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If you know ahead of time that you're going to be missing a player, do you reschedule? Or just play them as an NPC or as a group puppet?

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It depends on what's going on in the session. If the session is going to be mostly combat or dungeon-crawly, especially if it's a continuation of a previous session, then running them as an NPC makes sense. Even then, though, there's the risk that someone's character is going to be killed or permanently altered on the basis of things that happened when they weren't there to control their character, so I'd always ask permission before doing that.

Generally, though, I much prefer to concoct an excuse for them to be absent during the session. "Apgar the Barbarian just received word that his favorite pub would soon be closing for a month for renovations; he was left with no choice but to abandon the party for a week-long bender." As long as that is possible based on where the previous session left off, it's my preferred strategy.

I hate canceling sessions because one player can't make it, because I find that sooner or later, canceled sessions become the norm. It's better to get together and make something happen, so the game stays on everyone's mental calendar as a regular occurrence that actually happens. Sometimes, it takes some flexibility to handle that - if several players are missing, you might even consider running a flashback with the players that are available and fleshing out some backstory, or rigging up a side adventure, or something. But it's best if the weekly session stays weekly, as it were.

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Agree. We don't cancel for one missing (in most cases). We usually take each situation as its own different circumstances. In most cases, the missing person's character serves as the "rear guard" and really only enters combat if things are going badly. Sometimes that means they're essential protected NPCs. Other times it can go badly. Such as with my group last week, where the missing person's character was needed for combat, and died in the first round when another player rolled a saving throw... and failed. –  BBlake Sep 5 '10 at 3:21
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+1, agree with this reply. However, IMO, there's absolutely no excuse for killing someone's character while they're not even at the game session. The DM can and should cheat to protect the character, if necessary. The only exception would be if the player is regularly absent, and not likely to show up again. –  RMorrisey May 20 '11 at 23:52

If you're missing so many players that you don't have "quorum", then I reschedule. In my case, I like to have at least three players and prefer four. Anything less and there is too much lull in the play... lull that has to be made up by the DM. And I'm a lazy, lazy DM.

If you're just missing one or two people and want to play anyway, just ignore it. I've gone through lots of permuations of in-game justifications, whisking people away into pocket dimensions, saying they're lost and playing out reuniting with the party the next time they show up, beaming them back to town, etc. The one that takes the least amount of time away from our precious gaming time? Just ignore it. They weren't around, or they were in the background the last session.

When an episodic series with a lot of characters (like Lost, for example) has an episode about character X that doesn't include character Y, nobody wonders why character Y isn't getting a lot of spotlight time. It's not Y's episode! Ditto for gaming. If there's a TPK or something else that breaks your suspension of disbelief, deal with that rare corner-case when it happens.

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Are you secretly me? Because this sounds exactly like my own experience. +1, because it'd be weird if I didn't agree with myself. –  GMJoe Jun 28 '12 at 4:01
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Yes. That reminds us, we need to do laundry this weekend. –  cr0m Jun 28 '12 at 20:26

So I'm in a group with seven people, and two of those have little children, and two have hot and heavy romances going on, and it is an unusual week when everybody shows up to game. And this has been a problem.

So I'm on one extreme - the game is a priority for me and I am always there and on time. I am a little mental. My brother is on the other extreme - he's primarily there to socialize, and his family commitments are hard to predict, so he often misses a session at the last minute.

So it has been problematic for my brother, because he doesn't want to screw up the game, and for me, because it's impossible to do anything but one-shots without worrying about continuity and attendance. Everybody else is somewhere strung out between us, and we are all good friends. We want it to work for everybody.

So here's what we decided: The four guys who are closer to my end (always there, usually on time) will arrange to run or facilitate games and play the protagonists. The three guys closer to my brother's end can either opt in for that game (if they know they'll be around for the next four weeks, say), or they can create secondary characters or pick up NPCs session-to-session as they wish. Everybody is on board with this. It takes pressure off the guys who may have to bail at a moments notice, and allows the game to go forward no matter what.

So the unpredictable guys still get to hang out when they can and roleplay, and I don't think their participation will be in any way diminished. The game just won't revolve around their guys. Works for us.

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I have 7 people in my game, we do 2-3 sessions a week on continuous campaign (it's been about 2 months now). Of course, when there is this many people, there's gonna be someone missing at the table once in a while.

I hate making some players more important, than others, so the rule is "if there is less then 3 people absent, we continue playing."

When that happens, sometimes I build my game in a way, so that the absent person disappears (which will be justified later - he's been kidnapped, got some important item, etc), or gets something we call 'Crystal Stasis' - a type of paralyze.

But more often, the missing characters just faint. This works quite nicely:

  • Party mates have to carry fainted bodies around, which sometimes makes game a bit more intense - they have to protect them from monster attacks (fainted chars can die, ofc), they have to carry them through traps etc (imagine 5 people trying to get weighty body of a knight on a 20ft bridge);
  • Party members can loot their mate for equip/quest/inventory items, if they wish (with the cost of karma, of course), which gives some social tension later, when the fainted wake up (also, kind of a punishment for missing a game);
  • Any items of the fainted are still available for entire party, if needed, while they're absent (While in 'Crystal stasis', character is covered in thin, unbreakable layer of.. crystal, which prevents any direct contact with character and its items);
  • After they wake up - others have to tell them, what happened, while they were absent - for GM it can be useful to know (and used later), what PCs considered important, and what just forgot or didn't pay attention to, and helps keeping track of what players know; //we have a lot of logical quests, yes. Mystery, drama, you name it ^^;
  • Other uses: e.g., yesterday some of the characters decided to use the fainted body of their mate to check the room for traps. They did not care, if he lived or no - payed with karma, of course. Added some tension socially - not everybody was fascinated about the idea. Can't wait, when that char wakes up.

One may wonder, 'Why do they carry bodies around? why not just leave them?'. Well, first of all, at one point of the plot, they knew, that to enter the cave they have to be in a number of 7, so they had to keep each others alive to complete the Quest, and, secondly, it's a role-playing trial - I try to keep my characters connected and make some of them care for each other. Sometimes helps with drama and keeps the sessions interesting.

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Adding my voice to all the other answers here - which are fantastic, by the way - I just want to add that it really depends on what you want to do, and how it fits into the game proper. Did you end your last session on a cliffhanger, or were they all hanging out at the tavern?

In all the games I've run, there were always many different things to do in the situation. I'll give my current game as an example; everyone's schedules makes it like herding cats to get everyone together at the same time. There have been times when, since everyone was in the tavern at the end of the previous session, a character is simply outside smoking a cigar while everyone else is discussing strategy and getting information out of the barkeep. Other times, when the party picks back up in a dangerous situation, I've had the missing player's character tending the oxcart, making sure that everyone's stuff (and the ox itself) didn't run off while there was a dragon nearby.

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Glad to know I can be an example! ;-) –  John Rudy Aug 27 '10 at 19:12
    
Explanations for days off, blinding thugs; that cigar is probably the hardest-working item on your character sheet! –  Logan MacRae Aug 27 '10 at 19:16

We have the character for a missing player simply disappear for the session and reappear on the session when they return. Occasionally, if the story demands it, I'll have the player take on an NPC or secondary character when they return in the middle of a critical section of the story.

I have trouble letting the rest of the group play the character as a puppet or having the character become an NPC. I've been burned by a "NPC" player character's death and losing the player from the group.

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For short leaves (a sick player) we use a decent solution (and an in-joke for us): the cosmic toilet. If a player is not present, the character enters this superdimensional space and follows the other players, but cannot be harmed, touched or seen by enemies, he normally does not fight nor gains any experience or treasure from encounters. In some critical cases (such as the character in the cosmic toilet is a wizard and his spell is needed) the character briefly intervenes under DM control and then goes immediately back into the toilet, again without any XP gain. This keeps the character "up to date" on events without risking a players' resentment because the character was killed while under control of someone else. Nevertheless, in case of total party kill, the character dies as well.

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We call it the "character pouch." We also give the absent player a share of experience/whatever so they don't hold the group back... But that's the subject of another question :) –  AceCalhoon Aug 27 '10 at 13:46
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Ours was the "purple stasis bubble". Mostly it was a joke but once we actually jammed the bubble under one of those walls that fall from the ceiling to prop it open. –  Richard DiTullio Aug 27 '10 at 17:57
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+1 - only we call it the 'character bag of holding' –  BrightUmbra Dec 2 '10 at 15:53
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Ours was "the bucket." Presumably, somebody was carrying the bucket, but we never worried about exactly who it was. –  Paul Marshall Jun 29 '12 at 0:33
    
I've heard of a group using a similar arrangement, and calling it 'Final Fantasy Rules' –  Emilio M Bumachar Jun 29 '12 at 23:03

When choosing between the various great options presented, don't forget to ask the player of the missing character what should be done with the character. In my four man group, I had one player that always wanted his best friend to play the character, another that only wanted the DM to run his character since he had secret stuff on his character sheet, and the other two didn't really care who played the character provided they didn't hear stories of their courageous swan dive into lava on their return.

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It depends on you and your player's sense of humour and creativity. My DM has had to deal with a lot of people whose schedule just conflicts with the majority of the players or who just quit due to personal reasons. One of those who quit at the end of a boss battle in a cave was caught in a cave-in and never found. A player who refused to come to a session and whose schedule changed afterward unexpectedly, his character got infinite diarrhea and had to stay at the inn we were at. Another player left after giving some warning and his character joined the palace guard.

If you think that they might come back one day then leave that open and remind your players of their existence. The player whose schedule changed added to the party by allowing his character to get sold as a slave to gain a vital clue. When he comes back, the entire party will go on a side adventure to free him. If that's not your cup of tea, then just think of something that your group would enjoy and that would fit in with the flavour of your quest and their character. It can serve as a punishment or not, but it's really up to you.

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As a general rule, if enough people are missing that play cannot continue, reschedule and hope for the best.

If one player is missing, then depending on the game and your group, you could have another player control him, treat him as a henchman or other special guy, or just put him in some situation where he cannot contribute for a time, but is still there; in fantasy parlance, maybe he's hit by a paralyzing poison, or some sort of sleeping sickness.

It can be hairy to use him as a DM puppet, since if something happens, it's going to be your fault instead of the rest of the party's, and unfair play can be suspected. In addition, in a typical DM-to-player relationship, the DM already has so much going on that it's difficult to keep track of some guy in combat and try and make decisions that are good but not too good, keeping in mind the difference between what the party knows and what you know.

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If the group's going to drop below 4 players, I cancel the game. Otherwise, I just write that character out for the session - they go and investigate The Interesting Thing Over There, or get kidnapped by fae, or their mount gets spooked and they run off to go find it, or they decide that encounter looks too scary and go hide in the shadows for a bit.

When someone has to leave mid-session, sometimes one of the others in the group gets to play them (with their permission). We did actually end up with a character killing someone else in the party while they were 'out' like that... but because we all know each other and get on well it's become a running joke rather than a source of contention :).

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I build my games, as much as possible, to allow PCs to go in and out of a given set of scenes. If a player isn't there in an evening they just weren't around for those scenes.

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The way we do it is to have a core group of four players (including the GM) who we know are committed to the game. We schedule around the core. Once we know we’re going to game, we let everyone else know when the game will be, and that we’d love to have them here.

In our current game, this means we have four to seven players.

Sometimes one member of the core won’t be able to show up but we know that everyone else can; we will occasionally go ahead. But if two members of the core can’t show, there is no game.

If we’re missing one non-core player, their PC becomes a group puppet; if we’re missing a core player, their character goes off elsewhere until the next game session. If we’re missing multiple non-core players, obviously their characters are off exploring something else, because they aren’t here now. I’m sure they’ll catch up with us sooner or later.

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I don't typically have huge groups, so, if one player is missing, we play a sub-game or something else. I have even at times done alternaverse settings for a few sessions. Use the characters that are there, but, kind of like a side-story that gives very small rewards but generally aren't high risk.

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It depends whether or not they can be believably written out.

Last night for example a player had to leave to rush to hospital, possibly to see a relative for the last time.

We were slap bang in the middle of all the excitement, so took group decisions on how we thought the character should behave and went with the consensus.

Other times when a character can be written out, then I think it's preferable to do so.

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I will tell everyone at the table that the player won't be making it. If the player had an idea for how to temporarily write themselves out I'll use that. If they didn't then I'll come up with an idea or pitch it to the group. We then do our best to make it work without that player for a session.

Then when the player comes back, I make sure I have an interesting situation to pitch them into to get them right back into the thick of it. In the one game of Apocalypse World I ran, the player who ran the town had to be absent. When he came back, I dropped him in the middle of a sudden violent takeover. I find that putting them back in the right away (but not punishing them) helps myself and the players hook right back into the recently absent player and what they're doing.

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What i tend to do is play the character as an NPC but have them do only the bare minimum to carry the story and not destroy the players suspension of disbelief. They will tend to get 'injured out' of combat pretty soon, or stay back and heal/reload etc. If the Characters are in a known location (such as thier home city) rather than a dungeon or location, then the absent player simply buggers off with their own agenda.

I am not averse to making absent players come up with a good agenda for thier absence at times and then using that as a subplot in the game. There is no reason not to pubnish non attendance if it is mild and if it serves the game.

My only rules for running other peopels characters as an NPC is that they will never die (there is always some story as to why they survived) and they won't make any major descisions under my control. Nobody likes to come back and find thier character betrayed the King of thier own violition.

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We have one night a week when we're intending to play. We have a quorum that's roughly "one more person than half", which with our groups turns out to be "only missing one or two people". The precise number that's quorum gets set by the referee and gets adjusted a bit depending on the game we're playing and what the referee thinks will be going on that week (so, in our situation, the referee has the power to inform what the quorum level is, or say "yes we'll play" or "no we won't" depending on the number of people who report as able to attend).

Referees that can't make it generally advertise this ahead of time as much as possible, and then the players who could attend get to decide if they'd like to meet and play something else anyway, or whether the session should get cancelled.

When a player can't attend, the PC suddenly loses "PC aura" and gets treated pretty much as a referee-controlled character that steps into the dim background a bit. Their abilities and participation can be tapped a bit by the PCs, but the referee typically doesn't let them be used to "solve the adventure" in ways other than cursory assistance. In some cases (with some game systems, mostly) the referee controls the missing player's character sheet; in some cases, this is too burdensome, and the referee asks other players to handle the missing player's sheet, in which case another player gets to do double-duty.

Socially, during play, the attribute of a character "lacking PC aura" gets invoked reasonably frequently, just to remind us all that the player is there in a "supporting role" and it is the schticks of the present PCs that should drive the action for the evening.

When players will be away for a determined (and more lengthy) time than just missing for one week, they get handwaved out of the immediate plot threads and aren't generally present to assist in the action.

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If we're short two people (in a group of six) we cancel the session. We're still likely to get together, possibly for board games or just to hang out, but when we're down two, we don't have critical mass.

When we're down one, the other character is there, just distracted or not really participating. Depending on the setting, we might come up with an in-game explanation -- "Oh, Dr. Gupta is back at HQ working on her latest research results" -- and that explains why she doesn't do anything when a gunfight breaks out.

But if Dr. Gupta's player isn't there, Dr. Gupta doesn't get any insights at all. She's basically just part of the scenery or furniture.

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Just a side-note: I've read somewhere of an idea (so it's not mine) about getting the characters infected with an incurable "dungeon fever" whose main symptoms are strongly reduced intellectual capacity and staying silent. The symptoms may manifest anytime and anywhere and may subside just as suddenly. Whenever one of the players can't make it to a session, her character has an outbreak and is simply tagging along with the party (fighting, if needed, though without using too special tactics) until next time.

With a few tweaks this might be introduced in non-fantasy settings as well - though storyteller discretion is highly advised, as it is definitely not a universal solution: it could easily ruin a well-crafted story and/or setting (let alone the character.) Try and combine it with the ideas raised in the other answers - you might get a working combination. :)

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