A Frank conversation with big Curt and little Josh
This title sounds totally corny, and maybe it is, but I use this phrase to remind myself when I need to have an honest conversation with someone (I'm going to be frank) and I need to be straightforward (I'll be curt) and it's ok to bring a little humor into the conversation to keep it light (I can josh around a little bit).
I find this approach works particularly well when I need to have a conversation about something serious with someone I have an established relationship with. For example, when I'm collaborating with friends on a project and an issue has come up, when I'm checking in with a student I have a good rapport with about low performance in a class I'm teaching, or when I talk to my children about a poor decision they made. I GM with friends often, and this approach works well when I have a concern with a player, a group of players or even the whole group of us.
Don't Sally about, and meet with Grace.
Ugh, I know, the name puns have to stop! This phrase helps remind me to not wait around (sally about) for a problem to solve itself and approach the problem with compassion and grace. It's a good reminder that not all problems are as I see them, and especially when other people are involved. There is usually a good reason those people are acting the way they are. I find it helpful to approach a situation like this by giving the other person the opportunity to express themselves.
Bringing it together
So how do you apply these approaches to your situation? You've already started: You noticed the problem and you want to correct it (you're not sallying about). And you've come to RPG Stack Exchange to find a good way to do that (go you!). The next step is going to be a little harder: You have to talk to your friends.
I would suggest speaking to each player individually, in person if possible or by phone if that's not possible. Texting and other typed conversations often lead to misunderstandings when resolving interpersonal issues, I strongly suggest you avoid these. Tell them what you've noticed:
Hey, I noticed you haven't been able to make it to a lot of our games.
Tell them what happens when they're not there:
When you're not there it's really hard for the group and the story to function properly. We all know you're the best at kicking orc butt (or whatever they are actually the best, or really good at. This shows them their value, and they are valuable - that's why it sucks when they don't show up, because you value them, make sure they know this). It also makes it really hard for me to GM if I expect you to show up and you're not there (these both show them the consequences of their actions).
(Oh bug, I didn't realize)
Ask them their ideas:
What do you think we should do about this? (you could/should also add:) Is there anything I can do?
There's a lot of responses that can come out of this. They may tell you Tuesdays actually don't work so well for them. They may say actually the game isn't what they thought it would be and their not that interested (and that's ok). They might say they've been feeling out of place because they don't really understand how to play, or that roleplaying makes them uncomfortable. They could say they suck at keeping track of appointments and they just plain forget. These and any other answers are all good to know and can lead to resolution.
Whatever their response is, listen for the underlying issue and respond to that. If it's something you can help them resolve, then do what you can to help them. You'll have to determine for yourself what you're willing to do to help them, but don't commit to anything that is not realistic and doesn't feel right. If it's not something that can be resolved (like they have no time) let them know that you really appreciated their presence in the group but they can't really play if they can't show up. There are of course a spectrum of responses, you could also let them know it's ok if they only come once a month, you just need to know before hand when they will show up.
When you've come to a resolution be sure to seal the deal:
I'm so glad we worked this out. You can count on me to text you two days before each meeting to remind you the time and place. (or whatever you decided you would do.)
Can I count on you to get back to me the day before to let me know if you can or can't make it? (or whatever you decided they should do).
Ok, cuz if you don't, no more Orc butt-kicking for you. Seriously, I can't let you be a part of the group if I don't know if you'll show up.
(alright, fair enough.)
If you feel the issue has been resolved say something like:
I'm glad we worked this out. or I'm sorry this won't work out for you, let's hang out sometime when you have more time. or whatever seems appropriate - this is a good opportunity to be funny and end the conversation on a light note.
What if they respond with "I don't know."?
You've asked them what they think should be done and they respond with the dreaded, "I dunno." What now? Keep the ball in their court, but remind them you're available to help. Something like:
Ok, well let's keep this convo going. Can you think about it and get back to me before the end of the week? (or any timetable you think is reasonable here) We'd all really like for you to be a part of the group and I'm available to help make that happen if possible. I really need to know if and how you can be a part of the group so I know how to prepare the campaign each week.
If they don't get back to you, make sure to call them and check in near the end of the week, or whatever timetable you agreed on. If they still don't have a response you'll have to be firm:
Can you think about it and let me know when you're ready to talk about this? In the mean time, I'm going to ask that you don't attend our sessions until we can work this out. I can't plan the campaign without knowing who will participate.
Hold each player (and yourself) to your agreement with them
Whatever you end up deciding with each player, hold them and yourself up to your part of the deal. If you said you would text to remind them the day before each meeting, do it. If they said they would let you know when they can't show up at least a day in advance and they don't do it tell them that's not fair to you or the group and they can no longer be a part of the group.
This approach can work with as many people as are behaving this way, whether it is one person or the whole group. However many people it is, talk with each person individually. Approaching the group all at once may be overwhelming for you as the GM, as each person may have their own reasons for being unreliable, and it could quickly devolve into a situation where you are feeling attacked by the group.
If you end up having to drop a player or two, or even all, don't worry, you can find new people to play with. Playing with unreliable people is generally a lot more trouble than it's worth. There are ways to create a campaign with players who come and go, but that's for another question.
Don't forget to breathe. You got this.