How to Keep an Absent Player Involved
by Creighton Broadhurst
July 04, 2019
Trying to get gamers together on a regular game night is traditionally harder than herding cats (or herding catoblepas, for that matter). Kids, marriage, work, vacation, hot new movies, etc. all take a toll at one time or another. Still, enough people showed to still game, so what do you do? Sure, sometimes people will do a one-off game, or try a board game night or such. But what happens when you decide to run the game anyways? How do you keep an absentee player involved?
What I have been doing in our own campaign, Village of Hommlet and the Temple of Elemental Evil, is run mini-missions. These missions are not designed as major campaign events, nor are they designed to take away from the main story. They are just used to accomplish two main goals: Explain what happened to the character while they were not with the main party, and to keep the XP gap from getting too large. No matter what you do, I think there are a few rules:
- The mission should not change the campaign, although it can help it.
- The player should have risks, but the adventure should not be fatal or further take the player out of the game.
- The event should not affect the power curve for the other players.
First an aside: as an overarching note, these mini-missions should only be made available if convenient to you, as the GM. If you can’t fit one in, no need to sweat it. The player just missed a game and you move on. Maybe the player is said to have gone back to town for supplies or such. However, this is supposed to be fun and not a chore. The players should hope for a session, but not view it as a right.
So how do you run a mini mission?
There are a lot of ways. The most traditional way is to just meet the other player and do a face to face session. Before the party had investigated the Moathouse, they were doing some side quests in Hommlet. The barbarian could not make it for one adventure. I explained it away by having him scout the outside ruins of the Moathouse. This gave the player something to do, and it gave the party some information about what they were going to face. It really did not change the course of the adventure. At the same time, it helped the party with ideas of what they wanted to do next. In this case, I wrote a three encounter adventure worth about 150 xp (the amount he missed in the last session). There was apparent risk (An owlbear at 1st level!) but no actual threat (the owlbear was actually hunting varmints for food and ignored the player). In this case, both he and I had an extra hour and a half before the next game so we could fit it in.
However, I prefer a new method: a mini mission via Facebook Messenger. You could use any app you want. However I use messenger because it doesn’t require new software, almost everyone has access to it, and it’s simple to use. So how do we use it?
I run the adventure more as a “Pick your own adventure” series rather than a true D&D adventure. I give the players a bunch of choices and then let them decide which way to go. I rough out how each of the options takes them to the ultimate path and then give the player the illusion of choice. Here are some examples:
The rogue could not make the game. I decided he headed back to town for “a proper pint”. On his way back I sent him this message:
“You are approaching Hommlet. Sure it’s a pretty safe place but better one step ahead than a night in jail, your master always said. Do you:
- Put a lock pick behind your ear with a bit of sticky gum?
- Line the inside of your purse with fish hooks?
- Slide a small knife into the lining of your belt?
- Slip a coin with the edge filed sharp in the heel of your shoe? Pick two!”
The player picked A and C. Later, when the player was tied up, I had the villains say, “Ha! We found those fish hooks in your pouch! Only an idiot would fall for that! And a sharpened coin in your shoe? Really! It was obvious!” Then they left. The player still had the two items they had specially prepared which were used to escape. No matter what the player chose, I decided those were the items the player could use to get out of being captured. The other two were still “there” but ones the villains could find. It really added a bit of theatre to the game session.
At another point in the adventure, the bar keep says there is a letter for the rogue behind the bar. The bar keep had to serve drinks but the rogue could go and get the letter. When he did, I said he saw a pile of coins near the letter the bar keep had accumulated that night. I asked him “Do you
- Take a few coins! He’ll never know…
- Make sure to leave a silver as a tip, but only when the bar keep can see you do it?
- Something else?”
The player chose B and got as a response, “As the bar keep comes back, you add a silver coin to the pile and say to him “A tip for you!” then as he takes another tray out to the crowd, you take back your silver and a few extra. He’ll never miss them!” That made the rogue feel like a rogue (he’s running his character as a classic thief) and gave the player the illusion of choice.
Facebook is a fun way to run the adventure. As the GM you can get away with things that would never happen in a game session. In this case, I had an enemy slip a sleeping potion into the soup on the counter. In a normal game, each player might get a perception check or do something else that would not let such a plan take effect. However, by running the mini mission via Messenger, it was an easy enough fiat.
The big issue is to build trust with the players. If you are running a mini mission, you can get away with some more cool story elements, but you need to make sure they do not permanently take the character out of the game. This is supposed to be a fun chance for the character to catch up to the others, not a moment when they find they will have to re-roll a new character. In the prior example, after the rogue left the bar, he found the local villains and started to tail them. Just as he leapt out for the ambush, I triggered the sleep potion from the soup. The player passed out in front of the villains and woke up tied up in their lair. This let us play with a quick escape scenario. At no time was I interested in having the player be killed by something I just did as a story element.
These mini missions have been a lot of fun for our group! Let us know in the comments how you deal with a player that misses a session.
As always, good gaming!
About the Designer
Jeff Dobberpuhl started playing D&D in 1977. He worked on a number of role playing books for Fantasy Flight Games And was the lead designer on Horizon Redline. He also, with Monte Cook, won an Ennie for Arcana Unearthed Spell Treasury. Jeff also authored and edited numerous modules forth RPGA. Currently he is working on his Facebook webcomic Badd’s Science.