What do you do when one or more players can’t make it to your table on Game Night?

If you as a gamer never encounter this problem, you play under a lucky star for this is one of those top five recurring questions that continues to be posted on FaceBorg et al. The reasons are many (work, family commitments, school, out of town vacation, and so on) and solutions are hardly perfect. How you handle it is a choice for your table, but here are some things to consider when you and your players talk about what’s right for your game.

Minimum / Maximum Numbers

My recommendation is that you discuss with your players to set a minimum number for the game to run and a system to confirm attendance in advance. Various social networks have tools for events and reminders. I’ve heard tell of Western Marches games where the first X number to respond get to play, but I’ve never done it that way as the tables I play at tend to be more about the social get together aspect.

Once you’ve settled on a minimum or maximum to play, what’s the alternative if you don’t hit that sweet spot for? Is there a board game or cards to fall back on (why waste a Game Night?) or will you just lean into hanging out? With the current COVID lockdown, some of my planned Game Nights have been just a couple of hours hanging out.

If you find that you are rarely hitting those minimum numbers, inviting additional players to the table to fill in the gaps help when attendance fluctuates greatly.

  • Pro: Usually you’ll have enough at your table.
  • Con: When everyone shows up, it makes for a very crowded table and that on the fly adjustments to make sure that the party is properly balanced.

What About The Missing?

Even if you have your minimum numbers, what do you do about the APC (Absent Player Character)?

The answer comes out of your attitude towards how involved the APC is and how that affects their share of rewards. The old school D&D that I played years ago followed an adage of ‘no risk, no reward’ and XP was calculated purely from monster killing and loot. More recently, I’ve seen social contracts for friendly games refusing to punish those unable to make it to the game and DMs awarding milestones. If the play at your table focuses on encounter balance, having more APC involvement might be easier than adjusting encounters on the fly.

The shorthand terms I’ve used at my table to describe different degrees of involvement are:

  • Zombie – Present in body, but less in spirit
    • Pro: All the abilities for encounters are at hand, even if whoever covers operating that APC may not be playing that PC at peak efficiency (for some tables, sub-optimal play gets criticized but I’m finding in 5E isn’t as unforgiving as some editions and games are). 
    • Con: In addition to adding to somebody’s workload at the table by playing an additional character, this puts the APC at risks that the player may not agree with, finding their PC dead or having spent non recharging resources like potions. If you do choose this, best to allow a veto from the party on ‘out of character’ actions. Deciding that action shouldn’t take longer than usual, and a veto from any other player ought to have a suggested alternative. If it can’t be found, better to put the APC on the defensive and move on. Finally, if there is an encounter that hooks into the APC, running it without them there may work mechanically but it’s really robbing that player of their spotlight. And all important, there needs to be a current copy of the character present to be used (honestly, it’s always a good idea for there to be a back up version available anyways).

  • Ghost – Present in spirit, but not in combat
    • Pro:  Access to APC’s abilities (super useful if they happen to be a healer or a ranger during travelling the wilderness, meh if they are the hack and slash fighter).
    • Con: Encounters (Social and Combat) can suffer depending on the APC’s impact. Social encounters tend to be focused on one or two PCs and if that PC is absent, they miss out. For combat encounters, it comes down to more than just fewer hit points to soak damage. The difference of one or two creatures can be tinkered with for balance (if that’s how you play) but the size of a party has even a bigger impact depending on the APC’s abilities like range or elemental damage.

  • Off Stage – Not there at all
    • Pro: No one has to manage the APC and the APC is in no danger.
    • Con: No access to the APC’s abilities (healing, identify / detect, survival, etc.). If you happen to be hard core about your continuity, removing the PC will really be strained. What happens to the APC if the rest of the party is wiped out?

Sometimes the situation will change how the APC would be best for the table, though it’s best for a group to decide on how they want to handle it for most occasions. If a PC’s absence would result in the story would grind entirely to a halt of a PC death, then it might be time to make them a little more present. If having a ghosted APC returning to the table at full resources (Hit Points, spell slots, etc.) seems unfair, make note of the least damaged PC (or average the damage done to all PCs) before healing or taking a rest but let the APC have the same recovery options as the PCs present (i.e. they took a short rest). These are more guidelines and suggestions than hard and fast rules of conduct.

A Piece of the Action

The old school D&D that I played years ago followed an adage of ‘no risk, no reward’ and XP was calculated purely from monster killing and loot. More recently, I’ve seen social contracts for friendly games refusing to punish those unable to make it to the game and DMs awarding milestones. Also related, how do you feel about new PCs joining in midway through a Campaign. I’m focusing on D&D / D20 systems here as the mechanisms for improvements vary widely across systems. Likewise, these are the extreme positions. Your table will probably be somewhere in between and I highly recommend writing it down somewhere for

No One Gets Left Behind

  • Everyone levels at the same rate, APC’s get an equal share saved for them, and save a few special items for them and drop them a text / email to keep them informed.
    • Pro: Less book keeping by the players as the DM can track the overall experience. Everyone advances at the same rate and missing multiple sessions isn’t punishing character advancement.
    • Con: Some senses of fairness will cry out against this, as the pokey little puppy shows up after the dragon is slain and collects from the same loot without having been there for the threat of death (particularly if one or more PCs who were present did die). Players best learn their new abilities from leveling up through play so a PC who jumps 2+ levels will be less

Reward Where There is Risk

  • If you didn’t put in the time, you’re not going to profit off the blood, sweat, and spell slots of others! This also assumed that the loot recovered has been planned to be split among those in the encounter and not for a party of X adventurers.
    • Pro: Players who have put in the time and effort get the rewards. Splitting treasure after each encounter is simpler than a running tabulation until the end of the ‘adventure’. There are probably more things that are good about this, but I’m hard pressed to think of any.
    • Con: Wide gaps in level can create unnecessary party hardships, removing the fun for those players who had to miss three sessions because of Y (a perfectly valid reason) and are seriously outclassed by the player who shows up every week. What of the player who was there for everything in a dungeon except that final battle and the treasure horde kept by that dragon in the final chamber? Should they miss out on all the final loot despite being an integral part of making it possible to get there? Individuals will have to track their own XP (though still a good idea for the DM to keep a copy of current XP as well).

Older editions of D&D used to have different XP required for each class to level up and class specific XP rewards for things like stolen coin or destroying magic items. Midway through editions there started to be rewards for things like role play and things to spend XP on like making magic items. 5E (and various Home Brew) have come up with plenty of alternatives for player rewards besides coin and killing, like Milestone (“You’ve managed to defeat the Overlord of Unteria! Everyone gains a level!”), Boons, and Marks of Prestige, or even Inspiration Dice and Action Dice.

The only way to really win D&D is to have fun playing it.

Personal Note from Long Ago

*As a much younger player many years ago with other equally immature friends at the table, the heaping of abuse on the APC was a regular thing. We did it not out of cruelty but because it amused us to no end the same way watching epic fails entertained us.  I’m not proud of it, but I understand it and have seen it crop up with similar practical jokes and ‘entertainment’ at the expense of a player present and absent. We had a talk about it, but that’s another story.