Herding Cats: What to do When A Player Misses

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?

The Motto is "Never Split the Party" for a Reason

One of my players has a great blog about his experiences and thoughts regarding D&D and recently he wrote an entry about something that happened in one of our sessions. Due to how the session evolved, he felt that his character would do something completely different from the rest of the party. Basically, they were accompanying the king and queen back to their capital city and it was clear that the king's chief advisor was not quite right. Mike's character, Skamos, as someone who is generally leery of all authority, understandably wanted to follow around the advisor, but the rest of the party (and to some degree, the story) wanted to be in another location. This left me with a hard dilemma. He could go off and do what he wanted, realistically meaning he could be out of the game for the rest of the session at least. Alternatively, I could find a way to get him to the rest of the action. Since I want everyone at my table to have fun, I did the latter. Someone wearing a cloak just like the character he was following and of the same height and build left the inn where the king and queen were staying and traveled to the tavern where the rest of the group was hanging out, having a few drinks and flirting with the locals. I felt terrible doing it, but at least everyone was together right?

Unfortunately, it turns out it was just the beginning of the story just not flowing in the way I had hoped. The character also didn't feel like sharing in the libations. Completely understandable, since well, they were adulterated with goodnight tincture, but that wasn't something the characters would have known. This meant that when they went outside to get some fresh air, his character was the only one standing while the rest of them passed out. And when the bad guys who were there to kidnap them asked him to give up his weapons, he refused to do so. Which left me with the choices of attempting to (and probably actually) killing his character, leaving him behind or having the NPCs allow him to go with them with his weapons. In the end, I chose the last option, but I just felt like a complete failure at this point. As a person playing the game, I know that none of the other players want to sit out a session. Also, I really try to not railroad my players and had their characters all decided to call it a night and never go out drinking, I would have come up with a completely different story. But I was having a really hard time figuring out what to do when only some wanted to go in a particular direction.

Days, well really a few weeks later, I know that the failure wasn't completely my fault. Sure, there are things I could have done better. Having a better understanding of the motivations of my players' characters would definitely help. Finding other ways to get the unsuspecting PC unconscious would help too. But in the end, the burden isn't the DM's alone. Just like the NPCs can't always act the way they "naturally" would, PCs need to have the same flexibility. Otherwise, it can be a bit not fun and, at that point, why keep playing? And if a player is particularly adamant about not going with the rest of the group, as much as it might hurt to do it, it might be better to let them go. I do like his idea of letting the other players play the other NPCs in the fight, although I would be concerned that they might be a little easy on him since they might need him later.

All that said, I think there are times when the party could be split. Ameron on the Dungeon's Master has a great article about how splitting the party worked really well in a game he was in. And having a Leverage-style game would be really cool now and then. However, unless it's one of those times, please do you DM a small favor and don't split the party.

Cool Tools: D&D 4e Combat Tracker

I've been using the D&D 4e combat tracker for awhile now and I thought it would be handy if I came up with a short video tutorial on how to use some of the features. I'd like to apologize in advance on two fronts. First, I'm a programmer, not a media professional, so I'm not the most polished speaker. In addition, my main Windows machine is a great little netbook, but running the combat tracker, adventure tools and the screencast software all at the same time made some of the graphics run a bit slow. That said, I hope you find the information useful.

Video Tutorial

View larger video

Some Great Features

Adding Player Characters to the Library

The first thing we want to do is add some players and npcs to the combat tracker's library. To do this, open up the library by clicking on Library > Open Statblock Library or hit the F8 key.

Now that we are in the library, let's add some player characters from Character Builder Files. Click on the CB Load button.

That will open a file browser window. Select the Character Builder file(s) you would like to add and click on the Open button.

The Character Builder files are now loaded into the library, along with all of the player stats, powers, feats and equipment.

Next, llet's add the players to the battle list. You do this by selecting the characters from the library you would like to add and clicking on the Add button.

This is what it will look like once the characters have been added to the battle list.

Adding NPCs to the Library

The easiest way to add NPCs to the combat tracker is to paste the rich text from the Adventure Tools program. Right click on the monster in the Monster Selection window and select Copy as Rich Text.

Then go back to the combat tracker program and in the library window, click on the Paste button. You might have to click on a small down arrow next to the CB Load button.

At this point, the NPC will appear in the library. You can add it to the battle list just like you would add a player character.

Adding Library Items to an Encounter

Once you have all the creatures you need in your battle list, close the library window. Your creatures will now appear as part of an encounter.

Starting an Encounter

When the time comes, you can start an encounter by click on Encounter > Roll Initiative or hitting the F6 key.

Many players like to roll their own initiative. No worries, click on the player name > Initiative and adjust the number accordingly.

Running Combat

During combat, you can adjust the hit points of a creature by clicking on the creature name > Damage/Healing.

In addition to keeping track of hit points, you can keep track of effects and conditions. To add an effect, click on the Add button next to the word Effects.

This triggers a popup with the UI for adding an effect. You can select a previously defined effect or call it whatever you wish. In addition, you can set the duration, source and target. When you are done, click on the Save button.

The effects will show up when you click on the character's name until the effect is no longer in play.

Requirements

  • Windows XP or later
  • .NET Framework 3.5 or later (if you have Character Builder or Monster Builder installed, you have this).

Podcast Playlist: Icosahedrophilia

I have to admit, the main reason I decided to start playing D&D is the podcast done by WotC, Penny Arcade, PvP and Wil Wheaton. They didn't take themselves too seriously and had a ton of fun. When I professed this love on twitter, some kind users pointed me to the Icosahedrophilia podcast put out by Chris Heard. Like the other series, this one also features real game play. This might seem boring to some, but I've always been drawn to story telling so I find it incredibly interesting.

What's even better is that Chris takes some time at the end of the episode to explain some of the tools he used preparing and running the game as well as explaining mistakes he's made and the such. Also, usually he'll let us know when the players decide to take the game in a direction he didn't expect and how he then adjusted the story to line up with player expectations. For those looking to create a podcast of their own, Chris sometimes talks about the equipment he uses to produce the podcast.

Story Lines

More information about the Stormhaven campaign, including character descriptions and the names of the players, can be found on the campaign summary page.

There are a few other interesting things on the website that you might be interested in. Chris released his own initiative tracker, FightCard. The program is meant to run through a web browser, but since it runs directly from your hard drive, you don't need an internet connection to use it. In addition to the initiative tracker, Chris has a D&D 4E style guide, a dungeon tiles index, and a list of music tracks for game background music.

Chris can be found on Twitter at @d20philia.

Blogs I Love: Mike's D&D Blog

I'll admit, I might be a bit biased on this one. The blog author in this case is one of the players in my somewhat weekly game. However, I think he has some really nice ideas and content and I encourage all of you to check out his blog, Mike's D&D Blog. As for a little background, Mike has been playing D&D since 1988. He started DMing with 2e and is a great source of advice and information on a large number of gaming systems as well as other sorts of games.

Recent Posts

He definitely keeps me on my toes. And for all of you DMs out there who are wondering what your players might be thinking, he's a great resource. If you want to follow him on twitter, he can be found @TheMikeKatz.

First Glance: Shrouded Agendas for D&D 4E: The Purifiers

Recently, I purchased the Gamers Helping Haiti bundle from DriveThruRPG.com. Over the next few months, my plan is to look a the titles that compose this bundle and write up the bits I find interesting. Since I play and DM 4e currently, I decided to take a look at the title, Shrouded Agendas for D&D 4E: The Purifiers. Published by One Bad Egg, this title is part of their Worldseeds line, setting ideas that the company doesn't intend to fully flesh out on their own.


Description from RPGNow.com

The Shroud has changed the world in many ways, some profound, but others more subtle. This is the story of how the Shroud changed a man’s beliefs without changing his body. A man named Wilhelm ark-Trasser found himself on a quest that led him into the dark heart of the Shroudlands. There he faced the toughest challenge of all: remaining true to his principles in the face of adversity. The Shroud changed him, and he changed the world. Will the Shroud change you?

In general, I really like the idea behind the Worldseeds. I know that One Bad Egg was sold to Highmoon Media in October, but I hope that more people and companies do similar products. My players don't like playing modules, but don't seem to mind cleverly, or not so cleverly, disguised mini-modules or other pre-written content. Beyond the general idea, there are a number of individual features I particularly like about this title. First, they have details for a yearly tournament called The Contest of the Ark, in the format of a skill challenge. For DMs who have been looking for ways to add interesting non-combat, role-playing opportunities, this is a great tool. Likewise, the article adds a new disease, Shroudrot. While DMs might not want to use this particular disease manifestation, the disease description and mechanics are well thought out and detailed, and would provide a great springboard for development of new diseases. I also really enjoyed the NPCs and adventure hooks provided. The NPCs had a fair amount of backstory and information on their motivations and the adventure hooks work well here or as story ideas on their own. Overall, I found it pretty well written and I'll probably using bits and pieces very soon.
If you like the Worldseed for the Shroud, you might also be interested in the other titles in the series.

History Podcasts: Lars Brownworth, the Byzantine Rulers, and Norman Centuries

I'm sure some of you have already heard of Lars Brownworth and his podcast series, but since I'm relatively new, I thought I would share. Lars produced his first podcast series, 12 Byzantine Rulers, while teaching high school history and political science at the Stony Brook School. That series evolved into a book deal with Crown Publishing and the release of his book, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization. My husband just finished the series this weekend, and I have to admit I am quite impressed with the parts I heard.

Over course of seventeen episodes, Lars spotlights 12 Byzantine rulers in chronological order, while filling in some of the important details between. He details the history of the empire from its first great emperor, Diocletian, to its last, Constantine XI. However, this is no dry recitation of facts and dates, but rather an exploration of the hows and whys of armies, families, political intrigue and diplomacy. Over the course of this podcast series, a lot of our lost history comes to life. Some of the best parts include his description of what it must have been like to the Crusaders from Europe when they first saw the walls and city life of Constantinople. The largest cities they had seen paled in comparison to the city before them and the technologies in the city must have seen quite impressive. Even today, we forget that running water, central heating and air conditioning are not modern inventions only.

In terms of gaming, many of the stories from the empire are great fodder for the enterprising GM. The shared history and experience of this area with the West, including paganism and Christianity, means that while exotic, there is a shared cultural literacy. In addition, a fair amount of the technology from the earlier Roman and Greek civilizations lived on in this place and the ingenuity of the populace created even further wonder. Quite a few opponents feared the legendary Greek Fire, and with good reason, as it could continue to burn, even on water. The Hagia Sopia, the largest cathedral for 1,000 years, and it influenced architecture for even longer. These are just two examples among many that can be used to give a different sort of flair to any game than the traditional Western European Dark and Middle Ages.

However, if the latter is more your style, Lars is producing a series on Norman history, focusing not only on the French and English groups but the Italian ones as well. The few I've heard are just as good as the ones on the Byzantine empire and can be found on the Norman Centuries Podcast website

Gamers Helping Haiti: DriveThruRPG

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but better late than never. DriveThruRPG is running a special promotion. For $20, you get a coupon providing you with over $1000 in RPG titles. A complete list of of titles can be found here. The money goes to Doctors without Borders. If $20 is too much, you can also donate $5 or $10. You won't get the bundle but they will match the donations. More information on those types of donations can be found here. So far, they've raised more than $50,000 in donations. With 12 pages of products, there should be something for everyone. @DaveTheGame mentioned a few standouts in his article on Critical-Hits.com.

Full Press Release

Gamers Help Haiti! DriveThruRPG Offers a Mega-Bundle to Spur Donations

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DriveThruRPG announced a major incentive to the roleplaying gamer community today to incite donations to aid in rescue and recovery in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Called the "Gamers Helping Haiti Bundle," the product includes over a hundred products totaling over $1000.00 in retail value. For a simple donation of $20 - all of which goes to Doctors Without Borders to support their post-earthquake Haiti relief efforts - RPG fans can have this once-in-a-lifetime collection of gaming products.

DriveThruRPG already had opportunities to donate up and running within a day of the disaster. When publishers began asking how they could support the cause, the bundle was created to be an all-inclusive shared effort. Those who donated at the lesser levels won't be left out, however; gamers who have already donated $5 or $10 will be receiving a special coupon code that lets them pay the difference from their initial donation to get the bundle.

"We are humbled by the generosity of both our customers and our publishers," said Sean Patrick Fannon, Marketing and Communications Manager for DriveThruRPG, "all of whom have stepped up at this time of terrible tragedy to offer aid to a desperate people. We are also very proud to facilitate these collective efforts, providing the necessary tools and technology to bring it all together."

More than tools and tech, though, DriveThruRPG is really putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak. "We have always believed in the power of giving and sharing to make the world a better place," said Steve Wieck, President and co-owner of the site. "To that end, we are matching funds with everyone who's making a straight donation at the $5 and $10 level."

There is no set date for terminating the donation efforts, though the bundle will only be available until the end of January.

Anyone wishing more information about this effort, or about DriveThruRPG overall, should contact Sean Patrick Fannon at sean@onebookshelf.com.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas

This time of year has a number of holidays and other reasons to celebrate. In particular, I look forward to the Winter Solstice and the coming longer days. Since I'm Christian, Christmas is a pretty big holiday for me. Especially because of the season, I would like to extend to everyone the warm wishes of peace and harmony and just general good cheer. In light of that, I would like to share with you this really cute video. Some high school students did a really creative rendition of Halleluia.

Watch on YouTube

Blogs I Love: At-Will

The At-Will blog provides inspiration, techniques and more for D&D 4th Edition. The blog is maintained by a team of 6 contributors. I particularly enjoy the focus on 4E content since that is my preferred game. The posts are well researched and are often aimed at the Dungeon Master, giving the DM items they can incorporate into their campaign. Recent post categories include: skill challenges, music, advice, game mastering, wave and rules.

Contributors

Gamefiend, a.k.a. Quinn Murphy
He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of the site. Considered a jack of all trades he is an aspiring game designer/freelancer. He can be reached on twitter @gamefiend.
Gentian
Gentian is Gamefiend's wife.
Ethan
Ethan has been DMing since 1996, originally using secondhand AD&D materials. He has run a number of D20 campaigns.
JackofHearts
He was first introduced to D&D during summer camp when he was 8.
Milambus, a.k.a. Jake Fitch
Jake is a lifelong player of video games, card games and board games. Like me, he didn't start playing tabletop RPGs until the release of 4th edition. He can be reached on twitter @Milambus.
Rudolf Kraus
Rudolf began playing D&D when he was 9.

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