Gaming with Ghosts: When Good Players Can’t Be There

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I’ve said it before — everyone has situations that come up where they have to miss a session or two, sometimes at the last minute. After all, real-life issues have to take precidence over game ones. But as a GM, what do you do when Liza the Ranger gets called into work at the last minute?

In my experience, I’ve found you’ve got several options:

  1. Have the GM run the character. This is the most commonly used solution I’ve seen. It’s generally fair, as long as the GM doesn’t take the opportunity to run the character they way he would like to see it run, rather than the way the player does. This option works better in games that are heavily action-oriented, rather than role-playing oriented.
  2. Have another player run the character. Use this only when the absent player agrees to it. I’ve seen too many sessions have to be “rerun” because the returning player doesn’t like the way her character was played in her absence. Sometimes the missing player will ask a specific player to play her character for her — this is generally a good solution.
  3. The character is absent too. This is the solution I choose whenever possible. All of my players are adults with multiple real-life demands. I try to set up my games so that the characters can “step out” for a session to attend to personal matters from time to time. If a PC needs to attend to something alone, I try to have the player do this on a day they can’t be at the game. Before the next game session, I try to touch base with the missing player so we can work out (at least briefly) what his character as doing during the absence. Sometimes, though, you just can’t take this option — like when your PCs are in the middle of a dungeon.
  4. The character is present, but “out of commission”. The character could be drugged, knocked unconscious, engaged in a psionic battle, trapped (mentally) in an alternate dimension…there’s a wide range of possibilities. Again, only use this one with the player’s permission. This can be a good alternative to number 3, above. I tend to take this option if a player starts missing games or showing up late on a regular basis, especially if they do it without giving a reason.
  5. Run a “what if” or “it’s all a dream” game session. This can be a lot of fun, if all the players present understand that what happens in this game session will not be part of the “official” game. My players have even done this when I couldn’t be there. Another player takes over the role of GM and runs my game for me, based on what they think is going on.
  6. Conduct a series of “one-on-ones”. Take each player who can make it aside for awhile and run a one-on-one session with them. The session could be something the PC’s been wanting to do for a while or could be a scene from the PC’s past. I’ll occasionally do this when I’ve got less than half my players, but people still want to play. Players not currently involved with me generally shoot the breeze with each other (frequently in character), play card or board games, etc.
  7. Take the opportunity to run a “one-shot”. I’ll frequently toss a convention scenario I’m working on or other such short adventureĀ  with pre-gen characters in my game bag and use that if I’ve got too many “no shows” but the rest of the players want to play something.
  8. Run a henchmen one-shot. Have everyone play one of their assistants, henchmen, ghouls, hired hands, bodyguards, etc. in a one-shot scenario.

It’s helpful to have a set policy about what to do with missing players’ characters. Do you run if one or more player is missing? How many players have to be missing before you cancel the game? Discuss this with your players when you first begin the campaign and settle on a basic guideline you all can live with. Generally, I’ll run if I have at least half my players. If I have less than half, we’ll either cancel that session or do #5, 6, 7, or 8 above.

The important thing is for the GM and players to come to a mutually-agreeable solution. Try to set a policy and stick to it as much as possible. That way, it’s fair for everyone and your players will know what to expect when real-life encroaches and they just can’t be there.

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