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RPG Evolution: When Half the Party Shows Up

We created a rule of playing with a minimum of six players. But the folks who showed really wanted to play, so we broke our own rule ... and nearly broke the party with it.

We created a rule of playing with a minimum of six players. But the folks who showed really wanted to play, so we broke our own rule ... and nearly broke the party with it.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

To Play or Not to Play?​

It happens. Everyone's busy, and only certain players show up. I worked hard to encourage a mix of support casters and combat character types, six characters in total. We play once a week over Roll20. The rule we came up with is that we would play with a minimum of four players. If we had all six, great, I would adjust the game's difficulty on the fly.

But this last encounter involved ranged combat using cover in a sniping battle. Our remaining party members were an elven druid, a tiefling sorceress, and a gnome artificer. With the exception of the elven ranger, the ranged attackers were all present. I asked the players if they wanted to proceed. The three who showed up were really looking forward to the game, so I made a calculated decision and decided to go ahead.

Maybe We Shouldn't Have Played...​

The battle involved hordes of enemies arriving from above, with a horizontal (instead of an overhead view) map, Space Invaders style. There were giant mushrooms to hide behind and lots of flying clockwork monsters shooting radiant rays. The sorceress unleashed fireballs and a storm sphere, while the druid used her moonbeam spell in a 40-foot long column (very different from the 10-foot side circle when fighting from a top-down perspective!). The artificer ran around healing and providing support. For the first couple of rounds, things were going in the party's favor.

But there were too many monsters, which meant that critical hits were much more likely. Even though the monsters had low Armor Class and low Hit Points, there were a lot of them, and the critical hits started to add up, particularly on the druid. There wasn't a lot of room to stop and heal, as every party member was maximizing their action economy as the enemy relentlessly came closer and closer to them at the bottom of the map.

Then the monsters closed to melee.

When it was a sniping battle, things were fairly even. Although the monsters were being decimated they still were scoring hits, but the squishier casters couldn't withstand much melee for long. This is where they missed their tanks most. The sorceress summoned a Hound of Ill Omen and the artificer summoned his eldritch cannon. These soaked up some hits, but not enough.

At this point things were getting desperate. The sorceress went down, as did the Hound and cannon, but that was enough for the druid to use her moonbeam to clean up the rest of the attackers and then revive the sorceress. It was a close match and the players were sweating.

What I Did Behind the Scenes​

I originally had two attacks for every monster, so I cut that in half. It also just made combat move faster, as there were a lot of attackers (15 per wave). I also rounded up damage when the monsters were close to 0 hit points, so if they were within 2 or 3, I just blew them up. The combat was meant to make the PCs feel powerful, and they definitely enjoyed wiping opponents off the battlefield.

The monsters also came in waves, which meant that while our heroes started out strong, it eventually wore them down. The monsters weren't particularly smart and had no leader, so they reacted to combat conditions only after they experienced them (e.g., they didn't avoid the storm sphere at first until a few got caught in it).

And despite all that, it was still very much a swingy battle that could have resulted in a total party kill.

Was It Worth It?​

The players talked about this game in breathless terms, thrilled that they survived. I was too, because I really didn't want to wipe out the party because we chose to play without the rest of the group. And yet capturing that lightning in a bottle, where the win is hard earned, is part of what makes the game so much fun. There are certainly things I would have done differently, but with so many variables it can sometimes be hard to gauge it just right. It was close a match, but I think it was worth the risk.

Your Turn: How do you handle games when half or more of the party is missing?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


If the rest of the group wants to play, I figure that they made the effort to get there, then we will play. My group right now is all family and we tend to play something else if one is not going to make it. Last week my father was off for his Viet-Nam reunion and we played a DC heroes card game which was fun.

Your story also delved into the past threads about DM modifying the game to make things better for the table and the situation. On the fly modifying the numbers and attacks still had the game hard for the 3 PCs but players still had fun. Sounds like a great job.


I have a party of 4 currently, so if 2 aren't going to make it, I have to cancel. If 3 can make it, we roll ahead, with the 3rd character just "offscreen."
This is why I usually prefer a party of 5, but RL...

Next game, there will typically be a NPC with the party, and other recruitable NPCs around (with PC statblocks already prepared). If we are short a PC, someone can run an extra NPC for battles if needed, if they have a way to go get them.


Follower of the Way
I only run for a small crew (no more than 5 people, generally 4), so if more than half the group is missing, it's hard for me to justify doing all that much.

I've been looking into what other options might work for filler content in case we have major/relevant absences. Nothing has really caught my eye yet.

As long as at least 3 can play I'm happy, even if a further ,1-3 have cancelled.

I'm 56 now so time becomes more precious
Per the above, having less than 3 people happens with even 2 absences, so...yeah it can be An Thing.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
My sweet spot is 5 players and if one person misses we play, if two miss we reschedule. As GM seems to keep the right balance of pace and challenge without any extra work on my part.


Magic Wordsmith
My current pool of players for our regular Friday night game totals 7 people. We have a quorum rule of 4 PCs, maximum of 6 for any given session. I have a secondary pool of players I can call on to make a cameo if we can't quite get quorum, but that is pretty rare. More players than seats for the game means we almost never have to cancel (barring a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas).


Old School!
These days I try to have a one shot ready for action (like Honey Heist or something similar). If the players really want to play the main game, sometimes we "rewind time" and play a fill in adventure with quick encounters that help flesh out the main story.

It's always tricky though when the group is at partial strength! I gm for a group of 6...so this is a frequent occurrence lol!
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Elder Thing
A similar experience years ago led tome realizing I VASTLY prefer a small group - 3 PCs was my max for a long time. The stakes seems bigger and the victories more inspiring. A small group also has to make different tactical choices, since (as your group also discovered), numbers are a real advantage in battles.

I now have 6 people in my regular group (which in full disclosure is a DCC game, not a 5e game), and it feels overstuffed sometimes. We play every week as long as at least 3 people make it, and we make it work. It helps that DCC, by its design, helps maintain the same kind of tension the smaller groups felt, even when we have 6 characters at the table.


The group I play in are 8 players including the GM... Some things we have done in our campaigns, have been both quick missions with the characters present (it helps if everyone lets the GM know in advance that they will not make it), that would be fully playable in one evening. As well as sidequests with often purpose-made characters that do something behind the scenes that the normal characters don't see, but that give the players a greater view that the world is large.

We have for example done this in both Scion 2e (so we quickly went off to Ireland for a quick mission helping one of the characters, before going to Mount Olympos and visiting Apollon (we here had a fixed time when that was happening, and we were supposed to be at tis feast and celebrate lots of prophets that would help the various pantheons, and we really wanted everyone to be present. The aftermath of that quick mission to Ireland can be found in the story-hours section).

In our Tianxia; Blood, Jade & Silk-campaign, we have gotten different teams of temporary characters (that were more powerful than ours) doing a few sidequests where we could do things that would help the normal characters later, The extra characters had their own goals and so on, but these were goals that we were aligned with. Even going so far as having basically 3 different teams of player characters meeting. Yes, that was complicated.

And sometimes if we know in advance and we are in a way where none of these things ae appropriate, then maybe someone else runs a one-shot adventure for the evening.

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