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General How do you explain PC absences when a player has to miss a session?


I've seen a lot of ways to handle this mess. The in-universe justification (a sudden stomach bug). The handwave (he's just over there, not participating). The cancelled session.

How does your group handle it? Do you employ a mix of strategies, or do you tend to favor some particular option?

Comic for illustrative purposes.

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I do the handwave for the game I'm currently running. Those that are present continue on and next week the character just pops back into existence. Encounters are generally still "balanced" due to the adventure is suitable for 4-6 players. Though anyone that's run a 5e prewritten campaign knows that those encounters can often vary wildly which is why balanced is in quotations.


Lowcountry Low Roller
I just say that their PC is present but battling their own enemy off camera, then if we end a session in mid-battle (as happened last time) and the player returns to join the fight in the next, then there's no need for them to sit things out as their PC is already in the fray. I'll probably have their character take some damage to bring things into some alignment with the other PCs.


We don't explain it since the PC is there and "fully" participating.
We handle it by having one of the other players playing the missing players PC in addition to his own.
As the DM I reserve the right to veto any decions the absent players PC make, but so far I have never had to use it.
We are a fairly stable group of friends and the majority of us have been playing together for roughly 30 years which I think helps.
There have been some really close calls for the absent players PC (and 1-2 deaths) but that depended on the situation and would most likely have happened even the PCs player was present.


The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
Either DM or another player takes over for the PC most of the time, unless the story allows the PC to easily be written out for the session. Every player understands that if they can't make the session, someone will likely play their character if possible. We agree on that during session 0.


The PC stepped on a Symbol of Teleportation. It wears off when the player comes back (as to how it wears off so the PC shows up next to the other PC's, well, strange are the ways of the DM....I mean, gods). If the player throws in a good (or even ridiculous) story about what the PC was doing, the PC can have XP and treasure.


Handwave. Same for our player who has to show up 2 hours late due to a work schedule change.

If I ever manage to get one of their characters dead and not just raised from the dead by the party cleric, the replacement will just show up shortly after... group is in the middle of a Castlevania mega-dungeon and there's not a good way to handle it otherwise.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
One group I'm playing in handwaves it ... mostly. We had an issue where we had a stealthy prisoner extraction from a large camp (much more than we could fight) that had the party broken into three groups. We ended one session right when everyone was in position to start the extraction, and next week the player of our rogue cancelled at the last minute. Who was, of course, a linchpin of the stealthy extraction.

The DM let us retcon slighhly so the rogue skipped out slightly earlier and we could plan together and come up with alternate plans. But we were specifically a group of soldiers in a particular god's legion who ended up (though our own actions) getting A-Teamed (imprisioned for a crime we didn't commit, escaped, and starting doing clandestine good deeds while attempting to clear our name), and the rogue was a new character that had not been with us long, and claimed to follow the god but was evasive about it. So we sort of had to break our standard hand-wave and deal with that. But the DM had a good reason he scarpered which actually works well into us trusting him.

Waaaaay back when (AD&D 1st), characters got "zombie rot". No initiative but also unkillable. Would just follow the party. We eventually got to the point we'd put them in bags of holding when they relapsed into the condition.

When running, we handwave a one-off absence, and do a quick story write-out if a character is going to be out for several sessions. We play down own, cancel on down two, so we don't have too many out at once.


If in town, handwave it. The PC had commitments and can't take part in the current question. His abilities are unavailable even if it would be useful for the group. In the middle of a dungeon or a trip, the PC is in the back taking care of the hordes of followers the PC manage to invariably acquire (mules, mule handlers...) and stand guard over the loot. We dubbed this the gray zone and don't pay it much attention.


Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Either hand wave or they got separated from the party. Recent example was a cave-in and they can hear a "I'm okay, I see the way out and will meet you later."

In town, they just have something else to do.

Setting continuity is at the top of my gaming values, so I don't handwave it. If there were a way for the PC to be reasonably absent (like they went off to do something in town, or they had a mild illness) I'd want to go with that, but so far that hasn't really come up. Before the campaign, I asked the players how they wanted me to handle it. Either they could select a designated substitute player to play their character, or let me run it. Plus, they could decide how they wanted their character treated (ie, hang back and avoid risks, or play them the same way their player plays them). The group wanted me to just run the character like normal, so that's what's happened so far. I don't try to role-play them, I just have them provide their normal contribution in combat or with their class features. That being said, we usually just cancel if someone can't make it. I think I've had to run someone's character 2-3 times in 4 years.


Goblin Queen
We don't need to explain it, as most often, we have the PC still present. They gain a goodly measure of plot immunity, and won't take significant personal initiative, and will react to requests for their skills and use basic combat tactics. They are, effectively, present but on auto-pilot.
This is pretty much what I do. I might ask another player to run the absent player’s character in combat if they’re comfortable doing so.


Magic Wordsmith
The character fades to the background in my games which may mean he or she is there but not contributing in any meaningful way or they aren't around right now. If we need to explain it, we do, but that's not always necessary for continuity to hold up. The character earns no XP or treasure, but is also not at risk.


We don't worry about it.

I run a weekly game for four hours with a pool of 9 players. Many live hours away from my house and come when they can. I have two players who are almost always there - my sons. I also have two incredibly reliable players who live in my neighborhood. The rest drop in when they can - for some that is roughly every other session and for others it is more like monthly. So, my table almost always has 4 players, usually 5 or 6, and rarely 7.

I don't give players experience who miss experience. Instead, I evenly divide experience and then player who are below the highest level PC get a 10% bonus per level they are lacking. Example, the current top level is 7 - 6th level PCs get a 10% bonus, 5th level PCs get a 20% bonus, etc. If they are three levels below - I make sure they are in the same tier as the top level PCs. It has worked well for my campaigns the last couple of years.

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