October 11, 2013

Dealing with Absent Players

Every GM has to deal with absent players. What do you do with their character?  How many absent players is too many?  The answers to these questions are found in your group's social contract.  This is the expectation everyone brings to the table about... in this case... coming to the table!

Personally, I play and run in two different formats.  I game in short, weekly, weekday evening games on Tuesday and Wednesday.  These games are 3 hours long, and it can take several sessions to get through a story.  We alternate games, too, so every other Tuesday is one game, and the other weeks are another game.  I also run long 12-hour sessions for two different groups about 5 times a year each, on Saturdays.  It's much easier to handle a missing player for a 12-hour session than for a 3-hour session (he's been captured, or is off on another quest); yet I've only ever had one single player miss a Saturday all-day session.

Addressing a missing player in an evening work-night session is hard because of the options...


  1. Hand wave it.  The character isn't exactly missing.  He's just never on screen.  In a fight, he's just not represented on the board.  In conversation, he just doesn't talk.
  2. Have another player control his character.  This is helpful for keeping combat challenge levels balanced in some games.  Otherwise, it's a bit of a burden.
  3. Create a story excuse.  The character is captured or has other tasks to attend to.  This doesn't work in an isolated dungeon, or just before going off to save the world.
  4. Postpone or cancel the game.  Nobody likes this option, but if it's a climactic moment, you might need to.  Generally, my groups have a quorum rule:  With 3 players, we run.  With less, we cancel.  But for important sessions, we'd rather postpone if one player is going to be absent.


If you want something easy to put before your players, here's the rules.  I made one set for weeknight games and one set for weekend long format games.  What happens to the absent player's character really depends on how long they're going to be absent for.

Gamerunner's Weeknight Attendance Rules

  • Commit to a Regular Schedule:  In general, players will commit to coming to the game over other leisure or social commitments; but they may occasionally excuse themselves with 2 days notice (e.g to go see a movie, have date night with the spouse, caulk the bathtub, etc.).  
  • Emergencies are Excused: Obviously, no prior notice is required for absences for acute health problems (especially contagious illnesses), major unexpected family responsibilities, and unavoidable work requirements.  
  • Two Hours or Nothing:  A player should attend at least two hours of every game session, or not at all.  It is not acceptable to arrive only for the last hour or leave after the first because it can disrupt the game.
  • Absent Players' Characters Fade Out: If you are absent from the game, your character will fade into the background.  If you have any unique abilities, the GM will alter the game to ensure that they're not needed (substituting other players' characters' abilities).  If there is any information your character would know that becomes important, the other players are allowed to know it as well, ("Well ___ once told me...").  Anything that happens to the entire party happens to the absent player's character (if they all get cursed, or all take 20 damage, etc.).
  • Be Honest About Long Term Absences:  If you intend to miss more than 1 game session, tell the GM.  The GM will write your character out of the story temporarily with a plot event -- sentenced to prison, captured by powerful and mysterious foes, killed (in many games this is temporary), questions her commitment, called away to greater responsibilities, trapped in a space-time rift, cursed to eternal slumber, etc.  The GM will write a plot event around this.  Another player may or may not need to play your character for this initial scene, so keep your character stats and notes available to the GM.
  • Quorum is 50% of Regular Players:  If fewer than 50% of the regular players are able to make the game, regardless of the GM's plans, the game is cancelled.  If 50% of the players are present, the GM has "quorum" and should run the game (unless, as above, a player whose character was necessary for the scenario had an emergency and cancelled with less than 48 hours notice).
  • The GM Must Run for Who is Coming:  It is the GM's responsibility to run the game for all the players who have not cancelled with 48 hours notice.  If the GM intends to present a scenario that requires a certain player (or all players), the GM will ensure that all of the players will be present for that scenario: The GM will find out who will be present ahead of the game day.  If the required player(s) are unavailable, the GM will plan a different scenario (filler encounters, a side plot, an unexpected complication, etc.) instead of cancelling the game.  And the GM will not let the players know it's filler -- it should be as well-designed as the regular scenario if possible.
  • Remote Players Abide by Table Customs:  If you play remotely (via Skype, Hangout, etc.), you must remain on camera as much as a "live" player is expected remain at the table, have functional equipment, handle your own tech support, and close all programs and browser windows on your computer other than the teleconferencing window and anything else needed specifically for the game at hand (character sheet, game wiki, etc.).  
  • Frequently Absent Players are Guest Stars:  If a player misses game sessions frequently, the GM may consider them a "guest star."  The GM should not plan for scenarios that require the guest star to attend.  If the GM allows a guest star, he should prepare games such that the guest star's character is taken into account.  Guest stars are not counted against quorum.  (e.g., if there are 4 players and 1 guest star, 2 players still counts as quorum.)  What counts as frequent absence is between the GM and the absent player, and they should come to an agreement about the player's status between games.
  • OPTIONAL:  Good Samaritan Reward:  A player who writes a session summary for the group gets a reward.  The group has to cover his week to buy pizza.  Or... He finds the lowest level magic item off his wish list.  Or... He gets a full Refresh of his Willpower, or one of his Abilities, etc.  Or... Some other perk, determined by group consensus.
  • OPTIONAL:  Absence Penalty:  If you miss a session, you are required to bring chips/beer/soda/etc. to the next session.  If you are a remote player and miss a session, obviously this is impractical.  I guess you get a pass.  It sucks having to play remote, anyway.


(I've been told my blog uses cutting edge graphics... for 1998.)


If you want an alternative for infrequent, long-format games, here's a ready-to-use rule you can use for your troupe, the...

Gamerunner's Long-Format Attendance Rules

  • Consensus Scheduling:  The game will be scheduled using a survey so that everyone is available for every session.  The game will be scheduled at least two weeks ahead of the date of game.  The players all have input into the date choices and time choices this way.  The date and time of game will be determined to be the date and time that every player is available to commit.  Players will be responsible adults and seek childcare, spousal permission, or time off from work at least two weeks before game.
  • No Cancellations Except Emergencies:  Once committed, players will prioritize the game over other leisure or social functions.  Allowances will be made for acute health problems (especially contagious illnesses), major unexpected family responsibilities, and unavoidable work requirements.  A player who can't make the entire session due to an emergency must either attend at least 4 hours of the game session or none of it (it's too disruptive otherwise).
  • Four Hours or Nothing:  If a player can't come to game for at least 4 hours, the player should not come to game.  The player should consider this during scheduling and when deciding if he needs to make an emergency cancellation.
  • Absent Players' Characters are Written Out:  If a player is absent from the game for more than 4 hours, his character will be written out of the story -- sentenced to prison, captured by powerful and mysterious foes, killed (in many games this is temporary), questions his commitment, called away to greater responsibilities, trapped in a space-time rift, cursed to eternal slumber, etc.  The GM will write a plot event around this.  Another player may or may not need to play the absent player's character for this scene, so keep your character stats and notes available to the GM.
  • Quorum is 50% of Regular Players:  If fewer than 50% of the regular players are able to make the game, regardless of the GM's plans, the game is cancelled.  If 50% of the players are present, the GM has "quorum" and should run the game.
  • The GM Must Run for Who is Coming:  It is the GM's responsibility to run the game for all the players.  If the GM intends to present a scenario that requires a certain player (or all players), the GM will have to change her plans on the fly.  The players will be understanding about this.
  • Remote Players Abide by Table Customs:  If you play remotely (via Skype, Hangout, etc.), you must remain on camera as much as a "live" player is expected remain at the table, have functional equipment, handle your own tech support, and close all programs and browser windows on your computer other than the teleconferencing window and anything else needed specifically for the game at hand (character sheet, game wiki, etc.).  
  • The GM Keeps the Sheets:  Given the infrequency of game sessions, players should take notes.  Players will then leave character sheets, notes, and player handouts with the GM in the Party Folder between games.  They may make copies of anything they need, or ask the GM to scan/fax/etc. stuff for their reference between games (or just visit the GM to look at it) if they really want.  
  • Break Policy:  It's a long game, so players are not expected to ignore email, SMS, and phone calls all day.  Smokers aren't required to go cold turkey.  Etc.  Bathroom breaks and stepping away from the table to make a quick call are fine.  Any break that will last more than 5 minutes, however, will stop the whole game.  Any player may call for a 10- or 15-minute break at any time, as often as needed, with no explanation.  The troupe trusts that this won't be abused, and that if a player needs very frequent breaks because of an emergency at home, work, or with his health, he will leave the game for it.  Further, the GM will call for official breaks every few hours regardless of the players' needs, because people need breaks, and the GM is best suited to predict the best time for a break, based on the NPCs' actions and scenario.  Try to schedule breaks at a natural break in the tension.
  • OPTIONAL:  Read the Session Summaries:  The GM will write session summaries, describing the events of the previous session.  These take a lot of work, and all players are expected to read them before each game session.  
  • OPTIONAL:  Meal Breaks:  Meals during game will take place at a break time set by the GM with player input.  The GM do her best to start and finish eating first (if there's any question), because she needs to start preparing to resume the game before the players do. If the players leave the location for meals, the GM will set a time, and everyone will be back at the table before that time.




I developed these two policies based on my ideas of what's worked for me as a policy for absent players for the last 20 years or so.  If you're just starting as a GM, feel free to copy these word for word for your game, with or without attribution, yada yada.  Use them or change them as you see fit.  Definitely feel free to edit these policies as you implement them.

Having a written (or emailed or wiki-posted) policy for your group may not be necessary if you've played with them for a long time.  It might help established groups to write up their customs for new players.  It might help new groups, organized play GMs, or new GMs to write their policy, even if they're experienced roleplayers.