much everything apart from voice communication that you could want from a Virtual Tabletop today. I haven't had a chance to run anything with it, as I've found it not intuitive to get functioning (no instructions came with the Call of Cthulhu ruleset I purchased for it.) I need to spend some time with it and try it out. However I intend to use it and it seems it will definitely meet my needs. http://www.fantasygrounds.com/
Of course as I said there is a market segment out there now, and an industry for it. As a result there are many more Virtual Tabletops than what I've tried above. The ones I'm aware of at the moment, though have not tried, are.
- Battlegrounds. http://www.battlegroundsgames.com/
- Screen Monkey. http://www.nbos.com/products/screenmonkey/screenmonkey.htm
For more information on the topic, check out the really useful Virtual Tabletop wiki, which includes comparisons of various software. http://rpgvirtualtabletop.wikidot.com/
Don't forget to let me know your experiences with such software, and any tips on using Fantasy Grounds are much appreciated.