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Is there an RPG specifically and explicitly (as in: the developers stating this in the actual book) designed for parties whose members gather irregularly (there's always someone who can't make it) and play irregularly? (Meaning the system has some built in solution for handling the characters of missing players.)

I'm looking for something that handles not only one shots but PCs being left "playerless" in the middle of a semi-finished scene (or a very tightly plotted storyline) out of the blue. That can happen in campaigns, relatively independent "short stories", one shots that for unforeseen reasons end up stretching over two or three sessions and so on.

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience or cited references to others' experiences. –  mxyzplk Sep 3 '11 at 15:52
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

11 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

While I've not had the opportunity to play or run in this setting, it might be what you're looking for.

http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/

It's a framework that's designed to allow any subset of a large group of players to play at irregular intervals, but in a consistent setting. The idea is that whenever any group of the available players is able to meet, they can schedule a game, show up, and pick up from where they left off.

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Currently doing this with Basic D&D, and it's working fabulously to accommodate changing player sets each week. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 20 '12 at 16:51
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I don't know of any RPG system that is actively designed around this, but with most systems it can be solved with the right campaign framework.

One general framework my group has had good success with is to have an over-arching story line, with each session being a single mission (so essentially self-contained, with a mission-start and a mission-end in 3-5 hours of playing).

However, this does not work too well with a campaign framing that isn't well-suited to that sort of structure.

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Paranoia (troubleshooter, specifically) fits very well for this. Adventures are one-offs and you're expected to die as easily as not in each adventure. Character creation takes 5 minutes -- you roll stats (they're completely random) and you're done (optionally, you pick skill specializations.)

In addition, missions start with the Friend Computer calling players, so they're not "adventuring" together. No need to explain why one is missing.

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For the same reason, any sort of lightweight one-shot would work. –  okeefe Aug 30 '11 at 15:56
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Note that even in an ongoing Paranoia Campaign (Yes, it can be done) missing players can easily be explained as either not having been assigned to the mission that session, or have been pulled in for questioning by IntSec, or they just got separated from the party (rerouted by a TransTube). –  aslum Aug 30 '11 at 16:50
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@aslum Or even vanished mid-mission with no explanation at all. Remember, Paranoia is all about fear and ignorance; The less you have of one, the more you should have of the other. –  GMJoe Mar 17 at 3:58
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I don't know about specific system that lends itself well to this, but try for 'episodic' type play. Each session can be one 'episode', like a TV show. They can share a setting and characters, and even an overarching plot, but individual sessions don't need specific people. Think of a show like Star Trek, for example. Try to build your campaigns around that concept.

I suspect one gotcha is that you could end up with a mechanically uneven group if some players show up significantly more or less than others.

I've handled this in my off-and-on Freemarket group by just saying that the other character was away on his own business. When he was back at another session, I asked him what his character had been doing in that time span, and gave him a bit of advancement mechanically in that direction. This worked for the setting though, because the plot didn't have to involve him specifically; it was more based around their group rather than the individuals, in some ways.

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Games that don't have mechanical advancement are also well suited to this sort of arrangement. One such is FATE. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 30 '11 at 20:23
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There are good answers here already, and they've already hit the key elements of:

  • Episodic play
  • Re-mixable casting

Any setting in which those requirement can be satisfied would work. However, there is a system specifically designed to support a changing cast and gives something for the characters of absent players to do:

Ars Magica

Ars Magica is designed around troupe-style play. Each member of the troupe is intended to GM (called "StoryGuide" or "SG" in AM parlance) sometime, and each member of the troupe has at least 2 PCs - a powerful Magus, and also a Companion, an adventurer comparable to the non-magic users of other fantasy RPGs. The troupe as a whole has a group of serving-class characters called Grogs (a group of grogs is called a turb) who provide muscle and other skills, like smithing and muleskinning. It is expected that for each season's adventure, a different mix of Magi, Companions, and Grogs will participate.

The system also focuses on the long-term research efforts of Magi - so players can say, "Until I say otherwise, if I'm gone, my Magus is studying Rego," and then each session that player's away, you can tick of a season of Rego work for his wizard.

Now, most AM games I have played have "episodes" that take more than one session to complete - but that's just how those stories were designed. A more aggressive approach to scene cutting, etc., in addition to a tighter, more self-contained scenario design could remedy that.

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In my experience, while troupe play is possible, it requires absent players to do "homework." that most absent players won't do: decide what they're doing in their down season. While it's a minimum investment, the player who is skipping likely isn't willing to make that investment, and it gets worse every season skipped. If you're going to go this route, make sure to have all players declare their research priorities early, with group editable character sheets. Also, don't make the mistake I made and have huge amounts of (quite interesting, mind you) economic paperwork managed by absent chars –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Aug 30 '11 at 18:55
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@Brian - Look, I can understand that life can keep people from showing up regularly. But if they won't commit to play a game that you're committing to run, and then they refuse to even take the trouble to say, "I'd like my wizard to study fire while I'm gone," then maybe you should play boardgames instead. –  gomad Aug 30 '11 at 23:22
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Both points are valid, but I don't think either of them means any players have to be shut out. Two simple ways of fixing it come to mind: 1. Add the skill points from downtime training at the start of the next session that the absent player attends. 2. Establish at the start of the campaign what a character will be studying during his downtime if the player doesn't specify anything else for that week. Less work for everyone involved and still no loss in flexibility. –  Jakob Sep 3 '11 at 17:21
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Pendragon has as its default approach a year of game time in one session. The action is usually based on the "campaign season" in the feudal sense. This means that adventures and major campaign events tend to be bookended by session boundaries. This makes it easy for players to come and go each session or for some players to sit out (or even to rotate the GM responsibilities.)

Of course, you can also play Pendragon in the classic D&D approach. Our group sticks to the default approach above and it works really well for this group of busy, middle-aged professionals.

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Universalis

Billing itself as a game of unlimited stories, it's a zero-prep game that allows all resources to be shared amongst the players. It's unusual structure sometimes makes people call it "not an RPG," but it feels like one to me. It lends itself well to one-shots, but you can certainly save materials for follow-up games if you want to. Because resources are shared, it serves well when group composition changes.

In a Wicked Age

Wicked age is designed to have session-to-session links, while re-shuffling the characters and situations each session. It's explicitly designed for episodic play, with a longer term narrative arc between episodes. It's a low-prep game. Because character allocation is done on a per-episode basis, the game serves changing groups well, as long as an episode is finished each session.

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How about a changing roster of players each session, since some aren't able to make it every time? How would that affect your evaluation of these games? (And if yes, could you edit it into the answer? :) –  SevenSidedDie Sep 2 '11 at 19:38
    
Both games are good for changing player rosters. (I've edited the post to clarify.) –  Sean McMillan Sep 2 '11 at 21:04
    
Oh, very nice. +1! –  SevenSidedDie Sep 2 '11 at 23:35
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Battlestations

Battlestations is well-suited for this, as it's build around self-contained missions. Whoever's around goes on the mission, with empty spots filled by bots. The expansion books include simple campaign rules, in which each mission affects the campaign status indicators, giving you a sense of continuity without sacrificing the episodic nature of the game.

Purists have complained that it's not a true RPG, but rather a boardgame-RPG hybrid. Maybe so, but for those without the time for "true" roleplaying it might be the only solution. I ran a lunchtime game for six months and it was a blast.

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Shadowrun.

In my old group, we typically could get the job, do the legwork, and execute the shadowrun all in one sitting. If your group regularly has members who don't show up, and you can play the full run in one night, then it doesn't matter as much if Joe is out of town for the weekend.

Also, since the runs themselves are somewhat self-contained, then you don't need to worry about what happened in the last session against Renraku; since you are hitting Ares this week.

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You might be surprised to know this, but the DnD essentials lines, actually qualifies as an answer to your question.

on page 6 of the Dungeon Master's Book (of the essentials line) it has a section called 'The Gaming Group'. In this section, it describes the make up the group, how often they might play, how to pick the DM, the fact that DMs can rotate for the same campaign etc. The book specifically says that it is up to the group to decide these things.

On page 16 of the Dungeon Master's Book (of the essential line), under the section setting up and determining house rules, it reads:

Missing Players: How are you going to deal with the charachters of missing players? Consider these options:

  • Have another player run the missing player's charachter. Don't do this without the permission of the missing player. The player running the extracharachter should make and effort to keep the character alive and use resources wisely.
  • Run the charachter yourself. Having the DM run the characher is extar workload for you, but it an work. You need to play the character reasonably , as the missigng player would.
  • Decide the character's not there. You might be able to provide a good reason for the acharachter to miss the adventuer... etc.
  • Have the charachter fade into the background. This solution requires everyone to step out of the game world a bit and suspend disbelief, but it's the easiest solution... etc.
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-1 This is the set of solutions in the book, but the problem is that they're all rather terrible. Running a second PC is a lot of effort in D&D4 (probably more so than running your first one, since you're not as familiar). "Fade into the background" super-clunky, especially in a game driven by niche-protected team roles. –  Alex P Mar 16 at 16:40
    
@AlexP It worked well for our gaming group at the time. YMMV –  GMNoob Mar 16 at 19:48
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The Call of Cthulhu

I had this exact same problem, and I found The Call of Cthulhu is perfect for this. It is an older, traditional style game, so it doesn't have any intra-player mechanics, group character gen, or other such things that modern games seem to delight in. Also, one of its primary uses is convention play, so there are a lot of adventures written for it that are aimed at being finished in a 4-hour slot, so you can usually get through it in a single session. Then, next session, when players aren't there, you just have that character be off in hospital, working their day job, getting much-needed therapy, etc.

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