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A problem that can arise when not everyone can make it to the table is that someone running the absent person's character may make choices or decisions that are either out of character, don't sit well with the party, or don't sit well with the absent person once said player returns and exclaims:
"You did what? That isn't what my (character) would do!"

The original scenario is from Can divine smite be non lethal?:

... the player that plays this paladin missed the session, and the paladin's actions before have danced on that line between vengeful and mercy. The player replacing him only wanted to smite because his damage otherwise would reduce the enemy to 1 hp, and then rolled max damage for smite. I then gave him the option of not smiting and let it go another round or smite and kill. They left the decision up to the roll of the dice and ended up smiting.

While this was about the "kill or knockout" decision in combat, numerous in game choices confront any of us playing another's character for an evening. This has more to do with RP elements of playing a character, not any tactical error or omission. Since other players are at the table anyway, the tactical issues can usually be addressed in situ.

Our current group is faced a missing player frequently, as various work and family schedules mean that we rarely get all of us to the table at once. (Other than the GM, who is a gem!) While I have yet to encounter this sort of friction in our current group, I've seen it before and it can lead to interpersonal friction.

This inquiry is related to How do I deal with absent players missing out on levels or XP? and How do you plan a character's actions when the player is absent?, but narrows it down to "we decided to have X run the absent player" as the point of departure. I thus don't think it's a dupe.

What is the most effective way to resolve this conflict—either as players or GM—successfully so that it is acceptable to the party, is acceptable to the absent player, and prevents this becoming a problem in later sessions?

The answer "don't have that character played for that session" Is Not Acceptable.

In many cases, keeping the group together is needed for XP progression, party balance, and the continuing story line of the party remaining as cohesive as RL schedules allow.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Good edit, I was contemplating how to approach that myself. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 10 '15 at 1:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ yeah, good edit, says it more concisely. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 10 '15 at 4:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, Looks like a team effort, but this is a very nicely written question. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Jul 11 '15 at 3:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm glad you wrote the question instead of me. I couldn't have done nearly this good. \$\endgroup\$ – bloodmonarcy Jul 11 '15 at 21:29
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The best way I use to resolve this is utilizing a set of principles when characters are going to be trading hands occasionally. This set of principles is a type of contract in which a player running a character who belongs to somebody else has to adhere to, no exceptions. Ultimately, it's not a matter of the person running the character making the decision, it's the characters personality making the decision. If it's OOC for this paladin to smite a target instead of knocking it out, then the person screwing with the paladin's personality is being disruptive instead of a team player. Anyways, a set of principles that tie to the character is an easy way to avoid this problem. I recommend taking a look at D&D 5e character backgrounds for reference to the kinds of principles I'm talking about.

If you look at this set of principles like a contract, the DM can enforce it by referring to the player's principles and overruling a stand in player's decision because it's not in keeping with the way that character would have been played. So if this player's paladin wouldn't steal in general, and refuses to tell a lie without a very strong justification, there's no reason to permit a stand in player to do either of those things.

If the principles for a player are too vague, and somebody can ask, "Yeah, but what if [insert perfectly plausible scenario here] happens?" Then that needs to be hammered out and the principles need to be refined to be more specific. In general, avoid broad sweeping statements or absolute words, like: Never, Always, Won't, Has to.

To transmit this information, I also recommend looking at a D&D 5e character sheet. You'll see columns for Principles, Boons, Flaws, etc. This is a great way to have an up front list of things that your character stands for, is susceptible to, and is likely to do in a situation.

If you aren't playing 5e, just write out a list that you can attach to a player's character sheet which covers his guiding actions.

Some example principles (not divided, just a listing):

Will choose power and greed over life and law. Strong sense of justice and fair play. Attempts to ensure equal treatment and fair shares. Honest, courageous and devoted to ending unnecessary suffering in the world. Devious, cunning and sly, a true charlatan with a silver tongue and a quick wit.

Anyways, those are guiding principles. When you start getting into the specifics, you start getting into morals. So for instance, this paladin could have a moral such as: Will visit vengeance upon the wicked, but will accept surrender and has a spot of mercy for those not tainted by evil. So this would allow the DM to indicate that a new pirate recruit just didn't have any options, and didn't really seem to be on board with the whole rape and murder thing they had going. The paladin's insight could cover this and then he would make a moral decision NOT to smite the crew mate to death, but rather to knock them out and indenture them in some manner of community service to pay restitution for the criminal lifestyle. However the pirate captain in the same situation would be reasonably granted no quarter due to his/her atrocious nature.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "Have the missing player write down general guidelines for how their character acts." It won't get the edge cases, but it'll solve the more common situations without a fuss. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jul 10 '15 at 3:55
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During the absence

Start with this pretty simple equation:

character without a player = non-player character

Any non-player character who is a party member should be placed under the provisional control of a player but the GM should veto any actions that in the GM's opinion are in conflict with the NPC's personality or morality. I can see no reason why I would make a distinction between a permanent NPC and a temporary NPC.

Upon return

Apart from purely mechanical effects (hp, gp, dead/alive changes etc.), the character should suffer no lasting benefits or penalties from their actions.

Any reputational or status changes from say, murdering the princess' kittens, should attach to the character who's player was in control of the absent player's character. If you are worried about verisimilitude:

  1. Don't, or
  2. "Ah, the paladin did the deed but we knows it was the evil rogue that was really behind it."

Be careful of My Guy syndrome

See What is "my guy syndrome" and how do I handle it?

You say "You did what? That isn't what my (character) would do!" - be careful. Characters do nothing; how can they? They are imaginary constructs in an imaginary world.

The actions that the character takes are wholly and solely determined by the player playing it.

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I'd suggest:

  • If, at the time, everyone agrees an action is OOC, it shouldn't happen (even if one player is mainly playing the absent PC)
  • If, at the time, everyone agrees an action is unfairly dangerous for the PC, it shouldn't happen. In compensation, the GM should have monsters pay less attention to the PC (and tone down encounter difficultly a little if the PCs presence but lesser involvement makes it a difference).

If, despite that, something happens which is a big deal to the PC, I'd suggest offering the PC a choice:

  • Either work it into the story if it seems interesting
    • "yes, I TOTALLY want to play a lycanthropy-infected PC, that's awesome!"
    • "oh yes, I've been teetering on the brink for ages, I'm not surprised I lost it and killed someone in combat"
    • with GM agreement, a retcon: there was a particular reason, a mind effect or something, that caused the ooc action, which will be resolved next session. Use this sparingly, it's a stretch! But occasionally interesting.
  • Or, just sort of ignore it. Assume the combat was resolved in the same way, but the lycanthropy or murder didn't happen.
    • Some people don't like this because it doesn't make logical sense. But it keeps the important things, did the party survive, and did the character act in character. And only changes minor things (did the enemy have 1hp or 0hp at that point?)

If this is an ongoing problem, you may want to agree these ground rules in advance. If not, maybe just assume it for this particular case

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