How To Deal With Absentee Players – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0070

  1. Get Some Perspective On The Problem
  2. Create House Rules And Agree On Consequences
  3. Have The Character Fade Into The Background
  4. Make The Character Vanish
  5. Another Player Takes Control Of The Character
  6. GM Controls The Missing Player’s PC
  7. PC Falls Under Group Control

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Introduce New Players Who Can’t Commit As Minor NPCs
  2. A Colour For Every Player
  3. Let Players Choose Their Own Character Development Style

A Brief Word From Johnn

Part I This Week, Part II (and maybe III) Coming A Little Later

Thanks to your fantastic response on this topic, there are enough tips and advice for two, maybe three issues. I think it’s an important topic and that all these tips will give you a great list of options and ideas to consider when making your own decision about what to do when a player doesn’t show up.

However, I think I’ll publish Part II (and Part III, if there is one) in early May rather than back-to-back next week. Not all GMs suffer from absenteeism, and these “meta” types of topics can get a little dry to read after awhile.

So, I’ll spread them out between some meaty “in-game” tips issues, like “Making Travel Interesting”.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

How To Deal With Absentee Players – Part I

Get Some Perspective On The Problem

Someone calls and tells you they won’t be showing up to the game. Your first reaction might be to take offense. It could feel like a personal affront that a player doesn’t show, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in preparation.Your second reaction might be to panic or worry because the absent player controls a critical character or because the missing player is key to your group.The first thing to do is calm down. Deep breaths actually do work because they get the oxygen flowing to your brain again. Next, try to get some perspective on the situation.

Chances are that the offending player really does want to play, but real life just got in the way. It’s nothing personal. If you were a bad GM, *nobody* would show up. So, don’t take offense.

And, here’s an opportunity to stretch your GMing skills and think on your feet. Consider this a challenge, not a problem. Consider all your options, make a decision and move on.

I think the worst thing that can happen is to harbour resentment or personally attack the absent player. You might feel inclined to make negative comments about his no-show to the other players. Or, you might feel the need to take revenge out on his character. You might even desire to take revenge out on the other group members.

But, reacting out of hurt and anger will backfire on you every time. You will just end up alienating the players who *did* show up..

So, try to get some perspective on things. Consider yourself a professional and treat the situation in a professional manner. If you feel there are issues to work out with the absent player, do that in private, away from the game table. Make sure the players who did make it for the game get 100% from you. In the long run this is the best strategy for ensuring regular attendance.

Create House Rules And Agree On Consequences

One subscriber wrote “treat the person behind the player” and I think this is excellent advice. Roleplaying is a game after all. It’s about having fun and being with friends.The best way to deal with absenteeism is to develop some House Rules on the subject, and to get everyone’s agreement/consent on the rules before the situation happens. If you’re starting a new campaign, you can put things in place right from the beginning. If you’re in an existing campaign, take a time-out to establish some guidelines for all future games.

Clear communication on the issue will prevent a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstanding in the future.Game table time is pretty precious, so you might want to contact each player before a session and get their opinions on what they think should happen to a PC if a player doesn’t show. Draft up a set of House Rules and go over them with each player via email, fax or the phone. Make further changes based on the feedback you received and then bring the final draft to the next game.

Take five minutes to go over any last minute changes and then get everyone’s consent to use these new procedures for when a player doesn’t show.This might sound like a lot of work, but it really should be a couple of 5 minute conversations with each player and twenty minutes drafting up the final House Rules. Feel free to make the House Rules an entirely verbal agreement if your group is relaxed about such things. You could also consider recruiting a player to do the footwork for you.

Finally, you could mix this in with a larger House Rules process for all the other rules amendments and etiquette protocols you want to make.

The important thing is that your players feel they’re being treated fairly about potentially touchy issues like absenteeism.

Here are some questions to consider when drafting up your House Rules:

  • How much notice do you want?
  • How many players need to be absent before the game is called off and re-scheduled?
  • What happens to the missing player’s character?
  • Can the character earn any rewards, experience points, skill points, and so on?
  • Can the character die? Can the character die if all the other PCs die?
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Here are several methods for you to choose from for dealing with the characters of absent players.

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Have The Character Fade Into The Background

This was the most popular option based on the 75+ subscriber emails I received in response to the Tips Request from issues #68 & #69. Most GMs prefer to shove the PC in a (hopefully) safe place at the back of the party to be forgotten for the rest of the session.This is what my group does too. It has the advantage of not requiring a cover story for the PC’s sudden departure and reappearance, and the players and GM are not burdened with an NPC to play. If the PC is needed, then he is still there to lend a hand.

Here were some additional options reported by subscribers:

  • PC is immune to all damage and cannot die unless the entire party perishes
  • Character turns invisible
  • Character is allowed to use her abilities during key moments
  • Character earns no rewards
  • Character earns a reduced percentage of rewards

Make The Character Vanish

Many GMs also reported that they simply have the PC vanish until the player returns. This may not suit some groups’ style, but it does have the advantage of eliminating all potential problems regarding PC control, potential abuse, and accidental death.As long as your players go along with this, and it doesn’t break the group’s sense of disbelief or mood, then it’s a great option from an administration standpoint.

Absent players will have peace of mind too. :)In general, this also means the vanishing PC receives no rewards or points, and does not change in any way. The PC is literally in stasis. If a player is going to be absent for more than one session, this may cause the PC to fall behind in ability compared to the other party members. This might create a weak link for the party, and it might make planning adventures more difficult for you. So, choose this option carefully.

Another Player Takes Control Of The Character

If the PC is important to the adventure, he might need to take a more active role than just tagging along at the rear of the party. One option, when this happens, is to have a player play the character. This often results in more intelligent play on behalf of the character and the party benefits from the PC’s skills and abilities.

On the down side, many players don’t want to play more than one character. Also, many players are competitive about their character’s secrets and the absent player might become very upset when he learns than another player has read and studied his character sheet. The PC might also be abused in another player’s hands, poorly handled or just ignored.

Here are some options to consider:

  • Allow a GM override. You can step in at any time and override the absentee PC’s actions if you think there’s abuse going on.
  • Group override. You are willing to listen to other players’ complaints if they feel the absentee PC is being abused or under-played.
  • Player consent. The absent player must give consent about who his proxy will be. This is generally prearranged.
  • Proxy player must be assigned. If a player is going to miss a session, then she must make arrangements before the game for another player to play her PC and then notify you of the arrangement.
  • Roll for the burden. Lowest roll gets stuck with playing the PC.
  • Take turns and share the burden. This works best if all your players will treat the PC fairly during their turn.
  • GM assigns the burden.
    • Give the absentee PC to a player with a completely different kind of character to help him keep the PCs separate.
    • Give the PC to a player whose character is out of commission, quiet, or often stays out of the action. A different PC might be refreshing and inspiring for them.
  • Reward the player playing the NPC. One GM reported giving the absentee PC’s experience points to the player who roleplayed him that session. This might not be to your taste, but the concept of a reward of some kind could work for you.

GM Controls The Missing Player’s PC

On the one hand, this is just another burden for you during the game. On the other though, it could mean a great opportunity for you to take advantage of. A villain could take over the PC’s mind and turn the PC into a saboteur–the players will not suspect a missing player’s PC of treachery (unless they’ve been bitten before).It also gives you a tool for helping the party during the adventure.

For example, if something secret gets missed by everyone, you can make (and fudge) the absentee PC’s search check to ensure that the secret is discovered.Another example is to have the PC hang back during battles, keeping her fresh and strong, and then have her lend a helping hand when needed as the party’s strength dwindles.Unless you want to make a duplicate character sheet with “on a need to know basis” type of information to protect an absentee PC’s secrets, just playing the PC yourself can save a lot of headaches as well.

PC Falls Under Group Control

This method lets anyone in the party step-up and declare the PC’s actions and the GM can settle any disputes. Usually, this means less important characters might get lost in the shuffle, while very important characters always get included–a perfect situation for some groups.Group control relieves individual responsibility for the absentee PC, though potential for abuse is greater.

Tips Request For Issue #71: “Making Travel Interesting”

Issue #71 is all about making travel interesting, whether it’s a band of adventurers heading to and fro, or a spaceship crew killing time between star systems. What tricks and techniques do you have to make this time in the game interesting?

Also, for Part II of the Absentee Player series, I’d like to give you a list of “Lame Excuses For Ditching Absentee PCs” that you could photocopy and put in your GM binder. Though I’m only half-kidding about the “Lame” part, I think a list of ideas would come in handy if you get stumped by a sudden player absence. So, how have you ditched PCs in the past? Send your “lame” excuses to: [email protected]

Thank you very much.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Introduce New Players Who Can’t Commit As Minor NPCs

From wyrdr

Hi Johnn

We are a loose group of RPers, with various work, family and romantic commitments which mean not everyone can make sessions regularly. Here [is one example of how] we’ve worked around this problem.

‘GIRs’ (Guys in Red) : The Guy in the Red Shirt was the walk-on extra in Star Trek episodes, which as often as not, never made it to the end of the episode. In our games, GIRs are characters a bit like NPCs – only generally developed. In fact, many are NPCs for most of the game. But some also start as PCs.

The point is that if a player cannot make a game, they switch to NPC or some other player takes on the role (perhaps as an extra character). GIRs are never integral characters, but help the party nonetheless. We of course, allow regular GIRs to take on more important roles if one person likes that character and develops them further. On the other hand, a GIR may eventually fade into the background, remaining an NPC, and perhaps even losing contact with the main characters.

If a player is unsure of how much they can commit to a game, they start off as a GIR. We have in fact started games where everyone was a GIR, and ended up developing the characters into fully fledged PCs within a few sessions.

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A Colour For Every Player

From Andrew G.

I have also experimented with using a whiteboard as a gaming surface. My thought was that each player would ‘own’ a whiteboard pen of a particular colour, and could draw or erase anything they like in their own colour. I as GM would have black, so everything I drew was easily distinguishable from everything the players drew.

[Johnn: this was part of a larger message from Andrew, but I liked the tip so I chopped it out of context. Whether you use whiteboard & markers, paper & crayons, a binder & stationery, index cards, and so on, assigning each player their own colour is a fantastic organization technique. Thanks Andrew.]
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Let Players Choose Their Own Character Development Style

From Kenneth G.

Most people have a pretty clear idea what makes for a well evolved character. Unfortunately, most people’s ideas are not the same as the people sitting with them at the table.

Some people like to focus on the appearance of the character, their habits, and what they have in their pockets. This is kind of like acting in the British style — from the outside in. Figure out how the character acts and you get to know who the character is.

American acting, the “method”, is from the inside out. Figure out who the character is, their motivations, their fears, their anxieties, and you will get to know how the character acts.

These are not the only ways to think about what makes a good character. For example, my preferred method of developing a character is to start with what he knows. I like to build up my skills and abilities a little at a time. I outline my character, getting a sense of what kinds of skills and abilities I am looking for. Then I start to explain things from deep back-story, to near back-story, to present. I often find I don’t purchase exactly the skills I thought I would early on. By the end of it, I generally can speak at some length about where I learned what and why I learned as much as I did.

I have often developed some of the episodes my character had undertaken. However, I cringe when I am asked what my character looks like. I also am not really interested in his feelings.

Which brings me back to my opening comments. One man’s well- developed, fleshed-out character is rarely the next man’s. When encouraging people to develop their characters, understanding that some people will develop different aspects of their character and will resist some kinds of fleshing-out will help you deal with the differences.