It can be a challenge running a game with all your players at the table – it can be even more of one when you’re short a few.
I’ve been over the woes of game scheduling, especially as adults, and while planning ahead is key, the reality is that, sometimes, the unpredictable happens. When the unpredictable happens unusually often, it’s more than a little unfortunate for your game – it can kill momentum, focus, and worst of all, interest in the plot and direction of the campaign.
So it’s good for any game to have a degree of absence tolerance – the ability to keep going even when you’re down a player or two, without leaving the missing player(s) out in the cold when they return.
I used to think the size of the group was key. Get a larger group, can you have more absence tolerance built in. If you’re missing two players out of a seven-person group, it’s a lot less detrimental than if you’re missing two out of four. Five characters can still ace an encounter – two would be a struggle.
But that’s just thinking at the encounter/challenge/combat level – what about the story? If you’re running for 4-6 hours every two weeks and someone misses a key scene, clue or NPC, how do you get them caught up in a way that’s at all rewarding so that they don’t feel jilted (intentionally or otherwise)?
At that point, it doesn’t matter how many gamers you have – even one absence is a gap you need to account for later. In fact, the larger the group, the higher the chance someone will be absent on a given day, so larger groups can actually be less absence tolerant from a plot perspective.
Handling Encounter Gaps
Let’s start small and work our way up. How do you handle running a smaller group through a planned encounter when they’re not at full strength?
If you’re dealing with combat, you have three good options:
- Fewer mooks
- Lesser mooks
- NPC the absent PC(s)
The first two options are similar – you can reduce the number of mooks to fight, or reduce the strength of said mooks so that they go down more easily. Often the first is easier, but less foolproof. If one of your absent members is your healer or your best fighter, it has more of an impact on the fight than just one less person swinging a club. You may need to switch out the type of enemies as well, or create a safety-net condition (a point at which the bad guys surrender, for instance) just in case.
If you’re dealing with a task, like hacking, tracking or bypassing traps, and your hacker/tracker/rogue is the absent one, it may be wise to NPC them for that session. “NPCing” a PC just means the GM or one of the other players take the reins.
If the GM is the one NPCing an absent player’s PC, keep it brief and skip the fluff. The more into the RP you get, the better chance you won’t do the character justice, or risk hogging the spotlight from players who actually showed up. If it’s combat, you may even want to skip the rolling and just have the PC do average damage on average tactics to save time. The only player who might be bothered by a lackluster performance isn’t there to see it, so it’s all right to gloss over trying to mimic personality traits and instead just roll to hack the bad guy’s servers already.
Alternatively, you can always allow one of the other players to NPC their fellow player’s character. Make sure it’s someone you feel the missing player would feel comfortable seeing their sheet first – any plans or background details that they want to keep private are paramount and should be guarded. If you’re not sure, NPC them yourself.
If another player does NPC their partner, it can save you time and effort on the bookkeeping end, and they may do more justice to the character in surrogate play. Just be careful that they, too, don’t hog the spotlight just because they’re sock-puppeting someone else as well.
Handling Plot Gaps
When it comes to vital plot sessions, no size group is going to spare those who miss the game from missing out. Thankfully, there are a couple of ways to keep them in the loop:
- Keep a plot diary (or have one of your players keep one)
- Crystallize the relevant plot bit(s) you don’t want them to miss
- Make time for side RP between sessions
A plot diary is just a high-level summary of clues, key names and key events in the game. It may not have all the rich detail of the game itself, but it should at minimum spark a memory so that, when the absent player asks “…what the heck is The Basilisk Referendum?” you and the other players can fill them in on what they missed.
Crystallizing the relevant plot bits just means putting them in a stable, transferable form. If it’s an in-character letter scrap or piece of correspondence, printing it out to hand to the absent player on their return lets them read and review it at their leisure. It also makes the clue seem more tangible and the exchange more significant, which can help close the gap between the RP the others had and the catch-up they’re doing now.
Making time for side RP just means meeting with the absent player(s) between sessions to give them a small (30-45 minute) private session with a similar encounter or related clue so that they get the same necessary tidbit through a different in-character channel, but still have the same rich RP experience as their peers.
If you can’t easily accommodate the absent player, or you’re worried about learning of the absence too late to modify encounters or sculpt the plot around the new gap, there’s one much more foolproof alternative that can at least buy you time until you have a full complement again: a session sideboard.
A session sideboard is a handful of generic plug-in-anywhere diversion plots and encounters that last approximately one game session and fit just about anywhere. These are the most archetypal “a dingo stole my baby” random encounter side missions that you can pull out of your rump five minutes before game when you learn that your paladin is down with the hell-flu and won’t be able to make it to game today, after all.
They should be drab and colorless so that they can be stained with whatever the appropriate region/climate/mood is for that game’s session. They should also be high action and fairly fun, if you can manage it. Aim for a healthy dose of humor or ironic twists – the party comes across a little boy crying for his teddy, they offer to help, and he leads them to ‘Teddy,’ a ravenous undead grizzly rampaging the nearby town in search of a mammoth jar of honey.
The goal is to have a flexible situation that will instantly divert the party from even an important piece of the main story long enough to have fun that day without progressing the main plot while one of their members is out for the count. It’s a case of shameless filler, but when the alternative is sending everyone home and losing momentum, dealing with a honey-crazed zombified Winnie the Pooh wins every time.