Don’t make a harpy out of a feather…
It’s a common question on Reddit and various TTRPG forums; “How do I handle players missing sessions?“. It might seem like a problematic scenario, but in reality it’s very simple, just don’t make a big deal out of it.
If you are running a group with five players, the balance of the game or the dynamics of the room won’t change noticeably if one of them is missing. If it’s a smaller group it might be more complicated, but the most common group size is between four and five players, so for most groups this shouldn’t be a big issue. My recommended solution depends a bit on the nature of the campaign, plot vs player driven campaigns.
Plot vs player driven campaigns
- If you are running a plot driven campaign, with a grand overarching goal, a big bad evil guy and all that (not something I’m a fan of personally) then the easiest solution to players missing sessions is simply to have the character tag along passively. They will take part in the plot but not engage in the actual events.
- If you are running a player driven campaign, such as a hex crawl or other type of sandbox style campaign where they players decide what they want to do and shape the story themselves, then the easiest solution is to just make up a reason why the character doesn’t join in on the adventure of the session and leave them behind. There’s a table for that below.
Those two solutions might not always work for all groups, so here are some more, the first two are the ones already mentioned above.
6 Popular solutions to absent players
There are many possible solutions to this issue, but here are the 6 most common ones:
- Passive tag-along: This is the easiest solution. The PC just tags along passively, not taking part in any combat, exploration or social encounters, but they are still there physically. This means that PC will know the same things the other characters do when the next session starts, and they will be in the same physical location. The only potential issue with this solution is in the case of a total party kill, this is something the GM will have to solve on a case by case basis.
- Leave the character behind: Figure out a suitable reason why the character can’t join in on the adventure of the evening, and go on with the session. I’ve included a D6 table of suitable reasons further down in this post, feel free to use any of those if you need some inspiration.
- Let the group control the character: If the player missing the session agrees to it, just have the present players control the character. That way the team is complete and there are no plot holes or other difficulties. This method requires both consent and trust, since death should always be on the table. It can be scary to hand over the control of your character to someone else, so this option isn’t for everyone.
- The GM controls the character: Similar to above, but instead of the group controlling the character, the GM does it, sort of like an NPC. Just like with the group controlling the character, this option of course requires trust and consent from the absent player.
- Cancel the session: This could be a valid option depending on how big your group is. If you regularly play in a group of five, then I wouldn’t cancel the session if one player was missing. But in a group with only three players I would probably cancel if one was missing, because two players is just too few to make the session fun and dynamic.
- Run a one-shot: Sort of a variant of leaving the character behind, but instead of continuing the campaign, you pause it and run a separate one-shot adventure instead. This can be done either with the same player characters, or a new set of characters. Personally I don’t have an issue with just using the same characters, just make up some sort of in-game reason why they suddenly went on a different adventure, which shouldn’t be too hard, maybe they where magically teleported away when they opened a chest?
D6 table of reasons a player character is missing
For fun and as inspiration, here is a D6 table of reasons why a player character might be missing the adventure of the evening.
|1||Family Obligations: The character received word that a family member is in need, perhaps due to illness, a birth, or a pressing matter on their family's estate or farm. They've traveled back home to assist and ensure everything is in order.|
|2||Training or Mentorship: The character has taken a brief hiatus to train with a mentor or at a local guild. Whether it's to hone a particular skill, learn a new technique, or gain a rank within their guild, they felt this was an opportunity they couldn't pass up.|
|3||Debt Repayment: The character had old debts or obligations in the last town the party visited. They've taken on a temporary job or task to repay this debt, be it working at the docks, assisting a local craftsman, or providing security for a merchant caravan.|
|4||Recovering Lost Items: During their travels, the character realized they lost a personal or important item. They've retraced their steps to the previous town or location, hoping to recover it. It could be a family heirloom, a crucial component for their magic, or simply something of sentimental value.|
|5||Research and Study: The character discovered a lead on a personal quest or a hint about the main mission. They've decided to stay behind in the last town's library or consult with a wise sage in the mountains. They're diving deep into scrolls and books, hoping to uncover vital information that will aid the party upon their return.|
|6||Afflicted with a Mysterious Illness: After a skirmish in a swamp or a bite of an undercooked pork leg, the character has come down with a mysterious ailment. They're being cared for by local healers. It's simply a matter of waiting for the illness to pass.|
Closing thoughts on players missing sessions
As mentioned above, depending on the type of campaign you are running there are different best solutions to this issue, but in my book, you shouldn’t fall back to “Cancel the session” unless you’re left with too few players to have a fun session.
A general piece of advice: You’ll do yourself a huge favor if you accept a few plot holes here and there. I mean, going ahead with the session and having the character of the missing player just tag along in the background like a puppet isn’t a big deal. And leaving them behind in camp with a case of food poisoning from the feast last night is very much ok, it’s not something worth stressing out about. At the end of the day it’s just a game and it’s supposed to be fun, so don’t make a harpy out of a feather.