Missing some D&D players? Try these six rarely-used alternatives

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.


13 comments on “Missing some D&D players? Try these six rarely-used alternatives

  1. Andy Hauge says:

    That is great! I’ve run into this problem before, and never really known what to do with it…although one time, I did use a player for a major NPC, when two other players failed to show up. So we just had a more limited-in-scope session with two PCs and the NPC.

    Love the idea of a historical flashback.

  2. llama1996 says:

    Wow! There are a few of them that I have thought of, but some of them I had never considered, and are really good ideas. I like doing the “pc’s as historical figures” one but If I am annoyed at the player who doesn’t turn up, I usually let the other players take roles of the missing Pc’s relatives, and when the player returns they end up with some weird, unknown back-story that we all laugh at and they cry about.

    • Alric says:

      I hadn’t thought about using player absenteeism as aversion therapy – “I can’t miss tonight’s game because of what everyone else is going to do do me.” That is brilliant.

  3. Joe Nelson says:

    That’s some really good advice! I’ve done the “let the PCs play as monsters” before, but I’d never once thought of letting them play out NPCs. And it works so brilliantly, because if the NPC is made more interesting to the players than anything that happens later to that same NPC will have more impact.

  4. Alric says:

    That tactic worked well in one of my old games, too. In that campaign, one of the players came to like one of the NPCs better than the hero he originally created for the campaign – so we switched, and the blacksmith’s son – who never lost his attachment to the hammer, as a weapon or a tool of his trade – ended up clearing the Queen of the Demonweb Pits as a level 12 fighter (which, in those 1e days, was very high level).

  5. […] Missing some D&D players? Try these six rarely-used alternatives Detritus of the Dungeon Location, location, location Houserule: Hands! Magical Mishaps Redux… […]

  6. […] Ghost Story and making Dresden Files so Fred could make the RPG and win those awards) Main Event: The RPG Athenaeum: Missing some D&D Players? Try these six rarely-used alternatives, Reality Refracted: Should Good Die Rolls Be […]

  7. […] take issue.  That is something that we will look at some time in the future.  You may check out this real interesting blog on the RPG Athenaeum for some other alternatives.  Until next time, Roll […]

  8. […] mock combat. Such an activity may be an option when one or more players cannot attend, and other campaign-related gaming activities aren’t as appealing. Of course, these fights never take place from a campaign or narrative […]

  9. […] Link: Missing some D&D players? Try these six rarely-used alternatives […]

  10. 1d4damage says:

    Reblogged this on 1D4damage and commented:
    Having players drop out is something all DMs have to deal with, normally on short notice. Rather than cancel the game why not try out some of Alric’s suggestions on other things you can do when players go AWOL.

  11. dmdungeon says:

    Reblogged this on DM Dungeon and commented:
    There are some excellent ideas in this. One might also consider a West Marches style game with alternate characters that can brought to the table in simple one shot adventures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s