You have all been in this situation. I got my campaign set up and through session zero. The characters and their roles have been selected and everyone is set. Then through no fault of their own, one of the players has to drop the game because of their work schedule (which is totally cool, because work pays them bills). The character they were playing is in a key niche, and now the question arises, how will the group function without that key role?
So let’s talk about it.
Character Niches and Roles
To get into this discussion, we need to first talk about character niches and roles. That is, within the party, what role does the character play and what do they do for the party? In games like D&D, where we have classes, those classes define the niche and role for the character. A cleric casts healing, a rogue picks locks, a fighter bashes things, a wizard casts arcane magic. If you are playing the cleric, it is expected that part of your role in the party is to heal the other members. There are other things you do, but the party expects that you will fulfill those responsibilities.
This can be a bit more blurry when you are talking about games that do not use class structures and allow for more freeform construction of characters. In that case, it is often good for the group to define those roles during creation to have a spread of essential abilities.
Games that have class structures tend to also presume that some roles will be fulfilled as part of the game’s design. In 3.x D&D, and somewhat into today, there is a belief that a party will have a base composition of cleric, wizard, rogue, and fighter (or variants of each of those), but at its base, it assumes a party can heal damage and diseases, pick locks, etc.
And sure you can totally subvert that design intent and do what you want; it’s your game, but your play experience may vary. An all rogue party is a different play experience from a standard party.
When a Niche Can’t/Won’t be Filled
Building off of the above, there are times when a role that is expected/needed within the game cannot be filled. In those cases, as mentioned above, the play experience is going to be changed. There are plenty of reasons for that but they boil down to a few common reasons:
- No one wants to play that role.
- The person playing the role can’t be at the game (temporarily or permanently).
- There are not enough players to fill all the needed roles (i.e. 2 player D&D).
In these cases, it’s not that you want a different play experience but rather you are going to have one because you are missing a key role (i.e. no cleric in the group).
To try to maintain a good play experience you may want to find a way to fill that missing role without adding another player to the group. You want to find an alternative to having a player assume that role.
Here are some general ideas for how to fill that missing role, without adding a player to your group:
You can create an NPC or a GMPC to play that missing role. With an NPC, the GM will play out a character that joins the group, like a retainer. For instance, without a fighter in the party, the party hires a Man at Arms to join the group. The Man at Arms takes orders from the players.
A GMPC is a case where the GM makes and plays a full character in the campaign and plays the role of both the GM to facilitate the game and a full-player. For instance, no one wants to play the cleric, so the GM rolls up a cleric and they join the party, take actions in combat, advance in levels, etc.
The GMPC is a highly debated role (and worthy of its own article). When done well, the GMPC can help round out the party and the GM can participate (in some capacity) as a member of the party. When done poorly, the GMPC can steal the spotlight from the players. Again, it’s worthy of its own article.
Use A Device
In some cases, you can put the functionality of the role into a device and give it to the party. The device then provides that role without requiring another character. This works well when the role or ability you need to confer is more singular. For instance, a party is missing a cleric, but their patron gives them a holy object. The object can both heal and turn undead. The party can use the device as needed.
Grant the Ability to Another Character
To account for the missing ability you give it to an existing character. Depending on your system this may require some rule hacking. In some systems, this can be done by allowing for multi-classing as well. The result is that an existing character in the game is granted the ability to use some abilities not normally associated with their character, and now fulfills the missing role for the party.
For instance, you need some thieves skills like pick locks and find and remove traps. You allow those skills to be taken by other classes and to advance as they advance in level. The fighter decides to take the skills and now your fighter can also pick locks when needed.
Play Around It
The last one is to just work the game so that those abilities are not needed for regular adventures and that the party’s lack of them does not hold up play. This may require a bit of work on your end, to modify existing material to account for your changes, and for you to be a bit more creative when writing and running your own material.
For instance, we return to the missing thief. You as the GM just decide that you can run things without traps and locked doors. The focus of your game is going to be on exploration and combat encounters. You decide to make that easier, that your campaign will take place in subterranean caverns so that there are fewer reasons for doors and elaborate traps.
My Sprawl Game
I am playing a game of The Sprawl, a brilliant mission-based Cyberpunk game. Recently my Hacker had to drop out. For Cyberpunk that can be a big gap in abilities, as a hacker is like having a wizard in a fantasy game. So I have been pondering how I want to deal with this, and I think I am going to take a page from Gibson’s Neuromancer and create a ROM Construct, a digitized version of a person — in this case, a former hacker — who can be plugged into a cyberdeck and hack on behalf of the players.
Mechanically, I will create a set of custom PbtA moves (1-2 at most), that will represent the ROM Construct’s ability to hack on behalf of the players. It will be more abstracted than the hacking rules in the game, since there is no player to be entertained by them, and will just let the players deploy the ROM Construct for an effect, like blocking security cameras or overriding an elevator lockout.
Calling in A Temp
A missing role can change the expected play experience of the game, but there are ways to compensate for those missing roles. By making some adaptations to your game you can fill in that role and get close to the expected play experience.
How have you dealt with missing character roles and niches? When has a missing role made a game more difficult or more exciting?