Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This is somewhat similar to "How do you deal with missing players?", but I'm looking to address slightly different issues. Also, this query is about longer breaks than the one or two sessions described in the other question.

Without going into much detail of the whys and hows, our chat-based game has encountered a situation in which some of our Player Characters will be left out of the story going forward for an indefinite period of time. Still, it is understood that there may be a later time in which these characters could return to the story. This could be one or two encounters down the road, or it could be much later.

In the case of "much later", the rest of the party will likely have gained several levels and much loot by the time of the prodigal character's return. What is a good, balanced way to bring the returning character back up to speed with the rest of the group?

EDIT: A lot of the answers seem to be missing the spirit of this question. I'm not asking whether to bring a returning character up to level/equipment speed with the rest of the group - the answer here is yes, we're going to do it - but rather how to do it in such a way that preserves the balance of a natural game progression.

I've also decided to re-tag this as D&D4e-specific. It seems leaving the question generic (though I believe it could serve a good reference for other systems) is not producing very useful answers.

share|improve this question
Can you describe what system you're using? "Chat-based" and "levels" don't go together in my head, but that may be my misunderstanding. – Jadasc Dec 3 '10 at 19:39
@Jadasc - We're playing a D&D4e game, but I was hoping the question could be considered applicable for other systems as well. – Iszi Dec 3 '10 at 20:14
Re: Edit -- Are you asking for in-game roleplaying explanations, or something more mechanical? I guess, based on your own answer, the raw mechanics of it, but that seems like it should be system specific. – AceCalhoon Dec 3 '10 at 21:54

11 Answers 11

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Okay, say you've already decided on the roleplaying aspect of things, and you've already decided to bring the characters back in at the full level of the rest of the group. How, exactly, do you achieve this?

For stats, have them level up their old character to the current level. If this isn't possible for some reason, have them create a new character that approximates their old one as closely as possible.

For gear, start with the default starting gear and then compare it to the rest of the group. I've found that generated characters tend to have somewhat more powerful gear than leveled characters. You may need to split a high level item into multiple lower level utility-oriented items. It doesn't matter if the new character is a little bit better than they should be, but it's no fun if the people who have been gone for a while are noticably better than the people who stuck around.

The final things you need to consider are plot-related advantages players may have accumulated (like ownership of castles, favors owed by wealthy nobles, and so on) while the absentee was away. I would judge these based on two criteria:

  • Does the advantage dramatically improve the characters' powers, particularly in combat?
  • Does the advantage consume a significant portion of time in game (such as the upkeep and renovation of a castle)?

If either of these are true, give the returning character some equivalent to what the existing players have.

share|improve this answer
Great write-up, here. I never even thought to account for the additional bonuses RP can bring along the way, aside from XP and loot. – Iszi Dec 4 '10 at 0:55

Bring them up to the level of the group and give them a few comparable magic items. You could explain this as they went off and had some separate adventures.

share|improve this answer

Well, since you are aware of the leaving and returning ahead of time, why not just keep a running total?

If you normally run with 5 people (6 with the absent member), hand out treasures and experience as if the character were present. That is, design the encounter for 5 people, but give out rewards as if you have all 6 members, and let the absent member have his share. You can either do this silently yourself, or leave it up to the rest of the group, depending on preference or RP ("Wow, this giant axe looks perfect for Gurg, our absent friend! We should wrap this up as a present for when he gets back from his spirit quest" versus "Gurg is back from his quest to save his homeland from a mighty dragon, what did he get while he was away?

share|improve this answer

This depends on the detail of the whys and hows. Is there a reason why the other PC wouldn't have been adventuring, leveling, and gearing in the mean time? If he has been, I see no reason why the returning character wouldn't come back up to speed with the rest of the group.

share|improve this answer
I agree, but the question becomes how? Particularly, in regards to equipment and loot. – Iszi Dec 3 '10 at 19:46
I see a couple options. If it's only a few levels, count how much loot has been given to the party and create an extra share of that. If it's many levels, treat him as a new character and give him an item at level+1, level, and level-1. For somewhere in between, I'd see what level the group's weapon armor and neck slot items were and give him comparable items. – valadil Dec 3 '10 at 19:52

Here's one method I've considered. This is all presuming that, for RP purposes, we've given the character a reasonable excuse for absence that includes some adventuring work of their own.

For character stats/feats/powers: Have the character brought up to the rest of the party's level as if they'd been leveling with the rest of the party.

For equipment: Rebuild the character's inventory from the ground up, with "level appropriate" equipment and gold. Similar to creating a character starting higher than first level.

share|improve this answer
IMO, this is a case where RP should be written to serve OOC, so I wouldn't use that as a disclaimer. The other thing to watch out for is that (in 4th Edition D&D in particular), generated characters often have a bit better gear than leveled characters. If it's close, don't worry about it, but if it's too much higher than the group, it could be an issue. – AceCalhoon Dec 3 '10 at 20:07
Thanks, Ace! This is exactly the kind of in-depth analysis I was looking for. Could you perhaps expand upon this and put together a full answer? – Iszi Dec 3 '10 at 21:51

The DMG has rules for determining treasure parcels per level, based on the number of characters in the party.

If you know how many levels and how many characters there were, and you know what level your new character is starting at, then you can compute how many additional treasure parcels to add (and what kind).

Give the new character that many additional treasure parcels and let him "spend" the gold on common items freely. Uncommon and rare items need DM approval, but you should let the character have about as many of those as the rest of the characters have.

share|improve this answer

I would probably bring them back at one, perhaps two levels below the current party average. It keeps them close enough that they wouldn't get destroyed in a combat encounter (if they're careful), but it also doesn't reward someone fully for leaving a party for an indefinite time period. Now, obviously I would alter this depending on extenuating circumstances around their absence if it was unavoidable.

As far as equipment goes, that would depend on the "in character" reason for their time away. If they've been adventuring on their own, I would allow items equivalent to the rest of the party's current inventories. If there's another reason, I probably wouldn't allow them much of anything they didn't have when they left.

share|improve this answer
"If there's another reason, I probably wouldn't allow them much of anything they didn't have when they left." If this is a game where equipment matters (like D&D), this plus two levels difference will be crippling for the players, and a huge punishment for the people who remained (because they must either devote time to defending the crippled players, or deal with watered down encounters). – AceCalhoon Dec 3 '10 at 19:35
I disagree. In the group I participate in, we often have players that miss sessions and fall behind the curve. It is not uncommon that by, say 12th level when starting from 1st, one player is 1 or 2 levels behind and not having the distribution of magic items the others may. It has never, to my recollection, been an issue for our group and combats have not been weakened to accommodate it. But as my post said, it would depend on many factors such as reason for leaving and time gone. – BBlake Dec 3 '10 at 23:26

If the drop out is short, there is really not too much of a problem. You make adjustments as needed, but if it is longer then you run into a gray area.

Is there private storyline for those that drop out or did they just stop adventuring while gone? Stop adventuring and there is no XP, no levels and no new items. Private storyline means private adventures, this will pose a problem since they are not gaming already. Since it sounds like you are not able to talk to the players easily you may need to make something up. You will want to check with your players about this as they might not like his and would want a say it what goes on with their characters.

The other option is to have them form a second group entirely and stay separate. This also has its drawbacks. Splitting the party is never good for moral; players or characters. It also mean extra work. Ouch. Not a good choice in my book but it is an option.

I would say your best bet is to talk with the whole group both as a group and individually and get a consensus of what they want.

share|improve this answer

I used to ding players that didn't appear for a session; they didn't get as many experience points. Then, my mindset changed from "I shouldn't reward players that don't show up" to "It's just a game." This may sound snarky and I apologize in advance, but I would just bring them up to the same level as everyone else.

share|improve this answer
The question isn't whether to bring them up to level, but how. Please see the EDIT in my OP. – Iszi Dec 3 '10 at 21:49

I can think of several methods worth considering:

Method One — Alternate sessions

Run a few sessions with the "missing characters" and some disposables for the others. Experience them up in monte-haul mode.

I don't recommend it unless the group wants it.

Method Two — Story-writing

Have the players write a paragraph or two per missing level about their off-camera adventures. Award XP based upon the story.

Method three — Pure mechanics

Figure out what they missed in XP, and what they faced, and what treasure that would entail. Give it to them.

share|improve this answer

I'm going to go on a different angle here, and ask should you level the character up after an extended hiatus. My vote would be for no.

I think having a character that's many levels lower than the rest of the party gives a lot more opportunities for roleplaying. Combat will also become different, with the party having to utilize tactics to keep their junior buddy alive.

The level difference usually doesn't last that long, since the junior member will be going up in levels faster than the older characters and will eventually end up a level or so below the average.

It's also been my experience that leveling up characters after an extended hiatus can cause conflict among the players. For gamers who like "winning" (eg - getting new items, leveling up, etc) having another player show up and automatically be their level without doing anything can be very irritating.

It raises the question for those players of why bother doing anything, if you can achieve the same rewards by doing nothing*.

*Yes, other players are motivated by other means (roleplaying, exploring, etc), but I'm specifically focusing on the subset of players who like getting rewards

share|improve this answer
Thank you for the commentary. However, the question was "how to" and not "should I". – Iszi Dec 7 '10 at 17:11

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.