Solve Scheduling Nightmares With The Schrödinger’s Characters Method
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #698
A Way To Game Around Player Absences
From Craig Judd
“Sorry guys, I can’t make it to the game this time.”
Getting a group of people together for a few hours can be challenging. Doing it regularly every week or month, doubly so! How often have scheduling conflicts and last-minute cancellations forced you to reschedule?
Sometimes it’s OK to keep playing if missing one player. But games become untenable with multiple cancellations. We don’t want our friends to miss out on the unfolding story, absences interfere with continuity, or there just won’t be enough PCs to overcome the planned challenges. Sessions often end half-way through a dungeon or other situation in progress, also making it difficult to explain sudden absences or new arrivals. Workarounds, such as NPCing the character, sidelining them, or having another player run them, are often unsatisfying as well.
So, rather than struggling with attendance issues, why not make them an integral part of the game?
I came up with this idea a while ago, but it ties in neatly with Johnn’s article When Players Don’t Show Up – What Do You Do? Below I’ll outline a campaign-level framing device that allows for your game to continue every session regardless of no-shows. You can apply this basic idea to just about any game. I’ll also discuss a number of specific examples. Lastly, I’ll outline options for integrating the technique into your campaign.
The Campaign Framing Device
The key is to link each character’s presence in the game world with their player’s attendance. For some reason, characters sometimes literally drop in and out of the game world – perhaps they are dimensionally unstable, affected by powerful magic, or their true nature is ephemeral. I offer a few possible explanations in the next section.
Such transitions usually occur at the end of a session, although if a player gets called away mid-game it might strike at other times too. Whenever a player is absent, their character is also absent from the game world. When the player returns, their character reappears.
Whatever the cause of their appearance and disappearance, the player characters all experience a phenomenon at the end of each game session, known as a fugue.
In music, a fugue is a transitional piece linking major movements. In psychology, a fugue state is a period of uncertain identity. In the context of this technique, fugue refers to the characters entering a state of uncertainty between sessions. At the start of the next session, the fugue will end with each character stabilising, disappearing, or reappearing (if they missed the previous session).
Characters will experience fugue differently depending on the explanation for their strange shifts. They might have no warning, or they might feel a building sense of impending change. They might have no memory of events while they are away from the game world, they could perceive and recall events hazily (as their player gets brought up to speed), or they might experience another life elsewhere.
The group can choose to end sessions in a few ways.
You can specify a real-world time for the end of the session. This is useful if people have to leave at a certain time. It also creates anticipation and urgency as players feel the fugue closing in on their characters. Don’t forget to build in a little time afterwards to deal with experience points, pack up, and chat about the game.
The GM can declare the end of session at a convenient or dramatically-appropriate point. The fugue might sneak up on unsuspecting players, creating a cliffhanger when they don’t know who will be present for the continuation. This is a handy technique when the transitions are out of the characters’ control.
The group can come to a mutual agreement about when to end the session. This helps ensure players are happy with where the session leaves off, especially when they’re not sure if they will be available next time. It also fits well if the characters have some control over the transitions.
The Social Contract
This framing device operates in concert with the rest of your campaign pitch. It is integrally tied to the way the characters and their players approach the game and the world, and provides an explicit social contract that gives all the players (including the GM) permission to carry on with the game regardless of who’s in attendance.
No longer will you have to decide if you have enough players to keep the game going, or feel bad for those who couldn’t make it. Best of all, you’ll no longer need to cancel or reschedule your games!
The characters are using technology or magic to pierce the veil of reality and project themselves into the game world from their native dimension. They could be explorers, an expeditionary force, on a quest to find or stop something, or even invaders. Maybe they are trying to counter a dimensional invasion that’s already struck their reality. The dimensional connection becomes unstable periodically, resulting in occasional “dropped connections”.
The PCs are “sliders“, periodically hopping from one alternate reality to another in an endless chain. Perhaps the characters became dimensionally unstable due to an accident, or there’s some aspect of their technology that means they can only press on from one world to the next. While people don’t always reach the same destination at the same time, they do tend to catch up with each other eventually. Since it’s unlikely you’ll be able to neatly wrap up a whole scenario in each world, you may want to have the story follow the characters either by focusing on the group’s relationships and experiences, or by having some sort of opposition following them through the chain of worlds.
Perhaps the PCs are “sliders” as above, but there are only a small number of worlds (three or five?) that they repeatedly cycle through. This approach may cut down on GM prep compared to an endless stream of worlds, although you’d still need to track ongoing events in a few different realities.
Perhaps it’s not the characters, but the game world itself that is dimensionally unstable. The game could be set in a series of “porous” worlds existing side by side, where it’s easy to accidentally slip through the wall between dimensions. This is likely to affect NPCs as well, although some creatures native to the worlds may be able to control their transitions or ensure their own stability.
The game takes place in a nightmare realm where the laws of reality are twisted. Your friends sometimes disappear when you turn your back, only to turn up later in the most unexpected places. People wander into the fog, re-emerging hours or days later with no recollection of what happened. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, everything goes black and you wake up alone in an even more deranged version of reality.
The PCs are actually creatures or magical agents in the service of a powerful wizard or magical entity. For reasons beyond their understanding, they are sometimes dismissed or summoned at their master’s whim – perhaps it’s difficult to keep many summoned creatures bound at once, or their services are required elsewhere. Because the PCs are effectively an NPC’s servants, you should exercise caution with this option in case players feel stifled by the lack of control they have over their characters’ fates.
The characters are divine champions, sent to the material world on behalf of a godly patron. Perhaps they are charged with protecting the faithful, waging holy war against their god’s enemies, performing ceremonies and observances, or otherwise advancing the faith’s agenda in the world. The PCs are likely to have relative autonomy, but they are still subject to the whims of the divine. They may be occasionally recalled to provide reports or be deployed elsewhere. They might also find themselves cast out of the material realm by ceremonies performed by opposing cults, or because of astrological indicators – “…when the stars were wrong, They could not live.”
The PCs are nanotech or holographic constructs created by an ancient technological device. The device has a library of recorded personas, but it can only maintain a limited number of physical projections at once. It’s also getting old and temperamental, and sometimes operates at reduced capacity, resulting in dropped personas. In addition, the device can only maintain the projections at a limited distance. If any PC dies, strays too far from the device, or experiences a dropped connection, their body turns to black carbon dust or disappears in a burst of light.
The characters are magical beings, bound to an artefact. Perhaps it is ancient and becoming unreliable, or its power ebbs and flows with the pulse of the universe, but for whatever reason it’s sometimes not possible for all of the bound beings to manifest. Once manifested they can travel any distance from the artefact, but if dispelled they can only reappear in its presence. The artefact may or may not be portable.
The game takes place in a shared dream-world, in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. It may simply be a fantastic but logically-consistent world, or the characters might experience psychedelic or absurd events. Whenever a character is absent, it is because they have woken up. They will presumably go about their mundane lives in the waking world, with the Dream only a hazy recollection…until the next time they close their eyes and set sail for the Land of Nod.
The PCs are ghosts or revenants, called back from beyond the grave to right some heinous wrong done to them in life. If they lose focus or take too much damage, their physical form may crumble into dust and ash, casting them back to the spirit world to rage silently until they can gather the power to manifest again.
The PCs are some form of creature (or creatures) native to the spirit or faerie world. When the time is right they can step into the material world, but they are subject to the ephemeral ebb and flow of their native reality. Unpredictably, they may find their hold on the game world slipping through their fingers.
Keeping in mind the explanation you’ve chosen for the characters’ mysterious disappearances, consider how you want to handle the implications at the table.
What happens to a character’s gear when they suddenly disappear?
- Any worn or carried equipment disappears and reappears with the character, but anything put down first is left behind.
- When a character disappears, all of their worn or carried equipment drops to the ground.
- When a character disappears, any items they “own” go with them, even if put down first. All the equipment reappears on or near the character.
- Some or all of a disappearing character’s items are transferred to a shared container that’s accessible by the rest of the group.
Experience and Awards
Consider whether absent characters will receive experience points or whatever standard awards the game provides.
- All characters earn the same experience whether present or not, allowing absent characters to keep pace with the rest of the party.
- Absent characters receive no awards, meaning repeated absences may lead to some characters lagging behind.
- Absent characters receive some alternative resource in lieu of standard awards. This could take the form of metagame currency (Bennies, Fate points, Plot Points), or perhaps they receive some sort of revelation or insight from their experiences in the alternate world to which they disappeared?
How you approach this problem will vary depending on the nature of your game and what’s considered “fair play”.
- The party simply has to work around absences, including lower numbers and potentially missing skill-sets. The sudden disappearance of party members may require the group to rethink their approach to a situation.
- The GM will adjust the situation and opposition somewhat to account for lower numbers and loss of specialists.
There are a couple of extreme situations in which you may still need to cancel or reschedule a session.
If none of the players apart from the GM can make it, the default option would be to pause the game until the next session. However, the campaign framework offers an intriguing alternative.
What if the game world progresses while the PCs are absent? If none of the heroes manifest, then there may be nobody to stand in the way of their opponents.
Exercise caution when using this technique. If the previous session ended with the bad guys about to pull off their master plan, then it’s going to be pretty anticlimactic if they get to complete it off-screen. You don’t have to advance game-time to match the actual missed time between sessions. Anything from a minute to a day in the game world should be fine, depending on the situation.
Consider advancing one or more opponents’ plans by one step, assuming they don’t face any other serious opposition. Or, advance some other logical consequence during the players’ absence (such as natural disasters, upcoming events, or so on).
The aim of this technique is to make the world seem like it exists even when the PCs are absent, and to provide an incentive to play on even if multiple players are missing.
What if it’s the GM who can’t make a session? You could just reschedule, but the alternative of allowing the PCs free reign in the world without NPC opposition is probably a bit much. Instead, if you are exercising the option to advance the game world while all the PCs are missing, consider rewarding the PCs somehow when the GM is absent. A small award of experience, wealth, information, or metagame currency should help smooth over sessions when you’re the one that can’t make it.
This approach won’t be a good fit for every game, but if you know your group is going to be plagued with spotty attendance, why not try building the game around the problem rather than fighting it?
Brief Word From Johnn
Roleplaying Tips Podcast #2 On-Air
Listen to more rambling about adventure design with returning guest James Introcaso.
We reveal the official name of the adventure we’re building.
And we talk a lot about plots and NPCs and Tomar’s Crossing intrigue.
Sale of Campaign Logger Ends Soon
This weekend I did some spring cleaning and I gathered all my current notebooks into a pile. You see, they started to multiply….
I had one for work. One for Roleplaying Tips. Five for campaigns. One just for keeping beside my bed.
Bad Johnn. Bad.
How many notebooks does a GM really need? I rolled a 1 on my GM Productivity check.
Because when you need to find that cool idea you had written down, and you’re not sure which notebook it went into, it takes awhile to track every book down, leaf through it, and then continue the quest.
This is why I created the Campaign Logger app. All my gaming notes in one simple place. Everything tagged. Everything searchable. And the app does all the cross-referencing for me with its magic, so I can pull up the complete Cast of Characters for a specific encounter or adventure, for example.
Or I can see every conversation the PCs have had with a certain NPC, such as an information contact. Or I can draw from my Cast of Characters, Cast of Locations, and Cast of Items to whip up an encounter in moments.
I have a separate Campaign Log just for adventure prep. And one just for ideas. Using the new Clone/Share Log Entry feature, I just copy a note over to my Murder Hobos campaign log when it triggers in-game, so I have a log that’s pure canon for my campaign. It’s working great.
And just a heads up, the price of Campaign Logger is going up May 9.
We just added a bunch of new features to it, and now we’re working on more. It’s like a living thing to us, always growing and improving. So the new price reflects the ongoing development costs and increased value it has to game masters for keeping all our logs, notes, plans, and ideas in One True Source.
Get the Campaign Logger now (Universal Web, Windows 8+, Android) before the price increase May 9 and save $21:
Have a great week. And get some gaming done!
Building The Klok’k’ot, Part II
From R. James Gauvreau
The culture-building series involving our desert drought city dwellers continues. Missed part one? Catch it here.
Politics and Religion
The Klok’k’ot are becoming increasingly stratified as time goes on, a consequence of the stress their society is undergoing. The past centuries have seen the rise of an elite class of hereditary chieftain-priests. Elite roles, once transitory, are becoming frozen as bureaucracy and power structures emerge to ensure water is rationed out prudently and order is maintained. Centralized power structures also became necessary as the cities grew and it was harder to resolve disputes simply by calling a council of one’s mutual peers.
Still, there are deliberate attempts to avoid ostentatious displays of power by the elites. Instead, their wealth is used to highlight and strengthen community alliances and common goodwill.
Early on in the desiccation process, there arose a division between the subsistence farmers, who dwelled in and around the cities and towns, and the tent-dwelling nomadic pastoralists who most closely resembled their common ancestors. Per gallon of water that they used, the pastoralists produced less food than the farmers. In the beginning, this perceived misuse simply created tension between the two groups. But soon the chieftain-priests refused to dispense water to the nomads. Some died, especially as they began to fight over their own sources of water. Many more managed to hold on, though. And the chieftain-priests realized what this meant: their pastoralist kin had access to more watering holes than had been supposed. What followed was an attempt at forced sedentarization (which had mixed success) and eventual warfare with the pastoralists.
Now there are few pastoralists left — perhaps no more than there are cave-dwellers — and they live in hiding from the people of the city. The chieftain-priests managed to extract only a few sources of water, however, so at present the nomads have access to more locations than they need. It is possible that, after the collapse of the cities, they will be the last survivors of the Klok’k’ot culture. The cities would have been unable to avoid overdrawing on the underground rivers, springs, and other sources the nomads visit, but other pressures (such as limited food supplies) might keep the nomads from growing plentiful enough to do the same.
The chieftain-priests pass their authority on from parent to child and marry their children to each other to maintain strong relationships — the alliances between the great cities must be protected at all costs, lest a civil war erupt. Perhaps they will not be able to avert it forever. Everyone agrees that internal conflict, particularly if it is over an attempt to seize water supplies from one city or another, will spell their doom. The chieftain-priests are trying to keep a stranglehold on any rumors the water supply is finite. As for themselves, they hold out hope some solution might be found. If not, then when things become too dire they will attempt to turn aggression outward, invading their neighbors rather than preying on each other.
They were not always in control. Originally, they were simply the heads of kin groups linked to the administration of the temple shrines and their granaries. They were responsible for mediating between the gods and the people, reconciling intra-group conflicts, and in general maintaining social order. In so doing, they helped prevent cycles of revenge killings (and similar phenomena) by shifting the power to exact retribution from wounded parties and their kin.
Their importance grew early on because of their social role and because they oversaw the all-important granaries. When times became hard, they chose who got to eat, and in this way they held power over life and death for the people. Anyone who didn’t fall in line was ostracized and swiftly perished.
Out-and-out bad guys are a dime a dozen, so it’s important to emphasize that, by and large, the chieftain-priests are genuinely concerned with the survival of their people. When they condemn a town to die of thirst or command the execution of fifty souls, it is because this is what is necessary. The world is full. There are no wild places big enough for a whole civilization to move into. The only reason the Klok’k’ot have been able to survive this long is because of their willingness to do anything necessary to claw another day of survival out from the sands. If you use D&D alignments, then they are probably Lawful Evil, but this is not because they get off on oppressing the people. It is because their only concern is the survival of their people, and they will sacrifice ten thousand foreigners for half a chance to save one Klok’ke.
At present the chieftain-priests function as the heads of a hydraulic empire. Their power stems from control over food and water, and in this way there is ultimately nothing that can be done to overthrow them from the inside so long as the cities are united. The towns, especially, have no recourse, as they lack the resources to breach the city walls. Any sort of rebellion results in the offenders being cut off from water, and in some cases they will never get it back.
If you’re using this culture for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign or something similar, then the chieftain-priests are best represented as having levels in the cleric class, in which case their magic comes from the god Vaekou. This allows them to stretch out supplies with spells like Create Water and Create Food and Water, but there are not enough priests (chieftains or otherwise) to make the situation last indefinitely. Alternately, they are wizards or sorcerers (especially if you’re using a system that doesn’t account for magic that comes from the gods), but magic is still restricted: if learning is required, then they keep it to the priests, and if it is in the blood, then the practice of intermarriage ensures it stays in all the same families.
Ethics and Values
The Klok’k’ot have a tribe-centered morality. What is “good” is whatever promotes the welfare of the Klok’k’ot, especially in the long term. If one thousand Klok’k’ot have to die for two thousand to live better lives a hundred years hence, then one thousand will die. For the past several centuries they have been weeding out the spirit of individualism, and the modern Klok’ke knows the nation is something greater than any one person or even the great god Vaekou. This idea of greater good does not extend past their own civilization, however. If one thousand outsiders must die so that one Klok’ke can live for another year, then so be it.
This mindset might ultimately lead them to wage a great war on the neighboring countries, as the cities of the desert give their last gasps and the water finally runs out, but still… Even in consideration of all the Klok’k’ot have done and might yet do, it is hard to fully condemn the sort of selflessness that leads even the chieftain-priests to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation. It may be turned to a bad end or be too extreme a manifestation, but virtues seem to demand some amount of respect for the mere sake of their existence, no matter how far they go or to what end they are turned.
A Klok’ke is defined by that individual’s relationships. Without having a context in the community, one cannot really be a Klok’ke (and to that degree, is not even fully human). With relationships that define one’s existence as Klok’k’ot come responsibilities and rights. One is expected to act in a fashion befitting the sum of those relationships — a farmer must act one way, and a chieftain-priest in another — and can expect others to give proper due to oneself. To fail to act in accordance with the responsibilities of one’s relationships is to fail those relationships, lose one’s place in them, and thereby lose one’s place among the Klok’k’ot and one’s very humanity. Those who violate the bonds of the community are cast out or killed.
This ultimate consequence is averted via retribution. By submitting (or being forced to submit) to retribution, the violated relationship is repaired. Even where the penalty is death, this is believed to be preferable to being cast out, because it means one’s place in the community has been preserved.
Design notes: The biggest thing I want to make sure of is the Klok’k’ot can easily be used as antagonists, but aren’t a stereotypical evil empire. They’re definitely flawed, and maybe they should learn how to just lose. But especially for an Iron Age civilization, it’s hard to consider the idea that maybe it’s better your civilization dies out than that it be a scourge on surrounding peoples. Even when they’re on the warpath, I don’t want them to be a problem that can be “solved” by killing the right general or group of political leaders. If they’re antagonists, the PCs will have to choose between their deaths and figuring out some way to save them (and hopefully the PCs will at least regret that they had to cause a civilization to die, even if they feel that it’s the only option).
Religion and the Gods
The Klok’k’ot were originally polytheistic, with no one god being dominant. If your setting allows for divine magic (e.g. clerics), many (if not all) of these gods were able to work miracles through their priests. If not, various priesthoods were involved in magic, either teaching it or paying close attention to those who displayed the talent.
While no one god was better respected than the others, there were a few who held as much esteem as each other, and more than the rest:
- Trovk, the goddess of sleep, healing, and dreams, who gave visions of the future and cured the sick as they rested
- Uae Gayr, the god of rain and open freshwater, as found in lakes and rivers
- Boaykl, the god of death
- Baeyshvab, the goddess of the deep parts of the forest, who was associated with Boaykl
While they were all regarded as being important, they had those who were more dedicated to one or another, who considered themselves to be called to the service of that deity alone. These were the priests, and they staffed the many temples that were erected to thank the gods for good fortune and to make entreaties for divine favor.
Originally, when the chieftain-priests first began to emerge as a dominant power group, they could be claimed by any one of these or even by another deity. Several of them began to fall out of favor as time went on, however. Baeyshvab was the first to fall out of favor, despite being regarded as part of the medium through which all the gods intervened on behalf of their worshipers – with other gods of the forest, she was identified with the great temples the Klok’k’ot built. The god of rain and open freshwater fell next, subsumed into the cult of Vaekou, who was at this time only a minor god. He ruled over the hidden waters of the world, cisterns and underground rivers. This was not of much importance before the desiccation of the land began, and his priests were few, but as the chieftain-priests grew in influence over the people, the priests of Vaekou grew in influence over the rest of the chieftain-priests.
There was no purge. The other cults and traditions fell apart out of despair more than any other factor. The land was dying — how could you turn to the Green Woman for better crops when the dust had covered your fields and killed everything? To the Klok’k’ot, it was as if the goddess of the fields herself was being slain. In forest cultures polytheism reigns supreme, but among desert dwellers monotheism, or at least henotheism, is dominant. There is room for only one supreme power for such people, though they may recognize its servants, and as the years went by the balance of power tilted in favor of the god ultimately responsible for keeping them alive.
There are two chief schools of thought among the people today, especially among the chieftain-priests. The Darvlayb or “Hundred Hands” sect believes there are a multitude of divine powers, which can be identified as the ancient gods of their ancestors. All of them, however, answer to Vaekou, who rules from the unlit waters that support the world. This sect holds that the Klok’k’ot were punished for venerating the servants of Vaekou above the god of hidden waters himself.
The Rarslayb or “Great Hand” sect believes there is only the god Vaekou, and all other powers are either alternate faces of the same or spirits or misunderstood workings of the world. In a world of magic, after all, not everything is divine intervention. They do not believe the desiccation of their land was a punishment from Vaekou, but instead a sort of expression of “tough love” intended to bring the Klok’k’ot closer to him. A few of the more mystically inclined speculate that even Vaekou is but a face of the One, and the reason he manifests chiefly as a god of subterranean water is because this is the manner in which he decided to make the Klok’k’ot dependent on him. It was wholly in his power, they say, to have taken up the face of Suyurot, the Green Woman, or of Uae Gayr. That he chose to be Vaekou is a sign he wished to emphasize what some might call his “divine hiddenness,” or the way in which he is not immediately apparent to the world.
If gods actually do exist in your setting, then Vaekou is fully aware of both sects and, insofar as they do not cause problems, could not care less about them. Like the chieftain-priests, he is genuinely invested in the survival of the Klok’k’ot. He is not just a god, but a god of a particular people, and he does not want to see them die out. It may be the other gods agreed to sacrifice their power to Vaekou, in whole or in part, because they were of the same mind and Vaekou seemed to give the best odds for survival. It could also be that he intentionally engineered their fall to focus the worship and sacrifices on himself, again with the idea the Klok’k’ot needed him more than any of the other gods.
His portfolio, such as it is, has changed since he came to prominence. He is now a god of the mountains and the high places, because this is where most of the water comes from. He is a god of cities, for he sustains them, and he is the new god of the fields, for he waters them.
The situation is changing in a terrible way, however. Whether this is normal or not for gods in your setting, Vaekou is deeply connected to the fossil water being tapped by the Klok’k’ot. His power might be great for the time being, but when the water is used up he will die. Perhaps this was true of the other gods, and they did not simply fade away of their own volition or Vaekou’s, but because their sacred places — certain temples, the fields, and so on — were destroyed or made so inconsequential that they are only wisps of divinity now.
In the past it was believed the dead went on to a great forest like those that surrounded the Klok’k’ot, except the trees were much larger. The trees were so tall they scraped the sky and could be used to travel to the stars of that world. There was death here, and worlds after that one, but death was pleasant and never came unexpectedly.
The desiccation of their land gradually turned the Klok’k’ot more pessimistic, for a people get their religion from the land. Where there is bounty, they believe the cosmos to be bounteous, and where there is desolation, they think the cosmos to be the same. Today, they do not believe in a glorious forest for the dead, but a dark plain where there is no sun, and the dead have nothing but dust to assuage their hunger. They do not die, but as time progresses they forget who they are.
Design notes: Robert Textor is an anthropologist whose work seems to still be at least generally valid. Even if it isn’t, it’s still good enough for sparking ideas. One of his biggest contributions was the idea that forest and desert cultures have striking differences in religion and moral codes. The ecological damage the Klok’k’ot caused grants an opportunity to illustrate what might happen when a forest culture finds itself in the middle of a desert. Most everything else is just spinning off of Textor’s ideas about the religious differences between the two types of culture, and random thoughts I had along the way.
R. James Gauvreau mostly just builds worlds, and will often only write a story so he has an excuse to build the world it’s set in. He maintains a blog at whitemarbleblock.blogspot.com, where he regularly posts fiction, story ideas, worlds, and anything else that strikes his fancy.