In the last issue of Roleplaying Tips (Issue #522) Johnn passed on a request for advice from an RPT reader and new GM:

Hi Johnn,

I am new to being a GM and have only been running a D&D campaign for about 6 weeks now (one day a week). I’m a high schooler and have convinced some friends who have never played before to play.

We have had a bit of fun and adventure. However, due to schoolwork and activities it is hard to get everyone to come all together, which makes it difficult to keep a story going.

What should I do to get a story or campaign to stay consistent? And how do I manage PCs when they are gone?

Thank you for your time,

Tristan.

I immediately set about writing an answer; I not only knew several “stock” answers to the question, but also experienced a moment of inspiration yielding a solution that had never occurred to me before, and that I had never seen written up. When the answer topped 500 words in only a few minutes of typing while barely scratching the surface, though, I knew that it would exceed the parameters of a Roleplaying Tips “quick reply” and retasked it into a Campaign Mastery post. Which is how you came to be reading these words…

Solution Zero: ‘Baby, I don’t care’

The circumstances described mandate a heavier emphasis on episodic campaign planning and decreased level of continuity. Being able to end each session of game play on a cliffhanger won’t work when the characters present going into the cliffhanger may not be the same as those present to get themselves out of it.

Each day’s play should end with the PCs somewhere safe and secure, where other party members can catch up with the group and those who aren’t there can safely leave. Since such in-game situations will be a common feature of a number of these solutions, let’s give them a name: “Exchange Points”. This is more a matter of trying to work around the problem than an actual solution, but it is good general advice when in this situation.

I also employ a ‘threshold of attendance’ in which players who can’t attend are required to provide advance notice of their absence, and a minimum number of players is required before the game can go ahead. Players who are absent without having provided notice are penalized in some fashion unless they have good reason, but I tend to not be very hard-line about accepting those reasons. The only one that I have ever refused to accept was “I was too tired from partying all night the night before” – that to me is absence by choice, the player made a judgement about what they wanted to do and it would be unreasonable to permit them to compromise everyone else’s entertainment for their own pleasure without some disciplinary action. Others might not agree, but the player in question thought it was a fair enough call.

Pros:

This solves the immediate problem – at least somewhat. It has little else to commend it.

Cons:

At the same time, it comes with three big shortcomings:

  • Games can be disrupted by non-attendance;
  • Players can resent punishment after being AWOL for what they consider ‘good reason’ but the GM doesn’t; and,
  • It can be difficult ending each day’s play at an exchange point.

The last item deserves a little expansion. In order to end at an exchange point, the GM has to be certain that any combat will be complete before the end of the day’s play. The implication of that statement is that there will be non-combat action filling out the day’s play – which, no matter how interesting, doesn’t carry the adrenalin boost that combat does. What’s more, the amount of this non-combat play will be variable and somewhat unpredictable – some days there will be lots of time to fill, and other days everything will be a mad scramble to the finishing line. Worse still, simply being in non-combat mode doesn’t automatically produce an exchange point – any sort of drama is just as bad under these circumstances as blood sport. No, you need the days’ action to wrap up with everyone safe in their beds – either in an inn, a hostel, a campsite, or whatever.

All of which wreaks havoc on pacing and timing. Even worse, the result is a formatting straightjacket that will soon become dull and predictable.

Recommendation:

This is the sort of solution that you use when you can’t think of anything better. All subsequent solutions will – one way or another – be enhancements of this approach – which means that any of them would be preferable. And, as that shopping list of drawbacks shows, it can do with some enhancement!

Solution 1: ‘Dave’s Not Here, Man…’

This solution whisks characters whose players aren’t present off on a “Side Mission” which earns them no XP but which keeps them off the firing line. A refinement of Solution Zero, this is essentially a way of making any scene or location an exchange point (no matter how improbable) and using a blanket excuse to cover the cracks.

The solution can be further improved by requiring each player to provide a list of reasons for their character to wander off in the middle of an adventure and come back later, for the GM to choose between. These could include:

  • Mundane, e.g. “going shopping for a gift for a relative” (works best with a large family in the character’s background) or “being locked up in the town cells for being drunk and disorderly”; or
  • Personally significant, e.g. “Investigating a possible clue to the identity of my brother’s murderer” or “Trying to buy a grimoire containing ‘Bixby’s Unnatural Blandishment’ ” (or some other made-up spell that will never actually be found) or “Called to a reading of my Grandfather’s Will”; or
  • Campaign insignificant, e.g. “Went to scout out the defenses of Darkmuir Manor but was almost caught and spent a couple of days in hiding”; or some other plausible explanation of where the character went, deriving from events within the campaign, but of no great significance to the campaign in the long-term; or,
  • Campaign Significant, e.g. “Infiltrated a meeting of a death-cult dedicating to reviving the God Of Whimsical Destruction” or “Attended a secret peace conference between the Mondahz Confederation and the Elves Of The Ninth Circle”. These are events that the GM wants to have happen in the background, so he has to provide these. But they have the side-benefit of using the player as a vehicle for blocks of narrative text about events in the game without making them narration.
Pros:

This is an answer that solves the immediate problem – somewhat. It can provide a vehicle for background events that keep the campaign background dynamic instead of static, can provide a vehicle for character development.

Cons:

The flexibility evades most of the problems listed under the default “Solution Zero”, but at a price: Plausibility is negatively impacted, though some of the pro’s enhance plausibility in other areas, so overall this is a neutral solution that can appeal.

Recommendation:

This approach is worth considering, especially if the GM doesn’t feel his experience behind-the-screen will enable him to implement one of the better answers offered below. I consider this the minimum acceptable solution.

Solution 2: Second-Hand News

This is a solution that not a lot of people will have heard of, at least not in this exact form. I have seen a number of approaches written up here and there that all boil down to letting another player take care of a character whose regular player is absent, and over the years, have amalgamated the best features of several refinements on this basic proposal into the solution described below.

Each PC has a “Primary owner” and a “Secondary Owner” whose job it is to run the character when the primary owner is not there. The choice of who the Secondary Owner is, and should be, left to the Primary Owner – and should be made at the time of character generation. If both Primary and Secondary Owners are missing, one of the other solutions should be used as a stopgap.

Pros:

This approach certainly solves the problem. It also means that the party are never stuck needing a specialist class because the player that owns that character is away.

Cons:

It’s easily three times as much work running two characters at the same time as it is running one. It can easily ruin the enjoyment of the player trying to do it.

Some players may attempt to take advantage of the situation; while the GM can veto some of this, not all such actions will come to his attention, such as the second character making a ‘loan’ of a prized magic item or sum of wealth to the player’s usual character – and some players resent the GM vetoing ANY PC action. Some players will concoct mendacities to falsely accuse the caretaker of this sort of abuse of trust for his or her own reasons.

This solution also places a high premium on the secondary owner being able to explain his decisions and thinking at the moment of decision to the primary owner. And, even if the Secondary Owner runs the character with the best of intentions, communicates the reasons for his decisions clearly and succinctly to the Primary Owner, that owner can still be left be unhappy at the outcome of choices that he feels the character would not have made.

So it’s not a completely happy answer from the point of view of the players. Unfortunately, it is also not all the sparkling from the GM’s position, either. Implementing this solution may mean that the secondary owner becomes aware of knowledge that the primary owner would prefer to keep private. It may also mean that the secondary owner learns things that the secondary owner’s primary character doesn’t and shouldn’t know. Both of these can disrupt the campaign; it forces the Secondary Owner to actively work at separating player knowledge from character knowledge – something some players are good at, and some are not.

And finally, it is still only a partial solution: what if there are no other players that the primary owner trusts?

Recommendation:

This solution doesn’t work very well for inexperienced players and probably isn’t all that suitable under the circumstances. It’s a recipe for trouble even at the best of times. The Cons far outweigh the Pros, in my book, which is why this is not a solution that I willingly employ – but others may feel differently.

Where it does become somewhat viable is in a situation where a player leaves the campaign on a semi-permanent basis, or wants to retire his old character to start a new one – while the other players want to retain the services of the old character. With the consent of both players involved, a permanent transfer of ownership – either to an existing player or a new recruit – can be a perfect solution, and this is definitely a technique that I employ under those conditions.

Solution 3: The Zombie Solution

That brings us to what many will consider the obvious answer to the problem: The GM runs the missing player’s character as an NPC when they aren’t there. For this to be a reasonable approach, the player must have sufficiently developed the personality of the character that the GM can reasonably justify his decisions concerning the character’s behavior.

Pros:

It solves the problem completely, and dodges most of the pitfalls that the earlier solutions are prey to.

Cons:

That’s the good news. The bad news is that if its three times as much work to run two characters as it is to run one, it’s ten times as much work to run two characters and the game at the same time, and every other aspect of the campaign can suffer as a result.

The emphasis on communication with the absent player remains, but shifts to focus on the GM. The problem of separating character knowledge and player knowledge also remains, and is ten times worse because the GM has access to so much knowledge about the campaign. The GM, however, is more practiced at both tasks than most players, and has the option of slowing play down to a pace with which he or she can cope. Finally, the GM normally accepts responsibility for the long-term satisfaction of the players and well-being of their characters anyway, and always has to keep in mind what an NPC does and doesn’t know, so this is in perfect keeping with his normal purview. If it doesn’t happen regularly.

My players are all pretty reliable, and I make it clear from the outset that joining one of my campaigns means that the player is making a commitment to attend and participate, so this is the solution that I usually adopt, together with the threshold rule mentioned earlier.

I also employ a ‘critical character’ rule – if one particular character is the focal point of a day’s play, I’m quite prepared to skip a game session if that character’s player is not available. That means that I only take charge of a character when the events aren’t especially significant to that character, and hence the decisions to be made are generally relatively minor – what battle tactic to employ is a minor question, deciding whether or not to accept a bribe from another player’s arch-enemy is quite another!

Recommendation:

This solution doesn’t work very well for inexperienced GMs and probably isn’t all that suitable under the circumstances, despite the fact that it’s the solution I most routinely employ in my games. It took me several years of GMing every weekend, week-in and week-out, for up 30 hours a week, before I was comfortable and confident enough in my own abilities to make this my default position.

Solution 4: The PC Collective

A less-commonly espoused solution that works hand-in-hand with a heavily-episodic style is what I describe as “The PC Collective”. This is a “Mission: Impossible” approach (the original TV show, not the movies) in which all the characters – and several more – are in a pool of talent owned collectively by the party. Each time that the game reaches an exchange point, any player can choose to send the character that he has been playing back to the pool and draw out a different member of the pool; adventures become operations by teams of specialists, hand-picked by the players in order to achieve their immediate goals.

At the start of a day’s play, players retain the same character that they had at the end of the previous session, at least until the next exchange point is reached. That may leave a group of characters whose players from last session are not present this time, and it may leave a group of players without characters because they weren’t present last time. Such players have to first choose from the characters already present without a player; only once all these are taken can the rest choose from the available pool of ‘talent’ and wait for the GM to reach an “exchange point”, until then, they can only kibitz from the sidelines.

The only thing that the GM needs to have up his sleeve is some means of settling disputes – even if that’s as simple as “high roll gets to choose first” in the case of two players wanting the same character. Some sort of attendance ranking – number of sessions attended over the last three months, for example – would be my recommendation.

Pros:

As solutions go, this one has a lot to commend it. It solves the problem, and that solution is a group one. Players forego the one-to-one relationship that they normally have with their characters, but they gain a flexibility that can compensate – and the use of an attendance ranking system to prioritize players choosing characters means that the campaign will quickly come to consist of a core group of regular players and a number of intermittent attendees. That core group will soon settle on a core group of favorite characters, with only the occasional variation.

The result is exactly what happens in Mission Impossible: you have a core team of characters and a set – a suite, even – of specialists called in on a mission-by-mission basis. In effect, a central cast and a roster of recurring guest stars.

If there are too many characters and not enough players, the GM can implement the “Zombie Solution” until an exchange point is reached.

A final benefit is that the solution rewards regular attendance without unduly penalizing those who can’t participate regularly. A forward-thinking party will even ensure that specialists who are potentially-vital to future “missions” will get a reasonable amount of “screen time”, i.e. garner enough experience to be able to cope with the needs of those future missions.

Cons:

The biggest drawbacks to this approach are twofold:

  • The players have to willingly and voluntarily buy-in to the proposed solution. If they can see the benefits and advantages, that shouldn’t be a problem most of the time; but if they don’t, they may not warm to the solution.
  • The longer a campaign has been running, the more resistance that will be encountered, because players will have invested in their characters. The ideal time to implement this solution is from the very first session of a campaign, with characters that have been specifically designed for this approach.
Recommendation:

While this solves the problem in principle, and is an approach that I would happily try with a new campaign where attendance was expected to be a problem, it doesn’t hold up as a solution to Tristan’s specific problem where his campaign is already underway.

It would also be important to hand out story-based xp awards (the subject of next week’s post!) at each exchange point, so that characters who only participate in one portion of the adventure get their fair share of the rewards.

Ideally, the GM would also tailor the campaign design, especially the motivation and circumstances that brings the PCs together to adventure, accordingly.

Solution 5: The Short Story Solution

At the top of this post I promised an original solution to the problem; here it is:

Interweave Episodic mini-adventures alongside a Primary Campaign with stronger continuity.

  1. Each player should generate a Primary and a Secondary character. In an existing campaign, the existing characters can be considered the Primaries.
  2. The GM builds exchange points into the primary campaign where PCs can come and go, as described previously.
  3. At each exchange point, if the players whose characters are currently engaged in the primary campaign are not present, the players who are in attendance get out their secondary characters and the GM runs a miniadventure for them.
  4. If there are any primary characters who aren’t currently tied up in the main adventure because they departed at the last exchange point, they can participate in the side adventure, but if they do so, they can’t rejoin the main adventure until the next exchange point is reached.

This is a way to have your campaign cake and eat it, too.

With experience, you might be able to set things up so that the end of each day’s play usually occurs at an exchange point – in which case, you will no longer need to worry about miniadventures, and are back to Solution Zero. But this can seem artificial and can be tricky, and the other problems with Solution Zero remain – so I would make it a point to always have a couple of miniadventures up your sleeve.

An experienced GM can probably create and run a miniadventure on the spot, based on nothing but a plot seed (such as those contained in Eureka) but until you are comfortable doing so, a GM will probably need to invest a little prep time in having a miniadventure ready to go.

Pros:

Quite simply, this solves the core problem and bypasses every complication introduced by the other solutions. And, if you reach the point where the players don’t care whether its the main campaign or the side campaign, then you’re definitely a winner. This solution can be implemented at any point in an existing campaign.

You can even use the miniadventures to resolve side issues and fill in backstory for the main campaign – think of them as sidebars to that campaign!

Cons:

Alas, it is not the perfect solution. It presupposes that everyone will be able to attend the game, at least half the time. Progress in the main campaign slows because screen time is being split, and the side campaign can become more important than the story that’s supposed to occupy centre stage.

Recommendation:

Ultimately, it may prove easier to split the resulting campaigns into alternating games. This reduces the commitment required of those players who can’t be there all the time, which in itself may be enough to solve 90% of the problem 90% of the time, and may make one of the other solutions viable.

General Advice:

Whatever the approach that you adopt, be sure that your players all know about it and what it entails. If they don’t accept the solution, it won’t work. Be very careful not to single anyone out as being “to blame” when you discuss the problem. Pointing all the players to this article might be a good starting point for the discussion!

I hope this helps, Tristan!


It is with deep regret that I advise of the passing of a close friend and one of my most generous personal supporters, Graham McDonald, following a long battle with a serious heart condition. It was Graham who introduced me to Mythbusters, and Spirited Away, and The Writer’s Guide To Everyday Life In The Middle Ages – and to Roleplaying Tips.

It was Graham who first encouraged me to submit articles to Johnn for publication; without him, it might never have happened. I dedicate this post to him and his generosity of spirit, and would ask everyone who has found anything of value or interest in my efforts here at Campaign Mastery to roll a d20 the next time you play, in his memory.

Rest In Peace, my friend. And thank you. – Mike

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