This coming weekend, my group will be playing one of our two regular campaigns without me (I’ll be escaping Utah’s single-digit temperatures for sunny, sunny Florida).
The older I get, the more often the question of what to do in this situation has come up. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, simple choices.
In my group’s case, both campaigns feature levelling by GM fiat, so that’s not a concern, and our Stargate game is mission-based, making it very easy for one character to be somewhere else for a session; D&D isn’t mission-based, so I don’t know what’ll happen there (but I trust my GM to do what’s best for the group).
Here are some of the most basic and popular ways to handle an absent player. Their PC…
- Fades into the background entirely.
- Gets explained out of one adventure.
- Fades out, but pops back in for combat.
- Is played by another player.
- Is played by the GM as a pseudo-NPC.
I’ve used the fourth option (played by someone else) successfully as a GM, and been on both ends of the second option (explained PC absence), which I quite like. There are so many ways to tackle this, though, that I’m sure plenty of sound approaches didn’t make my quick list.
With level-based RPGs, there’s also a school of thought that absent PCs shouldn’t get as much XP (or any XP) as present PCs. Over the years, I’ve learned that the other direction — no penalty for absence — meshes better with real life scheduling issues and responsibilities, and it’s my preferred approach.
So how about it — what do you do?
my group doesn’t worry about it much, the character’s just there one moment, gone the next. in my D&D games, i usually use 2, or…
6. victim of an extended Summon Monster spell.
Most of our adventures are pretty specifically written to having the whole group present. In cases where we have a player who cannot make it, we usually just re-schedule the game.
Back when I was running a Shadowrun campaign, I had two players missing from the penultimate run. So I said to the remaining players, “[Bob] and [Frank] haven’t checked in for a while. You go visit their apartments, and it’s a mess. Stuff strewn everywhere, and the windows have been broken in.”
A great way to head into the big Let’s Go Find The Badguys And Blow Them Up mission!
I’ve done all of the above except #3.
I ran a campaign once where the party had an items that could do a “send and receive” teleport on characters. We knew going in that people would miss frequently, including leaving in the middle of an adventure. We merely rolled with that reality.
Nowadays, I’ve given up and gone to “poof, you’re there” or “poof, you’re gone”. The players make a thin veneer of rationalization, such as “watching the horses”. Lately, it’s actually worked out quite well. The party has been sailing on their own ship to do most of the adventure. So it actually is plausible that all the characters are on the ship, but not always disembarking for a particular adventure–especially with a large party.
When the character is actually there, but the player isn’t, I generally treat it as I would any NPC. We don’t roll everything out for those. So that keeps the focus on the players present, while still allowing some consistent effectiveness. “Borin cuts down an orc. Next!”
Depends on the game I’m running. In a D&D game in which I was a player, we had a large group and used option 1, and had absent players fade out during the evening’s play. For games that I’ve run that are particularly story or character driven, having an absent player can totally halt play, and so a rescheduling occurs. Though in a pinch I’ve used option 2.
It depends… I had a session where a specific character was needed, but the player couldn’t make… so he faded into the background until needed.
Generally speaking, I run a variation of #3: the absent player’s character is suffering from a migrane, intestinal distress, etc. They can come along, but can’t do anything more strenuous than move actions (in D&D terms). If needed, they can help (healing spells, support spells, knowledge checks, etc), but only if needed.
If both are willing, one of the other players can run an absent player’s character. This is more and more becoming the norm.
I learned early on that a DMPC is wrong: Unexpected circumstances kept the cleric’s player from showing up for an undead mission, so I ran him as a DMPC, and ended up fighting myself while the party watched. Bo-ring. Never again….
There is another option – if there is enough notice, get a substitute player.
A friend of mine is a GM for several games, one of which I’m an active player in. In another one of his games, when a player goes absent, he checks to see if I can sub for the player and gives me a copy of the character sheet and a thumbnail synopsis of the character’s personality/motivations. I enjoy seeing his game world from another perspective and, since I do know a few players in the game but don’t have time to participate full time, it’s a nice way to catch up with them. At this point, I’ve sub’ed for each of the 5 characters and have started keeping tabs on the story thru the GM, although I usually only know as much as any currently active player would know. The only difference, really, is that I feel an impulse to keep the character ‘intact’ while the player is gone – I’d hate to kill them off when they weren’t even there. 🙂
We have 2 rules on this: if we are missing more than one player we re-schedule. If only one is missing we always default to #1.
I posted this blog entry to my group to get their thoughts on this. One player chimed in to say that we could do an intermediate step between #1 and #3 where the DM would play the faded out character as a support-only effect. In D&D, this would mean that every round, a ‘aid-another’ action would be played out by the faded character but his character would not be part of the combat (no miniature, not subjected to attacks, etc).
I liked that idea.
I’ve used all these options, balancing various concerns. Options 1 and 3 are kind of weird from a fictional logic standpoint, option 2 is often really just a thin disguise of option 1. In some games, you either need all the PCs because of their specific skills, or because you need the numbers to keep combats manageable (Cold Iron and RuneQuest both tended to suffer if the party size got too small). Keeping PC XP and treasure mostly in line has also been a consideration.
I have struggled however with keeping players motivated to come. I think it does help to have some minor XP/treasure benefit of being there. I used to award extra XP in Cold Iron that absentee players PCs would not get (or at least they would get less). It’s also traditional to let the players who are present pick from the treasure first (except when it really makes sense to give something to the absentee player’s PC).
In my long running Traveller campaign, much of the action occurred on ship. All characters were always present, though sometimes if the PC of a present player was also qualified for a position normally filled by the PC of an absentee player, the PCs roles might change. Ground teams would exclude absentee player PCs unless their skills were needed.
Not leaving me with a good copy of your character sheet is a good way to assure that your PC hangs in the background when you are absent.
Re-scheduling for a missed player (or two in a larger game) is simply not practical in my experience. In recent memory, I have had exactly one campaign where more than half the sessions had all players present for the entire play time. I’ve also had numerous campaigns with several half-hearted players. These days I’m a lot less willing to put up with such, though two of my best campaigns included such, but then the fully committed players were willing to make a serious commitment and the game was fun even if they were the only players (the Traveller campaign mentioned above – with one dedicated player, and a RuneQuest campaign – with two dedicated players).
We have another player play the character of the missing player. I give the volunteer extra xp instead of penalizing the missing player. The missing player usually gets screwed when it comes to the booty or equipment though, but that’s the players punishing the player.
We did this when we had five players, but now that we are down to four plus GM, we usually play something else that night (Zombies!!!, XBox, geeky board games). Since we play weekly, it’s no big deal to miss one week of rp.
Richard W’s response reminded me of something we did briefly for a college campaign. We had 3 or 4 pretty much ironclad players, and then 6-7 occasionals. However, we knew that the occasionals had school/work/home demands such that we could count on 2-3 for any given session.
So what we did was have 6 “main characters”. The ironclad guys each had a separate one as “their” character, and always had first dibs on that character. The rest of the main characters were played by whoever showed. If we had a 7th or 8th player, they would get a quirky NPC. The NPCs were a hodge podge of repeating characters with plenty of built in story hooks so that the GM could always find a plausible way to insert a couple of them in the session. We never had over 8 players at one session, but we could have even coped with that.
That was a lot of fun, especially since the “occasionals” got to see enough of the game to make their play of the characters pretty consistent.
Hmm, I’d completely forgotten about that. It’s only been 20 years! I’ll have to consider that for my upcoming Ptolus game.
We’ll cancel if we don’t have “critical mass” attendance, otherwise we’ll have other players pick up the PCs of the missing players. The DM already has his hands full without worrying about another “N”PC or two. Our group is pretty plot/story heavy, so we’re not real keen on just waving our hands at their absence. If the PCs can be properly “explained away” we might shelve them for the session — but be sure we have a way to bring them back in for next time.
Our approach is more out of necessity than choice: our sessions never seem to end on a nice segue point where it would be easy to explain in-story why someone took off. Also we need the count and skills of most of the group to see our way past the combat and obstacles. Our DM does a good job of adjusting to account for who’s not there, but it’s sad to see him shelve so much of his hard work just because a few people had to bail.
Given the realities of adult life and how hard it is to get the full group together, I just don’t see that I’ll EVER plan a full session once my turn comes up to DM. There’s just too many monkeys in there to mess up the works: even if everyone DOES show up, the players certainly aren’t going to do what you prepared for. Martin, please keep those “how to wing it” articles coming!
P.S.: It wasn’t asked but has come up in replies: exp is rewarded if the PCs are active, perhaps a partial award if they’re just tagging along without really contributing. Like some here have suggested, this is more of a reward for those who make it rather than a punishment for those who don’t.
Gets explained out — usually the missing PC(s) are the the guys “picked” to guard the adventurer’s base or campsite, or posted as a lookout at key juncture in the dungeon.
I’ve mentioned this on this site before, but whenever possible, I love to utilize the “caravan” option (made all the easier by a description of a caravan by our very own Martin in a fairly recent Dragon issue).
The caravan serves as a “base” for the PCs, and the ones not present for a given session return to the caravan for R&R while the others, who are present, carry on the adventure. It’s worked well in a lot of situations.
back when our group played dnd we just asked the absent player what -he- wanted to happen to his character. yeah sure, the character can be played by another player, but is the absent player aware that his character might die while he’s away?
some are not, and therefore the choice should be entirely up to the player.
one other thing that you can do is talk to the player and design it so that the character is out accomplishing his or her own goals. i find this to be the best and most believable way to handle an absent player/character. when the player comes back you then follow up on what that particular person has been up to and what he/she has accomplished. you could also make a quick solo-session…that would be even better.
At my table we play it as 1 or 4/5.
If you can’t make it, you have two options:
1) Your character does nothing, is affected adversely by nothing (but is along for the ride if someone sends the PC’s elsewhere, etc.). You get no XP, but nothing bad happens to you either.
2) You provide your character sheet (including current spells prepared, if a caster)and your character gets played as intelligently as possible, and gets full XP.
People usually go for option 2….
Another issue is that the GM generally needs to make sure all of the players are on the same page as to how the absence is treated, particularly the question of how IC the situation is.
A past campaign I was in handled player absences by having the character wander off to handle personal business of their own in town, catching up with the party the next session.
This backfired slightly when, after the second time the party was ambushed during a (not entirely trusted) character’s unexplained absence, the player came back to find the next session beginning with his character being attacked, subdued, stripped naked and interrogated.
You call that a backfire? I call that good roleplaying!!
Our rule of thumb is, if we have 4 players, we play. If you aren’t there, I will work out a reason for you to be gone.
I hand out a flat XP reward at the end of the game to everyone present. If you are missing for a game, you can earn that same XP by writing up a journal to fill in the missing details of what your character was up to during the game you missed. Players seem to enjoy writing these, everyone has an equal chance to get the same amount of XP, and they are rife with new plot hooks! -Jill
I tried the “chessman curse” once in my AD&D campaign. – the character gets turned into a chess piece if he doesn’t show. BIG mistake; the thief promptly sold it at the market as an antique! Now I usually use the fade-out and 1/2 xp as if the character were a henchman
After having two campaigns killed by absent players, I went with,
6: Run games where it isn’t a problem.
I do this two ways. The first is by never ending the game in the middle of a story. I always finish an arc each session. So the game never starts the next time with “Well, you four had just entered the Evil Tower, only it’s you three now, because Fred is gone.”
The second is by avoiding “party” based games. The characters are working together because they have the same goals, but don’t always like each other. And they also have secondary goals that don’t always mesh with the other characters. The secondary goals create subplots. So if I’m missing a player, it’s not the end of the world. I’m just not going to be playing with the subplots.
Oh, and I don’t run D&D, which neatly avoids the “Oh shit, Fred isn’t here, we don’t have a cleric” problem.
We usually use #2. There was a time when we were collecting some artifact for a multi-part collecton quest. We had just pulled into this creepy abandoned town before ending the session, and the next time we met one of our players couldn’t make it. (This happens a lot with him, he’s extremely flakey) Basically he watched the horses while we fought hordes of zombies, wyverns, centaurs, and a manticore.
We solved the problem of him not getting any combat experience with the rest of us by basically having him fight off zombies while we collected the artifact. (An invulnerable cauldron) Thus we got to continue the story and he wasn’t left behind level-wise.
It should be noted that his character eventually got vaporized by a Red Wizard because the DM got sick of him missing so many games. Our cleric died at this point also, as our warrior drop-kicked him off a cliff from thirty feet in the air. I think the whole group was sick of having our healer played by the DM.
Basically none of the options work very well, but I think 2 is the best. Mostly just try to make sure you have a reliable group of players before you commit to any serious gaming.
We’re going to have to get creative with our next couple of meetings though. Our cleric in another campaign came down with mono, so he’s out for the next month or so.
I generally go for option 2. I find it the easiest option and, since I run an urban, modern game, is fairly easy to manage.
We generally say if one person can’t come, we play and they get written out, if two or more can’t come, we reschedule. Group is 6 total.
The only time I really had a problem was when I called a session as a battle started, trying out finishing on a cliffhanger, and the next session one of the players couldn’t come. Another player played his char for the duraion of the battle, then I got rid of the character for the rest of the session.
I like seeing all the different variations that different groups use — there really are a lot of ways to tackle this problem.
As far as rescheduling to get around missing players, my current group is actually small enough (four total, including our GM) that we do reschedule. Ironically, the session that got me thinking about this topic — the one that was supposed to happen without me, breaking our usual pattern — never gelled, and everyone just played WoW instead. 😉