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My gaming group has very fluid attendance. From week to week it's been known to fluctuate between ten and two players, usually hovering around three to five. I've become reasonably adept at building encounters to accomodate unpredictably sized groups in D&D 4e, but as we move into the DFRPG I'm not sure how many of those skills will translate to a FATE campaign.

  • DFRPG presents a number of different ways to rate challenges based on the party's combined refresh levels. How can a GM anticipate a varying party refresh sum so as to be able to adjust challenges on the fly, or is it not as important in this system?

  • One strategy I've developed in 4e is to design monsters that do things on the players' turns, so that their actions scale directly and automatically with the number of PCs in the encounter. Is there a FATE equivalent of this trick?

  • I have one player I can always rely on to be there, so I will probably be winding scenarios around his PC. What can I do to help the others feel involved when they show up, instead of like guest stars in his story? (Is there some way I can guide aspect creation to accomplish this?)

  • Are there any common pitfalls regarding narrative engagement, power balance, or something I'm not thinking of, that are unique to a FATE game with this variable size trait?

  • What opportunities does this situation present? Is there something I could take advantage of that wouldn't be possible in a group with more regular attendance?

For the record, I'm anticipating an exceptionally small group in the near future: one regular player and one player every other session. I don't want to constrain the usefulness of answers to others by making this particular situation the defining point of my question, but context is always good --so there it is.

Answers from experience are especially appreciated.

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So a regular character who is there every single chapter, and a cast of characters who appear often but not always... Isn't that the actual books' structure? –  Scrollmaster Feb 13 '13 at 5:52
@Mikalichov Yes! My players are very aware of this, and are okay with it --but I'd love to not have some players feel like they're secondary characters in somebody else's story, if at all possible. –  BESW Feb 13 '13 at 5:57
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Enemy FATE Points

DFRPG comes with one specific scaling mechanic - NPCs and Fate Points on page 351 of Your Story suggest that you can be lazy and pool all NPC Fate Points. At the start of each session, you take one point per player, spend from that pool for any NPC and add to it when PCs compel and invoke to disadvantage NPCs.

This Fate pool cannot be added to if it would end up with more points than the total amount currently held by the players. If you would have to do this, just ignore the point and carry on.


The other useful scaling mechanic for encounters is grouping the minor NPCs. This comes from Spirit of the Century and FATE Core. SotC has Minions and FATE Core has Mobs of Nameless NPCs[1] and advice on right-sizing[2].

In both of these cases, minor NPCs are used as the fibre of a good conflict meal. They help bulk out a group and provide a little cover to any supporting and main NPCs.

In DFRPG, the Scaling the Opposition rules on page 331 suggest the total amount of refresh opponents should have for a given group. You can re-calculate the guideline amount at the beginning of a session and use this to buy relevant NPCs for a conflict like D&D 4E's experience budget.

For example, if you have a group of 3 whose total refresh spent on powers is -12 and -2 on mortal stunts - you would design encounters based around -10 for this session. A minor challenge would have opponents with a total of -5 of refresh in powers, equal -10, major -15 and overwhelming -20.

If they were going up against a cartload of chimp-sized Shen (-3 refresh, page 35 of Our World), this group should face from 1 to 6 Shen in the cartload. Next time, a full wizard has joined them with -7 refresh. This means that a good number of Shen is somewhere between 3 and 12.

To reduce the number of rolls you are making, these Shen should be collected into groups the same size as the number of players. With the three players, this would be 1-2 groups of 3. With four players, this would be 1-3 groups of 4.

Responsive Plots

@Magician makes a good point when he says that you shouldn't make Personal Plots a heavy part of the game because other players can't be as involved with them. I think he goes too far by saying you shouldn't use player-specific plot at all. FATE highly encourages players driving the plot and them building stories based on their entire character.

Taking the metaphor of a TV show further, look at the ensemble shows and how they join and separate characters while their plots progress.

You can bring personal plot to the fore by restricting major uses of that plot to the originating character but allowing minor usage around the characters that have been exposed to that plot.

As an example, consider a game including an actor, a surgeon and a lawyer. The actor has added “Debt to the Mob” to his backstory and is joined to both the surgeon and the lawyer through “Old College Friendships”. The surgeon and the lawyer are “Fighting the Man” in a courtroom battle.

While the actor is playing, it’s valid to bring the mob to bear. The Italian Restaurant the surgeon takes his old friend to turns out to be a mafia hang-out for instance. Once the surgeon has been exposed to this, it makes narrative sense for him to discover that the prosecutor in his case is taking bribes from the crime family involved.

While the actor is not playing, the mob should be on the backburner. It’s there but the other players have more pressing concerns from their own stories to contend with.

Before you engage with this though, there is something the whole should agree on – nobody tries to resolve anybody else’s story for them. Important NPCs for player’s who aren’t present must be left alone.

See Also

SotC also has advice on the pick up game in chapter 9. This is mostly for the pulp genre, but the advice should be exportable to your situation.

[1]: Page 221 of the Kickstarter draft. Reference should still be valid in the final version.
[2]: Page 228 of the Kickstarter draft.

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This is some great crunch for me to use! I think it would be valuable for others if you added some of the stuff we talked about in chat re: personal plotlines. Extra +1 for cartloads of monkeys. –  BESW Feb 12 '13 at 8:02
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Unfortunately I have no experience with Dresden Files, so my answer will only concern story implications of varying player attendance. This puts serious constraints on your game's structure. I'd suggest emulating TV shows, as they deal with some of the similar problems, namely typical viewers only watching a random sub-set of episodes. Of course, in the case of a game these viewers are also the characters, but some things still apply.

Episodic structure. As players may or may not show up at any given week, you're best off with each session being a self-contained adventure. Otherwise they'll be disappearing mid-adventure, which strains credibility. Worse, the players would be thrust in the middle of action they don't understand.

Previously... As a given player could have been absent for any number of sessions, it's crucial to keep a log of events that have occurred. Just a sentence or two about each game, so that players can catch up on the state of the story. "One NPC is now dead, the other turned villain, we're on such and such quest." You can try writing up session notes and putting them online, but that relies on flaky players reading them.

Reason for absence. All characters should come with one in-built from the start. Doesn't have to be detailed or complicated, but should be there to readily explain the comings and goings. The most obvious one is a day job: police officer or reporter, guild enforcer or royal mage, the character is probably not a full-time adventurer, if such a thing even exists in the game world. Then there are stranger reasons. The character could be "on loan" from a penal institution, let out under strict supervision when her expertise is required. Or they could be a werewolf, locking themselves up in a cage or running off with their pack-mate every now and then. A curse might force them to regularly perform some duty; they may be a magic creature themselves, occasionally assisting others on a whim; the list goes on.

No complex personal plots. Even if you and the player can come up with a plot that can be inserted into any session when said player attends, others wouldn't be able to appreciate or contribute much to it, as they'll only have a very incomplete picture. Which doesn't mean there shouldn't be any personal plots, just that they should be restrained to either something resolvable in a session and/or reflect character concept itself.

All of this combines to a game where a simple plot provides an excuse for a disparate group of people to assemble and go on adventures. Which sounds like a typical dungeoncrawling D&D campaign, old-school superhero comics or a police procedural.

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The first half of your opening sentence worried me, but the rest of this answer is solid advice. I'd give you +1 for 'built-in reasons for absence' alone. –  GMJoe Feb 13 '13 at 6:36
I'm having some trouble thinking of built-in reasons for absence that don't sound like deus ex machinas, could you add in a few examples? I mean a modern setting could have (say) business trips or something, but I'm not sure how you would handle it in a setting where adventuring is a full-time job. –  Tacroy Feb 13 '13 at 17:43
@Tacroy DF is a modern setting, and it's a rare PC that actually adventures full-time. –  GMJoe Feb 14 '13 at 4:46
@Tacroy I've added a few examples, as you requested. Hope that helps. –  Magician Feb 20 '13 at 2:39
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In my experience there are three tactful ways I've employed to work around party size disparity:

"Mark's Over There": The missing party members are effectively tagging along, but in a very unobtrusive and passive fashion. They don't really talk, they don't really act, and threats seem to work around them or selectively remove them first in a harmless way to respect the missing player(s) and the attending ones alike.

The wall collapses, leaving Mark and Joe on the other side. Mark shouts that they'll find a way around

As the brute squad approaches, Mark stands in front of the door and says he'll stall them.

Mark gets a letter from his father saying he needs to visit home for a rite of passage for his brother

Puppeteer: You as the DM/GM/ST play the character(s) as an NPC using guidelines the absent player(s) leave. They are still in danger, but they are also the AI on "Hard Mode" instead of the "Easy Mode" in the first suggestion. This also means that you can use them to thread hints by genius / idiot savant moments when the party gets stuck.

While you guys focus on the door's lock, Amy plays with the hawk statue on the table. She notices a sconce that it would fit on perfectly.

Barb gets a crazed look in her eye and swings her sword one more time and sheers off the demon's horn. The fiery aura around it diminishes

Colleen reminds you about your encounter with the Warden three days ago.

Re-converging Story by Attendance: Take attendance for the game a couple hours ahead of time. When you do your planning, leave a lot of play room for what the encounters will include, and tell your players that they need to give you at least a 4hr (or 1 day) warning that they will not be at the game so you can reformulate.

EDIT 1: Free Stress/Complication: It may be of consequence that you can start an opponent or group thereof with a stress complication. They would otherwise start fresh with their stress tracks. In other situations, my GM has simply "nerfed" the enemy by one or two Refresh but typically that was a parallel to the complication so the party didn't outright destroy it with damage should the dice take over. A reduction in Refresh wouldn't actually occur but there would be some sort of counter (such as a threshold being added to weigh down a Fae).

EDIT 2: The RAW:

YW331 says, Remember that, as the GM, you don’t have to worry about the same limitations the PCs do for spending refresh. If you want, you can make an absolute monster that has no refresh level (and therefore no fate points) but a ton of power— that’s what makes the bad guys as dangerous as they are.

Essentially, when the NPC is outmatched, tack on an extra ability or two but be careful of the slippery slope therein. These can be things like a pact for a Sponsor or (my favorite) temporary magic items. Maybe base the NPC on the average party size. If you have a short table, give him a complication. If the table is large, give him something extra to play with. But you have that middle ground to fudge from. (Pun unfortunately intended)

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Can you add anything particular to Fate? This is general advise for the situation that is already covered by the Asker's background info that they're already adept at this in D&D, so it doesn't appear to address any of the questions about how to adapt to the particular challenges Fate and DFRPG presents to the usual strategies. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 11 '13 at 4:00
I added a more mechanically specific solution however I will take a moment to consult my book before editing again. –  CatLord Feb 11 '13 at 4:55
The complication idea is great, and I will use it! I look forward to your suggestions after looking at the book. –  BESW Feb 11 '13 at 10:21
Added another two cents, but nothing revolutionary after skimming a couple key chapters. –  CatLord Feb 13 '13 at 5:11
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