If you know ahead of time that you're going to be missing a player, do you reschedule? Or just play them as an NPC or as a group puppet?
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It depends on what's going on in the session. If the session is going to be mostly combat or dungeon-crawly, especially if it's a continuation of a previous session, then running them as an NPC makes sense. Even then, though, there's the risk that someone's character is going to be killed or permanently altered on the basis of things that happened when they weren't there to control their character, so I'd always ask permission before doing that.
Generally, though, I much prefer to concoct an excuse for them to be absent during the session. "Apgar the Barbarian just received word that his favorite pub would soon be closing for a month for renovations; he was left with no choice but to abandon the party for a week-long bender." As long as that is possible based on where the previous session left off, it's my preferred strategy.
I hate canceling sessions because one player can't make it, because I find that sooner or later, canceled sessions become the norm. It's better to get together and make something happen, so the game stays on everyone's mental calendar as a regular occurrence that actually happens. Sometimes, it takes some flexibility to handle that - if several players are missing, you might even consider running a flashback with the players that are available and fleshing out some backstory, or rigging up a side adventure, or something. But it's best if the weekly session stays weekly, as it were.
If you're missing so many players that you don't have "quorum", then I reschedule. In my case, I like to have at least three players and prefer four. Anything less and there is too much lull in the play... lull that has to be made up by the DM. And I'm a lazy, lazy DM.
If you're just missing one or two people and want to play anyway, just ignore it. I've gone through lots of permuations of in-game justifications, whisking people away into pocket dimensions, saying they're lost and playing out reuniting with the party the next time they show up, beaming them back to town, etc. The one that takes the least amount of time away from our precious gaming time? Just ignore it. They weren't around, or they were in the background the last session.
When an episodic series with a lot of characters (like Lost, for example) has an episode about character X that doesn't include character Y, nobody wonders why character Y isn't getting a lot of spotlight time. It's not Y's episode! Ditto for gaming. If there's a TPK or something else that breaks your suspension of disbelief, deal with that rare corner-case when it happens.
So I'm in a group with seven people, and two of those have little children, and two have hot and heavy romances going on, and it is an unusual week when everybody shows up to game. And this has been a problem.
So I'm on one extreme - the game is a priority for me and I am always there and on time. I am a little mental. My brother is on the other extreme - he's primarily there to socialize, and his family commitments are hard to predict, so he often misses a session at the last minute.
So it has been problematic for my brother, because he doesn't want to screw up the game, and for me, because it's impossible to do anything but one-shots without worrying about continuity and attendance. Everybody else is somewhere strung out between us, and we are all good friends. We want it to work for everybody.
So here's what we decided: The four guys who are closer to my end (always there, usually on time) will arrange to run or facilitate games and play the protagonists. The three guys closer to my brother's end can either opt in for that game (if they know they'll be around for the next four weeks, say), or they can create secondary characters or pick up NPCs session-to-session as they wish. Everybody is on board with this. It takes pressure off the guys who may have to bail at a moments notice, and allows the game to go forward no matter what.
So the unpredictable guys still get to hang out when they can and roleplay, and I don't think their participation will be in any way diminished. The game just won't revolve around their guys. Works for us.
I have 7 people in my game, we do 2-3 sessions a week on continuous campaign (it's been about 2 months now). Of course, when there is this many people, there's gonna be someone missing at the table once in a while.
I hate making some players more important, than others, so the rule is "if there is less then 3 people absent, we continue playing."
When that happens, sometimes I build my game in a way, so that the absent person disappears (which will be justified later - he's been kidnapped, got some important item, etc), or gets something we call 'Crystal Stasis' - a type of paralyze.
But more often, the missing characters just faint. This works quite nicely:
- Party mates have to carry fainted bodies around, which sometimes makes game a bit more intense - they have to protect them from monster attacks (fainted chars can die, ofc), they have to carry them through traps etc (imagine 5 people trying to get weighty body of a knight on a 20ft bridge);
- Party members can loot their mate for equip/quest/inventory items, if they wish (with the cost of karma, of course), which gives some social tension later, when the fainted wake up (also, kind of a punishment for missing a game);
- Any items of the fainted are still available for entire party, if needed, while they're absent (While in 'Crystal stasis', character is covered in thin, unbreakable layer of.. crystal, which prevents any direct contact with character and its items);
- After they wake up - others have to tell them, what happened, while they were absent - for GM it can be useful to know (and used later), what PCs considered important, and what just forgot or didn't pay attention to, and helps keeping track of what players know; //we have a lot of logical quests, yes. Mystery, drama, you name it ^^;
- Other uses: e.g., yesterday some of the characters decided to use the fainted body of their mate to check the room for traps. They did not care, if he lived or no - payed with karma, of course. Added some tension socially - not everybody was fascinated about the idea. Can't wait, when that char wakes up.
One may wonder, 'Why do they carry bodies around? why not just leave them?'. Well, first of all, at one point of the plot, they knew, that to enter the cave they have to be in a number of 7, so they had to keep each others alive to complete the Quest, and, secondly, it's a role-playing trial - I try to keep my characters connected and make some of them care for each other. Sometimes helps with drama and keeps the sessions interesting.
Adding my voice to all the other answers here - which are fantastic, by the way - I just want to add that it really depends on what you want to do, and how it fits into the game proper. Did you end your last session on a cliffhanger, or were they all hanging out at the tavern?
In all the games I've run, there were always many different things to do in the situation. I'll give my current game as an example; everyone's schedules makes it like herding cats to get everyone together at the same time. There have been times when, since everyone was in the tavern at the end of the previous session, a character is simply outside smoking a cigar while everyone else is discussing strategy and getting information out of the barkeep. Other times, when the party picks back up in a dangerous situation, I've had the missing player's character tending the oxcart, making sure that everyone's stuff (and the ox itself) didn't run off while there was a dragon nearby.
We have the character for a missing player simply disappear for the session and reappear on the session when they return. Occasionally, if the story demands it, I'll have the player take on an NPC or secondary character when they return in the middle of a critical section of the story.
I have trouble letting the rest of the group play the character as a puppet or having the character become an NPC. I've been burned by a "NPC" player character's death and losing the player from the group.
For short leaves (a sick player) we use a decent solution (and an in-joke for us): the cosmic toilet. If a player is not present, the character enters this superdimensional space and follows the other players, but cannot be harmed, touched or seen by enemies, he normally does not fight nor gains any experience or treasure from encounters. In some critical cases (such as the character in the cosmic toilet is a wizard and his spell is needed) the character briefly intervenes under DM control and then goes immediately back into the toilet, again without any XP gain. This keeps the character "up to date" on events without risking a players' resentment because the character was killed while under control of someone else. Nevertheless, in case of total party kill, the character dies as well.
When choosing between the various great options presented, don't forget to ask the player of the missing character what should be done with the character. In my four man group, I had one player that always wanted his best friend to play the character, another that only wanted the DM to run his character since he had secret stuff on his character sheet, and the other two didn't really care who played the character provided they didn't hear stories of their courageous swan dive into lava on their return.
I build my games, as much as possible, to allow PCs to go in and out of a given set of scenes. If a player isn't there in an evening they just weren't around for those scenes.
It depends on you and your player's sense of humour and creativity. My DM has had to deal with a lot of people whose schedule just conflicts with the majority of the players or who just quit due to personal reasons. One of those who quit at the end of a boss battle in a cave was caught in a cave-in and never found. A player who refused to come to a session and whose schedule changed afterward unexpectedly, his character got infinite diarrhea and had to stay at the inn we were at. Another player left after giving some warning and his character joined the palace guard.
If you think that they might come back one day then leave that open and remind your players of their existence. The player whose schedule changed added to the party by allowing his character to get sold as a slave to gain a vital clue. When he comes back, the entire party will go on a side adventure to free him. If that's not your cup of tea, then just think of something that your group would enjoy and that would fit in with the flavour of your quest and their character. It can serve as a punishment or not, but it's really up to you.
Another possibility (that doesn't work with every campaign) is to hold sessions even when only 1-3 people can come. However, the session doesn't have anything to do with the main quest; rather 'roleplay' sessions for the characters that do make it.
Its like in a TV series where there is a sise episode about a character and some conflict from the past that develops that character further.
These adventures can be very different in nature; back in school we would play during track practice while running - no dice needed.
In can explore/invent a persons background; perhaps a personal rival (combat oriented or not); a moral dilemma for the character. They can be more off-the-cuff;fun;an annoyance; different playing style based on the player(s) present.
Or they can be player motivated; the player wants his own castle to live in for example.
As a general rule, if enough people are missing that play cannot continue, reschedule and hope for the best.
If one player is missing, then depending on the game and your group, you could have another player control him, treat him as a henchman or other special guy, or just put him in some situation where he cannot contribute for a time, but is still there; in fantasy parlance, maybe he's hit by a paralyzing poison, or some sort of sleeping sickness.
It can be hairy to use him as a DM puppet, since if something happens, it's going to be your fault instead of the rest of the party's, and unfair play can be suspected. In addition, in a typical DM-to-player relationship, the DM already has so much going on that it's difficult to keep track of some guy in combat and try and make decisions that are good but not too good, keeping in mind the difference between what the party knows and what you know.
I don't typically have huge groups, so, if one player is missing, we play a sub-game or something else. I have even at times done alternaverse settings for a few sessions. Use the characters that are there, but, kind of like a side-story that gives very small rewards but generally aren't high risk.
If the group's going to drop below 4 players, I cancel the game. Otherwise, I just write that character out for the session - they go and investigate The Interesting Thing Over There, or get kidnapped by fae, or their mount gets spooked and they run off to go find it, or they decide that encounter looks too scary and go hide in the shadows for a bit.
When someone has to leave mid-session, sometimes one of the others in the group gets to play them (with their permission). We did actually end up with a character killing someone else in the party while they were 'out' like that... but because we all know each other and get on well it's become a running joke rather than a source of contention :).
The way we do it is to have a core group of four players (including the GM) who we know are committed to the game. We schedule around the core. Once we know we’re going to game, we let everyone else know when the game will be, and that we’d love to have them here.
In our current game, this means we have four to seven players.
Sometimes one member of the core won’t be able to show up but we know that everyone else can; we will occasionally go ahead. But if two members of the core can’t show, there is no game.
If we’re missing one non-core player, their PC becomes a group puppet; if we’re missing a core player, their character goes off elsewhere until the next game session. If we’re missing multiple non-core players, obviously their characters are off exploring something else, because they aren’t here now. I’m sure they’ll catch up with us sooner or later.
There is a pathfinder "meta-game"artifact called the scar of destiny, that serves just this purpose. Missing players disappear to other worlds, don't know where they were when they come back, and all they know is a vague guess on how much time has passed. Solves quite a couple issues.
All the answers thus far have assumed that the game is a long-form campaign with complex continuity. This is far from the only way for an RPG group to play.
My group meets weekly, but if I expected regular attendance from everyone I'd only have one player. Instead, our gaming style has to fit the reality of our participants. The key is to prioritise "playing RPGs with friends" over "playing a particular kind of RPG story."
Many systems support games composed of short, exciting stories where the setting is the major factor uniting the adventures into a full campaign. Such systems are often very flexible in terms of group size as well; it's really easy for a Fate adventure to be run with two or six players on a moment's notice. Reducing or removing cumulative character advancement is also a good idea for this kind of group: we use Fate's horizontal character development but ignore its vertical advancement.
Using systems like atomic-robo we play episodic campaigns where each adventure takes only one or two sessions, like a TV show where you don't have to watch the whole season in broadcast order. We also play a lot of games with systems designed for one-shot sessions, like danger-patrol-pocket-edition, great-ork-gods, and cthulhu-dark.
Some of my players come only every other session, some only once a year. Their PCs be recurring "guest stars" in an ongoing episodic campaign, or we can play something quick and stand-alone if not enough folks show up or new friends arrive--or if we just feel like it.
It works because we've reduced the pressure to have just one continuous complex story that people will feel left out of if they miss a bit. There's no need to bring the whole thing to a halt, or invent narratives justifications to avoid continuity glitches.
It depends whether or not they can be believably written out.
Last night for example a player had to leave to rush to hospital, possibly to see a relative for the last time.
We were slap bang in the middle of all the excitement, so took group decisions on how we thought the character should behave and went with the consensus.
Other times when a character can be written out, then I think it's preferable to do so.
I will tell everyone at the table that the player won't be making it. If the player had an idea for how to temporarily write themselves out I'll use that. If they didn't then I'll come up with an idea or pitch it to the group. We then do our best to make it work without that player for a session.
Then when the player comes back, I make sure I have an interesting situation to pitch them into to get them right back into the thick of it. In the one game of Apocalypse World I ran, the player who ran the town had to be absent. When he came back, I dropped him in the middle of a sudden violent takeover. I find that putting them back in the right away (but not punishing them) helps myself and the players hook right back into the recently absent player and what they're doing.
What i tend to do is play the character as an NPC but have them do only the bare minimum to carry the story and not destroy the players suspension of disbelief. They will tend to get 'injured out' of combat pretty soon, or stay back and heal/reload etc. If the Characters are in a known location (such as thier home city) rather than a dungeon or location, then the absent player simply buggers off with their own agenda.
I am not averse to making absent players come up with a good agenda for thier absence at times and then using that as a subplot in the game. There is no reason not to pubnish non attendance if it is mild and if it serves the game.
My only rules for running other peopels characters as an NPC is that they will never die (there is always some story as to why they survived) and they won't make any major descisions under my control. Nobody likes to come back and find thier character betrayed the King of thier own violition.
We have one night a week when we're intending to play. We have a quorum that's roughly "one more person than half", which with our groups turns out to be "only missing one or two people". The precise number that's quorum gets set by the referee and gets adjusted a bit depending on the game we're playing and what the referee thinks will be going on that week (so, in our situation, the referee has the power to inform what the quorum level is, or say "yes we'll play" or "no we won't" depending on the number of people who report as able to attend).
Referees that can't make it generally advertise this ahead of time as much as possible, and then the players who could attend get to decide if they'd like to meet and play something else anyway, or whether the session should get cancelled.
When a player can't attend, the PC suddenly loses "PC aura" and gets treated pretty much as a referee-controlled character that steps into the dim background a bit. Their abilities and participation can be tapped a bit by the PCs, but the referee typically doesn't let them be used to "solve the adventure" in ways other than cursory assistance. In some cases (with some game systems, mostly) the referee controls the missing player's character sheet; in some cases, this is too burdensome, and the referee asks other players to handle the missing player's sheet, in which case another player gets to do double-duty.
Socially, during play, the attribute of a character "lacking PC aura" gets invoked reasonably frequently, just to remind us all that the player is there in a "supporting role" and it is the schticks of the present PCs that should drive the action for the evening.
When players will be away for a determined (and more lengthy) time than just missing for one week, they get handwaved out of the immediate plot threads and aren't generally present to assist in the action.
If we're short two people (in a group of six) we cancel the session. We're still likely to get together, possibly for board games or just to hang out, but when we're down two, we don't have critical mass.
When we're down one, the other character is there, just distracted or not really participating. Depending on the setting, we might come up with an in-game explanation -- "Oh, Dr. Gupta is back at HQ working on her latest research results" -- and that explains why she doesn't do anything when a gunfight breaks out.
But if Dr. Gupta's player isn't there, Dr. Gupta doesn't get any insights at all. She's basically just part of the scenery or furniture.
Just a side-note: I've read somewhere of an idea (so it's not mine) about getting the characters infected with an incurable "dungeon fever" whose main symptoms are strongly reduced intellectual capacity and staying silent. The symptoms may manifest anytime and anywhere and may subside just as suddenly. Whenever one of the players can't make it to a session, her character has an outbreak and is simply tagging along with the party (fighting, if needed, though without using too special tactics) until next time.
With a few tweaks this might be introduced in non-fantasy settings as well - though storyteller discretion is highly advised, as it is definitely not a universal solution: it could easily ruin a well-crafted story and/or setting (let alone the character.) Try and combine it with the ideas raised in the other answers - you might get a working combination. :)
There are usually three things my GM does when a character goes missing.
- If a character isn't important, continue the adventure and have the missing in a "bubble" so they're there.... but not actually doing anything. (This method is often preferred as it allows players who go missing to still get experience and items despite not actually being there as well as not worrying about their character dying while they're away.)
- If the character is important and if it's allowed, you can have someone else play the role of the character while playing their own. (While the player gets experience and items, they're not in control. Should something happen to the character such as death, there's nothing they can do about it. Which is why it's not really recommended unless you know you can trust other players with the character.)
- If they are important and there's not enough players to work with, then reschedule the session.
On rare cases, have a person on standby willing to play on that day if one of the players go missing. (Not really reliable since you can't really be sure the person would be ready on the drop of a hat.)
My DM has taken a variety of approaches to this problem, depending on the specifics of the adventure.
A few examples:
- Once, we were attempting a stealth mission in a port city, and the player for our cleric didn't show. Since his character gets seasick frequently, and we didn't expect to need a lot of healing, he was bedridden with the effects of his illness. The drawback here is that encounters designed for the whole party can be a lot harder with even one member missing, especially the healer.
- We had a cleric once with pacifist tendencies, so when her player didn't show up to finish the last half of the dungeon, we just used her healing spells between battles and pretended she was hanging back during combat. We could have just left her out entirely, but there was really no way for her character to have left the dungeon, and we needed the healing, so this was a good middle ground.
- When our DM's brother couldn't make it to one session, but we needed his heavy-hitting magic to play the dungeon without redesigning it, one of the other spellcasters in the group was assigned to play him in combat, and the rest of the time the character was just silent. This can be hard because playing two characters at once takes a lot of effort, especially when you've never played the class of the extra character before. An accommodating DM is a great asset in these situations.
As always, the answer that works best for you depends on your specific situation. And has been mentioned here, it would be a dick move to let someone's character suffer permanent consequences (death, for instance) due to something that happened while they were gone. For that reason, our DM tends to have the enemies lay off the absent player's character if (s)he is in combat, or leave them out of combat if at all manageable, and we avoid using the character's one-use items and such.
Finally, if you can reasonably get into contact with the missing player before the session, do so, and ask them what they'd feel comfortable with. If they want you to use their character for combat so they don't lose out on XP, great. If they don't want to trust their character's life to the rest of the party, that's their choice.
I run a "One-Off"
Instead of sending the missing players to "The bubble" or giving them "Dungeon Fever" simply "Flip the Script".
Let me explain.
- Your game is already at some sort of stopping point.
- Have an NPC show up and ask for help.
- This can simply be: someone they know, one of their God's, a players Patron or the like.
- The NPC wisks the characters that are present to another place/time to help with a situation/problem.
- After the situation/problem gets resolved, everyone is brought back to the original stopping point.
I have a few ideas for short sided adventures (One-Offs) that I am able to adjust easily for smaller parties.
The Missing Fey
A tiny Pixie appears from seemingly thin air to ask for help finding her Sister. She can only take X number of characters. They all step through a shimmering doorway/protal to a world that was just a few feet away hidden by powerful Fey magic.
- As far as XP.... I give zero to everyone.
The characters will get something for their troubles. Perhaps a potion of wonder or a ring of Fey Ancestry or the like. I make the adventure fun as well as grandiose but in a very different environment (brightly colored shimmering lights with crystals instead of rocks) from where they were before.
My goal is two fold.
- Make it fun and interesting for the characters who were present
- Make the characters who were absent wish they were present