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Some time ago I GMed Dungeon World for a group of friends -- the first time any of us tried DW, though we'd played Apocalypse World before. The campaign only lasted 5-6 sessions because of multiple reasons, but I have a nagging question based on one specific, recurring issue: How does a group make Bonds relevant during sessions where certain players are absent?

(The remainder of this text is gameplay context that inspired the question.)

In our first session I was GMing for 5 PCs. But in about half the sessions, a player was absent -- one time it was the Thief, and later there were two sessions in a row without the Cleric (and likely even longer if the campaign didn't stop at that point, for unrelated reasons). I had the attending players decide as a group what the absent player's PC was doing in the background, to explain them rejoining the party when the player came back.

The players used up their PCs' Bond slots right away (only the Druid had one left after character creation). When I informed them they could fill in Bonds later during play, the Wizard's player said something like "Why wouldn't we use them; they're XP!" Granted, they did use the Aid move often, usually to turn misses into partial hits. But when a player is absent, others lose the benefit of Bonds with their PC, both in the mechanics and to build the fiction -- especially with the Cleric's prolonged absence.

Ironically, the only Bond we resolved during the campaign was the Wizard's bond with the Cleric. The Wizard's player made his case about why the Bond was no longer relevant in the fiction and said that the Cleric's player would likely agree. I had no strong objections but decided to put it to a group vote to ensure everyone agreed it was fair. We did, and the Wizard got his XP and a new Bond. For double irony, the new bond was also with the Cleric -- though it also mentioned a NPC faction that had plot relevance at the time.

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Bonds are one of the mechanics of Dungeon World that varies significantly in importance between groups. I've run games where they were vital, and games where they were mostly ignored.

This variability is by design.[1] Bonds exist not only because they interact with the Help/Interfere move, but also because they're creativity prompts. If a group jumps on Bonds to spur their imaginations during character creation and weave connections, that's great — but not vital. If they don't, that's okay too.

As a result, you're free to simply not worry about how well or not Bonds are working. If a Bond fades to the background when a PC's player is absent, that's cool. Their mere existence improves the game for every group to exactly the degree that the group can be helped by their existence, and that's different for every group. In your group, they did what they should, and if that's not as much as you expect, that's okay.

Bonds can be great fun when they're at the forefront of play, and can drive entire campaigns. But then some other part of the game's dynamic is taking a less prominent role as a generator of fiction. In other campaigns something else is more prominent and Bonds are vestigial. There are so many different "idea injectors" woven throughout the rules that one campaign can't possibly leverage them all to drive game forward, so it's fine and natural for one or more — like Bonds — to take a back seat.

For your group, it sounds like they contributed enough. That's success! They'll play a different role in another campaign, being more prominent or, perhaps, even less prominent.

1. The authors have said as much, but [citation needed]; I'll see if I can dig up the reddit conversation.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ My concern with this answer is that it undermines the premise of the question by saying Bonds don't have to matter in the game at all. I'll grant that's a valid way to play, but my question presumes I want Bonds to matter. What do I do when I get to "another campaign" where they're more prominent? \$\endgroup\$ – AgentAquarius Feb 17 '18 at 5:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Lack of pominence is something caused by the sort of situation your group is in — it's not independent of that. It's emergent, not fixed, and attendance is part of what it emerges from. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 17 '18 at 5:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay... but if attendance is just a part of it, then there must be other factors that could increase prominence. If those other factors are enough to give Bonds a place at the table, I'd want a way to make them work regardless of irregular attendance. \$\endgroup\$ – AgentAquarius Feb 17 '18 at 5:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is getting the causality backwards. If Bonds are prominent in a game it's because they're already working as a fiction driver in a prominent capacity. If they aren't working, they're not prominent. And at all the degrees between, prominence will equal "working-ness". So if they're prominent you have nothing to worry about, and if they're not, you still have nothing to worry about. Heed the Agenda and Principles and use Bonds as naturally as the group situation permits—don't force anything. They'll work or not, and that's fine and by design. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 17 '18 at 8:19
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Bonds are what make you a party of adventurers, not just a random assortment of people. They're the feelings, thoughts, and shared history that tie you together.

That is, bonds are the relationships between PCs. So your question really becomes:

How does a group make its internal relationships relevant during sessions where certain players are absent?

Let me go through a few examples of bonds and how the party's adventure might be impacted when they wake up in the morning and find they unknowingly camped near a plot hole, and they suspect the Cleric has fallen in.

Find/help him

Cleric is always getting into trouble - I must protect them from themselves - Clearly, Cleric needs our help! Let's get some rope and climb into that hole!

Cleric does not trust me, and for good reason - I must earn back that trust by doing X that Cleric would want me to do!

The spirits spoke to me of a great danger that follows Cleric - Guys, I think I know what happened to Cleric! The spirits say we need to X!

Note how each of the above leads to a different and potentially interesting plot, driving the story forward.

Leave him

Cleric has insulted my deity; I do not trust them - Good riddance! Let's get back on the road.

Cleric is often the butt of my jokes - Every five minutes: "Hey guys, what's the difference between Cleric and ..."

Cleric has stood by me in battle and can be trusted completely - I'm sure Cleric is fine, and will meet up with us later. His faith is strong, and it will see him through.

Cleric will play an important role in the events to come. I have foreseen it! - The winds of fate fill Cleric's sail. This is where his path diverges from ours.

Note how the above range from interesting plots to merely covering for a temporary absence in the fiction and proceeding as you would have otherwise, all of which drive the story forward in some way.

Long term

It may be that Cleric's player simply can't remain in the game, for outside reasons. In this case, you could get the player's blanket permission to resolve their bonds at any story-appropriate time. This leaves options for new bonds, such as I won't trust Fighter after the way he let down Cleric, I will follow in Cleric's footsteps and convert Thief to Cleric's god, and I will not forgive Bard for being so needlessly cruel to Cleric.

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The only thing I'd be careful of is writing more than half your bonds at a time with one character. Bonds are meant to tie you to the whole party, not just one person. (Also aid rolls get way too easy/hard, depending who you're pointing at.)

To cover the occasional absence, feel free to temporarily table any bonds you have with absent people - when those people come back the original bonds come back - and write some basic bonds with your other party members.

I mean, be honest, Thief, there's only one person you've stolen from? Wizard, you've only had portentous dreams about one of your fellow travelers?

If you're playing in a highly dynamic group of players, where you have no idea who'll even be there week to week, you might want to consider something more drastic, like dropping and rewriting all your non-advanced bonds at the beginning of a session.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For the last, the highly dynamic group, it might even be worth recommending taking a look at Flags as a Bonds replacement. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 9 '18 at 17:48

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