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I've started playing D&D 5e with a group of friends recently. I'm the DM and there are four players. One is still working and is only available during weekends, while the other three (and I) have quite a lot of spare time and are eager to play on a daily basis.

Is there a viable option for the three players and I to do some side-questing or something else and play while not creating a gap between the player characters?

Solutions like doing a side campaign while earning neither experience point nor gold seems to ruin the experience.

I thought of multi-classing but it seems to really impact the character even if the player only use its original class.

I see three solutions so far, but none are satisfying:

  1. Make the player create another character
  2. Create a copy of the current character which will evolve separately
  3. Do an adventure where all XP and gold won't be carried over to the main adventure

I wonder if there is anything that I didn't think of. I looked for similar questions, but I didn't find anything because I don't really know how to write the question in the first place.

Edit (our solution): Considering that all the players are very attached to their characters and are not willing to let one member get behind we decided to explore each character backstory according to Daniel Nordh's answer.

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Backstory

Let the players explore different backstories to their characters. Events that has happened in their pasts. Exp and money would not be able to be carried over, but it would be a great time to strengthen their character bonds.

Problem is, they are rather invincible since they wouldn't be allowed to die. Unless dying is part of their story of course.

The other players could be playing guest characters for each others stories if they didn't know each other back then. Those guest characters could perhaps show up in different stories and possibly in future campaign play as well to create sort of a broader arch and interconnection between the characters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's really a great idea ! It might be a simple way to play more without leveling characters. Really really like the idea ! \$\endgroup\$ – Jiro chan Apr 3 at 22:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for choosing my answer over so many other great answer. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Nordh Apr 5 at 6:46
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There are several options.

Allow another player to run the character

If one player is rate limiting, and you don't want to split up the party, the easiest option is to allow that character to be present at sessions where the player is not. You could control the character as an NPC, although I prefer not having to be responsible for an extra participant in a combat, as well as avoiding the problem of DM knowledge. The character would be really stupid (not contribute to any decision-making) when the player wasn't there, but very different when controlled by the player. So I would recommend having another player at the table control that character. Hopefully the players know each other well enough that the missing player will trust someone else to run their character intelligently and not just use them as cannon fodder.

Allow the rate limiting player to control an NPC when they are able to be there

The viability of this really depends on the campaign. If there isn't an NPC who is frequently with the characters, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. They don't have to be there all the time, but you would want to make sure it would be consistent with the story to pop in whenever that player is present. Whether or not they are there at other times is up to what your needs are as the DM.

Run a separate campaign (possibly with overlap)

Although you say you don't want to do this, this would be my preferred option, as it completely cuts through the problem of one player not being there. When s/he is, run campaign A, and when not, run campaign B. In my experience, players gonna play, so most people I play with would enjoy having another character and a separate storyline. You could also have the second table be in a different game system, maybe one that you've wanted to try before but never had time for?

If your concern is the amount of prep time for you as DM, I would ask one of the other players if they want to try a hand at DMing/GMing.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer ! Your experience with players is really appreciated ! ( can't upvote unfortunately) \$\endgroup\$ – Jiro chan Apr 1 at 23:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ we still do this ... been doing this for absent players since we began playing ... +1 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 2 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ In your first solution, how is the infrequent player going to catch up with everything which happened in their absence? \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Apr 2 at 11:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ "the easiest option is to allow that character to be present at sessions where the player is not" — to my knowledge, some players becomes very upset when character control is taken from them \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 2 at 12:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor That depends a lot on the group. five of the seven groups that I've played with in the past 5 years are happy to trust the other players to run their character while they can't make it. In the other two groups, the PC is "ghosted" until they can play again. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 2 at 13:00
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Recurring Guest Star

If you think of a typical gaming group as an ensemble television cast, sometimes you can think of your less frequent player as a recurring guest star. (For some reason, the only example my brain can give right now is Col. Flagg from MASH.) The idea isn't that a character is flipping between PC and NPC (or defacto NPC) mode, but rather is only present, for plot-related reasons, during selection sessions.

I have done this and it definitely can work, but it is also definitely a lot of work. I don't tend to run dungeon crawls, so I never had the Guest Star popping in and out of dungeons or battles. I try to run games where each session is a discrete-ish chunk-like thing, and arcs run three to four sessions. I don't always succeed, but I try.

In that vein, if I have warning when the player is going to be free, I can often stretch or compress the preceding session enough to make it work. (Actually, come to think of it, I knew all this at the start of the game, so I was able to build the character's background in from the start, in a way where this made sense. This really does take some work.)

This takes effort, but it can be highly satisfying when it works out.

Allow another player to run the character

Everything this answer says on the topic, with a key piece of advice:

Affirmatively grant the character-in-custody a certain measure of plot immunity. Meaning, enforce the idea that the C-in-C is not to be used as cannon fodder; don't (as a GM) present the custodian with character-altering decisions, wait until the real player is present; don't let the C-in-C get killed by bad die rolls. (And don't let the other players abuse that.)

This is a case where I will lean very hard on a GM veto if I have to. But I never had to.

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I've successfully handled situations like this in the past using two very different approaches. Both worked well, I would tend to use the first approach when the pool of active players is much larger than the number of players-per-session and the second approach with a smaller core group and a more story driven game:

Many Players

Western marches approach

In western marches you have a "home base" and every session ends up back at the base (unless by prior arrangement it's a multi-part special). For each session you have a different group of players and those who don't join that session are assumed to be off doing something else.

Epic 6 houserule.

Under an E6 system players do advance once they reach level 6 but it's a much slower and flatter increase. This means regular players will not jump light years ahead of the more occasional players.

Regular Session

My current campaign I'm handling slightly differently as I have a core of 5 players but not all of them are always present. I'm not using experience but instead have a set schedule where after X sessions everyone gains one level.

People not present at a session do not level up. However at the end of every session they attend if they are not at the "party level" they gain a level until they catch up.

This means the regular players do get slightly ahead, but never by enough to leave the others useless and they do not resent the "free loaders" because the others are always at least a little bit behind.

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Campaigns where things happen when you are not there but other players are can be jarring. I have been in this situation, where other players have knowledge of things that happened when I wasn't playing, and it was somewhat annoying.

I suggest you have two unrelated campaigns, but using the same system. You can maybe be player in the another, if someone else is willing to DM. The whole group just knits together differently, when there is a core group who plays more often, and those who play less often, but at least you can keep the campaigns "fair" by not doing that inside a single campaign regularly. We did that mostly in a group I used to play in, and it was quite ok.


You can first try to run side quests or secondary group in the same world or something, of course. But be and continue to be very sensitive to how the players playing less often feel about it. If you find out it lessens their fun, re-consider starting a completely separate campaign for those who can play more often.

If you do play in the same campaign with different schedules, I suggest keeping a written journal, so everybody can keep up. This is a bit of extra work though.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Delegate the journal writing to one of the players. We do this in most of the campaigns we play. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 2 at 17:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for journal writing, and enthusiastic endorsement of having player(s) do it. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Apr 2 at 19:07
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World design

I actually designed my world with this particular problem in mind and with the issue of wanting to continue to play if one player is absent for a session or two. My world involves these magical dungeons from millennia ago with ancient magic which act up seemingly random at times. Whenever the players are adventuring inside of one of those dungeons it's actually not uncommon to be temporarily split up. You are never sure you'll end up with the party you came into the dungeon. Also, time is a very weird and unstable thing inside the dungeons. These dungeons are also connected, even though they serve separate story points. This makes it very easy to let someone join for a session or miss one or two players for a session. When they are outside the dungeon this requires a little more creativity. But since my world is very unstable too, I can have people be slurped up by wild magic and write a story around it later. This might seem a little far fetched and game-breaking, but it works surprisingly well because I put in extra effort to make the story complete with plausible explanations for events whenever the PC's want to know why something happens. Even if the characters are at a loss, sometimes I just tell them: "hey for, those who didn't notice: There has been a time shift, you can tell by X and Y signs that your companion wasn't part of it. Time shifts also explain an xp gap, but I never let that gap be more than one level. I feel like it really creates a toxic competitive environment that really squeezes out the fun for the players. The reason I have one level difference is to make the players that do attend regularly feel like that means something. But at the end of the day we are together to do some epic adventures and have fun together.

Background

In another approach, one of my players knew beforehand that he would be there only every other week or less. He designed his character to be traveling and therefore meeting the party 'by accident' from time to time. This worked out well because I already had an NPC who I planned to act like that. (of course there is a good reason they meet him at certain points in the adventure, but that's for them to find out) I ended up making that NPC his teacher, and he loved that he had some specific lore about my world that no one else had. Some of the other players knew the NPC from their backstory, but not to the extend that guy knows him, being his pupil and all. This creates really good points for the party to connect over, even if he barely meets. And since he is a traveling bard, it's not weird for him to take off and meet them at a later point.

I feel like I need to mention, my game is run like a sandbox, so there is not 'world shattering event' where it makes no sense for any adventurer to abandon the main story line. There is a lot happening in the world and even the party is conflicted sometimes on where to go next and what is more important. That isn't to say there is no BBEG, there are actually 2 that they clearly know already, one of which is really for when they reach max level. But if they decide that some random side monster is more important to investigate I'll happily write a story about that random encounter I rolled the other session :) I feel that this makes it a collaborative effort to create a living breathing world.

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