Sometimes you don’t get a quorum. It’s no one’s fault: people get sick or have other real-world obligations (sigh). Still, it’s tough for both players and game masters (GM’s) alike to show up and realize a session isn’t going to run.
One way around this is to prepare a back-up game for times when you only have 2-3 players. These can be a type of “hip pocket game” as described in Scott Martin’s excellent article: Hip Pocket Games. This article will offer a few suggestions for preparing a back-up game, guided by my own experiences. While some of the suggestions will reference on-line play, the basic principles should be the same for face-to-face games as well. Here are some general guidelines:
KNOW YOUR PLAYERS
Consider your players carefully when deciding on a back-up game. In fact, if it is feasible, ask them what they’d like. Some groups may prefer a side campaign in your regular game’s genre, or even a side trek with their current characters. Others may want to try something completely different for back-up game sessions. There’s no one right answer for every group. Just make sure you aren’t preparing a game that no one will want to play. You may not please everyone, but at least you won’t be wasting your prep time.
For example, our regular genre is standard fantasy, and our back-up is Star Wars. Three of my players had played Star Wars with me before, so I knew I had buy-in from at least half of the group. While I love that galaxy far, far away, forcing an unwanted genre on them wouldn’t be helpful.
PICK A SIMPLE SYSTEM
If you plan on running something different, consider picking as simple a system as possible. You don’t want to spend a lot of time having to explain the rules before jumping into play. One option is to just use a variation of your current system. There may even be a version of it that is ready to play. Another is to play a “universal” system all the time, and then all you are changing is the setting, not the rules. You could also do worse than a dirt-simple system like RISUS or a stripped-down version of FUDGE. If you use a simple system, you don’t have to relearn the rules every session. If you are not crazy about their dice pools, you can easily port the concepts from games like this to a different dice mechanic.
For our back-up game, we use a “2d6 + skill level” roll. The dice mechanic is cadged from another system, and often requires a bit more adjudication on my part than a more complex system. However the trade-off is that I can run it at the drop of a hat without wading through a giant rulebook.
You need them. If you and your players spend most of a session on character generation, it defeats the purpose of a having a back-up game. Consider preloading your pregens into your Virtual Tabletop (VTT). That makes it much easier for your players to choose a character, maybe tweak it a little, and then get right into play. You might also preload your maps, tokens, and even session notes into your VTT to make it easier on yourself as well. A side benefit of this is that you can use this “canned session” with other groups of players as well. I did this with a one-shot Star Trek session a couple years ago and got double play time for my prep.
If your players really hate pregens, you can ask them to make a character for the backup game and email it to you. This can help generate interest in your back-up plans, but be aware that not every player will have the time to do this. You will probably still need to create a few pregens of your own.
KEEP THE STORY SIMPLE
As with the rules, keep your scenarios simple. Think of the back-up game as an episode of a TV show rather than an epic trilogy. A few NPC’s, three to five encounters, and a clear goal for the players are all you need. A leaner game-plan also makes it easier for them to have a satisfying final encounter and meet at least some story goal.
For example, in our Star Wars game, the plot was “Locate the Rebel contact person in town, then help her bust her pilot out of the Imperial jail so everyone could get off-planet.” While that is not enough depth for an entire campaign, it is more than enough for a single session. One player even commented that the simpler plot was a nice break from our more involved fantasy campaign.
PRINT IT OUT
You’d be surprised how tough it can be to find computer files when you need them. Print out your session notes, rules reminders, etc… and keep them in your GM binder or folder. I’ve had a lot of great gaming sessions by having things ready to go.
A back-up game is not your only option when dealing with missing players. You might still run your regular game with their characters in the background or remaining in town. You might just run a shorter session so the other players don’t fall too far behind. Your group’s preferences should help guide you in your decision.
However, a back-up game (especially in a different genre) can be a welcome break for everyone. It also helps hone GM skills by forcing us to operate a little out of our comfort zone. A back-up game can be a great way to test out new rules or even develop scenarios that can be reused for convention games. Who knows, your backup game may even evolve into the main campaign someday.
Have you ever used the back-up game option? What did you learn from it that you’d like to share below?