Gaming My Way

03 Jan

What to Do for a Gaming Session When Some Players Can’t Attend

It happens in gaming circles. Depending on how much importance is placed on the game compared to other aspects of life by the GM and players, it may even happen frequently. Sometimes, some players just can’t make a gaming session. Perhaps a girlfriend or boyfriend wants to go on a date, and it’s the only night that works, sometimes there’s a giant school project or exam to prepare for, and some nights a player just knows they’ll drag the group down because they aren’t really up for gaming. In my groups, players make it for most sessions, but it’s still quite common for at least one player to be missing. So there needs to be a way to let the game go on with those who are missing. Here are some ideas, some of which might be common, others might be less so.

1) Press on with the current plotline without the missing player. Write the character out of the plot somehow, or have the GM or a trusted player play the missing character.

This is the one I like to use most often. It keeps the game going, and everyone gets to see what will happen next rather than have to wait for next session, myself included. I prefer to write missing characters out of the current plotline, rather than have significant things possibly happen to a character who’s player is not there. This has the advantage of keeping the campaign moving right along even when people are missing. Also, it’s generally a simple matter to write a character out of plot or have someone else pick up and play the character for a session. The disadvantages are that it can’t be used when a plot is centered on the missing character, and, though it’s usually not a big deal, the missing player misses out on experiencing part of a plot when this method is used. Also, it can break the suspension of disbelief for some people when a superficial reason takes a character away from the group or someone else doesn’t get a character’s personality just right.

2) Pick up a sidequest.

Your players do give you advance notice when they aren’t attending, even if it is just half a day or so, right? I should hope so. With this information, you know to prepare a possible sidequest or two ahead of time, giving the group something else to do while the character of the missing player attends to other issues. This is a lot like number one when the character gets written out of the story for a bit, but this has the advantage that the main quest isn’t continuing, so a missing character is a lot easier to explain away. As a disadvantage though, everyone has to wait another session to advance the plot, which can be frustrating when you really want to know what happens next. In my experience though, as long as the sidequest is interesting enough, most players will be quite happy with this arrangement.

3) Do a flashback session.

Have everyone play through a session of something that happened before the story even started. Use this to expand on the backstory of the characters and allow everyone to become more familiar with it, or to expand on the history of the world.

If no one likes the idea of playing level 1 characters again, and having them be level 15 back in the past feels like breaking continuity too much, make it non-canon, or provide historical characters of equivalent power to their current characters for them to play through a historical flashback. What they do in the past might even show up in a future gaming session, which can be a cool feeling if incorporated well.

If everyone is cool with playing level 1 characters for a session, or is willing to handwave continuity issues, perhaps playing through a quest in which the group banded together once to aid a local village or help the army defend their country would make an interesting session. This doesn’t even have to be when they became an adventuring group, it could simply be the first time they met, and fate brought them together again later in life for the current adventure they’re on.

As an alternative, perhaps they could play through a historical event involving the paladin king, sorceress queen, and court jester (a bard) before they rose to power in order to see how they came to power, and what deeds they performed before their rise to power. This could even be a great chance for players to try out different characters in a long-running game, just for the experience of playing a character focused in a different area then the normal character.

There are many other options for flashbacks of course, these are just a couple ideas. Doing a canon session of the past might be difficult to integrate into the main campaign again, but if it’s done well, it can be immensely rewarding both for the GM and the players.

4) Do a session of a possible future.

Make sure everyone knows this may not be a canon session, since it could be quite difficult to direct the players to this point in the story once the campaign starts from its normal location again. Then let them level up a few times, or in a system like World of Darkness or Shadowrun give them a few sessions worth of XP to spend on new abilities for this single session only. Then put them in a situation that might come up sometime in the future.

This has two cool aspects. First, it allows the players to play around with higher level powers that it might take awhile for them to actually get. Next, if the players like the way events turn out in this future, they can work to make it happen, otherwise they can work to make a different future happen when they begin playing the normal campaign again. It also spreads more information about the plot around. Of course, in some games, this may not be desirable, but if it’s a useful device for the story, it could be a lot of fun. I’ve never tried this one, and don’t know anyone who has, but it sounds like a lot of fun. Perhaps I’ll get the chance next time I’m running a campaign.

So that’s it for ideas of how to deal with missing players for a session. Hopefully you’ll find some of them useful in planning for a session not everyone can attend. Be sure to share any other ideas, or how these methods have worked for you, in the comments so we can see how other groups handle running sessions without everyone present!

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2 Responses to “What to Do for a Gaming Session When Some Players Can’t Attend”

  1. 1
    Omnus Says:

    Sadly, there are times when none of these options work. When the call-ins are just an hour or so before game-time, you don’t have a lot of time to plot out a new side-venture, and if the next item on the agenda is The Big Fight, slated to take most of the night, well, if a person or two misses out, it can be pretty catastrophic. That’s why I always have a few fallbacks myself.

    1) Card games. A few premade decks of Magic: the Gathering cards, a brisk game of Nuclear War (from Flying Buffalo, ask for it by name!) or a slapstick game of no-holds-barred Munchkin can help ease the pain of not playing the game they expected.

    2) Beer-and-Pretzels games. Light-hearted and rules-light games like Paranoia, Kobolds Ate My Baby!, or even Marvel Super Heroes Saga Edition are easy to whip out, play through the evening, and leave feeling you weren’t wholly cheated.

    3) Movie Night. Now, how often does your gaming group go out together to see a movie? How about game-related movies like Conan, Blade Runner, or Dungeons & Dragons? ( I kid on the last one, it really wasn’t that good, but if you want to, it’s your own slice of heaven, go for it). Pop a DVD in the player and imagine it’s your character slicing off those limbs!

    4) Mindless fun/ non-gaming. Cocktails and reminiscing to a spur-of-the-moment BreakKey tournament (what a waste of plastic those things are, but they were soooo cheap…), possibilities are endless. Just avoid mixing gaming and drinking if you’re running a serious long-standing game, as odd results may follow. One group I was a part of got trashed one night I wasn’t there, pulled out their character sheets (playing West End Games’ Star Wars RPG) and decided they wanted to spend all their character points and cash to become a swoop (think the choppers of speeder bikes, a jet engine with handlebars) gang. When we got around the table the next week, no one could remember how their characters got broke and out of character points, until they all noticed they had high levels of Swoop Operation….

    This is my short list of things to do when folks miss bellying up to my table…

  2. 2
    Katana Geldar Says:

    I had this recently and I was more or less forced to take the first option, no alternative. Why? Because we play Star Wars Saga, and left the planet to go to another. Subplots are kinda hard when you need to have that ship to get there.

    I will take up your suggestion of sidequests though, maybe they were doing that while the players who were there were doing the main story.

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