Some of my players (myself included) will always set time aside to play our weekly D&D 5e games, but others are more casual about their attendance, and won't make it most of the time, except when it's convenient for them. This leaves usually only 2 players left and we tend to cancel a lot because of this and its beginning to frustrate me.

What is a good way to handle this situation? Play without them and reward those who do play? Find a new group with the players that attend more consistently?


12 Answers 12


Play a campaign format that is inherently flexible about players showing up.

In my group's last campaign, especially near the end, we tried really hard to get the whole group present to play – and that meant that sometimes we couldn't play for longer than we'd like. After that campaign wrapped up (and actually before that too, during the times that we couldn't get everyone there for a main-campaign session), we started doing something different that allows for that, modeled after the West Marches (blog post, youtube channel).

The basic concept is to run a series of interconnected one-shots. We've also been doing it with rotating DMs, but that's not necessary to the system.

  • There's a consistent world, which we maintain some light documentation on (a OneNote shared notebook).
  • Not every player comes every time.
  • Each player has a stable of characters to draw from. We've done 10 sessions so far, and at this point we have five people in the group, each of who has played between one and three distinct characters.
  • When we can coordinate at least a few people playing, someone volunteers to DM and prepares a one-shot (or several). Whoever can make it that time chooses a character to play, or makes a new one, and shows up.
  • The characters advance in levels and in story through the session, but they may not be around the next time. There's not a consistent party; there's a town full of adventurers with different relationships to each other, some of who are friends and have storylines together and some of who haven't interacted yet, but might on the next adventure.
  • After a session, a player writes up a recap for the shared document (we've been doing this in a character's point of view, which has been pretty fun) for anyone who wasn't there to peruse, if they'd like.

This is definitely different from a traditional campaign; it lends itself naturally to a hex crawl. But it's certainly more of a campaign than a grab-bag of unrelated one-shots.

  • Different DMs have longer storylines that play out over the course of different adventures.
  • Characters who appear in one storyline show up in another, and they interact with each other. But this rotating stable of characters lets players drop in and out without too much strife: it doesn't ruin immersion by having characters who should be deeply invested in some storyline just fade to the background, players don't miss things that they really want to be there for, they just play.
  • When an owlbear crits you through disadvantage for an instakill, you still lose a character you care about and it still has weight to it, but you don't have to manufacture some reason why some outsider comes along and joins this tightly-knit adventuring gang immediately after their old friend's death.

As a negative, this definitely limits the kinds of adventures you can have, since it's hard to break stories up into neat four-hour chunks. We've had a few interconnected sessions where certain characters are left in the middle of something, and then the next time needs to be that same set of players for continuity's sake. But if you have a few people who are regularly more available and some who aren't, it shouldn't be too long before those are the people who can play again, and in the meantime you can do something else (in the same world!) with other characters.

This is something we haven't been doing for that long, but it's been working very well so far.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 as this is going to be my solution to a similar problem. I'm glad to see that it worked for you. The only difference being that I will DM all the sessions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ladifas
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 12:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm running something similar. I like the idea of having the players each write up a summary of what happened, from their character's POV. I'll definitely add that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 Came here to suggest or find West Marches as an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aviose
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 18:07

Role playing is a leisure activity: leisure activities are, by definition, not compulsory (compulsorily activities are called "work"). You have some people who prioritise this particular activity and some who don't.

The simplest way to handle it is to play with those who show up and not punish those who don't. If you punish people for not participating in a leisure activity then their desire to continue participating is not likely to increase!

While 4-6 players (+ DM) is ideal for D&D, I have played whole campaigns with 2 and 1 is OK for a session or two.

You can either modify the difficulty of your encounters to the actual number of characters that are there or keep them active as NPCs or under the control of players who are there. For practical reasons the absentee player's characters need to gain XP so they can be in touch with the power level of the game - a 3rd level character will be a liability rather than an asset to a 12th level party.

Alternatively if you play a sandbox style (hexcrawl, mega dungeon etc) each player can have a stable of characters and picks he one that best fits the current session.

A good DM should start each session with a recap which will need more detail if there are absentee players but this is generally advantageous anyway. See How do I tie episodic sessions together to make larger campaign arcs?

Bottom Line

The more fun you make the game the more frequently players will show up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ might be worth mentioning the reason you don't punish people who don't show up: it just makes them even less motivated to show up, and builds resentment. doesn't fix the problem, just exacerbates it and creates extra problems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 22:18

I strongly recommend that you take a look at Adventurers League. This is Wizard's Organized Play league.

One of the core premises of the League is drop-in play. It was originally designed for Local Gaming Stores (LGS), but has since expanded to include home & on-line play.

A key feature that is relevant to your situation is the existence of a stacks of loosely connected adventures that are designed to be completed in 2 to 8 hours. The quests are designed for level ranges, so not everyone needs to be at the same level. The people who attend more are more likely to collect magic items and may end up playing a couple of different characters while the people who attend less will operate with just one.

It's also important to note that D&D 5e is a lot more "flat" in terms of progression. Having players at different levels will work perfectly well. Likewise, if you're following the normal rules for progression via experience, even players attending half time are likely to be within a level or two.

I'm not saying that you have to follow the full AL rules. The full rules have log sheets for experience and rules for distributing magic items and dealing with downtime days. If your players don't plan to take their characters to other AL tables, you can skip this stuff and just run the AL content for the convenience of loosely connected episodes.

Note that the Adventurer's League content runs in a 6-month season that lines up with the various adventure books they are producing. The first three seasons are available as Bundles. If you run a bundle, the regular players can enjoy the whole season and the irregular players can drop in and out for pieces. Note that this content continues, season 4 is set in Ravenloft and runs parallel to the Curse of Strahd book. Season 5 is ongoing and runs parallel to the Storm King's Thunder book.


This happens quite often in my group as well. Usually because many of our players have constantly changing work schedules that often include nights and weekends. But some of us have health issues and some of us have school-age kids. That implies concerts, plays, sports practice and teacher meetings. And some of our kids work, but don't drive, so taxi service too. It's simply not possible for everyone to show up every time, and everyone understands that. As one of these "inconsistent" players myself, I urge you to not exclude them from their semi-weekly reality escape simply because their personal schedule doesn't allow them to participate at the rate you'd prefer. If they're showing up at all, they want to play. Please, please do not punish them, you will drive them away.

I offer this suggestion as to how you might handle the situation. I works quite well for us. Your mileage may vary.

Our solution is quite simple. We just hand-wave it. We call it "watching the horses." Player Joe can't make it tonight so while we explore the dark cave, his character is outside watching the horses. We continue that session without him. When Joe returns, we catch him up on the metadata of the missed encounter(s) and then continue as if he had been with us for them. This is important -- during the encounters where he's unavailable, we play as if he's not there, and in subsequent sessions, we play as if he had been there. This gives him access to the knowledge required to continue to participate, and keeps him engaged in the story. He gets a full share of XP and loot because you don't want to have him three levels behind and poorly equipped for the next fight.

Now, this requires some adjustments on the GM's part, obviously. If Joe's character is your meat shield and he is missing a session, then the GM is going to have to tone down encounters somewhat. The ability to do this well on the fly will come with experience.

Also note, there is some amount of responsibility on the part of Joe as well. He should realize that his absence from a group that plays more often than him shouldn't put them in direct peril. I.e., he should tend to make support characters. You don't want your group's only healer to be missing half the time.

A second possibility -- if the people who always show up are the same people, you might consider running two separate campaigns, one for the two and one for everybody.


Play with the people who want to play, ignore those who don't

If you have two players who consistently want to play D&D and show up to do so you've got a solid foundation for your game. Rather than altering the game to appease people who don't really want to play (and aren't showing up) focus on these two who do want to play.

Do not award experience to characters that aren't present.

Experience, treasure, and story integration are the big three things you have available to make players feel rewarded. Handing them out unearned takes away from the game and can demotivate the kind of player that enjoys these kinds of rewards. This will naturally mean that players who show up less often will fall behind but that isn't much of a problem in 5e. If a large level gap forms address it the same way you would a character death, possibly by letting the low attendance player introduce a new higher level character. Never just bump up a low level character who hasn't earned it.

If a player isn't going to come this week but the character is involved in the adventure just have someone else play that character.

This definitely ruffles some people's feathers as they see the character as absolutely theirs, but they aren't playing this week so forget about them. Make it clear that all of the characters belong to the game/story and will be used as needed. Keep track of the character sheets yourself so you've always got the information available. If a character dies while their normal player isn't present that's a damn shame, but the way things go. If someone really doesn't like the idea of their character being played without them they are welcome to make the time to play.

If a player wants to play this week but their character isn't easily involved in the current adventure, just hand them an NPC or decline to have them this week.

This can come up easily if you're running dungeon crawls that can span multiple sessions, and particularly in situations where the characters don't start each session with a long rest. It is important not to suddenly teleport in characters who weren't previously present as this can throw off the balanced of consumed resources (spells/hp/potions) by adding a fresh pool. Instead allow the player to play an NPC for the session. This way the player still gets to play, the encounter balance stays the same, and the players who played last week aren't overshadowed by someone with fresh resources.

Alternatively if no suitable NPC is available just decline to have the incoming player play this week. Sometimes you're building toward a big pay off there's no easy way to jump in to the middle. This will likely turn off some players who prefer to come and go, but rewards the players who are consistently at your game.

When designing encounters consider that the party may have an extra person or two and make a note of how it could be scaled.

Additional creatures are an easy way of expanding encounters with groups of similar creatures. Solo-Bosses can be more of a problem as the action economy is already tipped against them. For these cases consider granting additional lair actions and HP to keep the boss at pace with a larger party. Room size and layout can be a problem with very large scaling but if it's only +/- 1 or 2 characters will generally be fine.

To Summarize: The show must go on.

You've got a solid base of players who want to play on a regular basis, and a DM who wants to run a game of a regular basis. Don't disappoint the people who want to play now by stalling the game for people who say they want to play later. Run your game and don't concern yourself overmuch with those who don't make it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Someone else played my character and did something dumb that I wouldn't have done and messed up / killed my character" is a legitimate issue that's come up before here. You may want to address that in your section that's just outright endorsing doing that without asking, and without even considering other methods like fade-to-background. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 23:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ok, well I can't support a suggestion like that which is known to cause social divisiveness and upset, so I'll just leave my downvote and move on. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 23:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe @doppelgreener is trying to say that, at least sometimes, there are problems that follow from using these techniques. \$\endgroup\$
    – Javelin
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 23:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth condensing some of these points on how this has played out in your experience into another edit to the post. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 0:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ As doppelgreener said, I believe these suggestions are more harmful than they are helpful. Punishing players who can't make it to a session is generally a bad idea, and it doesn't motivate the players to continue playing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 7:01

We have a similar situation. We are a group of gamers with age 28 and up, all of us have jobs and some of us are married and some are engaged.

Gaming Time

Firstly, we try to set game frequency two times per month, that means one game every other week but that is not always possible too. We try to fit game time to possible days where everybody is available. Once every two week is good since married player can have enough time to spent with family and gaming time is so small against that time.

Second, we have -1 is acceptable rule, we play games with -1 attendance, but -2 players means the game will be canceled.

Game Style and PCs as NPCs

Also one shot games or short-story based adventures are good for such situations. A player who miss one or two game will not have much problem in adaption on the next game if the quests are short and ends in one or two sessions.

But short-story games are not my group's case too, since we love long-intrigue games. So we apply central characters rule. Players who always attends takes the central characters, so the success of the main quest is bound to them. They know the critical knowledge, they have a better dialogue with NPCs (since they are always in the game and they made the related speech with them). We prefer players who often attends the game takes the casters or hard-to-play characters. The reason behind this is; if a player do not attend the next game and his character is required, then his character becomes an NPC and travel with the group. He open locks or use his bow or sword in the combat if required. We avoid to control his character unless there is dire need, so his character becomes an if required NPC. If the current situation can be handled with the existing players, then NPC Player characters do not involve and they do not die unless the rest of the group dies.

Altering the Game According to Attendance

I am the DM of the game and players tell their attendance some days before the game so we decide there will be a game or not. If there will be a game with a missing player, then I adjust the game accordingly, removing critical parts related to that player or play his character as an NPC and tell important things related to that adventure which is only known by his character to some other player. Giving the casters to players who always attend make my job easier and the game more comfortable since it is really hard for me or other players to play a caster character of a missing player as NPC. If rogue player do not attend the game, then I replace the deadly traps with ones that trigger spell effects or summon monsters etc so the group can play the rogue as NPC to disarm traps and if the attempt fails, the group uses their own abilities to overcome the issue. If a cleric player is missing, then NPC cleric only uses his healing and protection spells and do not directly engage in combat. NPCing a wizard is similar, we keep the NPC wizard out of the conmbat unless he is required.

Rewarding the Attendance

At the end of my games, attending players share the reward and missing gamers takes nothing. We have a high level game (Level 19-20) so I sometimes let attending players roll for one reward item from tables in the DMG and missing players takes nothing. Attending players may get an artifact(!) after a long-story adventure (that lasts for months in real time) while players that do not often attend get simpler magic items etc.


I am playing in a long-running campaign (seems we started almost exactly nine years ago, at the time of writing this answer), where we're doing monthly sessions. Players are dispersed over a large geographic area and several of us have commitments that are non-trivial to re-arrange and sometimes crop up at short notice.

This means that we frequently (well, I guess 10%-25% of sessions) have one or more players out.

We've adopted several mechanics to help with the temporary absence of a character.

First, most segments of the campaign are "one-shots" (that is, a mission that we can, mostly, complete in one session; we normally spend ~5-6 hours playing, probably only an option for weekend play). This means that we can simply form a group based on the characters whose player is around.

Second, in the cases where a mission takes more than one session to resolve, if a player is missing during any specific session, their character is around, but only in a "support" fashion (essentially just moving around in the background, immune to stray bullets and what have you). This also allows a player to join in if they happened to be absent when a session started.

It is not perfect, I am not sure how well it would lend itself to a "most are absent", but for a small fraction of missing players, this works remarkably well.


Continuity and Scheduling

The secret is to be flexible on times, dates and places, and focus on the players as the source of continuity. Took me quite a while and some false starts to get this kinda sorta right...

I am in the same boat but sailing from the opposite shore: I started playing as a player in a D&D group last year, quickly realized that I was missing sessions and losing continuity, and also found it hard to turn up at all when the group went to a fixed weeknight that I simply could almost never make.

Here's the solution I have come up with for my home group (D&D 5th, 4 - 6 regular players).

Note: I am now the DM. The relevance of this will soon become clear below.

Total Control

First, I started my own group so that the scheduling has to follow my hectic life, not the other way round.

I offered my services as a DM and advertised e.g. with:

  • a note in the Friendly Local Game Store.
  • turning up at Free RPG Days and DMing a one-shot
  • inviting gamers to the pub via meetup websites (not to play D&D, just to meet like minded people)

This got me an ever-growing "pool" of potential players, each of whom I meet personally at the FLGS before actually inviting them to The Table (if ever).

With this "pipeline" in place I slowly took control of the actual group ("The Table") using instant messaging.

Layers within Layers

I set up 2 groups on instant messaging (choose your tool or tools):

  • The Antechamber - anyone who I vetted personally and who showed interest in playing D&D for real.
  • The Table - those who firmly commit and who I invite to a specific time and date.

Joining the Club

The rules of who's in which of the above groups are simple:

  • if you've attended 2 sessions in a row, you're eligible for full Table membership;
  • if a Table member misses 2 sessions in a row, they can be replaced by another available player from the Antechamber once the remaining Table has agreed their next session.

And now the key: I never plan more than 1 session in advance. Although there's a general aim to have 2 sessions per month minimum, usually the same night of the week, these are aims, not set in stone. We literally agree every session one at a time, only including those still at the Table. And that's it! Seems to work, the players are happy because there's no drama about in-game rewards or penalties based on attendance, the loyalty we encourage is simply to the group.


We play every Friday. I send out a group text message to all players, "We are playing at 8:30pm, no matter who shows up." Then at 7pm, I start a cool movie...Die Hard, Dirty Harry, Marvel movie, Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, etc. Those that arrive early get the added treat of a great movie to put us in the gaming mood.

I also provide sodas and chips. (We had pizza until one guy decided the gas created by $5 pizza and soda needed to come out in burps and farts that could kill an elephant.)

There are two times when we don't play DnD. One, if the DM cannot make it. (We trade off and whomever wants to DM gets to for 6 months, then we move on to a new DM.) When the DM cannot make it, I will DM a TOON one session game, or we will play a board game, like Lords of Waterdeep or Zombicide. The other time is when too many people cannot make it. In that case, we usually cancel, if I was given enough time to let everyone know. If I don't have enough time, we play a game as detailed above.

Now, when one or two cannot make it, we either play as though they weren't doing anything, or if they are vital for a game, we have someone play two characters...their own and the one missing. The player character with a missing player, if played, stays out of harms' way if possible.


DMing should be fun

Constantly having to change encounter difficulty is not fun, coming up with credible, in-game reasons why the dwarf fighter who was not with the party at the entrance of the dungeon suddenly appears beside them is also not fun. Especially for the fifth time.

Number of players

DnD5 was designed with a party of 5 in mind, but if you are writing your own adventures anyway, it is easy enough just to write them for the two who really want to play.

The others

You were accommodating and flexible long enough, they did not appreciate it. You can ask them nicely or give them ultimatums, but I would be very surprised if it worked.

You should still talk to them, not because it will make them come, but to make it clear for everyone that you tried, and they did not want to come regularly.


Keep the two good players, and kick out the others


I don't think one technique will apply in all situations. But before you consider the playerless-PCs, take a moment to consider the rest of the group. You are interested and motivated - don't punish yourself. You have a core of players that are interested and motivated - focus on the players that are there. Let them advance more rapidly than the sometimes-there players. After all, those players ARE driving the story.

  1. Reward Participation

    • Characters that are there and played by the 'owner' earn full XP
    • Characters that are there but not played by the 'owner' earn partial XP. Think of it as shares. If you show up you get 2 shares of XP but if you don't you just get 1 share.
    • Characters that aren't there don't earn XP
  2. Decay Unplayed Characters

    • if a player misses multiple session their character retreats to town to muse whether adventuring is really for them

Ok.. but what do you do with these guys in this session right now...

Cull the Party

Just pointing out the obvious - you can remove those players from the group because they are a distraction. The problem with this suggestion is that they are probably your friends and you actually WANT them to play; and they may actually WANT to play but can't get their schedule to line up. Still.. included for completeness!

If Party is 'in Town'

'In town' really just means there are at a starting point where you can leave characters out of the adventurer simply by leaving them behind. They stay in town or watch camp. In either case, they don't go along on the adventure. If a player shows up late, they come running up from behind.. or you just pretend they were there the whole time counting their coppers.

Party is in the Dungeon

If you are picking up where you left off inside a dungeon-type setting, you have a few options.

  • You can carry the playerless-PCs and have the party control them (with DM consent). The risks for these PCs are real but they should not be allowed to take any risks greater than the rest of the party unless the DM thinks there is a good reason they would do so..
  • You can have the playerless-PCs leave the dungeon to set up a camp outside. This may not be practical depending on the adventure.
  • You can ignore the playerless-PCs because they aren't there. If the player shows up late, pop there PC is there now.

In the groups that I've played with, we just treat them as having stayed on the ship/inn and down with a cold unless we need them as part of the plot, in which case they are ghosts until needed.

Personally, I'll use them as trap canaries - don't want to spend time testing to see if the chest/floor/corridor is trapped? Send in the canary.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Downvoted because the second piece of the advice breaks the rules of borrowing - "If you are going to borrow my character, you have to work extra hard to not break it before you give it back." \$\endgroup\$
    – Tritium21
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 9:23

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