Herding Cats: What to do When A Player Misses

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 01 February 2010

Between season premieres, sporting events, family, and just plain life events, getting the crew together every week can be a bit like herding cats. What is a gaming group, and in particular a DM, to do?

Run an Episodic Campaign

The best defense is a good offense. If you can get your players back to home base at the end of most sessions, it becomes a lot easier to figure out a reason why a missing player's character is not around for a particular adventure. I'm running our current campaign a bit like this. While I've found it a lot easier to plan and change the story line to fit what my players want by running it this way, I definitely feel a bit like I'm writing for a sitcom. I have about 2 hours to present the conflict, have my players come up with their solution for resolving it, and then, actually resolve the conflict, all while tying the story to the parts that came before and setting up the story lines to come. A standard combat encounter takes about a hour of that time, so we generally are limited to 1 - 1.5 encounters during that time period. In addition, since my players often don't know that they can't make it until the last minute, it's hard to spotlight characters since I risk the important character not making it for the session. But these are not insurmountable problems and an episodic campaign handles them much better than campaigns with longer story arcs and lots of overland adventures.

Fill in Character Back Story

Often, character back stories and down time get glossed over in the course of regular game play. The characters might spend a few months in between major adventures but what they did during that time never gets discussed. Or players might have written pages of back story that never gets used in game. When a full group of players is available, it doesn't make as much sense to spotlight players to the degree necessary to bring this out. However, if you are down to two or three players, it makes perfect sense.

Run the Character Anyway

It's always possible to just have another player, or the DM run the character. I'm not sure how much I would really recommend this one unless it's absolutely necessary. Many players don't feel comfortable running another person's character, in part because they are afraid of being blamed if the character dies and also because, at least in 4e, characters are so complex, it can be really hard to keep them straight. Chris Heard had the idea of "stunt doubles" or people who can't commit to being a regular party member but who can come to occasional games and run the character of a missing player or the monsters if everyone shows up.

If having a player run two PCs is asking too much and no stunt doubles are around, another option is to have the DM or a player run the character as an NPC or companion character. Again, Chris is the source of both of these ideas. The nice thing about running the character this way is that the reduced power choices makes the character a lot easier to run, but you still have all the benefits of having the character present, particularly for the story line. For instance, you might not want to go to the mage's tower without your wizard or trudge through an ancient ruin without your party's history major.

These are some of the options I've heard of, do you have any suggestions?

Sooooory! :-D I think I'm entitled to cancel last minute every once in awhile, everyone else has done it. As a player I'd be happy to hand over my character to be used in the adventure. And I think we've done it successfully with other characters about 25% of the time.

I like the idea of having a NPC stat block for each of the player (is that a blog post in my future?). I wouldn't mind too much if Skamos died in my absence, as long as he didn't go out like some kind of sucka.

It's a real challenge making sure each week's game ends in a spot where characters can be swapped out at will. It's worked so far because we've mostly stayed in town(s) but I imagine the next time we are in a dungeon it will be more difficult.

I think episodic playing can be fun (especially now that I know we're doing that), but we really need like an extra hour to get a full game in each week. If everyone else can stay an extra hour, I can come up with something. I think knowing it's episodic we can let go of a bit of the continuity and excuse character changes.

Awww, I didn't write this to single you out or anything. While your cancellation might have made me ask the question sooner rather than later, the idea for the post came from a discussion I had with Chris Heard (@d20philia). I just got caught up on his podcast and he ran one of the characters as an NPC, which I thought was pretty neat. We can discuss the other details about game length and such at our session on Wednesday.

I think the NPC and/or companion stat blocks are really good ideas. Another thing that might be interesting is to create role play stat blocks. Mike Mearls has an article about them in Dungeon #174 in his "Ruling Skill Challenges" section. He mentions them specific to skill challenges, but I think they are also just a useful way of organizing those bits of information that make each character unique.

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