Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dealing With A Missing Player

Let's talk plainly for a second here (don't we always?). If you're running a game, then sometime, at some point, you're going to have to deal with missing a player at the session. Now, with luck, they'll have told you ahead of time but you don't always have such luck. Maybe there is a wedding going on, maybe a car broke down, maybe they stopped at a local Seven Eleven as it was being robbed and have to talk to the police for the next few hours. The point is, something has happened and one of your PCs is not going to be represented. So what do you do when that happens?

Well, luckily for you GMs have been handling this problem since RPGs got their start, and there are a number of ways you can deal with it. Below I'm going to detail the most common, along with some of their strengths and weaknesses.

Someone Else Controls Them
This, in my experience, was a lot more common back in the earlier days of gaming (at least, my earlier days). It is also something that is touched on in numerous comics such as Knights of the Dinner table. It works simply, Player A can not be here to control Character A, so Character A is handed to Player Y for the session. Player Y could be someone who was just going to sit in and watch, it could be another of the players, or it could be the GM themselves.

The benefit to this method is simple, the character is still around. They can still be in fights, still gain XP. The party isn't suddenly shy their mage, fighter, thief, or healer. Basically, the game can go on like it always does. The down side is that in more adversarial games, it can share information the player would rather leave hidden. Also, whomever is playing the character could be playing them wrong, or not know how to use the things on the sheet properly for best effect. You can also run into problems if the new controller gets the player killed, or gives away an item. All things you need to watch for, and all reasons why some players specifically ask to not have their character sheets ever handed to someone else.

The Eternal Leak
The other popular way, especially in dungeon crawls and other campaigns, is to say the character has gone off to take the Eternal Leak. Basically, it's a bathroom break, the character is always (safely) just behind the PCs, only they're otherwise indisposed. They dont get XP for encounters, or the session, but they aren't left behind somewhere and unless the party is wiped they're "safe".

The benefit to this is that you don't break up the party, the character is right there when the player does come back, and everything can go on as normal. The bad stuff comes in the form of lost XP, and the fact that the party is hindered without the abilities of one of their big characters. It's also sometimes hard to see how a PC on an eternal leak made it through certain scenarios, especially when the players who were there just barely made it through.

Doing Something Else
This one is simple, basically the PC has gone off to do something else while the player is away, and will rejoin the group when they're done. This one can work well, giving the player a chance at earning whatever XP they missed out on with some one on one time with the GM.

The strengths to this are fairly obvious, the character isn't with the group at all, they're gone and doing something else. You don't have to worry about someone else getting them killed, or how they got through things, they're simply gone. The downside is that this usually takes preparation and timing to do right, meaning it can't be done very often on short notice. Getting the player back to the group can also be awkward if they leave off in a cliff hanger, and the other player makes it back.

The End...
Those are the three most common ways I've seen GMs handle absentee players over the years. The "Doing Something Else" method usually works best, especially when it is planned in advance and works out as a plausible way for the character to be off and doing...something else. Beyond that, I tend to favor the Eternal Leak. I've never much cared for other players playing anyone's character but their own, it always feels and seems awkward and unnatural. At best, it'll be off putting. At worst, it can lead to a whole new level of griefing.

Of course, your mileage may vary, and I'm interested in hearing other ways to deal with an absentee player.


  1. I do not like to run a party of different levels in 4e. So for my current campaign I roll with "Doing Something Else" which is generally close by.

    This often involves doubling back to make sure the party isn't followed, researching the last ruin for clues, or some kind of prayer/ritual/meditation to their power source.

    Whatever it is, they stay at the same XP level.

    When you add a player to the game whose 4 levels lower, you may be punishing the player but you're punishing everyone else as well. Beside's I don't really want to punish that player. RL trumps game. End of story, and I'm glad people want to play even some of the time.

    If you're friend from out of state visits you twice a year and you want to bring him along for dnd night, great! Time to introduce a character that has a reason to only be around some of the time. Next time he's here his xp will conveniently match the rest of the parties.

    If the party is only one person down, I'll often leave things be. Five out of six people, is still a good party. Encounters become slightly tougher but should still leave running as a viable out. Tougher encounters mean fewer in one night for more xp. That means people are still leveling at a comparable rate but the story slows down, leaving those missing to miss slightly less.

    If the party is missing 2 out of 6, I will start tweaking the encounter slightly to compensate.

    If the party is missing 3 out of 6, or a key role is missing I will add an NPC. Maybe he is a servant of one of the PCs Patron, or a local. I've even had them beamed in from an NPC wizard in odd circumstances.

    In the end, we all want to play and have fun.

  2. I don't have any experience with 4th ed D&D but your concern about power level, and a lower level member being a challenge for the whole group, is a good one. I'm glad you have a few quick ways to handle it to.

    I also agree on the friend from out of town, no need for them to be handicapped because they live far away.

    If I'm down 50% of my players I'll often see what the others want to do. If they want to play, we can, if they want to change it to movies and videogames, that is also viable. The idea of game nights, to me, is as much the social as the game, and like you said. In the end, we all want to play and have fun.

  3. Considering the fact that I: a) game with one group for a couple intense days a year or b) game with a couple different friends who live right down the street from me, I don't often have to worry about this problem.

    In college, however, when I had a weekly game going with lots of people, I typically used the 'doing something else', method. Considering it was Star Wars, said character was usually 'back on the ship' or at 'home base' (wherever that may be). This meant they were close enough to easily work back into the game when they returned, even if we were in the middle of a longer adventure.

    As far as adjusting power levels go, I do that a lot, actually. I've gotten pretty good at reading the strengths of different groups of PCs and can tailor stuff that will challenge but not overwhelm them.