How do you handle absentee players story-wise?

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OK, so you're DM'ing your regular group of players, and your quitting time isn't very flexible.    The party you're DM'ing has just entered the 2nd level of the BBEG's 4-level tower.   The group is about to be attacked by some monsters, and you decide to postpone the fight til next session because it's almost quitting time.

Next session rolls around, but for RL reasons, one of your five players cannot make it.   How do you handle this?

Do you downgrade the encounters to make up for being one player short?

Do you let the other players run his character?   Do you run it?  

If not, do you bother to try to explain his sudden disappearance in the middle of an enemy's lair?

If so, do you try to make up a unique excuse every time, or just reuse the same one?   

Does this story excuse matter to your players at all?

For myself, I try hard to maintain continuity.   Also, I do not like letting a player run another player's character.    One campaign I invented the excuse that the characters had all contracted a rare form of narcolepsy.    From time to time, a character would simply lose consciousness and slump to the ground.   I also gave the party a Body Bag; a magic item that works a bit like a bag of holding, but only holds creatures, living or dead.
Next session rolls around, but for RL reasons, one of your five players cannot make it.   How do you handle this?



The missing player's character fades to the background. He's there and he's helping in a way that anyone can establish fictionally, but mechanically, nothing's going on.

Do you downgrade the encounters to make up for being one player short?



Most of the time. I'm doing this less and less though because the style I use doesn't really pay much attention to balance - "Fair - but not Balanced."

Do you let the other players run his character?   Do you run it?



No way.

If not, do you bother to try to explain his sudden disappearance in the middle of an enemy's lair?



No. He's there. He's helping and doing things he would normally do. He's just not able to affect anything mechanically.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Do you downgrade the encounters to make up for being one player short?

Yes.

Do you let the other players run his character?   Do you run it?

No

do you bother to try to explain his sudden disappearance in the middle of an enemy's lair?

Sometimes. Maybe ret-con it so that he is actually in a different location (like guarding the party's campsite). Whatever works. The players can usually come up with a better excuse, but often they don't care.

At higher levels I try to make sure the party has a True Portable Hole with a teleportation circle in it, so they can plausibly come and go as they please, even in remote areas.

Do you downgrade the encounters to make up for being one player short? Probably. The players generally won't be aware.

Do you let the other players run his character? Do you run it? If he asks one of them to. No I won't. 

If not, do you bother to try to explain his sudden disappearance in the middle of an enemy's lair? I do not. 

If so, do you try to make up a unique excuse every time, or just reuse the same one?  No excuse.


Does this story excuse matter to your players at all? Nope.


I generally run with "He is 'over there', just off screen". His PC was totally present, but didn't do anything especially cool so no one noticed. He gets full XP, and if he is the only one who can do something I will DM control it enough to say "Bills PC makes a knowledge arcane check, and tells your some arcane lore."

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"

I hand-wave the absence. My youngest player is 22 and the rest are in their 30s. Lives happen. I adjust encounter strength all the time, even when all the players are present, so I won't adjust down specifically for a missing player, but just because the encounter is proving to be more for them than I had planned.
Here are the PHB essentia, in my opinion:
  • Three Basic Rules (p 11)
  • Power Types and Usage (p 54)
  • Skills (p178-179)
  • Feats (p 192)
  • Rest and Recovery (p 263)
  • All of Chapter 9 [Combat] (p 264-295)
A player needs to read the sections for building his or her character -- race, class, powers, feats, equipment, etc. But those are PC-specific. The above list is for everyone, regardless of the race or class or build or concept they are playing.
I'll ask the player what they want me to do.  Sometimes they say to play their character for them, which i then try to do faithfully.  I'll also sometimes ask the table what they think the PC would do in certain situations.

If the player prefers their character not be played during their absence ill just remove the PC from the table for the session.  No XP penalty or anything, they are just not there.

Or if the player comes up with another option i'll go with that.
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Usually I treat is as Iserith, but it does depend on whether or not it was unexpected. When I know a PC is gone for the next few sessions, I do try to come up with a flexible reason for it together with the player involved. It must be flexible, since it can be challenging to predict in advance how fast a story evolves and you always want to be able to get the PC back in action when you are unexpectedly slow. For example, in my current campaign the players are going into psychoanalytic confrontation with the flaws and regrets of their characters to get rid of a ghost (long story). I know one player will not be there, so at least for next session I will not get those PCs involved and modify the encounter(s) accordingly. The whole thing is rather personal after all even if it did not affect balance.
We had one player missing from our game last night. He typed up some basic notes on what he does in combat, and his brother ran two characters for the encounter.
If a player is absent they just fade into the background with a minimial explanation, often poking a little fun at the absent character.  In d&d and pathfinder I'll give half experience to absentee players so they don't fall to far behind.  If they fall more than one level behind the rest of the party they get a free level up

  I find that the disparity of more than one level can lead to a power imbalance that is too likely to affect the player enjoyment.  Possibly leading to futher absenteeism. 

   
The character is assumed to be present but doesn't have an active impact. The encounters are scaled down and that character is assumed to be dealing with the missing portion.

Since every game I've been in lately has thrown out individual XP tracking (the party/campaign levels up rather than individual characters doing so) there's no problem on that end either.
I play in a 3.5 campaign with seven total players and there is rarely a session when we are actually all present.  The character(s) not available go into a "pocket universe"; they do not exist for that session.  When the player returns so does the character as if he were never really missing.

With this in mind, they get no XP (if one party member falls too far behind the DM has been known to give them a free level), and no cut of the treasure (if we decide that a particular item may be useful to a "missing" character we might hold onto it).  And all the players are OK with this.

Last session in particular our cleric (main healer) could not make it, so we stocked up on potions, distributed the wands of Cure ____ wounds, our druid memorized some healing spells, and we continued on our merry way.  We were lucky in that we were at a point where we could take a few different paths so we chose to avoid known combat situations .

In another campaign (non-D&D), one of our players is frequently missing, and that character is the one that hired the rest of us for a mission, so it is VERY difficult to not have that character around.  So, the GM plays that character, but as minimally as possible.  luckily this campaign is more intrigue oriented and the missing character is not very combat oriented anyway.  But even then we have a hard time.  Most of the time, we end up getting very little done when this player is not present , but since we are all friends, we use the time to simply hang out .

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RedSiegfried wrote:
The cool thing is, you don't even NEED a reason to say yes.  Just stop looking for a reason to say no.
The character is assumed to be present but doesn't have an active impact. The encounters are scaled down and that character is assumed to be dealing with the missing portion. Since every game I've been in lately has thrown out individual XP tracking (the party/campaign levels up rather than individual characters doing so) there's no problem on that end either.


 This has always been pretty much exactly my approach as well. I've never docked players experience for not making it to a session - I've always given out xp to the party rather than individuals. Any xp award earned individually by a particular character goes into the party pool (which helps to promote a team identity). I usually have my players designate one other party member to run their character if they can't make it, or whether they want the party as a whole to run their character by commitee or the character just fades into the background. As stated, if the character isn't being played the missing character is assumed to be dealing with whatever portion of the encounter I may have taken out to compensate for a missing party member.


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We do it "The Gamers" style (remember the fighter character?)

No downgrades most of the time. Full XP to keep all players at the same level.
Real-life issues do not have a negative impact on your gaming character at our table.

Cheers.