Last year, my D&D group attendance was really good. All 6 non-DM players were frequently available on game-day and the campaign progressed quickly.

Recently, 3 people with a nearly 100% attendance rate left the game and both the new players and some of the old are sometimes unable to join because of their jobs or other more organized hobbies (night class, overtime, out of city meetings spanning over multiple days, volleyball matches).

Now, I think that the campaign should go on even if some player is missing, especially if we're dungeon crawling and no big plot events are in sight. After all, it's not like the guys who can't join would get more game nights if we don't meet, because once this camapign ends we can always start a new one.

When we had DM+4 players, our social contract said that we would still meet with DM+3 players available. We tried not changing it, and a new problem arose.

When people are missing, I could build smaller encounters targeted at the available players only. This would mean that the PCs of the missing players are not losing HP, surges or Daily powers. In turn, this means that the "hack through the party resources over multiple encounters" strategy D&D 4e relies on stops working properly (the need to eke out daily resources lessens, which brings to a lessened need for clever tactics, ultimately turning combat into mindless dicerolling).

...or I could have the players play more than one character each. Level 19 characters are full of options and sometimes players forget things their own character can do, let's not talk about characters they know nothing about. We also tried letting the veteran player who built most characters at the table to play two characters but it's still slow (and he keeps the spotlight for twice as long). The game slows down a lot and players start making bad choices or just complaining.

What can be done to lessen the detacticization problem without getting a slower game? Do you have any experience of, say, removing resources to absent PCs proportionally to those used by PCs involeved in combat, and did it work in the long run?


2 Answers 2


Option One: Expend Absent Players' Resources

The Idea: If the absent players had been present, the fights would have been harder and they would have expended some resources as well. When you adjust the difficulty of fights, players who are present expend about the same amount of resources per player, but the result is that the party's total expended resources is lower. You need to bring per player resource expenditure back in line for the absent players in order to control total resource expenditure.

The Mechanics: After each session where one or more players were absent, total up the average expenditure of healing surges, of daily powers, and of any other limited-use mechanics (item dailies, etc). At the next session, players who were absent in that session have to expend those average values (rounded to a whole number) of their resources. This should be explained as their characters having fought additional foes not shown to the players who were present; you can either say the absent PCs were in another room fighting, or everyone can just pretend the whole party was in the same room. If any player who was absent is unable to expend their resources, the burden for them falls back on the players who were actually present.

An Example: Alice, Bob, and Carol attend the session; Dave and Eleanor are absent. During the session's 3 fights, Alice expends 1 healing surge and 1 daily, Bob expends 1 healing surges and 3 dailies, and Carol expends 2 healing surges and 1 daily. These average out to 1.33 surges per player and 1.67 dailies per player. At the start of the next session, Dave and Eleanor will reduce their available surges by 1 (1.33 rounded down) and choose 2 (1.67 rounded up) of their dailies to mark as unavailable. Because Dave only had 1 daily left, he marks it as expended and Alice ends up marking one of her dailies as expended to cover the last one that Dave owes.

Potential Drawbacks: Absent players may be grumpy about having to expend resources for fights they didn't get to participate in. This will especially be the case if things go poorly for the players that were present and average resource expenditure is high.

Option Two: Harder Fights, Sharing the Spotlight

The Idea: If only one or two players are absent, don't adjust the difficulty of the fights. The players who are present will have to expend more resources to make it through these fights, leading to lots of dramatic moments where they use dailies to turn the tide or desperately burn surges to stay alive. When the absent players return, it will be their turn to spend resources like crazy, since the other players will be low. In this way, players who are always present get the spotlight when others are absent, and the players who are not always present get the spotlight when they're around.

An Example: Alice and Bob are absent, but Carol, Dave, and Eleanor are present. The DM still uses fights designed for 5 players, and Carol, Dave, and Eleanor have climactic battles, expending dailies and healing surges at a rapid pace. In the next session, when all players are back, Alice and Bob get their turn to shine (and spend resources like crazy), as they guard the others who can't take many risks due to lower resources.

Potential Drawbacks: Players who always attend may resent the higher difficulty and not being able to contribute as much in the next session due to limited resources. This will especially be the case if anyone's character actually dies due to the higher difficulty of the fights.


While I personally am not a 4e player, I run a campaign myself using 5e with a group on Discord. Our schedule is kind of "play whenever we can" and so it doesn't have anything guaranteed except the fact that I won't run the game unless I have at least three players present, and I allow dropping in/out at will between encounters.

The way I deal with the inconsistency is I build my encounters somewhat on-the-fly, which does, I'll admit, probably get a lot more difficult in different editions and at higher levels. Now, that being said, you can keep the game tactical by doing a few things:

  1. Make your PC's crawl through a balanced encounter for their level, but still continue to wear them down with multiple encounters.
  2. If you don't already, add far more mixed NPC's to fight, especially ones with special features and the like that make the fights wonky and interesting. You can also perhaps add as a plot element an investigation into why these monsters which normally wouldn't work together are working together (mind controlling mage, anybody?)
  3. Final option is to just roll with it! If you can't provide good and interesting combat encounters, keep it to a minimum and focus more on Roleplaying and perhaps stealthing around. This can allow you to have more punishing combat encounters, but then make it clear that the PC's should, while their party is under-strength, be trying to avoid combat encounters. If you take this route, however, try to arrange so if the PC's lose, they are captured insted of being killed, and then turn that into a side quest of its' own to get them to recover their gear and then escape the clutches of the Goblins/Kobolds/City Guard that captured them.

Apologies in advance if this isn't what you were looking for but this is the best advice I can give based on my understanding of your question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ 1) that would mean adding even more encounters than the adventure already has. Since D&D 4e combat is pretty slow (one combat per session in my case, maybe less) that's going to lenghten the campaign as much as just skipping the game night IMO. --- 2) D&D 4e monsters are already built to bring diverse tactics into each encounter --- 3) stealth is very hard to work with in 4e. The rest of this suggestion seems applicable in general (just not to assaulting a dungeon, maybe), +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Jan 28, 2018 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Apologies, but I'm going to expand on my answer just a little bit. One thing I highly recommend is to NEVER take resources away from missing players while they are not present, whether these be equipment or spell slots, simply because that will most likely upset your players and potentially cause problems with you doing things that they wouldn't have done or something of the like. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28, 2018 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NoahtheBoah36 4e is a bit different. I'd say the expenditure of healing surges or daily powers is a decent approximation of time spent adventuring off-screen. Having the two be interchangeable in some way and letting the player pick what to spend when they get back can help alleviate any hard feelings from having their resources spent without their say. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 1, 2018 at 22:22

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