If you’ve been part of a tabletop roleplaying game, then there’s a good chance you’re all too aware of one of the hobby’s most significant challenges; schedule coordination.
Even if the GM and players agree on a date, then there’s always a risk that one player has to cancel at short notice or doesn’t turn up. That’s understandable, real-life is always more important than tabletop-life, but it’s also frustrating.
This article doesn’t discuss how to tackle frequent offenders. This article looks at the practical mechanics of what happens to the night’s session if you are unexpectedly one player down.
As usual; much of this will depend on the situation of a group. If someone has travelled from afar to join in on a night’s tabletop adventures, then the idea of scrapping the game for the night and rescheduling for later the week becomes less attractive.
Broadly speaking, though, you have six choices;
#1 Make a group decision: cancel the game for the night
If the GM needs a certain player to progress the game and is uncomfortable at pushing on without them then the game, sadly, needs to be paused for the night. It can pick up at the next regular slot or reschedule for later.
In other scenarios, especially if the game involves lots of roleplay and character-to-character interactions, then this may also be the most advisable option. Talk to the players and see if this is what the majority agree is the best thing to do or if there are any strong objections.
#2 Removed by the plot
If the current in-game situation allows then any missing character could be otherwise occupied and not make an appearance in the night’s adventure.
For example, at the end of the last session, the heroes arrived safely at the next town and found an inn for the night. During the night some – but not the missing player character – is woken by a strange noise and meet downstairs to investigate.
This approach can be a graceful way to cope with a missing player character but isn’t always possible.
You might like…
#3 We thought your character would do it
A traditional option is to let the attending players take control and puppet the character of the missing player. The convention is that this character tends to be quieter than usual and effort the attending players should try and roleplay appropriately.
GMs should suggest or allow this only after appropriate thought. It’s not just that you know the temperament of your players. You also know what is likely to happen in the game.
#4 I thought your character would do it
The equally popular alternative is to cede control of the character to the GM or DM. This scenario is sometimes better at avoiding debates around what the character might do without their player around to decide for them. However, this option also puts more stress on the GM and more things forget.
Once again, it is commonly accepted that a PC controlled by the GM in this way will tend to be quieter than usual and not prone to making big decisions or guiding the flow of events in any particular way. That said; this situation does give the GM the opportunity to introduce unexpected plot twists like temporary possession or behind the scenes encounters which the PC cannot remember very well.
#5 Taking the back seat
In story terms, having a character drop into the background and virtually non-existent for the night’s session can be a little ‘handwavey’ but it is also a straightforward and practical solution. This technique is sometimes known as ‘Ghosting’.
There are some conventions to this approach. Other players can ruin the illusion if they persist in trying to speak to the character belonging to the missing player. However, it is also often the case that the ghosted character will take some necessary and everyday actions. A healer character, for example, could continue to heal but just without bold risks or brave decisions.
Some gaming groups vanish the character belonging to the missing player for the duration of their absence. When the player returns to the gaming table then -pifft- their character appears back in the game. No attempt is made to rationalise this in the game. It just happens.
As dramatic as the Pifft option sounds it is common and avoids a whole host of problems. Often the most significant issue with this approach is the decision whether to award XP for events that the Pifft player missed in person or not or whether they have in-character knowledge of events that happened while they were not at the table.
Which approach would you take?
If it’s none of these six common options, please share your approach in the comments below.