orca
Today’s guest article is by Nick M., who talks about what to do when you can’t run a full game — turn to the NPCs and play out another angle of the story. Check it out and start brainstorming what background characters are about to get an upgrade. — A Face In The Crowd John

Life being what it is, it is inevitable that you will have some weeks where one or more players cannot make the game session. In some cases it’s not that big a deal, you can run their PC as an NPC, you can ‘forget they are there’ (this is a great time to move the spotlight to another character) or you may be able to say that particular PC is away that week (Gimblood the Mighty is in the drunk-tank yet again!)

But there are times when you need all the party together for the story. Where the exact PC you need has a crucial scene, and you don’t want the player to miss the opportunity to scream “NOOOOOooooooo!” when you reveal the big bad is actually her father. Whatever the reason, you need that combination of players/PCs to be at the next session.

So what to do when they cancel? I have two major plans of attack:

  • Use the backgrounds, secrets and disadvantages of the PCs of the players that have turned up that week
  • Breath more life into your main campaigns NPCs

Background Is Key

When making characters, every PC should have a background of some sort. Even the hapless misanthrope whose background consists of ‘The orphanage burnt down when I was 7, after that I was raised by a pod of Killer whales’: There are several hooks there to play with. What happened to their parents? Why was the orphanage burnt down? Why did THEY survive? Does the whale pod need help? In many games a secret or a disadvantage is required during character generation. These can always seed a plot hook with a little imagination.

Your reduced size gaming group is the ideal opportunity to explore these questions. Play out the PC back story. Flashbacks to information the PC knows nothing about are always fun. Starting today go through your PCs backgrounds and jot down a few ideas for scenes and the NPCs to play them out. Then when you get that last minute cancellation from one player; you will be ready to go with a few flashback scenes about the first time a young Gimblood the Mighty entered a battle rage with his Orca pod brothers.

But suppose you have done all this, and you’re starting to run out of ideas for the stalwarts who do turn every week. What then?

Flesh Out Your NPCs

Whilst the main PCs are away, let the NPCs play! Most of the NPCs can be a little flat, and one of the best ways to give them some depth is to assign them to a player. This works especially well for recurring NPCs. Assign one or two NPCs to each player, and hand over the GMing reigns to that player when their NPC is in the scene. If the NPC has crucial information to impart, write a note to the player with the key points. In one recent game we had NPC characters for IT, the post room, the intern and the tea lady. Every session I asked each player to give a single sentence of what their NPC was up to. When a key moment arrived for a given NPC, I and the player played it out in detail. The post room had to deliver a parcel that they strongly suspected was a bomb. The tea lady turned out to be the font of all illicit knowledge and gossip about everyone in the department! You get the idea.

And when you have a session where a key player is missing, you can delve a little deeper into those NPCs. You will be amazed how attached your players become to characters that, previously, would not be remembered from one session to the next. Those little mundane tales of Gimblood the Mighty’s valet and his latest attempt to get Ichor out of fur once again (‘Mother of vinegar’ is the best thing to use, but it’s so hard to get hold of!) become as remembered as any other in your game.

Don’t be afraid to include these much loved NPCs in bigger plots as well. I recently had all the players playing their NPC ‘specials’. They drew lots out of a hat to see which one(s) had been Ninja sleeper agents all along! Even I as GM did not know which one(s) it would be (NOTE – Ninjas are always a good idea in any setting).

Introduce The New Big Bad

Another alternate use of NPCs is to have the players who do turn up that session play the bad guys. You will be amazed how much effort your own players will go to in order to make it as hard as possible for themselves to ‘win’ the upcoming encounter with their own evil NPCs. Your players know their own weaknesses at least as well as you do, and will be far less merciful when it comes to exploiting them. You can end up with some truly memorable villains by letting the players take over the creation of their NPC opponents. And if a PC is absent for a confrontation with the new bad guy that evening but the player is available (perhaps due to another stay in the drunk tank?), then the player can step in and run his evil NPC as a co-GM for that game session.

Sneaky GM’s school: So there you have it.

Sift those PC backgrounds for set piece scenes and be ready to play a few out at a moment’s notice. If these scenes somehow connect to your main campaign plot, then that’s great, but don’t worry if they do not. This is the PCs story, not your campaign story. The two don’t always have to have complex interactions.

Build up those campaign-NPC attachments with tiny ‘slice of life’ moments each week (1 minute per player is enough in each session). Then stand back and watch your game world evolve into an even deeper and richer setting.

Have your players play out the NPC bad guys. You can have them play the bandits one week, and then have their primary PC hunt down those same bandits the next. Just don’t be surprised if you end up with a TPK (total party kill) as the bandits in your game suddenly become a lot smarter and a LOT more ruthless…

GM: “… you are doing what?!”

Players as NPC bandits: “you said this is the only crossing for 200 miles right? So we set up camp this side of the gorge, rig the bridge to collapse and then wait for the good guys to chase us”

GM: “… err…”

Oh, and a side bonus, you increase the odds of someone else wanting to step up to the plate and GM a game. In case you hadn’t noticed already; this NPC character and plot development is like the training wheels for new GMs…. but don’t tell the players!

How do you handle it when not all the players are there? Have you handed over NPCs to the players to play? Did it result in a TPK from smart bandits?