My RP club has been going on for many years, which has the unfortunate effect of us getting older. Many members of my club have started to acquire a 'real life', with more of their time devoted to partners and new families.

I am currently GMing multiple games, and I have the constant problem of my players phasing in & out of existence like a pack of blink dogs. What is the best way of running a game with a constantly unreliable group?

So far I tend to carry on with the game if a few members don't show, but avoid major plot points or big fights. I also try to throw in some side-quests, which seems to be a good way to slow the party down whilst keeping momentum going. This approach seems to mess up party xp though.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Aw, someone edited out all my jokes :( \$\endgroup\$
    – Macona
    Commented Jun 5 at 8:09

10 Answers 10


A few suggestions here:

  1. Set a night of the week. Stick to it.
  2. Set a quorum for playing your game (3/5 of the group or some such number).

    • Decide what happens if a quorum doesn't show up (do you play a board game? do you reschedule? do you just skip gaming that week?).
  3. Decide what happens to PCs when they don't show up. Some suggestions:

    • PCs are sidelined and either do or do not gain XP (I favor group XP as penalizing players for no showing up just encourages them to continue not showing up)
    • PCs are played by other group members (preferable have each PC designate their backup player so there is some measure of consistency).
  4. Choose a lighter system or style of play that is not dependent on having the same group of PCs from week to week. If players know they can drop in and drop out at will they will be more likely to show up the next week if they miss a week.

Some thoughts from my own experience of playing in a group of (mostly) married adults who (mostly) have kids.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, except I'll say that allowing some characters to get a bit ahead or behind on XP isn't always a bad thing and can encourage players to show up. The key word is "a bit". Being a bit ahead can be fun and a bit behind challenging. Being way ahead makes the others deadweight, and neither having nor being deadweight is any fun. It depends heavily on the group and somewhat on the game system though. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 22:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to 3): talk with the players what are their characters going to do during the session. The players know where the game is heading and can give guidelines - much like the GM prepares for a session. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 10:50

Our group faced this problem and have a current campaign going that seems to be working, after floundering between several campaigns that never really got off the ground. These are the aspects that are included. YMMV, of course.

General ideas that have helped:

  • First, and most important, whatever you're going to try, get buy-in from the players. Nothing will work if you have a player trying to push things in another direction. For example, our solution involves going a bit closer to "railroading" than a normal campaign, but that's the social contract. If the players want to get stuff done during the session, they have to accept a degree of that.
  • Have the most consistently available player be the GM.
  • Keep it light, keep it Crunchy. An RP heavy campaign would be much harder to do this way.
  • Have a game where the party works together towards the same goals, and where secrets between players are mostly non-existent. Secrets are complicated and suck up time.
  • Similarly, don't let individual PCs dominate the GM's time.
  • Have episodic sessions, much like you would have in an episode of a TV show. Almost everything should be resolved in a single session.
  • At the same time, have larger plots develop around the events from individual sessions.
  • Must have some advance warning about which characters will be present. Plan based on those characters. (As a new GM, one of my hardest challenges has been scaling encounters based on a range of 3-6 PCs)
  • Only the PCs that are present get XP. This has worked well as incentive so far, but I will probably cap the amount that characters can fall behind. Another option would be to let them get weaker than the party, kill them off, and let the player bring in a new PC closer to APL. That might reinvigorate their interest in the campaign.
  • Give XP rewards (a fraction of one session's worth) to whoever writes the log of the session. This rewards and encourages involvement, gives a chance to at least partially catch up on missed XP for players who missed session, and provides a way for everyone to remember what happened between sessions.
  • Give XP rewards to players for writing a story about where their character was for sessions they missed.
  • Longer sessions. We game once a month for about 8 hours. This helps keep things contained within a single session.
  • We also use Google Hangout to include players who can't be present. The android app lets us also have a camera dedicated to the battlemat, which helps.

Our specific campaign:

  • LITERAL deus ex machina brings the PCs that are "present" to the situation for that session. This works especially well in a system with actual deities. The present PCs are "Pulled" where they need to be, and absent players' characters are "Pulled" somewhere else. This is an in-game mechanic, and is part of the plot. The Characters are aware of it.
  • Ensure that party roles heavily overlap. No character is critical for any situation. We have a party of all Clerics/Divine casters, which helps with the above.
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Stronly disagree with only present PCs getting XP. It fees like penalizing people who legitimately can't come to the game. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 18:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @wax eagle I think that's the most contentious part of this question, and it really will vary group to group. For my group, it has worked. We also cooperatively figure out when to play; we don't have a preset schedule. So people have multiple chances to get in. Plus, as the GM/tiebreaker, I will prefer a date that players who have missed sessions can make it to. \$\endgroup\$
    – TREE
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ And of course, our group is both relatively fast-paced experience (gain a level every 3 sessions or so) and is made up of players whose primary reward is showing up. \$\endgroup\$
    – TREE
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 18:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good points about being light, episodic, crunchy. Can't vote up because of penalizing players who can't make it, and giving homework assignments. The question was about accounting for 'real life', and that's not how real life works. \$\endgroup\$
    – psr
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @psr our game is lucky to meet monthly. "Homework" creates email chatter that is good for the health of the game, in general. I can't tell the asker what will work for his game, I can only say what did work for mine. This isn't a recipe for a game, per se, it's a bunch of ideas that might help. (in a sense, this isn't an answerable question, although I think it's incredibly valuable. Our group would have benefited from this discussion if it existed a couple years ago) \$\endgroup\$
    – TREE
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 23:24

One more point to add: No Big Player Secrets.

When you have trouble getting your group together regularly, nothing is worse than having hours of your session spent with one guy having a private conversation with the GM.

Forget about your standard World of Darkness game where every PC Vampire is secretly an Assamite working for the Werewolves who are connected to a Technocratic plot to overwrite reality with purple and pink spots.

That isn't to say that characters can't have secrets. But keep them straightforward.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This also means limiting character roles that require extended one-on-one play. Hacking sessions, Astral quests, "Research" etc. If it's going to happen, involve the whole group. \$\endgroup\$
    – TREE
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 18:55

Pick a game that can be run episodically. There are quite a few that support this mode, but it's not about the game, so much as about the setting being mission driven, and those missions assigned by some authority.

Keep the individual modules short. You want to actually complete each in a session. That way, if the players don't make the following session, they are not missed. A single story might be broken into three related single evening Acts, but allow for the same characters in each.

Preferably, pick a large enough base for the campaign that the rotating pool of PC's are all in the same unit. Have overlap of roles for each needed role.

Work from an outline, not a full up module. This means expandability. Instead of saying "7 klingons," say "(PCs +2) Klingons" or "(PCs/2) Klingon Line Troops." Have extra badguys on every prep sheet if you need them. Make certain that there are branch points, so that you don't have to predict which way they'll go.

Prep several outlines for different specialist focuses. If you prep 2 per session, and run one per session, very quickly you have a spectrum of ready-to-go adventures.

For each mission, have a handout. After each mission, ask players to write a 1-2 paragraph log entry. Collate those to a weekly newsletter - let people catch up that way. Saves on the "What'd I miss?" And it provides a long-term story to relive it.

Some excellent settings for this type of gaming run the gamut of genres...

  • King Arthur Pendragon is Dark Ages low-magic fantasy. The use of an NPC lord, with PC vassal knights, makes for a very strongly mission oriented game.
  • There are several flavors of Trek game. Running the Away Team missions works really well as a mission based game, especially on a cruiser with 400+ crew.
  • A variation on Stargate SG-1 works nicely as well. Instead of standing teams, the PC's are a specialist pool. The Commandant sends off the specialists needed.
  • Corporate Mercenaries of various kinds: The Cyberpunk and 'Nam games. By having mercs as the protagonists, it's, "You guys were the low bid. Here's the full briefing."
  • Ghost Busters: It's gone franchise. You can use the old WEG rules if you have them, or InSpecters if you don't, or adapt your favorite system... Set it in a major metropolis, and your pool of 10 PC's is 1st four available to the case, because they happen to be in the house when the call comes in. Also works for the Angel or Buffy games, if the boss or slayer is a reliable player.
  • Paranoia RPG - The computer sends the PC troubleshooters out on missions. And most of them die. Tongue in cheek, not for everyone. Can be played seriously. It's a variant on the active duty military theme.
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Run your game episodically is a really great proposition. But being able to frame a complete episode in a 4h slot time is quite hard to achieve. I would advise to select a game with a system that run smoothly and that let you resolve combats in a small amount of time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Guillaume
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 11:47
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ got to say this is the best solution so far - how to play a game when the players would only like to play occasionally. I'd add Paranoia type games (if not paranoia itself, think Terminator or Spy or even Cop where the characters are part of a larger group, so the available PCs are sent on episodic missions). you might need to tailor the mission types to the available PCs skills though. An addition to this is if each player has 2 characters on the go at any time, this helps to keep things mixed up so you don't run 'traditional' scenarios. \$\endgroup\$
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 12:29
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ one thing to add: for the battles, who says you need to reduce the number of baddies. You just need the PCs to be more of team leaders, rather than the entire group. You see cop TV shows where the 2 main characters are the focus, when it comes to the battle, the NPC swat team comes with them. (maybe the players could play the swat team for a 'minigame' and then switch back to their main characters once the perps are cuffed). \$\endgroup\$
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ One adventure per session is definitely the way to go. I recently ran a old-school punch-the-Klingons Star Trek game this way, and it was great. Squeezing the whole thing into one session is tricky, though. Perhaps ironically, I think my job was made easier by having novice role-players at the table. They didn't overthink things like veterans sometimes can. \$\endgroup\$
    – Argyle
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 19:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Guillaume that's another reason for an outline format: it's easier to see what can be dropped if need be. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 20:49

The problem is that you have a group who can only play occasionally. This means the long, epic campaigns are out. Right out.

Instead you're going to have to run the games in episodes. So instead of thinking 3 hour blockbuster, think 24 hour-long TV series.

This also means you can divide your group up naturally. For many shows the heroes are taken from a small pool of main characters, yet not all of them actively participate. Some shows its cop team A+B, then the next week it's cops C+D who are the main attraction. Often the other characters will show up in the background, and that's good too, but for this circumstance they'll be the PCs whose players didn't show and are run by you instead. They don't need to do much at all, just provide a little support now and then (eg when a particular character's primary skill would be useful, said character gets called in to help, then goes away again leaving the active players to work through the scenario).

You can run slightly longer episodes if necessary, and the players commit (eg during holidays) where you can run the old 2-part episodes. You can also have a hand-over episodes where the focus shifts from one group to another (think of the CSI pilots where Caruso starts the investigation in Miami and tracks the baddies to New York where Sinise takes over the following week).

This also works for smaller groups of players, they become the "team leads" for a larger group. So when the cops have found the bad guy and its time to take them down, they don't have to play directly. They can direct the swat team (or play the swat team themselves if you prefer), or they can lead a couple of secondary characters to fill out the group to a reasonable level.

If you don't want to have players running a primary + secondary character, then you'll have to change the type of scenarios you run. The old dungeon crawl is no good with 2 characters, but the investigating detective/cop/mercenary/spy works very well. The resistance fighter type scenarios also work well for small groups.

Things not to do:

Run the missing players characters. It never sits well with someone to turn up and find that "they've" done a lot in absentia. Its ok to run the character for very short sections where absolutely necessary, but you will find the player doesn't like it and it gives them a demoralising reason not to bother next time too. People care for their characters, remember.

run a long campaign but 'deactivate' the missing characters for those sessions. When the player does come back, they'll find they're left out during play too - all the interaction and old anecdotes about previous play will be lost on them, and make them feel left out even more.

Play totally disconnected games, except temporarily. If each time you turn up you play a RPG that exists only for 1 session and has no carry-over to another week, then you might as well crack open the board games. One-offs have their place, but not as a permanent fixture.

Condemn the missing players. Its not their fault, you might find yourself in their situation too soon enough. Be positive about the position you're all in, and it'll be a much happier place when people do manage to show up. I've played with groups where a few players could only turn up now and then, and they were almost treated like they were disrupting the established group. I guess games players tend to be anti-social nerds at the best of times so this behaviour (even if it's not hidden) is to be discouraged. Every returning player needs to be welcomed in as if he was the prodigal son, every time. Even run a scenario based totally around that guy. (hey, it'll be a change from the usual characters after all).


Here's what I've done with my group as they get more and more split up:

  • Run a lot of campaigns.

I don't really recommend this to everyone, especially since a lot of my campaigns are technically "weekly" campaigns. However, they allow me to split the time slots down into people who can be there. I have, however, had trouble with one or two players who say they can make it but won't actually be present for games nonetheless, but they tended to be the flaky ones before the splits.

  • Reward people who come.

This may seem harsh to the people who don't come, but if you have fixed times and publish them beforehand and people miss a session because they flaked out or just couldn't make it I feel there's no issue with letting people who come to a session get rewarded, just like what you're doing. I wouldn't give them unique or story-warping loot, but it's definitely fair to reward them for what they can get around to doing.

  • Have a "Headliner" each night.

Treat your games like a rock concert- they should have some hyped up element every week. This doesn't necessarily have to be a giant boss or story turning point. If you really wanted to get clever, I'd say you're not even sinking low if you state a wild possibility that probably won't happen "TONIGHT WE BURN THE CITY!" or something along those lines; it may make people feel a little sad for not making it but it ensures that people won't make plans elsewhere at the last minute. Just be sure it's possible for those events to happen or you become the boy who cries wolf.

  • Catch up missing players.

Part of this is based on me having a lot of free time in small chunks, but I suggest running individual games with players who missed a session; this is really easy in a game like Shadowrun where you can toss people a few karma (the XP analog) or allow them to initiate cheaper or stuff like that to allow them to get more powerful with not that much of a reward; D&D is really bad about this because levels come in a sort of "pack" of abilities and levels matter a lot, so you have to give people the full reward of other players to keep them at a near equal power level.

  • Run their characters.

Now this only works if the players really trust you (or don't care that much), and I actually used this in the finale of one of my campaigns because a couple players couldn't make it. If you get permission I'd suggest running absentees' characters like they would. The upside to this is that you can fudge dice all you want, and just guesstimate rather than having to roll dice (if you're comfortable with just calculating odds of success); if you do this they should never die (sans if the player allows it or if a TPK happens).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I honestly can't see why anyone would not trust their GM to run their character in their absence, if they trusted them to run the game in the first place. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ One would think they would, but sometimes a character is so personal they want to play it themselves. Alternatively, they may think their GM would mess with their character (as is often the case with my players). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 16:43

To encourage my players to attend I do several things:

  1. Player/GM contract when joining the group that states they will be commited to the game and give ample notiication if attendance is not possible--emergencies withstanding of course.

  2. Build a online forum that allows the game to be posted in the form of weekly recaps, inner-character dialogue, NPC interaction, questions to the DM, and other pertenant gaming information. This keeps a momentum to the game in-between actual sessions. Good example is found here : http://www.twocreekcrossing.com/

  3. I attempt to run the most interesting, dynamic, and fun game I can. If I can get them interested in the game, have them invest through the forums, they tend to feel an ownership that fuels attendance.

  4. To offset any sessions missed due to Life's Responsibilities, I award participation XP for online forum interactions, plot development, background stories, or NPC dialogue.

  5. If a major portion of my player base is absent we make the evening a M:TG sessions with heaps of awesome food and drinks. And then we really hype up the fun we had to all those that didn't attend.


PCs are played by other group members (preferable have each PC designate their backup player so there is some measure of consistency).

This is an idea I have instantiated for games like Shadowrun, where you might have a favorite character but their skills don't match the job the rest of the party thinks will be fun. I had the group make two characters each, but told them to only get attached to one for the time being. Whenever a session began, I would allow each player to choose the a character to fit the session, which also meant that in the off "to be continued" moment someone could put on the hat. It also meant that if they got into a jam (Why is the face intentionally going into a firefight? Or the brute with no social grace going into the black tie ball?). It seems to work so far, especially because the game has haphazard timing.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Does this add anything that wasn't in the quoted answer? This would be better as a comment, I think. -1. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 5:53

I have four kids and cannot always make Nerd Night, as we call it. One thing that we have done is actually had someone (usually the guy playing the bard, or someone ghost writing as the bard) blog about the encounter after the fact. It makes for great reading, allows for some feedback and ribbing to the GM, and allows members of the party to still stay abreast of the situation so that when they can reintegrate into the party after missing a few sessions.


I am a member of a college club dedicated to RPG. All in all, we are maybe 40 to 45 people meeting every week (the same weekday since 1988!) for gaming RPGs, and many of us are GMs in one or another system while also playing under other GMs of the same group. Players also often play in more than one of the groups, so there is a similar unreliability built into the very idea of the gaming club:

Not every player can be there at all meetings (we are students and alumini, so some do have to work or study), and even if they are there, some of the players from last week might not show up at your table for they favor a different system this week.

On the other hand, it is not a given, that a GM will always offer one of "his" groups each week, as he might want to play one of his characters in a different GM's group or try out a new system once in a while.

To keep everybody up to date, some of the GMs keep Forum posts. I ask someone who was there the last time to recap for those that missed a few rounds. Others again just roll with giving a recap themselves ("You have been hired to do X in Y, last week we left here. You managed to achieve Z.")

Group XP have become a standard for most games, as it keeps PCs roughly on the same level, but it also can result in strange looks if one had been caught up in other groups and then return to the same table as before and realize one has to spend (insert arbitrary large amount of levels/XP/Karma/seasons) to improve the character.

Because of the unstable attendance to tables/systems, we tend to GM in session chunks, that try to keep a larger plotline in at worst 3 sessions, maybe with larger meta targets (arbitrary large like: Explore the Wild Lands!). As a matter of fact, this did lead me when choosing which campaign in Pathfinder I would try this semester: Kingmaker allows pretty easy possibilities to stash away PCs not present in the trading post/his kingdom role when the player is not present.

However, as the club has usually a large enough attendance to make several game groups, we have very seldom encountered a situation where we couldn't shoehorn together at least some game or another. With a much smaller peer group, this wouldn't be an option, but having some tons of one-shots or side campaigns/adventures might at least help for the days just a few show up.


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