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So we've been playing a campaign for a few months, and we've kind of hit an impasse. Alice's work roster has changed. She can't make it to Game Night anymore. We'd move it to our back-up day, but Bob won't be able to make it anymore. In fact, given that Charlie can't do Mondays or Tuesdays, Dave's out for weekends, and no one can do Friday, we can't schedule a game where someone isn't missing. Then there's Ethan who could just rock up whenever (man, he really needs to get a hobby).

For the last month and a half group chat has been nothing but suggesting dates and people saying they can't make it.

The only option we've really got short of booting someone out is to cycle through days and accept that people can't make it.


Having accepted that conclusion, the problem we're now facing is how to be fair with determining who misses some sessions. Some players mightn't be that keen to be forced to miss parts of a very story heavy campaign. Others are players who really help the group dynamic, and loosing them for a few of our sessions might ruin the dynamic a bit. Finally some can make it every single session no matter what, should they get extra XP and loot just because they're available on a certain day?

The other problem is that when we start suggesting days and not everyone can make it on that day, what we're really suggesting is people we can do without. That might hurt a bit.

We seek the wisdom of stack exchange. Have you ever dealt with a scenario where your playing group will never be complete? How do you decide when to play? How do you keep it fair and how do you steer clear of favouritism?

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I've dealt with this. Heck, I'm dealing with it right now. If you absolutely can't schedule a game when everyone can make it, there are a few things you can try, which I have tried to mixed success.

1) Play Without Alice

Alice's schedule changed. That's not her fault, but that IS the reality. If this were my game, I'd reluctantly write Alice's character out in a way that leaves the door open for possible return.

This is generally the best solution for the group as a whole, and for the continuity of a single game. It requires no extra bookkeeping, doesn't make anyone run a spare character, etc. But of course it doesn't help Alice at all.

2) Non-Player PC's

Schedule games to allow the most people to attend at different times. Then, when a player isn't there, someone else runs their character. This can be the GM, another player (agreed to by both the absent player and the sub player), or the group as a whole. Regardless, the player should leave a few notes on tactics/behavior for others to try to follow.

This method will keep a game going, but can slow play. There's a bit more to keep track of, and players will need a recap of what they missed every time. It also carries the potential for upset players if someone plays their character wrong. Trust is important here

2a) NPC Alice's Character When She's Not There

Subset of 1 and 2. You play on the same day, and Alice's in the only character that gets NPCed. This is a good idea IF Alice's schedule is subject to change. When I did it, the player in question had a revolving work schedule, AND sometimes had last minute switches from his manager, so some weeks he'd show, some he wouldn't. When he showed, we'd fill him in and he'd take over his character.

3) Alternate Games

When Players A, B, and C are available, you run Demonic Dungeons. When Players B, C, and D are available, you run World of Dimness. This way, everyone gets to play, and no-one misses anything of their game.

This is my second favorite method, which I used with great success for a couple of years when a player could only make every other session. On session A, we'd play one game, and on session B we'd play another. Four players played every week and one played every two weeks.

Of course, your scheduling issues are more complex, and may need more than two games. This will reach a point of diminishing returns if the same person GMs all the games, as it pulls focus and makes more work for the GM. Work =/= Fun

3a) A-Story, B-Story

A special case of Alternate Games. One game, separate, possibly intertwined storylines. This can be tons of fun if the GM is up for it. Often, players who can make both sessions need separate characters for each.

4) Make the absences an in-game thing

Play something where PCs can easily leave and return. This works really well if the game is something weird where people appear and disappear a lot.

Ages ago, I was a player in a long-running game of The Fantasy Trip where the GM simply decreed PCs appeared when their players were there and disappeared when they couldn't make it. It was demented, but we had fun. It was especially odd when it would happen mid-combat. :p

Fun For Everyone

Here's the thing. Do what's the most fun for the most people most of the time (and don't forget, the GM is a player too!). Some of the bending over backwards needed for some of these solutions will reduce someone's fun. Too many games, and the GM's fun may wane as he works harder. Running an extra PC is not much fun for most people.

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  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ 5) Schizophrenic character. I'm currently in a campaign with one of these where two players are only available on alternating weeks. Two minds, one body, neither knows (yet) that the other exists, they just keep blacking out and waking up in strange places. Hilarity ensues. (Especially when the druid ended the session wildshaped into a wolf and the wizard woke up as a wolf with no idea how to end the effect...) \$\endgroup\$ – Perkins Sep 15 '17 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Alice changed... We always have the rule that if you can't make it, we won't reschedule to inconvenience the same number of people, that's unfair to them. If 2 can't make it on 1 day and 1 can't on another, and the date isn't set yet, then the 1 person loses out. Whoever runs the game gets to propose dates first! \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Sep 15 '17 at 2:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Perkins You're thinking about Multiple Personality Disorder. Schizophrenia is about seeing things that don't exist. For a short reference Crowe's "Beautiful Mind" = Schizophrenia, Carrey's "Me, Myself & Irene" = MPD. \$\endgroup\$ – Maurycy Sep 15 '17 at 7:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Maurycy I probably should have remembered that. Although this particular character is slowly starting to think he's a paranoid schizophrenic given all the weird things that keep happening to him that nobody else seems to be noticing... \$\endgroup\$ – Perkins Sep 15 '17 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Perkins You might put that in your own answer, since I have no experience with that. \$\endgroup\$ – Longspeak Sep 21 '17 at 15:56
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If you have been playing on the same day for months and someone sudenly can't play on that day anymore, you should try to find a new day that everybody can play.

You tried to do that and it's not possible. Alice's work schedule changed and the harsh cold truth is that... It sucks being her.

If she can't play on the day you all agreed to, then that's her own problem, if you change the game day so that she can play and someone else can not, then you're playing favorites and THAT'S BAD.

I can't see what's the impasse here, if Alice can't play on the agreed day and there's no other day that everyone can play, then the game must go without Alice.

Unless that Alice is the DM, then that's a whole other level of problem. If that's the case then it's up to her to kick someone out. Toss a coin, make a vote, do what you would do for any other activity, RPGs are no different.

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Like most groups, we've run into this problem. Our first campaign dissolved precisely because of the concerns you have - we were hesitant to play without the full group. Our hearts were in the right places, but we weren't realistic and we ended up dropping the campaign entirely. Rather than some people missing a session and needing to be brought up to speed, we all missed the rest of the sessions. Our scheduling hangups left Korvosa a pit of civil strife and disease.

Here's what we did for our current campaign, which has been going well for the last 9 months:

Take a Poll

Find out when people really are available, and plan accordingly. I like to use Doodle, but there are plenty of polling options. Have everyone select all of the timeslots that they would be able to attend regularly. There will almost certainly be several time slots that work for most people. If there are no slots that work for everyone...

Alternate Days

In my case, most people could do Tuesdays (except Alice), and most people could do Thursdays (except Bob). All of our other options were worse. We alternated between Tuesdays and Thursdays, so most people could attend all sessions, while Alice and Bob only came to about half. It's not ideal, but it keeps them in the group without burning bridges. Getting half a dozen adults in the same room on a regular basis is not easy. Everyone has other things they have to prioritize (except Ethan, apparently), and that's just a fact of life.

Be Consistent

Even though the schedule's complicated, it needs to be predictable for you to retain players. If everyone doesn't know when your next few sessions will be months in advance, your number of conflicts will only grow.

Invite more players than you need, but not more than you can handle

My group is best at 4 players, but we'll play with as few as 3, and as many as 6. Schedules change, and it's not always just Alice or Bob that can't make it. Sometimes everyone shows up. Getting the right group size helps you keep the game moving, and more importantly happening. We've played sessions with 6 (which are challenging), and sessions with 3, but we have not yet cancelled a game due to lack of players. When you start cancelling sessions, you lose consistency, momentum, and your campaign is at risk.

Keep a journal

For a story-heavy game, the players need to know what's going on. A session log that's sent out between sessions keeps everyone in the loop. I make my players write it and post it on our facebook group.

Don't Punish the Characters

If at all possible, keep the characters up to speed XP-wise - the players are suffering enough by missing so much game time. If loot is important for balance (such as in Pathfinder), you'll probably want to make sure the infrequent players aren't falling behind in that respect, too.

Ignoring appearances and absences in-universe

This one's a bit controversial. Except for out-of-character jokes, we completely ignore when Bob's character disappears halfway through a fight, or when Alice's character re-joins the party weeks away from the city they left her in. Rarely it strains credibility, but I think it's a better solution than coming up with thin excuses each week. More importantly, by not drawing attention to the character's odd behavior, we avoid singling out the player. We're here to have fun, not to give someone a hard time for having other things going on in their life.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have this issue (due to the age of all players). My solutions was: "Invite more players than you need" (I will arrange a session if at least 3 of them can play, but I have 6 players), mixed with "Ignoring appearances and absences in-universe". As the people that miss know that is their fault, nobody blames me. Still I need to summarize last sessions before starting a new one. Of course, as GM, I need to do campaigns where does not exists indispensable characters. Also for players is good: then the half-wizard is really interesting if the powerful-wizard is missing the session. \$\endgroup\$ – King Midas Sep 14 '17 at 7:05
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This might not be the kind of game you're looking for, but I'm linking it here anyway: Western Marches

This is essentially a special kind of "episodic game", where games are scheduled by the players, and whomever is available for any scheduled session shows up and plays. How well it works depends a little on the game; you need something where a little difference in level isn't crippling (so I would advise against D&D 4e, but 5e seems fine)

It always requires some investment from the players as the idea is that they spend some time scheduling sessions amongst themselves.

In very short, the idea is that you present a safe spot in the world that is the start and end point of every session, and that players organise expeditions into the dangerous wilderness beyond the safe haven. Whichever players make it to the session are in that week's expedition.

I'm running one of these precisely because of the scheduling issues that come when playing with adults and so far it's going pretty well. I have one player who shows up to every session (my girlfriend, since she lives with me) and to mitigate the XP overkill she alternates between 2 characters, which seems to solve the problem quite well.

It allows you to have returning characters, long-term stories and relationships between characters/NPCs while also allowing players to just not show up some days.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm actually just starting up a West Marches based session (for this and other reasons). Unfortunately, we've been running this campaign for a little bit and we don't want to just leave, so finding a better scheduling method is preferable. \$\endgroup\$ – SCB Sep 14 '17 at 22:15
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The best solution to this will depend a lot on how stable people's schedules are and how important to you it is that everyone can make it.

  1. The obvious option is to pick a day and say "too bad" to one of your players, but it seems like you want to avoid that (I would too).
  2. If Alice's schedule changed this month and may change again next month, it may be best to just count her out for a few sessions or put the campaign on hold and see if things resolve themselves next month.
  3. See if someone can Skype in. If some of your players have to be somewhere else, but aren't actually busy during the time you want to game, you can still play pretty effectively using the internet, particularly if your group uses things like Roll 20 or Maptools. I used to game with my friends in California while I lived in Ohio for years. It isn't as much fun as being in the same room, and it probably means your character won't be the group leader, but it does work.
  4. Rotate days of the week. If no one can make it any particular day and you still want everyone to play, have it a different day each week. Every week you may be missing someone, but each person will only miss out about once a month.
  5. If the days you listed above are the days people usually can't make it rather than an absolutely never make it, you may be able to schedule around it. With four people having tentative blockers every week odds are pretty good that one of them will have a cancellation on any given week and you can reschedule to that day. Have your default day you decide is the lesser of the evils, but every week send an email asking if people can move to a different day. It is more work, and means the GM and host have to be prepared, but this is pretty much how my current campaign runs.

For option 4 and 5 (which would be my preferred method), there are a few things our group does that may help you.

  1. Have it be someone's job to send out scheduling emails. Don't just assume people will remember because they are supposed to. If you are doing option 4, people will forget what day it is each week and need to be reminded. If you are doing option 5, you will need to figure out if someone's blocker got moved. A calendar tool like Google Calendar can help a lot with this, but a personal email generally gets better follow up.
  2. Get used to the idea that people will miss sessions. Both of these options assume that it is more important to you to be inclusive of your friends than have continuity in the game. Don't bother trying to explain why someone is here one week and gone the next or how they got to the remote island when they weren't on the boat with you. It will happen too often and you won't be able to explain it. We jokingly say they were following us in the magic hammock and move on.
  3. Have stuff planned to be able to delay important sessions. Sometimes there will be something big you want/need everyone there for. If the GM is up to it, they should have some side quests and such that they can throw in to stall those sessions until there is one that everyone can make it for. If they aren't, you may delay things out of game by running a one off or something else until you can (Roll for Shoes makes a great diversion).
  4. Avoid having someone else play the missing person's character. Maybe some people are ok with it, but the people I play with are generally attached to their characters and get at least a little disappointed if they come back and discover their character did something they don't agree with. Even worse, the character could lose important equipment or even die, and that would really suck. If you need the extra hands, consider having an NPC with a flexible build as part of your party to fill in the gap. If you really need the missing person's character, make sure you talk with them ahead of time about what is and isn't ok for you to do with their character.
  5. Give out XP equally to everyone whether they were there or not. Trying to keep everything fun will be hard if your group is different levels. We have 6 players and generally have at least 1 person missing each session. As a result, when we divide up the XP all 6 of us gets 1/5th of the XP earned that session. While this does technically mean that more XP was awarded than earned, the game has still felt balanced because the whole group is almost never there.
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Assuming you have one 6 hour game weekly:

  1. Everyone gets 6 Day Votes.
  2. Everyone votes (1 vote per day max) on what days of the week NOT to play.
  3. The day with the least votes wins.
  4. Those who cannot play that day get their Day Votes counted twice next week.
  5. Everyone who can play gets 18 Hour Votes.
  6. Everyone who can play votes (1 vote per hour max) on what hours of the day NOT to play.
  7. The period (depending on how many hours you'll play) with the least votes wins.
  8. Those who cannot play during those hours get their Hour Votes counted twice next week.

Those who can play on that day during that period play, those that cannot have greatly increased control over when the group plays next week until they are determining when the group plays.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems excessively complicated... have you actually used this system? How did it work out? \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Sep 14 '17 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. It's very complicated. I've never tried it and it might not work at all. It attempts to find a middle ground between letting the majority or the minority control games. \$\endgroup\$ – Hamhot Ptonel Sep 14 '17 at 13:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ One of the key parts of answers here, especially for social engineering questions rather than game mechanics questions, is that they're supposed to be written from an expert perspective, things that the poster has actually tried. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Sep 14 '17 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ this is effectively "social homebrew" which does have to be tested before posting. See this meta's first/accepted answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Tal Sep 14 '17 at 16:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HamhotPtonel you're missing the point. They did want an expert opinion, because that's the point of the site. Other people have run into this issue before and were able to solve it, and are answering with their expertise. If you haven't run into the problem, and you don't have experience, you're not an expert, and therefore not a good person to answer this question. Look for questions you DO have expertise in and answer those. Maybe check out the tour or help center to get a better idea about how the site works. \$\endgroup\$ – Tal Sep 15 '17 at 15:12

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