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I have a group of players who have all been integrated into the game. However we all live in different counties and at any one time only a subset of the players can play at any one time.

I try to keep some continuity in the game world but I struggle to think of ways to have PCs keep joining and leaving the group.

How does anyone else deal with this are there in-game solutions or do people just accept a bit of discontinuity.

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Just wondering why you removed the house rules tag? –  Dom Sep 17 '10 at 22:35
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8 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are two problems here:

  1. Absent players won't be kept up with the story progressing
  2. The absent player's character might not be available

The absent player can be brought up to speed at the start of each session with a recap. I like may players to do the recap (and award XP).

The absent PC is more of a problem because group balance normally suggests that everyone has their own thing they do and if you're missing one of those abilities, you're stuck. If a character is pivotal, I will NPC the character. If the absent PC is not pivotal to the current adventure, I do one of the following:

  • The PC is captured by the enemy
  • The PC is injured and unable to join in
  • The PC is performing a side quest that is important to them or their family (good for future plot hooks)

Another solution I've not tried is to have a pool of characters that people play each week. The players play a different character each week. That would be ok for a very transient group as missing out on XP feels diminished if you play sporadically.

You might also think about running campaigns that lend themselves to this. For example, if the campaign was set in a sprawling dungeon then it is difficult to magic PCs in. However, if the campaign was intrigue set on a cruise ship then it is easier to have PCs wander off for a bit and then come back.

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The pool of characters is an interesting idea. I also like the idea of a recap at the start, it would probably be helpful for all my players as we don't play all that frequently. The in-game solutions sound good too, and I'll probably use them in my games. –  Dom Aug 21 '10 at 17:21
I've had to deal with this a lot - did you find it a culture shock going from a steady group to a random one? I did. You have to get used to it and enjoy RPGs in a slightly different way! –  Rob Lang Aug 21 '10 at 21:20
While I promote the idea of a recap, one thing a group of mine has done - because the people who might be at any given session is incredibly fluid - is to record our sessions and publish them as a private "podcast" for the party members who were unable to attend. –  TML Aug 23 '10 at 18:40
Even for normal campaigns I do the recap, I find players forget a surprising amount. Especially during intrigue campaigns. To kill some monotony, I request that one player recaps to the best of his ability, and I fill in some details as he goes. That player changes and gets a little bonus xp. –  BBischof Sep 19 '10 at 8:13
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Break play into episodes you can finish in one play session. Each episode should be self-contained and easily completed in one afternoon or evening. Set up an episode to be fairly independent of the amount of time elapsed since the last, and independent of the characters. Imagine your campaign like a tv series. Yes, the stuff that happened before an episode matters, but which characters are present and what they're doing seems to be disconnected from previous episodes.

Build play around a central in-game location. If the PCs have a base of operations, then you can assume (and require) that they return to the base between episodes. That is, they aren't allowed to get stuck in a dungeon and just put their characters on hold until they can play again. Or allow it, but say that those characters are stuck together until the entire group gets back to the base. If one or two players can show up to finish that episode, then they have to bring new characters.

Play games that aren't built around the "party." D&D is a game where the PCs have to work as a group. There are games where this isn't the assumption. For example, Annalise is a horror game where characters may interact freely or have scenes all by themselves. It'd work great for a game where players come and go from session to session.

Relax your assumptions about "the group." Barriers to bringing PCs in and out of "the group" often stem from very rigid assumptions about why the group is together. Even in games like D&D, with a little effort, you can change the core assumption about the party. Base your adventures in a city and make the PCs a loosely-aligned group of like-minded people. Give the characters other responsibilities so that it's easy to explain why the cleric isn't around right now ("he's got vital business at the temple").

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Your first suggestion is awesome, but in my experience, impossible. I am speaking only for myself here, but I am a TERRIBLE judge of how long things will take. I can never predict how long my party will take to do anything. +1 though, because really this is just great advice. –  BBischof Sep 19 '10 at 8:14
We do it all the time. For a four-hour session, expect two small combats or one large combat, plus a skill challenge or two, plus the usual exploration and lots of role-playing. That's 5-6 encounters TOPS. –  Adam Dray Sep 20 '10 at 2:16
+1 for finishing sessions. This is hard, until you learn to wrap up early. Then it becomes much less difficult. +1 for playing games that aren't build around the party. Having players with RL commitments that interfere is the norm and it's best to anticipate that and be flexible. –  Wyrmwood Dec 3 '13 at 20:23
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In our Ars Magica sagas, played in a couple of years, we have had this problem. Begining with 7 players playing a long time with just 3 and then ranging from 4 to 8 for session.

This disparity was due to jobs, people going to other cities, etc.

What we try to do is keep players who can be more or less active related to the saga by outside session play, and adjusting with npcs when necessary to match group composition.

Clearly, Ars Magica is a well suited game for this, but I suposse that this can be extended to other games with a bit of adjustment: - Split parties - Supportive Npcs - Ausent Players controlled by game master (they can't die).

Just ask your party, to see how can you adapt.

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I think it's a good idea to adjust the party with NPCs, I've considered this and the related getting people to play 2 characters (I'll ask another question about this). –  Dom Aug 21 '10 at 17:23
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Focus on brief plots that can be solved within two or three sessions. Keep the static nature of the setting relatively stable (an economically independent kingdom, a forest, a monastery). For players leaving for a long time, you can just say that the character takes part to a different task, or that he uses some time for family/forging/training.

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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A good between sessions newsletter email can help keep the absentees informed of what happened and what the next steps are at the beginning of the next session.

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This is a good idea if it's done soon after the fact. Much better than trying in 5 minutes to catch people up on a complex plot after having missed the last session or two. If it was a wiki, people could add their own notes as they think of them, thus reducing the chance of something getting missed. And, ideally, I think the players should do it...since they can more faithfully explain what they experienced. –  Beska Aug 30 '10 at 15:16
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I accept a certain amount of discontinuity, but the real trick to handling an inconsistent player roster is for you as the Dm to make every effort to have the adventure start and finish in a single session. That way, when adventure 1 concludes everyone is back home resting comfortably. When adventure 2 starts up, only the PCs that are available are headed there, and win, lose, or draw, you make every effort to get them home before the end of the evening.

Of course it's impossible to do this every time but if you have an especially liquid group that's one good way to do it.

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If I trust another player to do my character justice, I will let him run my character in my place.

There's the time-tested Old School solution: every session starts and ends at Ye Olde Taverne, where a few characters may disappear on a bender while the rest of the party crawls back to the dungeon.

If worse comes to worst, you can always say the character was "hiding in shadows" last session. "There you are! I stopped to take a leak behind the sarcophagus and you guys disappeared." Make him roll to see if he had to fight any wandering monsters while he was looking for the party.

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Handing PCs to other players is something else I do too. Most fun if you have a player playing two very different characters! –  Rob Lang Aug 20 '10 at 11:57
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Depending on the setting, having all players part of a much larger group or society might just be the ticket here. For example, if you say all players are part of the adventurer's guild. Then as players come and go, it's simply enough to have the current adventure to be run with the adventurers available. Of course, it also has the side benefit of giving the GM a natural hook to get players into an adventure in the first place.

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