How To Deal With Absentee Players – Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0076

  1. Use The Player’s Absence To Add Something Interesting To The Game
  2. Stall Or Sidetrack The Party
  3. Host A One-Shot Game
  4. Host An Alternate Campaign
  5. Dive Into Alternate Reality
  6. List Of 28 Lame Excuses To Exclude A PC

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Switching Genres Without Switching Games
  2. Encourage Roleplaying Through Planning
  3. Lamination Tips
  4. Introduce People To Roleplaying By Having Them Play Themselves
  5. Alternate Sources & Types Of Mapping Paper

A Brief Word From Johnn

Contest Winners

The winners of the gift certificates are:

  • $20 Andres R. galapago@…
  • $30 Ivar J. ivarjr@…


Thanks to everyone for your great topic suggestions and contest entries. There were a number of topics that were requested several times, so I’ll be re-organizing my topics list and giving those higher priority–thanks again for the feedback.

Roleplaying Games At

Some of you may have heard, and now it’s official, I’m the new Guide at the Roleplaying Games site at I’ll be writing a weekly article, mostly on GM how-to stuff (for those of you who can’t get enough GM articles :), with the odd guest article here and there.

There’s also an archive of over 150 original roleplaying articles at the site which Dru, the former Guide, has graciously allowed to remain online for you to read.

The Roleplaying Games site also has forums, which is great, because we now have a place to chat about tips, feedback on issues, post help requests, and so on. I visit the forums daily, so I’ll catch you there!

Please visit the site at:


Johnn Four
[email protected]

P.S. Roleplaying Tips Weekly will still continue as it has been though, with lots of tips every Monday for you.

Johnn Four
[email protected]

How To Deal With Absentee Players, Part II

Picking up from where we left off in issue #70 here are some tips and ideas on how you can recover successfully from a last-minute no-show.

Use The Player’s Absence To Add Something Interesting To The Game

I mentioned, in Part I, not to take absenteeism personally and not to get upset when it happens. Another good mental attitude you can adopt is to view a missing character as a chance to enhance your game in some way.For example, think of an intriguing reason for the character’s absence and use it as a plot hook. Or turn the excuse which removes the character from that session’s play into a fun and interesting short story that develops your campaign or sets up an important future event.

You could use the opportunity to add in some much-needed humour during play. At the beginning of the session you simply announce that the absentee player’s PC had to leave and would return soon. Later on in the session, after a grim turn of events where the party was badly outfoxed by the villain yet again, the PCs spot a “Wanted Dead Or Alive” poster with the absent PC’s face on it. However, his name has been changed to something hilarious, his crimes are completely out of character, and his picture has been vandalised in a humorous way.

That’s sure to drain some of the pent-up tension in the party and add further mystery to the absentee PC’s story.The point is to turn a negative into a positive by looking for ways to use the PC’s absence to benefit the adventure, plot or campaign in some way.

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Stall Or Sidetrack The Party

Sometimes a key player doesn’t show up, or is late, and you want to continue playing. But, you don’t want the party to get to the main event just yet. Feel free to stall or sidetrack the party until the time is right for you to continue on.

  • Add in padded encounters, ones that aren’t critical to the story but add colour, background, or flavour to the game.
  • Take the PCs on a short diversionary adventure, such as rescuing, finding, or healing the absentee PC.
  • Take care of administration.
  • Have a “get things together” session for those who can craft things, train, make some money, buy things or have them made, create spells, and so on.
  • If you have multiple story hooks or plots going on, make some of them more urgent so that the party pursues them instead for awhile.
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Host A One-Shot Game

If more than one player fails to show up, or if the missing PC is just too critical to your scheduled game, then consider running a different roleplaying game for the evening.This idea isn’t as bad as it sounds because a lot of good can come from doing something different once in awhile:

  • Let another player GM. This lets you sit on the other side of the screen, for a change, and lets another player enjoy the power, control, and fame that comes from being a GM.
  • Try that game system you’ve read and always wanted to play. Playing different games will treat you and your players to new experiences to help stir up your creative juices.
  • Try those new or alternate rules. For example, in the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide there’s a number of optional rules. Turn the evening into a play-test to see if you like those rules better without risking the players’ well-developed characters.

A subscriber, Chicken316, wrote in the following tips about how to stall and sidetrack adventures:

  1. Work the adventure to give you time to tie the loose ends.
  2. Use the characters for plots.
  3. Use NPCs to get the ball rolling.
  4. Assure a quick and painless cleanup.

Chicken’s last tip is important. Try to end side-track adventures in one session so that the full party can resume their main goal at the start of the next session.

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Host An Alternate Campaign

If it’s the same one or two players who need to miss the odd game then consider having an alternate campaign you can play for when they don’t show. Keep the same rules, and even the same campaign area if you wish, and continue to develop your game world and important stories through a different group of PCs.Here are some ideas on how you could integrate a second group of PCs into the same campaign area as your first group’s characters:

  1. Competitors. The two parties are pursuing the same goal and indirectly interfere with each other’s plans.
  2. Villain’s minions. The players play evil characters who take their orders from the main party’s villain.
  3. Monsters. Have the players take on the role of the monsters their other PCs fight. This could help you develop better monsters by watching what the players do in their monstrous roles.
  4. Historical. Turn back the clock and explore a historical event that is important to the main party.
  5. Create Irony. Reveal something to the alternate PCs that the main party could not know. It will create some good tension when the regular campaign resumes and the players cannot use the knowledge they gained from the alternate group.
  6. Back-up PCs. By keeping a second party of PCs in the area, a player has a back-up character in the wings in case her character dies in the session. Perhaps the alternate PCs are servants of the PCs (Ars Magica style), or a PC in one party is a relative to a PC in the other party. Use any way you can think of to link the two parties, have them communicate with each other, and then make the substitution.
  7. Try a new genre. Let the alternate party play horror, mystery, espionage, and so on. If your campaign universe permits it, switch to completely opposite genres like fantasy to sci-fi (using the D&D Spelljammer rules, for example).
  8. Higher level adventure. Let the players play more powerful characters for a change. If you play D&D, for example, this is a perfect way to overlap campaigns because it’s unlikely that the high-level PCs will have the same goals/tasks as the low-level PCs. For other groups, this is your chance to let players play nobles, politicians, corporate executives, wealthy individuals, and PCs who could start out with a large amount of power and/or authority.
  9. Lower level adventure. Remind players who have built-up powerful characters during a long running campaign what it feels like to start all over again. This can be a great cure for boredom or lackluster creativity.
  10. Simulate an event for research. Perhaps you are running some background events in your campaign and there are a few spots of which you aren’t sure. You could guess or make a dice roll, or, you could try running an alternate set of PCs through the scenario and watch how it all unfolds. Then, during your regular game, you can reveal the events as a piece of news, rumour or gossip.
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Dive Into Alternate Reality

If a player or two don’t show up, then now is your chance to exercise the “weird” muscle in your brain. Run a bizarre, alternate story for the session and resume regular play when you have a full group again.The nice thing about running an alternate reality story is that you can usually warp time and location to suit your short term story needs.

If the party is camping and needs a full group of PCs in the morning to face a tough adversary, then you can flip into a shared dream sequence side adventure that lasts 14 dream-days, but only lasts a few hours in real story time, so that the whole group can wake up and be ready to go next session.

Here are a few alternate reality suggestions:

  • Dreams
  • Alternate dimension
  • Divine intervention
  • Worm hole
  • Alien abduction
  • Any bizarre phenomena (watch Twilight Zone for inspiration)
  • Hallucinations brought on by drugs, magic, poison…

If you can get your hands on some old D&D modules, these are excellent alternate reality adventures:

  • EX1 Dungeonland: Alice In Wonderland theme
  • EX2 The Land Beyond The Magic Mirror: Part 2 to EX1
  • X2 Castle Amber: a strange castle appears out of the mists
  • X12 Skarda’s Mirror: another dimension behind a magic mirror
  • I6 Ravenloft: the master of Ravenloft is having guests *for* dinner, and you are invited…
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List Of 28 Lame Excuses To Exclude A PC

Thanks for all of your submissions for lame excuses. I’m hoping that you will print this list out and stick it in your binder for inspiration when you need it. While some of these excuses are stretched pretty thin, one of them may be perfect the next time a player calls in to say he can’t make the game, or one of them might give you a great idea for what to do with the absentee PC.

  1. PC charges first into battle and gets hit, knocking him out for the rest of the battle or session.
  2. PC charges first into battle and suffers the effects of a special ability of his foe (poison, stun, petrification), knocking him out for the rest of the session.
  3. DM: “Such and such won’t be here tonight, so this is what you see: a bright light comes down from the heavens and a spelljamming ship shaped like a giant snail [the trademark spelljammer of mind flayers] sucks (missing player’s PC) up into the belly of the ship. You think you might have heard his/her screams a few seconds later as the ship breaks for high orbit.” Other PC: “Well, that’s what he gets for putting that 18 into intelligence…”
  4. “Okay, where did we leave off? Oh yes. Your party has just arrived back at the Frog and Toad Inn. All of a sudden, four knights in black plate armor rush out of the tavern and surround (missing player’s PC). ‘Schmeckle the Great, you’re under arrest for treason, conspiracy to commit murder, and capital murder.’ As the guards carry the kicking and screaming (missing player’s PC) away, a cloaked and hooded man comes out of the tavern, chuckling and jingling a heavy sack of gold. ‘Fools,’ he says, ‘Any idiot guard will believe anything a suggestion spell says.’”
  5. Character is justly arrested based on his previous actions, adventure deeds, addictions or bad habits.
  6. PC goes on a personal quest to “tie up a loose end”.
  7. PC is in the thrall of a seductive man/woman/monster (yikes!).
  8. Character became lost or separated.
  9. Character falls into a chute or teleportation trap and has been taken far away.
  10. PC becomes very ill and must be carried (flu, disease, food poisoning).
  11. Character is kidnapped.
  12. PC is summoned by her family, ally or employer for assistance.
  13. PC has an obligation and must leave (knightly duties, receive an award, the family business).
  14. Character takes a break to tend something that’s important in his life but he has been neglecting while adventuring (hobbies, old friends, romance).
  15. PC spots something everyone else has missed and takes immediate action. For example, the character spies an advance scout of the enemy and goes off to deal with him alone without telling anyone in fear of alerting the scout.
  16. PC slips, hits her head and falls into unconsciousness or a coma.
  17. Character disappears mysteriously, and the party gets blamed for it (and must dodge the law/avengers-of-the-PC while trying to solve the mystery).
  18. PC has an argument with the party and storms out.
  19. PC stays behind to watch the horses or guard the camp (somebody’s got to do it).
  20. Character is sent back to town for more supplies or to run errands for the party.
  21. PC meets an old friend and takes off to party and reminisce.
  22. Character has a horrible case of diarrhea.
  23. The absentee player has responsibilities at home to deal with. Yard work, clean his clothes, buy groceries at the market, and other mundane activities that typically don’t make it to cinematic treatment.
  24. The character is sent on a separate, but more mundane, mission by his family or employer. For example, to deliver a note.
  25. PC takes off to aid an NPC in a cause that will help the party.
  26. Chaos is spreading. People and PCs are randomly disappearing for irregular intervals (i.e. when players use the washroom, miss a session, etc.). You can turn this into an entire campaign plot!
  27. PC oversleeps.
  28. PC is too hung-over to be useful.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Switching Genres Without Switching Games

From Shadowjack

Bryan S.’s and David H.’s tips on switching genres RPT#75 – 7 Plot Twisting Tips, Part I can also be done without changing the entire focus of the campaign, if you keep an eye open. Many game worlds can be run with an entirely different focus if you pay attention to the background hints and clues in the worldbooks (or make up your own).

For instance, I’ve been using the old Call of Cthulhu campaign “Call of Yog-Sothoth” for one of the main story arcs in my Earthdawn campaign, and it works just fine with minor alterations. Earthdawn’s background has a lot of Lovecraftian references in it – if you’ve played it, simply replace “Books of Harrow” with “Necronomicon”, and “Horrors” with “Great Old Ones” – and it’s easy to emphasize the horror aspect over the epic fantasy aspect, without going to the trouble of changing games on the poor players.

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Encourage Roleplaying Through Planning

From Andrew G.

Here’s an idea I thought I’d share.

My Metascape (genre: space opera) campaign is based on missions. The players are called to the briefing room and given a mission. They then go off and complete the mission, and return to home base for their rewards (pay and experience points). A single mission generally takes several sessions of game play.

The last mission I sent them on, I required them to submit a mission plan to their briefing officer. They were all set to go off as soon as I told them what they had to do, but I stopped them from going until they had a clear plan. It was the first time I had done this.

It worked. After some debate, they came up with a brilliant plan, which I hadn’t for a moment considered they might try.

(The mission in this case was a hostage extraction from a planet embroiled in a civil war. They decided to pose as arms dealers and attempt to sell a new perimeter defence system to the hostage takers – installation included – then reprogram the defence system to let them get the hostages out.)

If I hadn’t forced them to submit a mission plan, they would have just barged in with guns blazing. Instead they were able to get some weapons from their organisation to sell before heading in, their commander had a clear idea of what was going to happen, and the whole plot became one of roleplaying, instead of rollplaying.

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Lamination Tips

From Jay H.

The best present a DM can buy him/herself is an A4 laminator. Not only does it give your reference sheets, maps and notes a professional look but it makes them really functional too:

  • You can stick two or three together at the edges to make a personalised DM Screen or folder.
  • Two or three water soluble OHP transparency Pens plus a laminated blank sheet of paper makes an excellent small whiteboard, ideal for drawing quick maps or taking temporary notes.
  • And my personal favourite tip: laminate a blank sheet of squared paper. Give it to the player who draws the maps along with another OHP transparency pen. Voila! Instant reusable map paper!
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Introduce People To Roleplaying By Having Them Play Themselves

From Kang316

Roleplay yourself.

This is possibly the scariest type of roleplaying. I find it’s a good way of introducing people to the hobby. Get a group of people who might be interested and put them roleplaying *themselves* in a situation. No character rolling required. In addition to giving the new group a taste of each other’s abilities, it gives them a taste of each other too. Sometimes hidden things are brought to the surface by this exercise.

Note, however, that this only works with a group really willing to roleplay. Otherwise, you end up with a group of people who’ll roleplay themselves the way they *want* to be, not the way they *are*. After an exciting session like that, newbie players will be eager to come back the next game night and *really* start playing.

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Alternate Sources & Types Of Mapping Paper

From David Ackerman

[Johnn: this is in response to the tip about using wallpaper for maps and notes from issue 66 ]

Wallpaper can be rather expensive. A cheaper source may be your local newspaper. See if they will sell you some of their tag-end newsprint rolls. The paper for printing newspapers comes on huge rolls weighing hundreds of pounds. When a roll gets near the end, rather than have it run out in the middle of a print job, they yank the used roll and put in a fresh one. The used rolls weigh only about 15-20 pounds and typically have a good 100-200 feet of paper still on them. It’s good, wide paper, too – the width of a fully- opened newspaper (or sometimes twice that width depending on the printing press).

Some newspapers will give you one or two old rolls for free, others will charge you, others won’t let you have them at all – it depends. But it’s worth checking out.

Also check out office supply stores and catalogs for specials on those flip-chart pads. Many come either blank or with one-inch square grid in pale blue. They list for about $25 US apiece, but sometimes you can buy them through mail order for as little as $10-15 each, especially if you buy in bulk.

Some also come with Post-it Note stickum on the back, so you can slap them up on the wall. Recently, a more expensive kind has appeared with no stickum – it uses static cling to stick itself to the wall, with no chance of leaving marks. Not just maps, but lists of NPCs, inventories of treasure found, and recaps of What Happened Last Session are all good candidates for flip-chart notes. You don’t really need the special, expensive flip-chart easel – any old easel will do (I picked mine up at a garage sale for $1.50).