GM Tips: Handling Player Absences
Have you ever had to deal with a player canceling on game night just minutes before kickoff? No, of course not - your players have both a perfect attendance record and are never late. But perhaps you’ve heard of this problem or know someone who’s had to deal with it. I’ve been both a GM victim and player perpetrator (sorry again, Alex) of this specific crime. Here are five ways to manage player absences and what to do when it becomes a problem.
Methods for Handling Player Absences
Virtual Option - If you play in-person, providing a virtual option for players to attend may provide a viable alternative to keep the game going without any absences at all. If someone has to cancel because they’re traveling or staying home because they're sick, this might be the ticket. I’ve done before placing a laptop at my players typical seat and using Skype or Facebook Messenger. In a pinch, I’ve even done this with my iPhone and a phone stand. There will likely be an initial awkwardness and it can be easy for the person to feel left out of the action. Be sure to check that the camera can follow the action if you’re using miniatures and that you make an extra effort to check on what the player’s character is doing.
Teleportitus - There is a contagious and mysterious disease spreading throughout the realm. Peasants don’t understand it, mages can’t explain it. Those afflicted teleport to a strange plane of existence and return with no memories of the illness. Afflicted individuals usual recover from the illness after one play session.
Adventure Guild Frame - The adventurers are part of an adventurer guild that takes contracts from various benefactors. The guild has many adventurers and with so many mouths to feed, adventuring groups are constantly changing. The party that solves the murder mystery this week will likely be a different group of adventurers than the one that seeks the lost artifact from the fallen temple next week. This is the model we use in Adventurer’s Agency. In addition to the “Adventurer Guild” format, the campaign setting also includes guidance on making your own guild such as ranks, member privileges, and guild NPCs. We even have a system for quickly detailing the adventure the absent player’s PC went on that took them away from the main party. This method works great for groups that mutually agree some absences are going to be ongoing and accepted such as folks with family or work commitments that might compete with game night.
Downtime - This method is - for most campaigns - the most natural way to explain player absences, but it can also be the most challenging. Perhaps the cleric spent time praying in her deity’s temple. Or maybe the Bard spent a few days carousing with some old friends. Using player absences as a way to work in downtime can convincingly explain why a PC was absent while also working in backstory and side hustles. However, having the PC leave and rejoin in a narratively convincing way can be really tricky. As GM, you either need to plan a way for the PC to plausibly rejoin the group if they’re already several levels deep into a dungeon, or you just have the PC rejoin inexplicably and take the hit to your game’s verisimilitude.
DM NPC - Another popular method, the GM simply takes over running the absent player’s character. This usually results in the PC fading into the background with other players forgetting the PC is still present at times, and it also puts additional work on the GM to manage an additional NPC when combat breaks out. If the party is in the middle of a multi-session adventure with no convenient off-ramp to explain why the PC is absent, this is likely your best option.
Handling a Continuously Absent Player
Come to Jesus Moment - When absences become a pattern, it’s probably time for an honest conversation. If the player has a good explanation for their absences - such as a chronic medical condition, unpredictable work schedule, or complicated home life - ask if they want to step away from the game for a little while until they’re able to better focus on the game. If the absences come with no explanation, it’s okay to share how you, as GM, spend a lot of time preparing each week’s game and that constant cancellations make you feel frustrated and hurt. Let the person know how you feel and let them know that if they’re not able to commit to a regular game night schedule, maybe they need to reevaluate if they want to be part of your gaming group. If nothing else, make sure you are clear in the group’s expectations. Clear is kind. And speaking of kindness, one important thing I’ll add is make sure you do this one-on-one with the player in private. You don’t want to embarrass someone by calling them out in front of everyone.
Parting Ways - If you’re like me and you don’t like dealing with conflict *offers fistbump of solidarity* kicking someone out of your gaming group probably sounds like a nightmare. Being a GM is rewarding in so many ways but it also comes with some burdens and dealing with problematic players is probably the worst. However, as GM it’s your responsibility to make sure that the group is functioning and filled with players who share values and mutual respect. A player who makes a pattern of cancelling last minute is disrespectful of your time and the rest of the group. If the player in question is a newer member of the group, removing them from the group might not be so hard. However, evicting a coworker, longtime friend, or even a family member can be a lot trickier. In this case, just let them know that it’s not working out - which is okay. You still appreciate them in whatever other role they have in your life, it’s just that it’s not working out with them being in your gaming group. Be firm that it’s not the right fit but let them know you have no hard feelings and extend any other olive branch you can that’s appropriate, such as “let’s grab coffee sometime next week and catch up.”
What about you? What’s the best technique you’ve used for handling player absences? Let me know in the comments below!