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I run sessions every Monday evening at a pub in the centre of London, and most people come to play straight from work. Up until recently we were attempting to start at 7pm, but there were one or two players out of five who struggled to get there on time, which was causing disruption to the rest of the group.

We talked about this as a group and decided to move the start time back to 7.15pm, with people asked to arrive early enough so that we could start playing at that time. However, what has actually happened is that some people are now arriving at 7.25, which means that overall we are losing a good half an hour of gaming time before everyone is sat down, knows what is going on and are ready to play.

I find this extremely frustrating and disrepectful to me as GM and to those players who make an effort to arrive on time. The problem is that I'm not sure what, if anything, I can do to stop this from happening. I've considered various approaches, with the most severe being asking disruptive players to leave the game, but I really don't want to have to do this.

So, my question is:

What strategies are there for minimising the disruption caused by players that turn up late to sessions, and what can I do to prevent this from happening in the first place?

EDIT: Although I've marked one of the answers as 'best', I think there are a number of good responses that offer different approaches to solving the problem and preventing it in the first place.

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Too simple to be an answer, but it works with some friends of ours. "Start" at 7pm, knowing that the game won't probably start until 7:15 or 7:30. (If you're sneaky enough, just tell them it's 7, tell your on-time folks it's 7:30). –  Allen Gould May 29 '12 at 14:55
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5 Answers

up vote 34 down vote accepted

As with any motivational approaches, there's the carrot and the stick. You have to be careful to not simply be permissive of the late behavior, or else you won't incentivize the people who are showing up on time to do so.

  1. Start at a known time and allow a buffer. On our group we have a "doors open" time and a "game" time, to allow for people to show up and shoot the bull. (Or for weekend afternoon games, we'll meet at noon for lunch, 1:00 for play). So in your case you might do doors open at 7 and game starts at 7:15. This provides some incentive of fun free discussion time to get there earlier and set up.

  2. Bennies. Give something cool out at the beginning of the session. Whatever your game system allows, a FATE point, an action point, a healing surge, whatever. It's only for those there at 7:15 sharp. This makes the point and provides a positive incentive for on time gamers.

  3. Timing. Try to not kick into a major combat in the first ten minutes. We have two chronically late players in our Jade Regent game and we find ourselves dragging our feet as players when there's an early combat coming because we don't want to be under strength. With on time players it's cool to stop right outside the "big double doors" to pick up the boss fight next time; if you have chronically late players you may want to stop a couple "rooms early" so to speak.

  4. Talk to them. It's possible that they have work or other stuff (traffic?) that just makes it impossible for them to hit 7:15 sharp every time. The game is secondary to the rest of people's lives and you have to understand that. But you can also express that if there's not something competing, but just general lateness, that it affects you and the other players and you'd like them to not do that.

  5. Penalties. Don't do it. You may be tempted to do the reverse of Bennies and penalize latecomers. It will create hard feelings. Sure they're "being inconsiderate" but this isn't a business venture, it's a game among friends. I'm all about people acting right but the second you start putting the game above people you've moved into antisocial personality disorder territory. Especially when we're talking about "oh Lord they're 10 minutes late" - that's very low on the spectrum of disruptive behaviors.

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+1 for "Penalties. Don't do it". Penalties (as in negative incentives) can have the perverse effect of people leaving the game. Positive reinforcement always works better. –  sergut Jul 2 '13 at 14:46
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Also to these excellent answers I'd add think about doing backstory rps for players that get there early, bit of extra xp for them and something to do rather than sit around and play Bellbottom badasses on the mean streets of funk or something.

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As another permutation to this answer, if a player shows up early, give them a "Spotlight Scene" to use the new Marvel RPG parlance. It's a scene where it's big enough to RP but only requires one, MAYBE two characters and doesn't affect the overarc –  CatLord May 28 '12 at 13:33
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I like this answer, because handing out intangibles - like extra attention - is usually better than handing out tangibles like XP or action points. It doesn't spark up people's indignation as much, and doesn't feel as much as if the GM is venting his out-of-character feelings on the poor helpless characters. –  lisardggY May 28 '12 at 15:48
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Since I didn't see another answer I could comment with this on, pre-game (de)briefing could be an advantage to the players that doesn't rock the boat too much.

I have had this problem a lot because I was/am part of a gaming community at a college, which is subject to rampant schedule changes running the gamut from early for to completely missing a game. As suggested above, see why they are late. If it's beyond their control then there's nothing you can do - depending on the time you finish game, a half hour isn't much unless you have a huge encounter planned that can't be broken down. For that (or any other) case you can ask every player to come to the next game with "autopilot" instructions, whether they foresee any temporal issues or not. Should they miss or be late to game, you know 'what they would do' and can NPC them until they arrive (if they arrive). This could even be a source of inter-party intrigue execution because it all happens behind the screen.

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+1 Start without them, and run missing characters on Autopilot. –  F. Randall Farmer May 29 '12 at 17:03
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Totally agree. You keep it up and make them follow your timing, your the DM after all :) –  Random May 30 '12 at 16:01
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Have you asked them why they are late? I know in my case, our group plays Saturdays around 8 pm or so. I am usually not arriving until after 9 lately because I help make sure that the kids are in bed (and staying in bed). Sometimes they have already started the pre-game stuff like questions or "what are you doing the x number of days while the rest of the group was doing this". I don't know your group though I understand it starts right after work. Maybe they are held up at work for some reason.

If this doesn't match your group, maybe just start. They will have to catch up when they get back. If you are in a dungeon, (s)he will know the group went through x door, but but from there, they might need to track down the group by themselves. Possibly running in to monsters by themselves.

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Some folks are perpetually late. I seem to suffer from this malady. I do my best to show up on time and usually either end up incredibly early or a few minutes late.

Since your question is how to minimize the disruption caused by late arrivals, I would recommend that if the table where you game is at all confined (in a private room or a corner), put your gear (as GM) as far from the table's "approach" as possible. Then ask that the players who arrive on time to be nearer you. This should put the empty chairs as close to the table's access point as possible. Then folks don't have to bump and move around the chair to an empty seat.

Also, pull your late players (assuming it is the same 2 people who are always late) aside and tell them that you had some complaints at losing a half hour because of their tardiness. Figure out what happens when game starts and they aren't there yet. Do you start with those characters on auto-pilot? Do they "poof" into existence when the players show up?

Minimize the "getting started" distractions. You sit down, order a pint, and open up your books. If the late folks ALWAYS get the same thing (or start with the same thing), give them a call and ask what they want. They show up at 7:15, their chair is waiting for them, their beverage is getting warm(er), and the game is ready to go.

Don't handle out-of-character questions in email, handle them the 10 or so minutes before game starts. This encourages folks who want to know something to show up earlier and ask you from 7-7:15.

Finally, if you are at all friendly with the folks, tell them that you start gaming at 7:15, but socializing will be from 7-7:15. This hopefully will inspire the late folks to show up earlier.

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