What to do when there is a no-show

Pirengle asked: What do you do about players who miss sessions?

I’m hardly an “experienced” DM but I am a librarian and a know-it-all so I’ll take that question!

There are obviously times when people have to skip out on a game because of other obligations, and times when something comes up at the last minute.  The biggest reason I started seeking new players was that with a small group of adults, we found that someone is missing about half the time.  (In hindsight we’re glad we found players also because all of them cool people and fun to play with and a big party is more fun.)

Anyway the planned absences are pretty easy.  When we know a player won’t be at the next session, I make damn sure the character is somewhere relatively safe, like an inn or other HQ, or at least “in town.”  So Bob the player has been out for over a month, and he knew ahead of time when his absence would start, and no problem.  The party is sticking close to the town anyway and will still be there whenever he’s back.  A more mobile campaign could have a problem, although you could always ‘handwave’ that a PC traveled to the next stop on the party’s route either following behind, by a circuitous route, etc.

The problem I assume Pirengle is talking about is when a player misses at the last minute.  That can happen because of many things — work, family, illness, traffic, weather, etc.  I’m not talking about how to get rid of a player who keeps missing the game out of thoughtlessness or lack of interest.  I am assuming the problem is: everyone wants to play, but you can rarely get everyone together at once.  I started the campaign assuming that the party would be fluid, and players might come & go, and I took several precautions to assure that we’d pretty much always have enough players for a decent game.  These were (in no particular order):

  1. Have more players. A bigger pool means you’ll have less problems when someone misses.  We were used to 4-5 players in the past, and took on all the players who replied to the flier until I hit seven players (not counting me).  We have not yet had all seven at the table at once, partly because the seventh player joined after Bob’s hiatus.  But before that, I think we had all six players exactly once.  We almost always have five players lately, and I even had three players make it right after a blizzard.  Ask your current players to help in the recruiting.  I had two of my players meet the newest guy for me because I was unable to devote an evening to doing it.  Your players should be almost as motivated to get a critical mass together as the GM is anyway.
  2. Never end the session in media res. I actually violated this the last two sessions, but the original idea was always make sure the party is somewhere safe (generally in town) at the end of the session.  I thought about introducing something like Jeff Rient’s (fairly brilliant) house rule Dragons & Dawn Patrol.  (If you don’t want to follow the link, Jeff basically makes characters who end the session in still a dungeon roll to see if they are eaten, lost, robbed, etc., using the war game “Dawn Patrol’s” concept of a roll for pilots shot down behind enemy lines. Chances are you’re toast.)  If it’s within 1/2 an hour of quitting time, don’t let them start exploring a new level of the dungeon.  Make them turn back.  Even throw them a quicky encounter in town or on the way back if you’re concerned about “wasting” game time by ending early. This way, there is no problem with player-less characters standing around.  Last session, since John missed, I just had his paladin stand around dazed while the party figured out how to get back to town.  I should have made them get back to town the previous session, but it was really late!
  3. Allow players to use 2 characters, or henchmen. The sessions with three players would have been rough going in a class-based game like D&D where there are more than three roles that need to be filled.  Hirelings and secondary PCs made a three-player party viable.  When I got more players I had them all choose which PC to keep and which to retire (& keep on hand as a backup, should the worst happen!)
  4. Don’t let any player/character be indispensable. “Story-telling” games are probably more vulnerable to this, but a D&D game can have situations where so-and-so’s character is vital to, or central to, a quest.  This contributed to our C&C campaign ending, because one of the players suddenly had to go on hiatus just as we were going into a dungeon that was very wrapped up in his character’s background and goals.  The DM didn’t want to run the dungeon without the character, and we had to stop.  (Probably more importantly, we were down to three players without him, so things kind of petered out.)  The other side of this is letting a player get too important.  Sometimes one player is the “glue” of the group, and when they can’t make it the other players are less enthusiastic.  Or if you always play at one of the players’ (rather than the DM’s) place, you will be very dependent on that person’s schedule, so unless they are “always” available, you probably don’t want to do what we did and always play at my house (I do have a sweet rec room and loads of minis and a big table and a fridge and bathroom downstairs though).  Now that I’m DM I don’t feel bad about canceling when I must, but when I was just a player, it killed me when I had to cancel and leave the rest of the group to scramble for a suitable gathering place.

This list, now that I look it, seem pretty much to be the strategy suggested by the “Western Marches” and “Red Box [inset city name here]” games, although in the case of the Western Marches the game time was purposefully left open and scheduled BY PLAYERS who told the DM when they could all get together at the FLGS or whatever.  Google “Western marches campaign” for more details. 🙂

OK, I also did not suggest “online gaming” because to me that completely loses the socializing part of RPGs.  I played in one “fantasy grounds” distant campaign and while I had some fun it was not really the role playing experience.  YMMV.

How do other people handle this?  Leave a comment.

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Published in: on March 11, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. For times when they were in town, but the player was expected to show up, you can use a random table of places they could be. Still, since I’m the one with the table, I’m not sure how much of that is just desire to push my own stuff.

  2. Our standing joke for when a person can’t make it is their character is stuck in the bathroom until they come back. Lost of jokes are made about bad burritos, but it generally means they’re safe until they return even if they don’t get the levels we get in the mean time.

    As for having multiple characters, I’m all for that, we did that in my last Shadowrun game and even when we got back up to 5 and 6 players it really helped out and made for a diverse group. House rule was one character per scene. Often times we ran two scenes at the same time with some characters at one and some at another.

  3. I run a West Marches campaign and my players have never dared to use the Rient’s “What Happens” chart. Every adventure starts/stops in “civilization”. They’re very excited that a new point of civilization has just opened, giving them a roughly half-day’s head start on some areas of exploration. Once they get powerful enough to have their own lands, then new players can start from these points as well.

    My group isn’t dependent on one player, and we schedule as the players request games, so it works out pretty well. If someone can’t show, it doesn’t stop the game.

    BTW, side note – I stopped in the Chicagoland American Scientific Supply. Indeed, the only sprues left are the blue/green ones – all the grey ones were gone. I ended up not buying any. The troll is workable, but I might go back and buy a bunch for the basis of a fantasy HOTT army. $1 for ~8 minis seems like a good deal.

  4. 4. Was the C&C real poor DMing on my part. I should not have let it happen.
    Taking a break waiting for Chad return really took the steam out of game.
    2. is hard since we play for a short time and it is hard to manage time with when you are DMing. There has been many times when I thought “its 10:00 PM already?”

    • I don’t think it was poor DMing. To some extent I think real issue was you were getting insanely busy with work, we were losing momentum anyway because the four of us players had a hard time making it regularly, and so on. It was a story-driven part of the campaign. Nothing wrong with that in principle, it just didn’t work well with only four players, one of whom suddenly could never make it at the last minute! I just used that situation as an example because it comes the closest to illustrating what I’m thinking.

      I have been letting the game run on later, despite John’s occasional “It’s 9:20, are we done?”s. I put up a new flier advertising it as 6:30-10:30 which is more realistically what we do anyway. Actually we don’t usually start until 7; I need to work on that.

      Maybe if we can all make one of the conventions in Hudson this year we can get in a marathon session!


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