Updated: Oct 25
There's no dragon powerful enough to squash an adventuring party faster than a cancelled Dungeons and Dragons session.
Between scheduling issues, unexpected events, and miscommunication, I can guarantee every Dungeon Master - even Matthew Mercer - has experienced missing players.
This article is for Dungeon Masters. I will review how to quickly handle missing players at your game and methods to help mitigate it.
Now let's discuss a few options before rolling up the game mat.
Option 1: Play & Temporary remove the character from the party
Generally speaking, this is typically the best option while playing.
What's great about removing the character for the session is that it's a quick and easy solution to get the game rolling. This allows the Dungeon Master to keep the game moving faster while respecting the other players' time.
The main drawback of this method is it can break immersion if there’s no clear explanation for the disappearance of Jimbob the Ranger. You may be losing a critical party role, especially in smaller groups.
Here are some tips and tricks to offset this:
Have an Explanation Ready
The character is gone for a story-related reason.
Characters usually have frequent downtime to do as they please.
The character has a side job or business.
A Magic Item allows players to teleport to a nearby home base occasionally (ship, village, tavern, academy etc).
Scale Down Encounters
It really helps to have a plan for different party sizes. Have a table or a ratio for different enemy amounts depending on party size. This is especially important for combat and for encounters you expect would cause harm to the party.
This is an easy solution if you prepare for it in advance. Here's an example:
Have a DM NPC Ready
Having an NPC that you, the Dungeon Master, control can be beneficial to the group. It helps offset a lower power level of a smaller party and it could fulfill a role that may be absent anyway.
It's a bit of work to include an NPC in the party that doesn't feel cosmetic. Consider their level relative to the party and what they specialize in. I don't like to include NPCs that are incredibly strong or cripplingly weak unless it's for a good reason. Try not to step on the player’s roles and allow the spotlight to remain on them.
Personally, I find Bard’s are exceptional at this, as the class is extremely versatile and can complement any group. If you're new to this, a Bard or a simple stat block from the Monster Manual for anything may just do the trick.
I find when everyone is present, having the DM NPC play more of a backup/support role is effective (ie: Using help actions, minor healing, guarding horses/items, crafting, cooking etc). Having them eventually leave the group is best when it fits with the story, not when a missing D&D player magically shows up.
Option 2: Play & have the Missing character in the party
Another option is to keep the character in play without the usual player there. This is good for reinforcing game immersion if done correctly. This can keep a vital party role in the group, despite real events outside of the game.
The main caveat is that this creates extra work for the DM and/or another player. This can increase in conjunction with more missing D&D players, which leads to another issue: speed. This will slow down the game as players and/or the DM will have to check unfamiliar abilities often. Two other issues I have with this are:
It's difficult to accurately represent the player's character.
The player (who isn’t there) is still missing out, despite this effort.
Having clear communication and permission from any missing players is key. If you're still leaning towards this method, consider who would be best to take control of the character: The DM or another Player.
The DM Controls the Character
Players don’t have to worry about controlling multiple characters.
It adds to the workload of the DM.
Another Player Controls the Character
Puts less work on the Dungeon Master so they can focus on other game elements and characters.
It can confuse the player to juggle multiple sheets and characters.
Option 3: Cancel the Session & Reschedule
Some beasts cannot be slain, and you must bite the battle axe. Cancelling may be your only option if the others didn't work. Make a conscious effort to communicate rescheduling plans with the group and the absent players.
Reschedule on the best possible day
Have a predictable day of the week & time that you plan to play (even if biweekly or monthly).
Create and share a poll with dates you’re available to host on a group page (This works best when people’s schedules are changing often).
Synchronize a calendar app with your group.
Simply talk it out in person if you're together.
Preventing Game Cancellations
Have a Clear Rule/Guideline For Missing D&D Players
Have a clear line when you do or do not run a session. This will minimize confusion and keep things consistent for you and the players. A fair rule I've found is a minimum party size. If you have enough people to play with, then play!
a) Rule of Three: Are 3 party members there? If yes, then run the game.
b) We’re Missing Half: Are 3/6 missing tonight? Don’t run the game.
Check-in with your Group:
Try to communicate between games. Have an open chatroom where you and the players can share ideas, art, session notes, and fun D&D jokes or memes.
Send a little activity for your group to do between sessions: Maybe a short D&D Character Questionnaire which they can share their answers to at the beginning of the next session or in the group chat.
Be open to talking with individual players too. People's lives are changing all of the time. Talking 1-1 may bring up more information for you to help schedule/run your games better.
Thank you for reading!
Which option above do you usually choose when you have a missing player? Any tips that you'd like to share when dealing with missing adventurers?
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