Sometimes the journey ends painfully: a character falls to the evil overlord, the fall that no one could survive winds up being surprisingly accurately titled. In those cases, you can turn to your system and start working in a new character. It’s a common event that most GMs learn to handle. Other times, it isn’t the character that leaves the journey, but a player around the table. That can be much trickier to deal with.

brcarl asked:

One of my groups is dealing with an AWOL player. We’ve tried to contact him a few times but haven’t gotten any response. As it’s a play-by-post group, we don’t have the option of physically checking in with him.

As the GM, I’ve decided that he’s been absent long enough that we need to replace him. (Nobody wants to run his PC long-term.) The new player I’ve got ready to go, but I’m struggling with the exiting player: I don’t want to just kill off his PC, as he was a good player when he was around. We’re hoping he’s just dealing with lots of RL issues, and I’d like the option of bringing him back in if he returns. I’d also prefer an exit that makes sense in the current plot line, and isn’t blatantly contrived (ie., he disappears mysteriously in a puff of smoke).

How should I handle this?

My geeky response was to divide missing people with two variables: Degree of Interest and Length Absent. Each has a slightly different twist on how you handle their absence.

Interested Player, Definite Return Time

This is the best case for missing players– you know the player is going to be absent for a fixed length of time, but plans on coming back. (Work and school situations often have this effect.) For this situation, you have several potential approaches.

  • The character goes a different direction. You can tailor the character’s length of absence to match the player’s; this works best when the player gives you some notice and the character can do something else rewarding.
  • Extending the above, the missing PC can even have bluebooked adventures during their absence
  • A different game can be played while the player is missing, with the expectation that you’ll pick up your game on their return. Play a one shot or some short game you’d love to try out.
  • Board games, painting minis, or other hobbies that you and the remaining players enjoy can all fill the void left by pausing the game.

Interested Player, Never Coming Back

Sometimes, a player has to leave behind a game they love. Maybe they have to move across the country for work or family, join a cult that forbids outside contact, or any number of other impediments crop up. If the player gives you some notice, it is good to provide some closure for the character– have the session or two leading up to the player’s departure focus on the PC and resolve some of those interesting issues dangling since character creation. Bring back the villain that the character swore vengeance against. Live or die, it is great to go out in a way that matters to your character’s story.

Interested Player, Unknown Return

The worst case is when someone who really likes the game starts missing sessions. If you can ask them what is going on, that’s great. Even a clue as to whether they think the interruption is almost over or will be ongoing for a while is a huge help. In a situation like brcarl’s, that simple solution isn’t there.

Since you mention that he was a good player, it makes sense to keep the door open. Specifics depend on your setting and plot, but well written characters often have other tasks they need to accomplish– the type of tasks that we smooth over because we’re players around a table. [Or abstract because the game’s about group interaction, not ten games each starring one character with occasional crossovers.]

I’d have his character pick up one of the sidelined pieces of their life as soon as practical– when they return to town, separate for the night, etc. It’s a little awkward choosing what the character goes off to do, since that’s normally overstepping the GM’s bounds, but under the circumstances I suspect everyone will be understanding. (And if they’re good players, hopefully they’ll keep the farewell interactions short or largely off screen so you don’t have to roleplay the character for too long. Disappearing in the middle of the night and leaving behind a note can be a way to dodge the going away scene… but risks being blatantly contrived, which you’re trying to avoid.)

Uninterested Player, Definite Return Time

An easy condition and somewhat reassuring; since the player has a definite return time, it sounds like life’s just getting in the way and they’ll be ready to game in a bit. If the character is less central to the plot, or is less memorable in the ongoing “mental history” of the game in everyone’s eyes, you can probably continue without them. Treat this a lot like an Interested Player with an Unknown Return date– with the advantage that you can make sure the group’s in a good place to work him back in at the appointed date.

Uninterested Player, Never Coming Back

If they don’t care much about the game and they’re not coming back, it all depends on how generous you feel. If they’re leaving on good terms, consider giving them a nice closure series like a more interested player above. If they aren’t invested enough to enjoy the work that creating closure would give them, don’t bother. They can retire and head home, die as a good object lesson, or whatever works best for getting them off screen and out of your list of responsibilities. (Note: If a good player has a character that interacts with the disinterested player’s character, pay attention to how the character’s disappearance would affect their story. Let that be your focus for deciding what to do with the now superfluous character.)

Uninterested Player, Unknown Return

Hard to plan for, it all comes down to whether you want the character back later. If the player doesn’t seem invested, they may not care if you use their character as an object lesson. It’s awfully easy to misjudge how invested a player is though– if they come back quickly, it could be hard to explain what you’ve done.

When you can, Talk to the Player

If you’re still in contact with the player, discuss what they want out of their character’s future. A disinterested player might volunteer their character as an object lesson– so when they return they can create a character that does interest them. Conversely, some people would feel bad if their character was killed– they still feel it’s their story, even if they’ll never get a chance to play the character with you again.

So, how have you dealt with this situation? Ever done something… a little too permanent to a missing player’s PC and had to walk it back when they suddenly return? Is the etiquette different for a PBeM versus face to face absence? Any guidelines for working it out you can share? If brcarl pops in the thread with more specifics, maybe we can help him out with the specific case– or if you’re having a similar problem, there might be good advice for you too.