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.Â
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.Â
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.Â
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.Â
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.Â
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.Â Â
How have you dealt with missing character roles and niches? When has a missing role made a game more difficult or more exciting?Â
I’ve played with many groups that were missing a niche When the challenge is a particular skillset is missing, the suggestions you’ve provided span the range of alternatives well. I especially like your anecdote providing a ROM construct in a cyberpunk game. That’s one I haven’t seen before! I play mostly swords-and-sorcery, though, and I’m not sure how to apply a similar idea there. Do you have any suggestions?
A variation on the problem of one player dropping out is when it’s not (just) the skillset the party loses but the hook the character provides. For example, in one game I put together one character had a map of an ancient city but didn’t understand what it represented, one lived near the ruins and knew of a legend of lost arcane treasure but didn’t know where to locate it, one had the means to get a small group there, and the others had various skills that would be important along the way. Guess who dropped out? The player with the map.
In that particular game I reshaped the scenario a bit so the map-holder was an NPC and the PCs would buy (or steal!) the map from him. Problem solved, at least tactically. Since then, though, I’ve avoided investing a big hook in a PC unless the player is person close to meâ€” like my spouse or a close friendâ€” whom I can rely on to be there through the whole story. Some might call this favoritism…. I call it the GM deserves to have fun, too, and that requires being able to rely on people to do their parts.
The ROM construct version in Fantasy is some kind of soul in a crystal ball. You can hold it and interact with it, and it can cast spells and such. If it needed to do something physical you could give it some form of Mage Hands.
The playing leaving who has the character with the hook is always tricky. I try not to have too many hooks rely on a single player, or if I do, I get it known to the group quickly, so that if something happens to the player, the rest of the party knows. I think you took care of it correctly and got the game back on track. That problem is always a ticky one.
I like this article, especially because it’s one of the few uses of a GMPC that I really push for. If your players need a healbot, and no one wants to play a healbot, you can play a healbot well. I would love to see that article, though I’m sure if I poked through the archives I could find one.
I really also love the subtle notion that roles are not there to achieve a game being “proper” but rather to entertain a player and allow them to shine. You kind of pointed them out in, “Play Around It” and when talking about your Sprawl game. Does a mechanic need to be there if there is no one to be entertained by it?