My Friday group for my L5R game is comprised primarily of veteran players but we do have a couple of newer folks in it as well. One of those newer folks is also a new GM, and I was a bit struck by his newness (not in a bad way) when I was told of a conversation he had with one of the other players. The conversation was about what is going on in my L5R game right now - as in last session and going into this next session - and how I could possibly get the players who missed the session involved. Today, I'd like to talk about that and how you can do the same thing in your own games.
The current situation in my L5R game is as follows: one of the PCs is out, a wound from dead, in the tall grass surrounding an old house. The second PCs has been poisoned and is on the top floor of the house fighting four small demons that are defined by being quick and vicious. The third PCs is on the ground floor of the house wrestling on the ground with a presumably tainted samurai. Finally, the fourth PC is outside the house in a sword fight with an archer and at the least is trapped in what could likely be a fight to the death with an even match. Oh, and the house is on fire.
This situation came about because I started a plotline last session when we were two players down. We cut the session at that point as we were already running late and people had long drives to get home and stuff to do the following morning. Looking at the situation it seems like the kind of thing that would be hard to introduce someone into, especially two PCs who weren't even with their four companions when they left the base on a two day trip. Except...
What Isn't Defined
The only things that are defined in the game right now is what I said above. The entirety of the story is from the present player's perspective and nothing that they can't see, or otherwise perceive, has been set. For all the players know the house is being surrounded by dragons and trolls.
This gives me the freedom to bring the other players into the scene in a variety of ways. Perhaps they were sent shortly after the main group of PCs to provide support. Perhaps they were sent somewhere near by, but are close enough to see the fire and hear the sounds of battle. Perhaps the two PCs who had been missing have joined up with some NPCs who plan to go to the house. Honestly, it doesn't matter because as long as I don't contradict something that has been established in the scene going on, I'm not actually breaking anything.
Keep Things Undefined
Because of this I find, especially when GMing with missing people, it is always good to try and leave yourself outs. Leave potential reasons the absent PC could be close by. Leave potential reasons that they could stumble into the scene that is already going on. Some games have clever ways of doing this built in. For example, in Mutants and Masterminds you can fiat it to happen simply by giving - or charging - a hero point. In FATE Core, or any FATE driven game, provided you have an aspect that could be tagged to explain your arrival or why you are nearby it can be easily done.
As a GM you have lots of options, including just going "and they're here and have always been here." However, you get the best results when you leave yourself room to naturally bring the previously absent PCs in. After all, those same holes and gaps can also be used to bring NPCs and other plot points in too.