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I am DMing 5e for a group at my job, but we are finding it very hard to find a suitable schedule for everyone. We are all very busy with unpredictable schedules and frequent work travels. Currently we have done one session, but only 3 people showed up out of a dozen that were interested.

I was thinking of introducing a mechanic to deal with scheduling issues in-game, I call it the "Astral Flu". It'd be a virus from the astral plane which causes a person to be displaced in time and space every time they sneeze. So, if a person cannot be present they will be sneezed away at the beginning of the session and return at the time and place where the next session they are able to attend begins.

I think it might introduce a bit of "fun chaos", but easily devolve into story breaking mess.

I have been a player before and I know sometimes you are busy and having to stick to a strict DnD schedule can feel like another "chore", even if you enjoy yourself a lot when you are playing. I think being more accommodating can make players feel less pressured and actually look forward to the sessions and make time for it.

Has anyone attempted something similar, and how did it work? If not, what do you think are potential pitfalls or things to do/avoid to make it work better?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "DMing 5e for a group at my job" . . . clearly I have the wrong job! \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Jan 30 at 12:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may be interested in this question \$\endgroup\$ Jan 30 at 13:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ How structured your sessions are? Do you end sessions on cliffhangers? Can this sneezing thing happen in a middle of a fight? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Jan 31 at 11:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I usually try to end sessions in a cliffhanger. In this case the sneezing would happen at the begining of a fight, so I could balance the fight accordingly, since I know if someone is not coming. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 31 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you need an explanation? Your players are players, they know it's a game, they know people can't always attend. In my experience, a contrived explanation is more immersion-breaking than just ignoring it. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 2 at 10:12

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I think this is fine with player buy-in

This is not direct experience, however, some friends of mine had a similar issue for a game they played and the mechanic that they had for handling these scheduling issues was that everyone was part of some sort of magical portrait. Apparently it worked pretty well for them.

When players were able to play, their characters would burst forth from the portrait and play the game. Conversely, the characters of folks who couldn't make it were suddenly pulled into the portrait and thus unavailable.

This wasn't some sort of in-game problem that the characters were trying to solve, they were all focused upon the overall story arc. Furthermore, it wasn't a mechanic the players tried to use in a manner to gain an advantage. The portrait was just something someone in the party was always carrying around.

Session summaries were shared in a group chat, so when different players for one session showed up, they'd pre-game by reviewing the summary and go from there. The in-game reason for this is that while characters were stuck in the portrait, they could still kind of hear and see things. You might suggest something similar while characters are trapped in astral space.

I think so long as the players understand this is a mechanic to explain people appearing and disappearing and not something for them to exploit you're fine.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ For a few years, I played in a campaign with a similar mechanic, and it worked fine.(The "party" was "a conveniently sized group of passive civilians", and players who showed up would have their character be one of those "out front, leading the group". When players didn't show, their character would simply join the passive group). It worked fine as long as we remembered to communicate about what happened each session. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 1 at 15:48
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I usually invent various situational reasons for the same purpose.

It often happens in my online D&D games that a player can't make it to a session. I just invent some hand-wave excuse why their character is temporarily unavailable. For example:

  • They're guarding the cart outside the dungeon
  • They're scouting ahead
  • They're off doing some research
  • They're recovering from an injury

The exact reason isn't important. It's just a band-aid to resolve the narrative inconsistency of a missing character. On occasion there will be some benefit when they return, such as recovered hit points or some useful intel. It's a handy way to give the players some information.

We use group experience, so that everyone levels up at the same time. This avoids penalizing a player for missing sessions, since their reason is usually something unavoidable. If they just didn't feel like playing, they'd probably just quit the campaign and we could replace them with another player. Usually you don't get treasure when you're away, but lately my players set aside a share of treasure for the missing player out of fairness.

Having the character be away somewhere is a good idea in general, I think. I've heard stories of groups where the rule is that someone else has to play your character while you're away, which has led to people returning to find their character died doing something stupid.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The group experience is key, even in 5E being a level behind is a problem for spellcasters. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 30 at 17:44
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My group's take

We always declare that party members unavailable are "tying their shoes". What exactly that means varies from character to character; they are assumed to being doing something off-screen, or else had part of their equipment/wardrobe (suddenly but reparably) malfunction. This way, they are still moving with the party, just distracted. Sometimes we say they're dealing with a different threat, or oversleeping, but "tying their shoes" is always the "code" when someone has stepped away.

The only issues I see with using "Astral Flu" are

  1. As Pyro has already identified, it could potentially be 'abused' for easy access to pseudo-planar travel if the players don't have buy-in with it being just a missing player mechanic.
  2. Flu-teleported characters would have little to no capability/inclination to follow the party and not do any other exploring.

Address these, and it seems like it could be a pretty fun way to handle the situation. Also know, there are much simpler answers that also work if you don't want to go that in-depth into why it's happening.


Alternatively, you could lean into the mechanic. Have parts of the story happen off-screen on the Astral plane, and provide the missing character(s)' players with information to give to the group when they return. This has the benefit of increasing engagement for people who couldn't make it, and explains what they were doing on the other side. Perhaps an otherworldly entity, the source of the Flu, takes partial control of said characters to show them important things the group might have missed, and makes sure to 'deposit' back where the group is for when they "sneeze" back.

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Frame challenge: 12 players is a LOT to manage and having just one active adventure/quest at a time may be limiting.

I am currently involved in two campaigns as a player, one has 3 remaining players and the other has 10 players with 16 player characters. The larger campaign is a west marches style campaign and I think this sort of setup may help solve some of the problems you seem to be encountering:

  1. Irregular availability among players
  2. Players not necessarily having enough time to commit to a full adventure in a single session
  3. High number of total players

With a setup like west marches, you can seamlessly run multiple active quests in parallel - removing the need to have all characters on every quest but brought in and out of a pocket dimension. Whilst our group found that occasionally this meant your primary character could be stuck on an unfinished quest when a new one popped up that you'd like to join - we allowed some people to create a secondary character to fill out numbers and minimise level disparity. This also removes any "pressure" from players to make regular commitments - allowing for people to drop in and drop out of the campaign depending on real life events and scheduling.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't know about west marches! It sounds really fun and suits all my needs. I am now thinking of making a map with lots of islands (kinda like Greece), and have the party's homebase be on a ship, which they can move around the map. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 1 at 14:38
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Should work fine

My group worships Abscencia, the goddess of plot holes and road maintenance. If you're not there, she makes it so that you were never there, and so the plot reshapes itself to match. Similarly, when you're at a session and you missed the previous, she makes it so that you were there the whole time.

Like yours, this is a silly bit of fluff that solves the primary problem: we don't want the game to break down because someone is sick or busy. As long as you're willing to treat this as a meta-game solution (the PCs never interact with it at all), it's workable.

If it's an in-game solution you run the risk of creating a perverse incentive: a player might feel that it's necessary (for plot or other reasons) for them to miss a session, which is obviously something to be avoided.

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If one character is carrying the MacGuffin the party needs for some quest, or some special equipment that's a key part of some plan, an in-world explanation that involves vanishing without warning wouldn't give them a chance to hand it off to someone else.

This would potentially create in-game obstacles for the players who did make it to the session, which might or might not be fun to solve. I'd guess most of the time it would be a negative, and extra work for the DM to come up with a way for the PCs to e.g. get through a door without the key they'd found or been given. And might make the absent player feel worse about missing the session if it creates extra obstacles for the people who could play.

So that's something you want to avoid. If you're ok with hand-waving stuff like this, like "Jerry felt a sneeze coming on and dropped items X, Y, and Z", then sure it's a fun narrative explanation. I think you'd want to be flexible, like if the players don't remember an item until an hour or two of adventuring, still let them say "we would have got X from Jerry before he disappeared".

Everyone knows this isn't 100% realistic, and agrees not to look too hard at the speed of thought required to anticipate which pieces of party equipment / items need to get handed out when someone feels they're about to sneeze. As others have said, any mechanic can work if players buy-in to the idea that it only exists to work around real-world scheduling problems, and should have as little impact on in-game reality as possible.

Some of the suggestions in other answers would give time for the absent PC to say things and distribute equipment. Or potentially even for the present PCs to go back and get something from them, if you don't want to hand-wave that they anticipated the party would need something to solve a problem they hadn't seen yet.

(I'm still talking about shared party items, usually quest-related. I'm not suggesting they should borrow the missing character's magic items, like a chime of opening even if they anticipate needing to get through a door. Unless they discuss things like this with the absent player ahead of time.)

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I reccomend you to read this article from The Alexandrian blog (the whole blog is worth reading, but that's besides the point).

In the article he rediscovers a play style that has self-contained sessions. The classical form is that you have some megadungeon that will be explored in a series of "raids", each taking exactly one session, that start and end in the same base town. Different charcters can embark in the current expedition depending on which players are present.

Naturally this style is a pre-Dragonlance kind of game, where the emphasis is more on the exploration and less on following one narrative.

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