I'm currently playing in a D&D:Next game using Roll20. The group is supposed to meet every Friday night, but invariably, somebody can't make it. If more than just one or two people are unavailable, then we postpone for Saturday or cancel altogether. However, I have friends who would love to play, but we already have enough players - we just don't have enough who show up consistently. I'd like to suggest to the GM that my friends act as substitute players: that is, that they would play the character of somebody who couldn't make it.

I know that we would need to have this vetted by each of the players in the group: one person may not want someone else to play his character, especially if the two don't know each other.

  • Have you tried this (or similar) before?
  • Is this fair (to the players who are "part of the group", and to the players who would act as substitutes)?
  • What advantages and disadvantages can we expect from this kind of set up?
  • What types of issues might we run into?

The RPG and Virtual Table information are included as background to the question; I believe that most answers will not be dependent on those facts.

These questions are relevant to the situation, but don't appear to answer the same question:

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ We had this problem for a while, but then switched to a highly episodic campaign where we were "gladiators" being put through wierd challenges for sport. Since each match is independent, it didn't matter if different people were there each week. (It also became interesting because suddenly daily abilities became very commonly used) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 22:19

5 Answers 5


Have I tried it before?

I have tried this solution to the problem you are presenting here a few times in the past. I've tried it with 3 of my groups at the time (about 4-5 years ago) with different amounts of success. I've also seen it used in 2 of the groups I've played with, when I've still mostly played, and again with different amounts of success.

Is it fair?

I think that it is mainly group specific. Some of the groups I had really liked the idea, while others practically hated it. The real answer here is not on the web but in the minds of your GM and the other players. I would really ask them, politely as I can, but still ask them about how they see it and from there I'll decide.

What Issues can you run to?

I think that first and foremost, if not the whole group is for this idea it can really hurt the sense of unity in the group. It is hard to plan something with a player, and then when another one plays her character to plan the thing all over again because the new player doesn't know what has been planned or this isn't her style or something.

More than that, people can feel alienated from the group. Group dynamic is something that takes time to build, and each and every time that you add players you need to start building those dynamics from scratch. This means that more time of every session will be spent in creating those dynamics again. More than that, because some of the players will play the same characters in different times, it will feel even more alienated when the group dynamics will start to form between the characters also. If with one character the dynamic is more of a master and a subordinate when it is player A and BFF when it is player B the dynamic with both of those players will take a hit and something will feel stuck.

More than that, some players have preferences for which characters they want to play. When you give them what is free for them for this session you might give to a player a character type that she doesn't like. This can result in a bad game experience for that particular player and she may not come again (or at least not with the same enthusiasm).

What are the advantages of such a set-up?

First and foremost, it frees the GM from the need to play those PCs. We don't want the GM to have GMPCs, and this is the main danger when we give PCs to the GM. After all, when we give her those PCs, we actually give her the excuse to have GMPCs.

More than that, we free other players from having to play those PCs, thus letting them play their characters for the fullest experience possible. This means a greater chance for great roleplaying.

In addition, it adds voices and brains to the group when some players (brains) are missing. This may help to solve riddles or to persuade NPCs, for example. It also gives all of them more time to think about things.

My present solution

As I've stated in the first section, I don't use this solution anymore. Nowadays, when I have this problem, I play in the "Guild-of-Adventurers" format. This means that whoever comes to the session gets the time to play, and every player has a character of his or her own. This prevents most of the damages without sacrificing that much of the unity of the campaign.

The main thing to keep in mind, when using this solution, is that adventurers should be quite episodic. The adventure should end when the session ends.

And an end

Hope I succeeded with helping you a little bit.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, having an inconsistent audience makes it harder to run games with plots that span multiple sessions, since players will frequently need to be caught up on things they missed and will probably never have a perfect understanding of what happened even when they are. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 23:59

Problems with substitutes

I have played around with this a little (but not in D&D:Next, as explained shortly), and in my experience it generally does not work well. People tend to be attached to their characters and it can be uncomfortable to have someone else play them. No one else will play them the way their player would after all.

This is especially true if they come to decision points that will have long term consequences for the character (and arguably any use of an expendable resources has some consequences for a while at least).

Genre matters

As I said, this has not worked out well from what I have seen. However, I tend to play in games with heavy story elements. I could easily see this as working quite well in a tactically based game that de-emphasized story and focused on the battles, especially if the characters tend to gain more than they would lose in story so that no one would have reason to complain about expended resources.


What I have seen work relatively well is to have the GM (rather than another player) play the character as an NPC with a certain amount of plot armor. That means the team is not down a character, but the plot-armor will ensure that that PC neither faces a character defining moment nor loses any resources.

This of course is far from perfect and can lead to a certain amount of Deus-Ex, but it seems the best middle ground from what I have tried.

Another thing that I have seen work is to rotate the characters in and out as players are available. As far as why one character is suddenly not there and another is...that just gets handwaved. If there is a convenient reason, then it can be supplied, otherwise it works reasonably well to just gloss over that and have it happen.


There isn't any straight answer, but there is one possible obvious answer:

Talk to your friends.

It is pretty normal for people to not be okay with other's playing their characters, especially if those players don't know each other (well). You must discuss this with your player group. Obviously everyone needs to be present or at least have had the chance to voice their opinion. So I would bring this up the next time all of you can make it to the meeting.

An attempt to answer some of your other concerns:


  • The campaign doesn't stall as much, and your party will continue to progress even in the absence of the players controlling the characters.
  • It can give you a pleasant break from only having your own character to roleplay.
  • Having an additional character to take care of can provide new angles to scenarios.


  • It may be difficult for the substitute player to play another player's character convincingly. This could break the immersion.
  • It may be difficult for the substitute player to play two characters at the same time.
  • The character's owner could lose track of how his character is developing. The substitute player should have a good idea of what the owner wants to do with their character, which can be hard to communicate, or could even be a secret for the rest of the group!
  • Making decisions for another player can and will have long-term consequences for that character!

Suggestions if you are going to substitute players

  • In between sessions, you could have every player email or tell the GM the general direction they want their character to go.
  • To keep developing the character, it is important that the substitute player does not upgrade any skills without the owner's consent. This is likely to cause frustration later.
  • It may be a good idea to have a 'character buddy'. The idea is that every player elects another player to always be chosen as their substitute player. Both you and your buddy know what kind of direction you want to go with your character.
  • When both the owner of a character and their substitute player cannot attend the next session, move it to Saturday or cancel. At best it could cut your cancellations in half because you have already agreed on who takes over for you.
  • It's a good idea if you substituted for anyone that you give them a quick summary of what happened in the last session before the next session, so that the GM doesn't need to keep track of the details of every character.
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer has good content, but the question is more about having somebody who isn't part of the core group play the character of the missing player, and not having somebody play two characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – GamerJosh
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 20:50


Now I don't have an issue with substitute players playing different characters, if there is a reasonable way to fit them in. Or maybe even semi-reasonable (Hal Jordan. Another time shift. I'm up to speed, carry on.).

But they should not be playing another person's character. You can't run the risk of a sub getting someone else's character killed. Or using disposable items. Or getting a permanent item destroyed. Or even using renewable resources.

How would you react if you came back to find out the Jimmy had been using your character, wasted your fireball to take out a room full of goblins, and got your character poisoned and had to use your only antidote? You probably wouldn't be to happy. And as DM there is no fair solution. If you give the potion and spell back it's not fair to the other players. But if you don't you are effectively penalizing him for the sub's mistakes.


I ran several games (Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, D&D, Rolemaster... and of course, Ars Magica) where there was a main character per player. If the player could not make the session, the character would be played by another player who would control two characters. Clearly, the so-called "zombie" character would take a step back but still be there. This required a good amount of notes to be shared amongst the players. Sometime, the main player would nominate another player to play his character, sometimes not.

Of course, Wheaton's law is applicable when you were playing a zombie character. If everyone (players and GM) follows said law, not much can go wrong. Note that we always played more story building games rather than simulation games so character deaths were rare.

Finally, Ars Magica is build around just that idea: you have a team of magi, companions, and grogs. Who goes on an adventure is taken from that pool.

In your case, I would allow the new player to create their own character and just add said character to the mix. You might get a situation where all nine players show up and then you are going to have to master the art spotlight management. I ran games for up to 13 players. It was chaos, fun, and challenging. But it is doable.

Personally, I would not be happy to be, what feels like, a second class player.


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