Player Down, Player Down!

going insane Player Down, Player Down!Most tabletop games, including Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, require players to be part of a fairly balanced group that plays together regularly. A gaming session is never the same without your regular adventuring party, and the plot suffers when characters randomly phase in and out. So how do we handle attendance issues?

The Backup Plan

Life can get in the way of gaming at a moments notice. Illness, weather, and volatile work schedules are the most common adversaries of a typical gaming session. Knowing that anything can and will happen, it is always a good idea to have a board game or card game (or three) waiting in queue. If there is significant travel involved for your gaming group, this is highly recommend. A few light-hearted options would be wise, as the group may be dissapointed that they will not be playing the game they were looking forward to.

Assessing Situations and Making the Right Decision

There are many factors that might contribute toward a decision to move or cancel a session, or to end a session early. Here are a few items to consider:

Frequency of Play

How often does your group meet? If you play weekly, it will not hinder the campaign to cancel a single session. But if you play less frequently, this decision might be harder. In my home campaign, we only play once every 4-6 weeks, so cancelling a session means that there may be no DnD for several months months! The less often you play, the more you need to make solid, long term plans.

For players with volatile work schedules, planning sessions weeks or months in advance may not be an option. In our group, one of the players is a chef, and schedules at the restaurant are only determined a week or two in advance. He can try to request to not work on a gaming date, but there are no guarantees. His attendance is always a wild card, but fortunately he is the only player with such a volatile schedule. It is pretty much impossible to have a regular gaming session if everyone’s schedule is volatile… as a lot of us learned in college.

Inconvenience of Play

How hard do your players have to “work” in order to attend a gaming session? Do they have to drive a significant distance? Do they need to acquire baby or pet sitters? Players in my private campaign are spread across South Eastern Wisconsin, so we generally meet at a compromised location that requires everyone to drive about an hour. This level of commitment means when everyone agrees on a date, everyone better show up or someone will be upset.

Environmental Concerns

In the Midwest (or any other Northern climate), traveling during snowstorms or blizzards can be quite treacherous. Although Weather forecasting is not perfect, you generally have a good idea of what is coming 24-48 hours in advance. Be careful that no one in your group is bullied into traveling through conditions they don’t feel comfortable in.

The Unexpected

This is the miscellaneous catch-all category. At our last gaming session, a player had indigestion that was so painful they had to leave the table and lie down. Events like this in the middle of gaming sessions are particularly challenging. In our case, the player had carpooled with another on the previously mentioned 60-minute long drive.

In the middle of an adventure, what could we do? As the DM, I found a way to incorporate the player into the activity of the NPCs the players were helping out, so it did not seem like the group was “losing” anything… and since this character is the group’s primary healer, I allowed the other players to spend minor actions to “call” for heals from the character that had joined the NPCs. Effectively, I changed the Healing Word mechanic into something similar to the Skald Bard’s healing aura.

Aside from mechanical changes, I found a way to skip through some of the content I had planned more quickly, so we could end the session an hour or so early. Normally we play 4-6 hour sessions because the travel is so significant, but with a player not feeling well on the couch (who was stuck there because of her carpool buddy), I think it was the right choice to find a way to end the session early, but not abruptly.

What Do You Think?

How does your gaming group deal with these kinds of issues? Have you ever had to come up with clever solutions to these kinds of problems in the middle of a gaming session?

2 comments for “Player Down, Player Down!

  1. Nick Von Cover
    October 20, 2012 at 3:52 am

    The best campaign I ever played with was very flexible with not only who attended our weekly game, but what character they played that evening. I’ve never run into a campaign played along similar lines, and most of the time people can’t even wrap their heads around how it even worked.

    Basically the DM had an overarching plot that was happening to the game world, and the characters were actors in that world but the plot was not dependent on them. The weekly adventures we went on may or may not have any impact or importance to the overall plot, and often they did but we did not realize it until later. It was kind of like Babylon 5. Overall the plot moved forward but any particular episode may or may not be focused on it.

    Each of the players had three to five “character slots” depending on when they joined the campaign. Any particular week we could take any character we wanted. I’m tired of running my barbarian? No problem, I’ll take my wizard out for this week’s session. Everybody had their favorite of course, but this system had the bonus of insuring that we had a non first level replacement should our primary character meet an unfortunate end. All your characters killed? You’re out. Losing a character was a serious thing indeed, which encouraged several ignominious retreats in the face of the enemy.

    The other feature of that campaign was the large player pool. If I remember correctly, there were seven or eight of us – too many to all play at once. But our presence was rarely a critical factor, so the whole crew was there at the same time only once or twice over the course of a year (as people engaged in such bizarre behavior as going on dates).

    This campaign was a smashing success not only because we had a talented DM, but because he built flexibility into the very fabric of the campaign. It never became work because we never had to play if we didn’t want to as the story got on just fine without us. We also never grew tired of our characters because we weren’t forced to keep playing the same one week after week after week.

    The one thing that I’ve found turns many people off to this whole framework is that this was was a low-level campaign where we had to rely on brains rather than kicking in the front door and blasting everything in sight. Playing multiple characters does that unless the DM gives out overlarge amounts of experience. The highest level any character got to was seven.
    Nick Von Cover recently posted..Using Woodland Scenics Foam Putty

    • Sunyaku
      October 20, 2012 at 4:41 am

      Thanks for the excellent summary, Nick. Episodic campaigns are definitely the solution for a group of people who are not able to play together consistently… and the need for each session to be like an “episode” is even more important when characters are swapped in and out. In my home campaign, I try to create at least at least one new adventure path for each adventure that is completed, and I try to let the party choose where they want to go next. I find it challenging to try to keep their adventures contained to a single play session, but it usually works out OK. We also allow players to have multiple characters, but not everyone wants to put in the time to manage the additional work. Since not everyone can attend every session, the other house rule we implemented is that we don’t track experience, but the group levels up ever 10-15 encounters. And when this happens, all characters in the pool level up, regardless of whether or not they were able to play in any of those sessions. This ensures that the folks (with very young children) who can only play on occasion can still have fun and their character won’t be horribly weak. However, only players who complete encounters receive gold and magic items, and it’s up to them if they want to share with anyone else in the adventuring company.

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