The demands of real life sometimes force a game session to continue without its full compliment of players. For instance, I regrettably live over two hours from my core gaming group and my absences outweigh my attendance by a fair margin. However, once introduced, my characters presumably continue to live in the game world right next to those characters whose players actually showed up. If they simply vanished from the plot because I had to work late and couldn’t make the game, the campaign would seem a bit less complete.
There are several ways to handle a player’s absence, and his character’s control while he’s away. Which systems seem to succeed, and which methods just seem like madness? Does one trick get used more often than all the others? Is a certain technique viewed as â€˜taboo’? I know other groups must face this problem, so I thought I’d work through this dilemma of MIA players in today’s post.
This topic came to mind because we were missing two players last weekend during our Cabin Trip event, and I used different techniques to account for the absence of each character. In the past, I used entirely different methods. Maybe your group has its own solutions for this conundrum; if so, please share them in the Comments section!
Along for the Ride
This is my least favorite technique, but most convenient for the group and the game master. You simply pretend that the character is present with the party, even though they take no action or contribute no dialogue. Maybe their name gets thrown out in an introduction to an important NPC, just to keep up the illusion. In a pinch I can see this working, but I avoid it like the plague.
They’re in the Bathroom
Slightly more acceptable than just pretending they still exist (wait, isn’t that the whole point of the game?), the group may create a “very important event” that demands the character’s attention during that session. While my group was playing our home-brewed version of Swords & Wizardry, my Bard spent several sessions guarding the mules. It’s not that the mules were extremely valuable per se; I just couldn’t show up to run my character. This tactic may solve the problem in the opening stages of your campaigns, but it loses plausibility as the party progresses. Or if they’re trapped in a dungeon.
Players Helping Players
In the distant 2E past, if one of our party was unable to attend, we simply ran his character for him. It only takes a few sessions to get the gist of another PC, especially if he was created by a close friend, so it isn’t much of a stretch to trust a fellow player with his life. In this new era of 4E, however, that method may prove wildly problematic given the resources one needs just to track their own character. Likewise, if the rest of the group takes some action that the MIA player disagrees with it may lead to resentment and hurt feelings. As long as they keep him alive, though, who can really complain?
Master of Puppets
Another alternative is to put the MIA character under the control of the game master, and essentially treat him as an NPC. It keeps the party intact, allows them to progress at an appropriate level, and leaves the rest of the group free to concentrate on their characters. It also creates more work for the GM who should already have his hands full running the adventure. Additionally, the same caveat applies in terms of resentment and hurt feelings if the GM makes decisions for the character that the player finds undesirable. It takes a careful touch, but this option has several distinct advantages for the party.
Make it Part of the Game
Depending on where your adventure is, or is heading, you may find a way to use a character’s absence to steer the campaign in a new and interesting direction. Players may decide to set off in search of them. Game masters may decide to trap the party in an area or encounter while they try to deal with an injured/sick/dying comrade. As long as it feeds the story, I tend toward this option on a regular basis.
In fact, one of our MIA characters last weekend aided the plot despite his absence. Our epic desert quest is based around themes of redemption, salvation, and purging the land of evil. When I sadly learned that Charlie couldn’t make our Cabin Trip, I decided to use his character as a rallying point for the rest of the party. His monk was suddenly struck with the debilitating effects of poisons that the party was exposed to during a combat encounter in the previous episode. His condition was described as a spiritual one along with the physical symptoms, and this created some great in-game moments for the rest of the party as they had to confront their own demons and doings. The group really did me proud, playing up the group’s guilty suspicions that their actions may have allowed for this tragedy to befall one of their own. The added angle of “taking it personally” really pumped up the game session in my eyes.
Get Out Your Planners
If none of these options suits your collective fancies, you can always reschedule an impending game session to accommodate everyone’s availability. Having a regularly scheduled time that everyone sets aside for your sessions can help to alleviate the need for any of this, but things come up. Real life things. Things that demand that the game be put on hold so players can be (gasp!) responsible. So while this is a nice thought, chances are your group is going to have to employ one of these before too long.
Have You Seen This PC?
I can honestly say I’ve used all of these, and each one will achieve the desired outcome in its own fashion. I find it depends wholly on the character rather than the group. Last weekend, Charlie’s MIA monk was added into the story (as described above). I chose that route because his PC’s actions and story are deeply ingrained in the campaign. We also had another absent character during this session, but the player who created him has never really added to our Group Template or the campaign’s backstory. Consequently, his character’s absence was more of a mechanical problem than a thematic one. It wasn’t too difficult, then, to draw him up as an NPC and put him in the control of one of the other players. As it turned out, that character spent most of the game in the bathroom anyway. Or guarding the mules. Or running to the store because the party ran out of Doritos.
By the time you read this, our group will have played out another episode of our burgeoning Dresden Files RPG campaign. As you might imagine, my character that showed up last time will have to be accounted for in-game because I will be at home, making ready for a family vacation. While I’m really going to miss playing the character, I’m also interested to hear about what he did in my absence- and how the group incorporated him while I was packing extra underwear just like my mother taught me.
While any of the techniques described above will keep him alive until I can get back to playing him, I’m secretly hoping he doesn’t spend the whole session in the bathroom.
Have you ever been surprised at what your character did while you were away? Do you use any of these methods? Do you have ones we haven’t mentioned? Has our talking about milk and Doritos made you hungry? Let us know in the comments!