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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

9 Answers 9

up vote 8 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
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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

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

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

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

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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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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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
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+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

This is typical for my campaign: the party consists of 7-10 players, but number of PCs on each session ranges from 2 to 6. I use the following rules and it runs well:

Episodic playing

Most adventure should last one session, starting and ending at some point when PCs can freely come or leave, usually with some downtime between sessions. I will return to the exceptions later.

Have somewhere to hide those who don't play

We have started as "a baron and his party", so we had a base of operation from the very start (the baron's manor). Most adventures took place outside the base, so PCs could easily stay home.

Another way how to achieve this is to require each PC to have a personal agenda. This agenda should consist of adventurous (plot hooks when the player is there) and non-adventurous (excuse to be somewhere else when the player is absent) tasks. This is even better than the "base of operations", because it can easily explain why characters who would be unlikely to stay home when some adventuring opportunity occured are not there - they were away for some other agenda. This "agenda" scenario is harder to think out, but if the GM cooperates with the players, this can enhance the game by itself, even if the players are usually present. When a player leaves the campaign, such an agenda can send the PC away from the party.

We combine both in our campaign and it works fine. All the PCs have some agenda, and bases of operation multiplicate - most of the original PCs are barons now, having their own manors. Players of two most powerful of the PCs (and only two got married) left, so they left adventuring and took politics as a full-time job.

An example: player of our ranger Wrax was often absent. Wrax was a corporal, so he was expected to participate in most military sessions. I NPCed him few times, but mostly he had an agenda: as a skilled ranger, his duty was to guard a deserted village with surrounding woods and rocks, conquered by the party in one of the first sessions. He could advance his taming agenda (he tamed several squirrels, a good but stubborn horse, a bear etc.) and he was freed from duty in regular army, serving in battles lead by other PCs. When the player left for good, Wrax joined an allied mercenary unit, and then appeared as an NPC few times.

Few exceptions from the "episodic playing" rule

In my campaign, most sessions were like a TV series (1 adventure per session), but I had some longer chains too. There are few rules for them:

  • always have some idea how to hide the PCs of absent players. Most of such chains were either military campaigns (warriors could serve with a different unit, non-warriors just kept silent if I didn't offer them some special task to solve), or longer espionage/investigation missions (PCs of absent player got compromised and watched so thoroughly that they couldn't help). I plan to start some naval travels soon, but it is essentially combination of the two categories mention (military campaign for battles with "pirates" sent by Evil Empire and diplomatic/ espionage/ investigation in ports).

  • the more active the player is (and the higher the chance he will play in the next session), the more active role their PC should have. I could usually rely on some (not all, even not most) players that they will play every session in next few months, so I could make them important.

An example: ending of a war, half a year of playing, about ten sessions. I could rely on two players: one played warrior named Framan (sergeant who got knighted during the campaign), the other played Alexander, a noble spymaster. Players of other two warriors, our original baron Shalafi and dwarf Zudra, also played quite often, and another regular player playing mage named Melkan joined in the middle of this chain. Shalafi, never defeated commander of many small battles, got promoted and lead a big operation, or better, two subsequent operations with very few time in between. Alexander was his second-in-command, so when Shalafi was an NPC, we left leading the army on Alexander, assuming their views on strategy are the same (and they were usually similar, so no problem). Spotlight was often on the front line, where Framan and Zudra (and sometimes Shalafi too) competed in killing enemies. Other players usually could play only during intermezzos in cities. The second intermezzo expanded to a chain of three sessions, because Alexander and Melkan were happy with their espionage/investigation agenda and Zudra's and Shalafi's players were absent, so we waited with the advance of military campaign for their return. Only significant problem was that Shalafi was absent for the final battle, but I stated that he was injured in the siege; strategy was partially set by the NPC king, partially by Alexander, and Framan, Zudra and Melkan enjoyed lots of fighting, including boss fights with enemy general and king. No problem!

Prepare adventures suited for different PCs

I usually prepared two adventures at a time: one based on war (if warriors came) and another based on espionage/investigation (when magi and a thief came) or on arcane mysteries (when magi and priestess came). I also prepared arcane subplots in battles and fights in mysteries that could occur when any PC with specific abilities was there. Players usually let me know if they come or not few days before, so I could spice each session by their personal agenda and challenges suited especially for them.

You usually have more and less active player, and perhaps also players who usually come at once. Don't be afraid to change any adventure (even a module) so that absent players' PCs will never be crucial and present players' PCs will be able to show off. In episodic structure, it is often possible to prepare more adventures, which can be played in any order and suppose different party builds - this is ideal, because you can run a game even if other players than you expected come. To some extent, this is possible in a chained game too, as long as sessions are not very tightly joined together.
In the last example, I could insert a session consisting mostly of hunting enemy spies between any two battle sessions if different players came, and I changed plan and prolonged a city adventure into a three session subcampaign, just because I had the right party build.

In GURPS I have it easy - "party build" means just that some PCs are more skilled in combat and others in investigation, so all I need is to assure than players of non-combat character are not bored during battle and vice versa, and not to require roles not included in the current party (don't require lockpicking if you don't have a thief). In longer skill-based campaigns you can expect PCs to become well-rounded. Party encountered few locked doors with no one with lockpick skill, and our mage had to waste valuable mana on it? Next time warriors will have a point or two in something like "breaking blow" and the mage will learn basics of lockpicking. In our campaign, we have already handled few adventures focused on an absent player's PC just because these background skills sufficed for challenges that would be easy for the specialist PC.

It is more difficult in games that suppose some cooperating party of specialists in different roles. For example, a group consisting only of strikers and controllers would be weak in comparison to a well-balanced party of the same number of PCs and slightly lower level. But if enemies have no healers too, their groups mostly consist of weak minions and strikers' non-combat skills usually allow them to start combat with initiative and enemy commander outside their force and next to one of the PC damagers, it's no longer a problem!

Just make the adventures to suit the party, don't try to make the party suit your adventures. And if you try to, use NPCs.

Use henchmen, not GMPCs

Few years before start of this campaign, I had a bad habit of involving GMPCs - NPCs overshadowing the PCs. So if you need to fill a gap in party build with PCs, prefer more weaker ones to one strong one. Players will clearly feel the difference between a PC and an NPC, which is good for immersion.

Some player might try to abuse the NPCs, or PCs played as NPCs this session. For PCs of absent players, try to hide them, so that they didn't appear on the tactical map (see previous points on how to do it). For pure NPCs, make them valuable and make them living.

In my campaign, we started with some 20 NPC soldiers. It wasn't easy to recruit more, and if yes, the new ones were either disloyal, much weaker than the original ones, or had some dirty secrets (finding that one of them is a werewolf made other NPCs use silver weapons against the party and throw wolfsbane into their beer). After first few battles, I made names and exact statistics for the soldiers, and some players started to love them more and more, as their personalities became more and more detailed. Also, the casualties decreased rapidly - named soldiers were killed only on major lost battles and other story peaks, or when the PCs made some mistake.

Some "named henchmen protection" rules are fine. In my GURPS campaign, unnamed NPCs die at 0 HP, while named can go down to more than -HP (as PCs do). In other games, ressurection may work on named NPCs only. In DnD 4e, only named NPCs may have healing surges etc. This rule encourages players to be interrested in their henchman, while not letting them overshadow the PCs.

Of course, PCs don't have to be the strongest heroes in the universe. But showing a single NPC victoriously returning from a dungeon too difficult for the party is much better then to give them some NPC tank doing more damage than any of the party damagers.

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