This week we take a look at an issue that every DM has dealt with at one time or another:
I have an adventure I’m running in the D&D Next Playtest. My adventure includes 6 party members. 1 member comes when she can due to work schedule conflicts. We easily work around this issue. But my problem is when multiple members don’t show. How do you handle an issue like this? Do you carry on with the adventure without them or do you cancel everything and punish the players who did show? An example is tonight I took the 2 that did show and gave them a spin-off adventure where they were rewarded and the others weren’t. I opened a portal that lead them to a new world. When done they were transported back and no time passed in the adventurers world. Do you think I made the right choice? Thank you for your time and answer.
Scheduling can be a real pain in the ass. People say they’re going to show up and then text an hour before you’re about to start with some lame excuse about how they have children or need to go the hospital or some crap. I know… life happens. It’s just the way of things, and there really isn’t any way around it. But as DMs we can plan ahead in order to make the unexpected less irritating, and there are 5 very specific things I do to deal with absentee Players.
Right from the get go, before anyone even touches a die or starts thinking about a character, let all of your Players know that you expect them to attend every session. Obviously you don’t need to be a dick about it (though it might help if you are), people will miss sessions now and again, and that’s okay, but you need to be sure the expectation is there. Let them know if they turn into an unreliable Player that you don’t have a problem killing off their character and dropping them from a campaign. This doesn’t need to be something personal, so be sure to talk it over with everyone so that no one ends up crying because they can’t play anymore. In addition to this, you should discuss as a group the minimum number of Players you’re willing to play with. If only 3 out of 6 can make it, do we still play, or does it become video game/board game/drinking night instead?
I have a campaign right now that’s composed of 7 Players, which inevitably means someone doesn’t show up to nearly ever session. I knew this coming into the situation, so when I write my adventures I try to break them up into manageable “Episodes” as best I can, with each Episode also broken down into 2 or 3 parts. An episode is generally meant to take about 3 or 4 hours, and a single part 1 to 2 hours, each ending with a clear and obvious “resting” point. This makes it easy for me to know when I need to cut off a session. This might mean ending a bit earlier than we intended, or asking everyone to hang around for another 20 minutes to finish up. It’s a lot easier to explain the absence of a Player during next week’s session when I say the Dwarf had to leave early after everyone spent the night at the inn, rather than the Dwarf suddenly disappearing in the middle of a dungeon crawl.
When I know in advance that certain Players aren’t going to make it more often than others, I plan out personal quests for them. These aren’t quests that really get roleplayed, but I will send e-mails summarizing their quest for the week, and sometimes allow them to message me back with decisions. Most of the time I just tell them what happened though. I always try to make these quests relevant to the larger Campagin. This also has the benefit of adding an extra layer of mystery to things. In the past it has even caused tension and mistrust among my Players, which I always find hilarious.
In the last campaign I ran I knew my wife wasn’t going to be able to make it sessions regularly due to scheduling conflicts with roller derby practice. In this situation, I afflicted her with a weird dimensional blinking disease that would cause her to randomly blink in and out of existence. This made it easy for her character to disappear and reappear whenever I wanted. I planned this into the larger Campagin, calling it the result of magical experimentation, and making it relevant to the entire party, not just my wife.
As you’ve already suggested (and tried), side quests can be a great idea. Personally, I try to avoid doing this except in special situations, as they can be a distraction from the main Campaign. If you do use side quests now and then, it can be helpful to have a few planned out ahead of time that relate to the main Campaign, but aren’t necessary, such as finding a magical item that will make the PCs’ lives easier later on. In most cases I will simply go ahead with the main story. However, I won’t move ahead if the characters are all about to meet the major villain and only 2 out of 6 of them are present. That’s just mean, and even I’m not that horrible.
To Punish or Not to Punish?
At some point a DM will wonder if some sort of punishment is warranted for Players flaking out. I have tried a lot of things over the years, and also committed some heinous acts in the name of vengeance (in-game). This has included everything from PCs developing strange venereal diseases, to losing limbs, and even death. Ultimately, I decided to take a much simpler and more straight forward approach: If a Player doesn’t give me a week’s notice that they’re not going to make it to a session, I give them 50% of the lowest amount of XP a Player gained during that session. “Wait… you still give them XP?” I hear someone ask. Yes, I know, I’ve gone soft in my old age. But this helps keep Levels more even, and still makes Players sad because they miss out on all the awesome loot and fun times had by all, and really, missing out on the fun is punishment enough.
Until next time: Roll it like you mean it!
The Dungeon Master
You can also see me in action in One Die Short.