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I'm starting a D&D (5e) club at my school. As most high schoolers don't show up to every club meeting, how can I account for this in creating parties? The club will likely have 20+ members, so multiple campaigns is a must.

However, if someone is a no-show, what are the other player's options?

They could join another campaign with existing character sheets, but that could create a temporary party of 6 or 7, not the best for a 2 hour session.

What are the DM's options for continuing gameplay without a player? The player is likely to return the next session.

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closed as too broad by SevenSidedDie Aug 27 '15 at 13:29

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for taking the time to post a question on the site! Don't hesitate to take the tour and if you have any questions, please let us know! \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Aug 25 '15 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ An important question: do you expect to have a closure at the end of each session, or could you end up a session in the midst of an encounter/fight? Having PCs disappear from the latter is... tricky. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Aug 25 '15 at 14:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Two topics related regarding absent players and filling in for other players \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 25 '15 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ All answers should be from the point of view of Good Subjective, Bad Subjective - something you've done or can reference and how it turned out. Speculation and "ideas" without experience backing them up will be mocked and downvoted. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 26 '15 at 0:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ BTW, I answered this question on the assumption that you read the DMG advice and it didn't sit well. If that isn't the case, I'll include the DMG advice into my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Aug 26 '15 at 5:07

17 Answers 17

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Megadungeon

  1. All sessions start in the village.
  2. At any time when not in peril and the party knows the way back the party can declare that they return to the village - this ends the session.
  3. If the session time expires before they return, roll on the "What really bad thing happens to my PC while returning to the village" table.

Shamelessly nicked from http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1223/roleplaying-games/opening-your-game-table and somewhere else I can't remember - follow the links and you'll get there.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I love running this way with a megadungeon. It could work just fine for a wilderness hex crawl (West Marches style, see Dan B's answer) \$\endgroup\$ – jdigaetano Aug 25 '15 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for The Alexandrian's Dungeon Escape Table--it's what one of my groups uses. Players have to start the next session declaring how, specifically, any negative outcome effects their character. One mod: the "you become a monster" entry we read as 'you become, figuratively, a monster.' I.e. 'you did something on the way out that makes others view you in a new light.' \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Aug 26 '15 at 2:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Those rules are also used in Darkest Dungeon \$\endgroup\$ – Chip McCormick Aug 26 '15 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ "and the party knows the way back" -- top GMing tip, don't create situations where the party doesn't know the way back unless you know you have the room for a few more hours ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Aug 27 '15 at 8:01
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Disclaimer: I actually play in a campaign that is now 1 year old and where it is frequent to have one missing player regularly (if more than one, we do not play); I would actually say that we have had more sessions with an incomplete attendance than sessions with a complete attendance.

It is possible to have a long running campaign with spotty attendance, it is just a matter of, as a group, addressing the issue up-front.

When we started the campaign, we knew up-front that some sessions would not convene with every one:

  • we made sure that every player was aware of the fact, and agreed to still convene
  • we made sure that every absent player would know what we would do with its character

For the latter, we use two strategies:

  • as much as possible, the PC is still absent (scouting ahead, rear guard, whatever makes sense)
  • if not possible (stopped in middle of encounter or PC really necessary for encounter), then the PC is played as passively as possible, almost as if it were absent, and evacuated as soon as possible

Obviously, this requires the cooperation of the GM (who notably has to play the passive PC and adapt the encounter level) but also the cooperation of the other players (to play along with the "reason for absence").

Up until now, and with a maximum of one single missing player per session out of six, it has worked well. I would note that the composition of the party, with Cleric, Druid and Sorcerer, makes it extremely suited to this style as we have some redundancy.

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I always prefer to solve this problem inside the story. Just an example:

The PCs are all bound together by a magical tattoo they each bear. They are the Chosen agents of an unknown (or known, for that matter) powerful entity. For reasons only clear to this entity, a PC may just disappear in a puff of thick smoke. Sometimes another PC appears in his/her place.

This entity could be a djinn, a spirit, a divine being, a demon, an old one, nature or whatever you see fit. The one returning from the smokey place always comes back to reality with a faint or general recollection of what the others have been up to.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This makes the players sound like Pokemon balls or something :) lol \$\endgroup\$ – Ditto Aug 25 '15 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've used this method to good effect as well. In my case, the entity was a large, powerful mercenary organization with an efficient teleportation system but sometimes sketchy logistics. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason Whitish Aug 25 '15 at 17:29
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You might try running a West Marches campaign. Quote from the ruleset:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do.

In other words, every session began with some subset of players getting together, scheduling time with the DM, and deciding where they wanted to go questing.


Something like the West Marches is a big commitment, though. If you're looking to run a more normal-scale campaign, here are the rules I use:

(1) The game will happen if at least four players are present. If we don't have four players, the game is canceled.

(2) If you drop out, we retcon that your character has never existed. If you come back, we retcon that your character has always existed and has been with the party from the start.

(3) If you can't make a session and you notify me in advance, you get the same XP and GP. Playing at a lower level than the other players isn't fun, and I don't want to force that on people if they missed due to life interfering.

(4) I am willing to assign XP penalties if people show up late or go AWOL. I've found that for some players the threat of a penalty is necessary to get them to treat my game with respect.

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The easy way would be having every session be a one-shot*. No issues with XP and loot-sharing, no issues with having to deal with PC left "mindless" because of absent players, no issues with several people having to catch up on the story every now and then because they missed the previous adventure, and many more problems easily resolved.

Inconsistent party-members

However, this may get boring at some point. If you want to plan a great adventure or even a campaign instead of a dungeon, only organising one-shots surely wouldn't help. The main problem would be the inconsistency of the players in the "main" party. There are a few ways to solve this:

  • Have every session end in a busy place. This is to make sure it's logical when the "main" party gets switched in and out, as long as there is at least one player/PC left from the previous adventure. For example, you end in the main city and the rogue of the party couldn't keep his greedy fingers in his pockets and is now stuck in jail, or the wizard wants to read every single book in the library to make sure he's not missing out on any valuable information.
  • Have your players be part of an organisation. Your party-members are all part of a great Guild of Adventurers, or are all mercenaries. The down-side to this method is that if your planned adventure takes longer than one session, you can't switch between the players in the party without a very good reason. More people could of course join the group and be promised a part of the loot for example, but you can't suddenly have people leave in the middle of the adventure, unless there is a very good reason for it. For example, the character got kidnapped, and is now held hostage by the main baddy.
  • Make sure everyone has a back-up character. If half of a group of mercenaries disappear without a legitimate reason, it may be a good idea to simply pause this campaign and have the players join another. Having a back-up character sheet at hand will make this a whole lot easier.

There have also been asked many questions on this site about how to deal with one specific player often being absent. I'm afraid I can't link them right now, but looking those up might prove to be a big help to you as well. For example, How to RP the character of an absent player? (1 2 3)

Inconsistencies between party-members

Now, another problem you may encounter is differences of loot and XP between players. I can only advise you to use the system of group-XP and group-loot. This means that you don't track XP and loot individually, rather as a group. When a new PC (re)joins the party, make sure it has the same level and amount of loot as the rest of the party.

Several campaigns

I won't say this is a bad solution. It is, however, a bad idea unless you have someone else DM these campaigns. I advise against you running several campaigns at once, especially when you're new to this game. If you think you need several campaigns, look for someone willing to DM the others.**


*One-shots are simply dungeons or adventures that take no longer than one session. This means the players can play new characters every session if they want, and consistency between sessions is not necessary.
**Do note that there is a significant difference between adventures and campaigns. One DM can prepare several adventures in one campaign, but preparing several campaign is almost too much work.

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I ran a campaign where they were on a boat. Anyone that didn't show up was considered to be staying on the boat when the party went inland or they were below deck when stuff happened on the boat. It required the players to overlook instances where an absent member would be perfect for said encounter, but overall it worked rather well.

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There is of course the option to just ignore the fact that you have some continuity issues.

The story is about the players who are there. You don't have to explain why another player is not there if you don't want to.

If it bothers a player, allow them to come up with their own theory as to how to solve the mystery. Perhaps they were too focused to notice the character was there, or they noticed an absence but the reason is shrouded in secrecy.

Your game will not be negatively affected if you have a missing player, unless you make a big deal out of it.

This is how most games I have played in or DMed have been handled. I have never been able to play in a situation where every player always showed up for every game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this something you have done or seen done? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 26 '15 at 0:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, many times. \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Aug 26 '15 at 5:03
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This may or may not help you, based on your overall situation. But I run a fairly large (too large, honestly) group of 7 players and this is what I do when someone can't make a session when we're in the midst of an adventure.

I have a collection of standard characters, and a number of flexible "one shot" adventures. The character sheets are passed out randomly (usually by die roll) and we play the one shot.

I've also encouraged my players to come up with short adventures of their own, to give them a chance to run (and myself a chance to play) an adventure.

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I ran a campaign in a large, tough city where all adventures could begin and end at the tavern, so whoever was available to play in a given session would go adventuring. For long field campaigns this doesn't work. The solution we use is for the DM to have a copy of everyone's character sheets. If a player is not there then their character is treated as an NPC and is run by either the DM or another player. These characters usually stay in the background but join in whenever fighting is called for. If another player is running the character the DM has veto power over any actions that would be out of line with that character's personality, and should intervene if necessary to avoid killing off the character.

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Having run a fairly long running gameworld that involved ... lots of games with 'whoever turned up' and GM swapping. The most satisfactory method we found was to set up a game world that was suited for short-ish adventures in said gameworld rather than an ongoing dungeon crawl

We could - and did - develop ongoing plot, recurring characters and themes because that didn't actually matter if some of the players missed pieces of it.

So to this end, we had a small village/town, where our 'heroes' grew up and started adventuring. (When we got to a higher level, there was a migration to a city and an 'adventurers guild').

The general setup for each adventure was that it was:

  • Self contained - even if 'unfinished' there was an excuse for them to all return home at the end of the 'session'. Reasons for this included:

    • badly injured prisoners who needed urgent evacuation.
    • fatigue/resource depletion - need to 'go home' to rest.
    • Some environmental constraint that limits time (toxic gas build up, tidal flooding etc.)
    • A tough enough obstacle that we couldn't handle it at that point in the adventure. (e.g. rock fall. Go home, get shovels, it'll take you a couple of days to clear)
  • Each of the PCs who attended were expected to have a motive to 'join in' - whilst some adventures are 'strong hooks' to get particular characters to go, each player was expected to play someone who had a reason to go and save the day. (Greed was fine. So was sense of duty. Or boredom. Whatever worked).

  • Each of the PCs was expected to have a 'downtime' - set the timeframe between adventures appropriately. If they were unavailable, that was the default explanation. (Some had a farm to look after, and 'couldn't go out whilst there was lambing'. Others had a trade company, and was off in another town with a wagon train etc.).

  • anyone who couldn't make it was 'bump leveled' if needs be, such that there were no large level gaps building up. (This was optional, depending on if the person GMing felt their game would 'work' with a level 3 tagging along with some level 10s. But generally we tried to keep a reasonable spread).

  • A 'magic shop' that let the adventurers buy some very low level utility magic stuff. Because we couldn't rely on a wizard/cleric turning up any given session, this shop would stock a small selection of utility items, like potions of cure light wounds. The party should notice the lack of 'support' classes, but we didn't want character deaths simply because no one was playing a healer this session.

Broadly it worked - after a while, we found the 'regulars' were storming off ahead in level, where 'occasionals' didn't, so we ended up with split party or 'low level' games where the 'regulars' ran lower level characters. Again, you can 'peg' groups together and you'll tend to get clumping - the people who are there most of the time will end up about the same level as each other.

Likewise - we found we outgrew our little village - a small town isn't really big enough for some high level heros. But that's ok - part of our game was the worldbuilding - many of the characters had reasons to sink their wealth into development, making the "village" grow as high level adventurers decided to run trading companies as their 'sidelines'.

This did lead to some very odd party mismatches though. It was rather fun to try and do certain quests with a party of 4 fighters, and find the 'fighter pick lock' (kick the door until it falls over - and alert every hostile in the area). Some adventures had to be shelved because of who turned up, and left for another session. But others .... having a non standard party was an explanation for the adventure in the first place.

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If you expact a flexible player base, you could turn the setting flexible aswell. Something like: The PCs work as mercenaries and are part of mercenarie buisness. With that the contracts they have to do change and therefor different PC join in, depending on which players are around.

The problematic part will be XP/loot. Either you give every player something for the evening he's in. But in that case player that are there every game will have an advantage over players that miss some games and those could lose interest if they feel inferior. The other way around you could give a fix XP amount for ever PC for every evening that happens and Player that miss one get the XP for it on the next evening. And loot could go in a company-treshhold. But with that player that are allways there could feel that they do the work for the others. Either way, chances are high that someone will be pissed at some point.

I'd try to do something in the middle: A base amount of XP for every Player for every evening that happens, no matter if they are in or not. And a base of equip that every PC can use. common and uncommon loot goes in there. Player that take part in an evening can get bonus XP for good roleplay and theirfor have a chance got get a reward for beeing there. And they get a chance for special loot. Mostly the stuff, that is cool, but not that usefull. Stuff that is great to form your character but other player won't feel inferior if tey don't have it.

In the end you'll have to do a lot of balancing to give every player a good feeling.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this something you have really done or seen done? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 26 '15 at 0:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk I havn't done a campaign based on that. But I sometimes use that when players miss an evening or join in later. They than get start-XP based on what the group got jet. \$\endgroup\$ – DocRattie Aug 26 '15 at 7:25
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I personally work the missing characters into the story.

Example:

In my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign, we had a session where half of the group was gone. The other half played through the Dragon Hatchery successfully.

As for the 3 who were missing, I had them take the Greatsword Hazirawn and find a way to destroy it. That way the three had a task worthy of gaining a level, and got to remain vital to the story. To add some flavour, the sword dominated the Paladin (who had just hit level 3 and needed to take an Oath), and he told me he wanted Oath of Vengeance. When the sword was destroyed, it released the soul of a lich they will encounter later, who is the target of this Paladin's Oath of Vengeance for dominating his person and having him attempt to slay the innocent.

When I was missing two other characters the following game, I had them captured in the middle of magical transit and later used as hostage bargaining chips in a high stakes bluff game. Basically, the party was given a choice between helping the enemy defect, or willingly converting to serve Tiamat and shift alignment.

The point is that when you have characters frequently go missing, you can talk to them and have them collaborate with you to fill in a compelling reason for them to go missing for periods at a time. Our Paladin has missed 2 games in a row now, so his character has been suffering horribly from the possession of the blade. The fighter who was missing told me he wants to become a Paladin as well, and the convenience of that allows me to make the magical sleep an adventure into the afflicted Paladin's mind in order to stabilize him, while also giving the fighter the story element required to introduce him to being a Paladin.

Be creative. There's lots you can do with missing characters. Just don't kill (or allow your PC's) to kill people when they aren't there (unless you have their permission.) Otherwise you may breed some seriously bad blood at the table.

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My personal experience was making it a school where the PCs attended. Certain people would get exercises that took them far off, and some would be the main focus. It helps to have a crew of NPCs to use as back-up and/or cannon fodder.

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Summon individual heroes based on participation

Have each of the people who has the ability to participate in your game roll up a character and create a small one-shot campaign whenever any of them choose to show up to the club to play the game. Normally dungeon crawls are best for this. Heroes are summoned as mediators in a conflict by a group of summoners from a group to solve problems in your game world.

Using this, the Summoners are the actual People in real life, and the characters within the game are the summoned avatars that the Summoners have chosen to represent them in game.

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I've got another answer that is specific to the Gothic horror Ravenloft Campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, but perhaps it has potential in general.

In the setting there are inscrutable godlike 'Dark Powers' who control the ubiquitous 'mists'. In published adventures, the mists are usually what has mysteriously appeared and whisked PC's from different places into Ravenloft, and then (if the PCs are lucky) puts them back afterward the adventure is over.

Importantly, though, there is no definition anywhere as the Dark Powers are, or what their motivations are (perhaps they have a grand, convoluted schemes, or perhaps they are whimsical) Either way, when the mists rise, a party on the road to the city of Darkon, might find themselves after a misty night passing a sign that says 'Barovia'.

Mechanically, these two things are simply tools for a GM to teleport PCs in from other realms. Perhaps there's some use in this for a gaming group with spotty attendance.

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I'm in a group that's been running a campaign series for 2 years now and we are quite frequently missing a player.

We have the agreement of all players that, should they not make the meeting, their character will be an NPC/mainly passive character. They don't make any decisions, but provide their skills where necessary, eg. healing, scouting or lockpicking. The GM usually rolls for them. They are not present for fights... it's assumed that they're hanging around at the back of the party.

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You have it slightly harder than me, I have just 10-15 players (changes over time), average number of player in a session is four. I run my campaign for almost seven years, so no problem.

Disclaimer: I run GURPS, not DnD, but I think I know the latter enough to address main system issues.

My experience is quite similar to sobrique's - he already explained it well. I would add few details:

Expect your party build to change over time. I usually prepare two adventures, one more focused on fighting and the other on stealth action, mystery solving and diplomacy - then I just pick up the one that suits the current party better. This is especially hard with DnD which expects well-rounded party - but even though some feel otherwise, removing or adding few traps and locks to accomodate your plan to lack of thief or a party consisting mostly of rogues is no shame. In

I give the absent PCs half of the average XP gained by the present ones for this session. This way, regulars still get stronger than occasionals, but not too much. Most players have just one PC, but two of the regulars made another character to split their screentime and XPs between them and to better fit party builds (both have a fighter and a mage). The third factor to prevent level disparity from being a problem is that I often let the PCs solved tasks they are or are not optimized for (our high-level mage faced several surprise attacks by assassin teams, and I give our newer and lower-level mage at least one opportunity each session to outshine her stronger colleage by having just the right spell in her spelllist). The last reason doesn't fit to DnD so much: our highest level PC is a wrestler whose best combat skill is brawling and weapon skills are secondary - clearly suboptimal build. So if some players know they will play often, you can encourage them to take the challenge of some handicap (like "I won't use any weapon except for my trusty non-magical broadsword!", or "I take fists into swordfight wherever I can" as in our case) to compensate for their high level.

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