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So, I've been running some games as DM for my friends.

One of the big problems this has caused me is the variance in who can come to each session.

We're spread across several towns and can get together maybe once a month - and even then it's not with everyone (I now have 8 players who want to be active, and recently decided I can handle max 5 at once before progress is just too slow).

What would be the best way to deal with this variance in who and how many can come, and still have a campaign/party that makes sense? Usually I'll find a weekend that's best for as many people as possible, get some confirmed attendees, and scale encounters based on that.

As a case study/example: Last session I began the Sunless citadel adventure from "Tales from the Yawning Portal".

Due to unforeseen circumstances, only 2 of the 5 "confirmed" players came (Paladin and Bard).

I decided to start them going, and they loved the improvement in pace compared to a group of 5, but now I'm unsure what to do for the next session, when more (& likely different) people should be there.

So far I've had 2 ideas on how to make this make sense for the players;

1 - I run the next session without these 2 players, to "catch up" the early adventure. Quite a few rooms were missed out, so I think there's still plenty to keep the other PCs occupied. Cleared rooms/areas would stay that way.
2 - Next session, other characters get handwaved up to meet the advance party and we carry on. I'm not a fan of this, as they would miss out on XP, story points, and all the traps things to be found in the dungeon.


Both of these assume the "other" characters have got a tip about their mates going off without them, and decide to go follow. I have sworn my Paladin & Bard to secrecy from the others as to what happened, so there are no spoilers if I choose either/a better option.


Do either of these ideas have merit? Am I just insane to try and involve all my mates in a limited-group-size activity?!

Some things it might be worth mentioning;

I've previously tried writing winging bespoke quests based on who was coming - but these didn't tie together, often didn't get finished (or finished too soon), and only showcased my lack of writing/DMing experience. Hence, I got the Yawning Portal book (so it's only my DM skill that can fail).

Before the first game I ran for them, none of these people have played any edition of D&D before - but most have plenty experience with other board games, and non-tabletop RPGs.

I have yet to get the exact same selection of players in 2 different sessions - Ironically it's my 3 "core" players, who are almost always there, who didn't turn up last time.

For clarity; my main concern is that as many people as possible get as much of the story as possible - that isn't just a summary of what happened last time, where "no way would my character have been OK with that" can come up.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ For clarity; my main concern is that as many people as possible get as much of the story as possible - that isn't just a summary of what happened last time, where "no way would my character have been OK with that" can come up. \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 9 '18 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Eros, I've put that 'for clarity' bit into the question, which is where it belongs. Comments get deleted, as their intent is to clarify/improve questions. Welcome to RPG.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center to get an idea for this site's format. This is a good first question, no worries. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 9 '18 at 18:56
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I have been in a similar situation and found it best to just handwave away the disparity and pretend people were there all along. Give them commensurate XP and gear (None of the fancy gear) and let them pick up from where the others left off.

If you try to give the missing players extra attention to explain how they join up what you are inadvertently doing is punishing the players who turned up both weeks.

As an improvement to this advice:

Since you know it is going to happen you might prefer to run your campaign in a series of short stories, each session ending back in town where the group simply comes together based on whatever quests are on offer at the time.

This means you can't run really complex campaigns, but completely gets around the random nature of your attendance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ We used to call this "Shiny Rock Syndrome". Missing player's character was just so fascinated by that rock she/he found and simply spaced all those conversations. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Apr 9 '18 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm actually using a varient of your "Shiny Rock Syndrome" where it's just a well known fact that adventurers occasionally space out completely, fighting to defend themselves and following their friends orders but otherwise their personality isn't really present. \$\endgroup\$ – Josh Apr 9 '18 at 14:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ My main problem with handwaving it, is all the things that were missed by the first "party fragment", that would not have been if certain members were there (I have at least one leave-no-stone-unturned player, who was not present, and there were plenty of rooms missed!) \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 9 '18 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Shiny rock syndrome" or something similar is regularly employed in the sessions (with a different group) that I'm a player in - but these are "lets play during our lunch hour" games rather than the weekend-long meets I host \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 9 '18 at 15:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Similarly I, as a DM, keep all the player's character sheets. If a player can't make it, which doesn't happen that often, I will allow another player to control the character for a session as long as they don't get that character to do anything too stupid (and I may step in to avoid this and to prevent character death while the player isn't there). This obviously assumes sensible players! \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Apr 9 '18 at 16:19
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As a meta-suggestion, you might consider moving the game to an online form (like Roll20) in order to give everyone better/easier access to the game. Trying to herd players from multiple cities sounds like an adventure all to itself.

Before each game, have a summary of what happened in the previous session(s) to catch people up.

Try to conclude each session with everyone in a communal spot: a tavern, an inn, the field just outside of the dungeon to explore, etc. It means you'll end up having a lot of hit'n'run adventures as opposed to long delves, but since your party is all beginners it may work out better for them. They do not have to think of all the supplies needed for a long haul, but instead can concentrate on a single goal.

For the players that are missing, just say the character was doing "down time" activities such as research, inscribing spells, or sleeping off a hang over. This allows you to shuffle people in and out.

You may also want to consider occasionally running one or more of the people as DMPC; PC's that are controlled by the DM for the duration of the session. This should really only be done if the party available is not up to the task ahead; no thief when exploring a trap-filled dungeon, no healer or all squishy spell casters during a siege or slug-fest.

I'm not one for the "they were behind you the whole time" concept as 1) it breaks immersion, and 2) too often (as a player) I encountered issues where IF the player was really there, we would have solved more puzzles:

  • just failed a Strength check because we needed one more person
  • no one at the table had the good Charisma so we failed persuasion checks
  • the enemy had a limited number of targets so we took more of a beating
  • we encountered a squad of skeletons but the Cleric who was "right behind us" never tried turning them

You get the idea...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sadly a big part of why we're doing this is to actually be in the room, having a few drinks together like old times! And to not be attached to screens... I had tossed over the idea of lots of short quests, and it's probably the best way to go. The pitfall with it is my poor writing skills to make it interesting for the PCs, but that's a whole other problem... I've been trying to avoid having a PC temporarily controlled by another player/by me as DM - as a player I hate someone else is playing as my character! Even the most unavoidable death hurts more when you weren't even there... \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 9 '18 at 18:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ErosRising, regarding getting together. You might consider having smaller, more frequent sessions online with bigger in-person sessions every other month. This gives you lots of play time together to move stories along and then well planned get-togethers where the goal is more about sharing a brew than slaying a grue. As for writing, remember you're goal of hit and run; tackle a few rooms then regather at the inn to discuss how to bypass the next trap/roadblock. You're just breaking things into chunks. And yes, it does seem like a violation when someone plays my character too. Just an option. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Apr 9 '18 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Trying to herd players from multiple cities sounds like an adventure all to itself. So, LARPing, basically. ;D \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Apr 10 '18 at 2:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sitting around the table together is the best part, but maybe you could try a hybrid. Could have roll20 hooked up to a tv so everyone is not glued to their screens, can still have a drink, etc, but, some people who weren't able to make the trip that month could dial in and still participate somewhat. \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Apr 10 '18 at 2:34
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We've found ourselves in a similar situation. With players scattered over three continents (we play using Skype (voice), roll20 (maps & text chat) and git (character sheets, notes and an issue tracker), we usually have at least one player not present.

Our solution was partly done in-game: the party build a house in a small settlement, from where it goes adventuring. We usually manage to end our session back "home" (sometimes hand-waved with "you all managed to arrive home without any encounters"). That way, the characters of players missing a session just stay at home (we don't bother thinking up a reason why they do so). If, for some reason, we don't manage to make it home, and in a next session the party has some characters with them of which the player is missing, the characters are just tagging along, not doing anything special. In case of combat, the character is played by another player, with the DM having the right to veto an action (but that never has happened). Characters of absent players don't get XP, don't loot corpses, nor pick up anything else the party finds (but the characters never hesitate to give items/gold to each other if another character can use item, or if the other character needs money).

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When I've had people miss, only happened in the Curse of Strahd game I'm running. I caught them back up to the group quickly. I don't do encounter XP, just go with story based XP, so because of that it is easy for me to just catch someone up.

I'd let them role play a little bit when they come back in and figure out a simple way for them to appear and be caught up with the rest of the group. This gets them involved in the story, but doesn't take up too much time. I generally wouldn't do a combat, unless you know the other players are fine just chilling for a little bit, unless it's an easy and fast combat.

If there is some gear or some sort that the other players got access to, pick some for the players who missed. Doesn't have to be good, and doesn't have to be story based gear, keep it fast and simple whatever you do.

Getting the whole group up and running quickly is what is most important.

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I run a regular open-game group (12 characters, usually 5 ~6 sitting players). We are more focused on narration and roleplay, and this is what works for us:

  • The "inactive characters" (those whose player is not sitting at the table) are doing something else, but they are always nearby.

In a town or social situation, they are present, but unavailable. Maybe they had to run to the potty right at the time you need to deceive the duke's third son, or they did not prepare any healing spells when you got wounded. Or they attempted to help but failed, now its up to you. You can quickly narrate simple things they are doing in the background or give a reasonable excuse why they couldn't / won't act. So long everyone sitting on the table understands they won't affect the scene and that it is done for the sake of flexibility, it goes smoothly.

During combat scenes, they are there, having their own fight or they are close by but won't arrive in time. Or maybe they are holding the fort / base camp while the active group dives in a dungeon.

I also use the inactives to drop some joke to lighten the mood. The (most inactive) greedy rogue gained the ability to "understand the word money in whatever language he hears" as one of those jokes. It is written down in ballpoint ink in his sheet.

The players understand that I can use the inactives as GMPC or NPC if I really need, but it haven't happened yet.

And last, the inactives do not earn exp or special treasure. They earn gold (and I adjust the gold amounts slightly upward), but no potions or magical items. Social accomplishments belong to the party (I am on the Chewbacca deserves a medal camp).

To sum it up:

  1. Make the behavior of the inactives a part of the gaming campaign social contract. And bloody stick to it.

  2. Keep the inactives close by, but unable to help / act for miscellaneous issues.

  3. Do not let the sitting players expect anything out of the inactives.

  4. From time to time, narrate quickly what the inactives are doing, specially when it can give color, fun or background to the narration. Keep it small and light; these actions should be ones that everyone in the table agrees: ex: "Yeah, of course Uklangor would surely punch down that tree..."

  5. Decide on how the inactives progress. They might gain a reduced amount of exp so they don't lag too much behind, or a share of gold. This should not be taken from the main group.

  6. During a innocuous scene, give the inactives something equally innocuous to do.

  7. Use the inactives as a "lesser plot device" when it would be suitable for the story, but don't abuse or take over the characters.

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I've run campaigns deliberately intended to have a constantly-shifting cast of PCs (and players). The key technique I used to enable this is to end every session at the PCs' home base. That way, a completely different group of characters, which may or may not overlap with the last group, can set out in each session without introducing issues of continuity or similar concerns.

I also don't use prewritten story-based adventures, but instead focus on developing the setting in general so that, each session, the group of players/PCs who are present can decide where they want to go and what they want to do based on what they're aware of in the world. This avoids problems with players "missing out" on key segments of the story - each character has their own story consisting of the outings that individual character has taken part in. Of course, what happens to one character in one session may later affect another character in another session, since it's all taking place within the same world, but it's up to the players to share that information among themselves - and, in some cases, they may deliberately choose not to.

(This approach is heavily inspired by Ben Robbins' descriptions of his West Marches campaign, although I haven't really done anything with the "ad hoc, player-scheduled sessions" part of West Marches. Given your description of your situation, you might want to consider using that piece as well.)

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