Even the newest GM has had it happen. It’s easily one of the most frustrating events to deal with when organizing and running a game. You’re at the location your game is held at, getting set up for the first encounter. There’s probably…oh, fifteen minutes or so until your scheduled start time and you get a phone call. You recognize the caller ID of one of your players and your heart sinks even before you press the Talk button.
“Hey, man. I’m so sorry, but…”
We’ve all been there. A flat tire, a last minute project for school, sick baby or any one of a million other possible things could be the reason, but the result is the same– a player dropping out of the session at the absolute last possible minute, giving us as GMs a sudden gaping hole in our player lineup. Not only that, but we don’t even have a character sheet for that PC on file with us because that player had absolutely, positively RSVP’d that he was going to be at the game session. Our options are, at this juncture, very limited.
- Cancel the game session. This is easily the least pleasing option. There are, thankfully, a bevy of other ways to deal with the hiccup.
- Run the PC Yourself (DMPC): Using approximate numbers from the DMG, this is a more viable option, but unless you have the time to suss out what the PC’s powers and skills might be, you might as well bring a monster or NPC in for the session to fill out the party.
- Have another player run two PCs: Again, with no character sheet this becomes a less-viable alternative, but even with a full character sheet on hand this is not an ideal option. The number of choices a PC has available to them in a single round, especially at higher levels, is staggering. Also, the primary PC owned by the player you are asking to run 2 characters will inevitably suffer as their mind is split into two entirely different directions.
- The PC is not present for this adventure, and is not replaced: Self-explanatory. Sometimes this requires a kind of deus ex machina explanation, especially for tight-knit parties or those in the middle of an adventure already. But it can be the best option if there are enough other players ready to cover the slack. If the missing PC is a vitally important role, however (only leader or only defender, primarily) then the problem is considerably greater. The party’s survivability in such a circumstance can be greatly compromised, and the party’s fun can get ground under a series of too-difficult “fight to survive” encounters.
Now, thanks to the Companion Character rules (DMG2, p.27-33), there are a couple other options. I am a huge fan of these rules, and have used them at my table repeatedly. Simplified, Companion Characters amount to one of two options. You as GM can either pick a creature from the Monster Manual and modify it to become a Companion, or you can build one NPC-style from scratch. I prefer the customization available from the NPC approach, but your mileage may vary.
I run a game that consists of me as GM and one other player (run over Skype), and the Companion rules fill in the rest of that character’s party. Because I as GM am running so many other characters, this works out fantastically well. I use the Companion Character rules in this game pretty much as outlined in the DMG2– they flesh out a party missing those roles.
In addition to the possibility of pulling in an NPC Companion Character to fill in for your missing player, you might consider another alternative. Use the Companion character rules to create a “PC Lite” version of each of your characters, with all their attack and damage values predetermined and precalculated. Keep those PC Lite sheets with your DM notes at all times, and you have a safety net ready to go.That way, if you get the dreaded call 15 minutes before the dice start rolling, you can smile and pull out Larry the Fighter’s Companion Character sheet and use it fr the session instead of having to burden either yourself or another player at the table with running an additional, full PC. It’s not as ideal as having the player at the table with you, but it can be an easier alternative to the choices above.
The streamlined Companion character becomes even easier to use when you tie in the Adventure Tools Monster Builder (available with a DDI subscription). You can take a few minutes, plug in all the values for your PC, keep shorthand versions of their powers and even magic items in the Powers fields, and print them off on a single page with all pertinent information on the front of a single piece of paper. Easy-peasy. Below is an example from the one-on-one game that I have been running for a bit now.
The majority of my players are military; our schedules are about as crazily flexible as they come. Add in family and random Life Happens moments, and the need at my table to have a replacement for a player at just about any moment is pretty high. I’m going to be keeping Companion Character versions of all my PCs in my “Oh Crap” folder, right beside the lists I keep on hand of NPC names, Tavern names, secrets for an NPC to have handy as well as anything else for when my players throw me a curve ball.
What other ways do you deal with missing players at the table? And what’s the best “I’m gonna miss game” excuse you’ve ever heard?