For most of us, gaming is a hobby, meaning that actual life responsibilities can and often do take precedence over playing games. It is to be expected, then, that one or more players may not be able to attend a regularly scheduled D&D session for such reasons, leaving those in attendance questioning how best to proceed. Fortunately, having one or more missing players doesn’t mean that those players able to attend are relegated to the most common or, for campaign purposes, inane solutions to player absenteeism such as watching fantasy films, playing a different tabletop game or turning on a video game console. Neither does having absent players make it necessary to run the player characters (PCs) of missing players in their absence.
The challenge is finding a way to enrich the ongoing D&D campaign for those present - without cheating attending players out of the role-playing fun the missing players would have brought, or exposing the PCs normally controlled by missing players to harm. After all, no one wants to hear that their favorite character was killed in action while they were away at a family function. This challenge – as it is with all challenges – conceals an opportunity, and this post will discuss how a well-prepared Dungeon Master (DM) can capitalize on that opportunity to provide a game experience relevant to the current campaign, even if the evening’s session doesn’t move the central campaign story forward.
Each of the alternative gaming experiences described below begins with evaluating the state of the campaign world, although the experiences may be placed chronologically in the past, present or future, as befits the DM’s intention.
1. Re-enact a pivotal event in campaign history. One way to make the current adventure richer for players is to design a brief scenario that retells part of the main adventure’s background. If the heroes are exploring a ruined tower that once served as an outpost of evil, a DM may consider creating a few encounters that re-enact the climax of the siege that brought it down, allowing the players to assume the roles of the attackers or defenders. If the heroes’ current adventure involves protecting human settlements from hobgoblin raiders, the DM may decide to create a brief scenario around the first such raid, with players taking the roles of the courageous townsfolk. If the DM receives advance notice that one or more players will be absent for more than one session, this short scenario could be expanded into a mini-series (see below).
2. Add some backstory for a prominent non-player character (NPC). This is the same concept behind re-enacting a pivotal historical event, scaled down to a much more personal level. If the heroes are spending enough time in a base of operations to learn the names of important NPCs, allow the players to take the roles of individuals surrounding an event in the lives of one or more of those NPCs. Did the town constable really slay a dragon in his youth, back when the old abbot was an acolyte and the master thief Ravenmoor was just a cutpurse? Why are a handful of people in town permitted to call Thul the Stonecutter “wispy” without having their teeth knocked out? Why do the guildmaster and local hedge wizard hate each other so much? Give the related NPCs game statistics for that period in their lives, turn the character sheets over to the players and find out.
3. Explain a legend. Based on how numerous legends are in our own world, imagine how many more there would be in a fantasy world where monsters and magic are real. The RPG Athenaeum has treated this form of adventure design at length with this post.
4. Do some “jamming.” Jamming, used as a role-playing term, was coined in 1993 in the second edition D&D Creative Campaigning softcover supplement. Essentially, it involves allowing players to assume generic NPC roles normally assumed by the DM, such as guardsman, shopkeeper, or merchant. Typically, this technique is used to keep idle players engaged when the action involves other heroes, as described in this post. The most significant aspect of this arrangement is that whatever the players decide is fact for the NPC is indeed fact for campaign purposes, as the marginal NPC roles involved cannot significantly affect the campaign. When covering for an absent player, the DM can allow (and the players should take) greater initiative with these roles. For example, consider someone playing the role of a merchant, who is haggling over ritual components as the heroes try to resupply themselves for their ongoing adventure. Imagine that the player decides that the merchant is in league with a group of bandits in the hills that avoid the merchant’s caravans, but not those of other merchants. The arrangement with the bandits is now campaign fact; the DM, running with the idea, may decide to generate character stats for a few caravan guards and the bandit gang, and design a few encounters around caravan ambushes, which are subsequently treated as actual campaign events. Thus, when the players are all present for the next session, their characters will hear about the lost caravan(s). These events may deepen the drama for the current adventure, or present options for future adventures.
5. See how the other half lives. One way to cover for an absent player is to allow the attending players to assume the roles of monsters operating near the heroes’ current location. The DM may even allow players to assume the roles of some of the monsters the heroes will eventually face in the main adventure – as long as the identity or abilities of those monster’s isn’t secret. For example, imagine that the heroes’ central adventure involves acting against a more or less standard orc tribe. The players all know generally what orcs can do, so there’s no harm in letting them play the roles of a few orc warriors. The DM may even combine this idea with the backstory concept described above, to tell the story of how, for example, the orcs exterminated a young dragon to gain possession of their current lair. Another Athenaeum posting describes ways that players can take the roles of monsters.
6. Create a mini-series. If the DM is aware that the regular campaign will be sparsely attended for more than one session – or if the players enjoyed one of the diversionary games presented here so much they want to extend it – the DM can create a mini-series of short scenarios. This Web log has already devoted an entire posting to that topic alone; it can be viewed here.
Have you employed other means to further an ongoing D&D campaign when players are absent in ways other than those described here? If you have, please consider sharing your experiences in the comment field below.