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I'm often unreliable, in the sense that something always seems to turn up at the last minute that draws me away from our current regular game. (It's happened before as well.)

Given that the reasons for this unreliability are unlikely to go away, and I want to keep roleplaying when I can, how can I lessen the burden on my group, other players and GM alike?

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7 Answers

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It mostly comes down to communication. Both for practical matters (to allow for planning around your absence), and for social ones (letting the other people in the group know you aren't a flake).

  • Tell the GM ahead of time that you will likely be unreliable, and why. Details aren't necessary, but a cursory explanation is polite.

  • When a specific instance of unavailability comes up, tell the GM as soon as you become aware of it. Preferably this would be a few days out, but you should still call even if the session is scheduled to begin in the next five minutes. You don't want to leave the group hanging while they wait on you.

  • Don't make yourself critical to the group. Pick a role that is either somewhat redundant, or that can be replaced in some way.

  • Avoid contentious positions and maguffins, particularly at the end of the night. Nothing's worse than having a conflict postponed until the next week, only to have it fizzle out because someone isn't there.

  • Be understanding if other players get more "spotlight time" than you do. The GM simply isn't as able to write adventures that highlight you if you're not a reliable attendee.

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Beautiful answer, but let mee emphasize "Don't be critical to the group" and also add that it can help if you permit the gm or another designated player to pick up your character in your absence. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 21 '12 at 22:27
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I love this point: Don't make yourself critical to the group. Pick a role that is either somewhat redundant, or that can be replaced in some way. –  Pureferret Mar 21 '12 at 22:30
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For me the most important thing is "tell the GM as soon as you become aware of it. Preferably this would be a few days out". I had a few players that were unreliable, and not telling they wouldn't come was the worst thing to do. A GM needs to prepare for a session! –  Mentoliptus Mar 22 '12 at 7:45
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@TimothyAWiseman Being willing to let someone else play your character definitely helps, but you want to avoid making it necessary if you can. The GM already has enough to do. Depending on the game, other players might be tied up with their own mechanics or roleplaying (depending on the system/game type). –  AceCalhoon Mar 22 '12 at 14:23
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Yeah, people that don't call till halfway through a session to say they're not coming aren't just unreliable, they're inconsiderate jerks. –  mxyzplk Mar 23 '12 at 13:03
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Here's some advice I'd give, based on what unreliable players in my group do and don't do:

  • Pick a support role, but not one that's necessary; avoid being the headliner.
  • Let people know you're not going to make it to every meeting, and when the GM announces the times of a meeting or puts out a theorized potential meeting time, let them know whether or not you'll be likely to be there.
  • Admit that you may fall behind; the GM probably wants to make the experience fun for everyone, but it's time consuming to catch you up on four levels every time they meet (this is less common in something like D&D where levels are super-important, but in a game like Shadowrun where you can improve things at a very specific level and remain decent in other areas you can specialize and still be useful without being on par with other players in terms of diversity and super-high levels in given areas).
  • Don't ask for makeup sessions. This sounds contrary to what I normally do, but it makes a lot of sense in terms of the GM's perspective. In my group I often offer catching up sessions for players that miss a session or so (especially if other characters hit a new point), and I often make it a requirement to remain balanced, but if you ask the GM feels obligated. This only gets worse if you're already really good in an area (I've had epic-powered physical adepts in Shadowrun request a session to "catch up" to the others that wound up with them having a suite of abilities that let them kill everyone in a room just by a flick of the wrist, and I felt like I had to give them due to my own flakiness).
  • Don't "Rules Lawyer" during runs; I've had absentee players come back after we corrected rules misunderstandings or switched to house rules and had to take fifteen minutes explaining how things worked in the middle of a session. This may be a GM pet peeve of mine, but I feel it's pretty important; if there's six other people staring at the GM who have been to more sessions and are more familiar with rules, don't interrupt for a rules clarification for rules you don't even use (I've had a mundane absentee call me out on how I handled the mage's rolls in Shadowrun, which is OK during downtime but just disruptive during a session).
  • Be especially polite; I've canceled sessions on account of one absentee player who then called me out on a balance judgement call (Third Edition Shadowrun led to a lot of those), leading to a lot of fun when I had to justify why military spec gear is no longer available when they're under constant surveillance, or why you can't smuggle an assault cannon through a cavity search even if you're using the party's three-meter tall (not exactly consenting) troll to carry it. I've also had to justify why drones don't have unlimited wireless range, why secure computers don't use wireless connections (in the entirely wired third edition universe of Shadowrun, and why high caliber handguns can kill bears to the same player who tends to miss more runs than average, which I wouldn't mind if it weren't a mid-session interruption for a GM who's already overloaded in terms of players (seven is too many for a rules-heavy Shadowrun game).

In short, here's my suggestions; be polite (especially), acknowledge that you need to catch up in a way that won't interrupt the other players, and go for a non-critical role.

If you're not having fun as a frequently missing player, it may be better to acknowledge that you can't make it work rather than coming and draining resources.

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I cannot stress enough how important the "don't rules lawyer"-part is. It can be tedious even from regular players, you really don't need even more rule lawyering as a GM. –  malexmave Mar 22 '12 at 14:05
    
Exactly; if there's one thing I absolutely can't stand about unreliable players, it's not cutting out at the last minute, or wanting to come after a certain session had been planned (for you not being there), or the hassle of working catchup. It's the rules lawyering after everyone decided to go a certain way. –  Kyle Willey Mar 22 '12 at 17:16
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Play a character with a split personality. Keep one of the personalities for yourself (this would be active when you can be present at the session), give full control of the other (the "NPC", surfacing when you're not there) to the DM. Watch weird adventures and consequences unfold. ;)

As always, your DM has to approve this.

(We had three unreliable players out of four for quite a while. We tried this and it worked beautifully.)

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Another option is the judicious use of the retcon.

In a Deathwatch game I'm playing at the moment, we have a few players who can't make it to every session and we often don't know until the evening of the game who might or might not turn up.

Since Deathwatch is heavily mission based and all marines are expected to be very close by each other at all times, this would be a big problem if part of our player contract wasn't that the GM could retcon at any time.

Thus, when our Dark Angel players don't turn up, the GM may say that they have slipped off to do secret Dark Angel things. When one of our Librarian players calls to let us know he won't be around, the GM could say that they are meditating on the Emperors Tarot (really not good idea to disturb them in that state), fluctuations in the warp are causing him problems or 'ooh, butterfly...' (code for, noticed something unusual and went off to investigate *8').

Of course this does require some suspension of disbelief. but it is something we are all prepared to put up with to ensure that we get to game every week, rather than only get to game on weeks where everyone can make it.

The bottom line is trust your GM, I honestly can't see why anyone would not trust their GM to run their character in their absence, if they trusted them to run the game in the first place. Trusting another player to run your character is another thing entirely though. *8')

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Adding to the already very good points;

  • Make an effort out of game to find out what happened in games you've missed so the start of games you do make aren't always prefixed with "and this is what you've missed" if neccessary bribe the GM with donuts/beer/pizza/kind words for a short summary of what your character would know via email.

  • Offer to let your character be a quasi-npc; very useful when I've run games with players that may not show. I make part of my first game starting spiel that if your character isn't there there will still "be around" and semi-GM directed - much like Vaarsuvius's familiar in Order of the Stick they'll pop in and out as needed if the players ask them to open a door/etc.

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+1 for bribing the GM. More seriously, +1 for suggesting players make sure they know what they missed out on. –  GMJoe Mar 27 '12 at 6:19
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I'd agree with the others saying that you should share your concerns with the DM and accept politely sone small consequences.

In my humble experience I witnessed plenty of tricks to justify on-off characters (lethargia, strange magic effects, phobias, drug addiction, being the younger brother of another character and following him and his advice closely...). I'm absolutely sure that your DM has enough fantasy to come up with a good reason why sometimes you turn into an NPC, but... please respect him and the rest of the group not making too much a mess of this and the fact that sometimes you may lose a bit the plot.

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In one memorable comedic science fiction campaign, one of the player characters had Narcolepsy. This proved to be problematic on an occasion when he was the only one able to reach the airlock controls, and all the other characters were outside... –  GMJoe Mar 29 '12 at 3:23
    
Well, we had a narcoleptic character that had to be dragged by the rest of the group in turns, and once was lost in a waterfall and recovered (still alive) at a big distance... it turned up to be a fine tool for the DM plots... –  Yaztromo Mar 29 '12 at 19:34
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To the Player

My advice to the "unreliable player" is multi-fold...

First, and foremost: communicate with your group and GM about it.

Second, make certain that a copy of your character remains with the group - either a reliable player, an online copy, or a photocopy.

Third, don't play a character integral to any major plot developments. Be the best supporting actor, but not a lead.

Fourth, pick someone to run your character for you when you can't. This may or may not be the guy who brings your sheet to game, too...

In a particular Hero System campaign of a friend of mine, one player bought a "teleport, no conscious control, once per session" to explain his sudden disappearances from the campaign... and his reappearances. It meant that the GM had a way to bring him into or out of the session, as needed.

Advice to the group

Now, some genres are better than others for this, and some play styles are better for this as well, but see if the group is willing to play more episodically than contiguously. Likewise, more mission-based games tend to be better than cohesive self-motivated party type games.

A Trek-style or SG-1 style game is better for missing player type groups than is a Farscape, Starhunter, or Firefly type game, for example. Trek and SG-1, a missing player can be replaced with an NPC or guest player much more easily than where there is a very limited cast, and anyone missing is both noticed and unreplaced. For Fantasy, being minor landholders doing missions for your liege (ala Pendragon) is better than trying to emulate a long hero's journey.

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