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.

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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


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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Most of the games I've played in over the years have had a policy of making sure that the DM has a copy of all the character sheets so that if one or two players aren't going to make it, they can assign one of the other players to handle their character for the session...
Character sheets stay with the DM (or at the site of play, if a player's house instead of the DM's) between sessions, for just this reason.

The whole idea of taking character sheets home after each session is foreign to me, and would only mean I'd forget to bring it to the next session at least once a month....
They've also usually required a 2/3 or 3/4 quorum to avoid having the game postponed til the next session. Half the party gone would likely have resulted in either the group grabbing a pizza and watching a movie instead, or individuals wandering off to do other things.
Depends. With a group of 4, I've sailed with 2 in the past - it's often situationally dependent, in large part on whether the remaining 2 want to go ahead. But I'll always sail with 3 of 4 or 3 of 5.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I find that anything below three players is where that subtle alchemy of gaming where it really comes to life starts to falter. While I believe that it's important to stick to a schedule to keep momentum, if I end up with just two players, I am very likely to cancel.

It's also not always a simple thing to adjust encounters on the fly. Sometimes, it just can't be done without making for an underwhelming adventure.
This is what I just don't get. The characters are all still there in the fiction, so why do you need to adjust the encounter?

If I miss a session, I know full well my character is at the mercy of whoever ends up playing it that night, and I just hope it's still there for me to play the following week. :)

From the DM-side, particularly if it's an all-combat session, I've found that having fewer players can in fact make things run considerably more efficiently.
But, generally speaking, unless it's the finale of the campaign or some other significant adventure, if I have at least three players, I run no matter what.
 

Kannik

Adventurer
In the larger of the groups I play in, we have an N-1 guideline for playing. One player missing typically doesn't shift the party capacity too much whether in an encounter (though the GM might pull an opponent or two) or other situations and obstacles. Two or more though and the party begins to get restrained. Plus, there's less opportunity for intra-party RP.

In my smaller group there's only three of us at the moment, so we definitively need all of us so it doesn't turn into a solo adventure. :D
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
If we have half the players or more, the game sails; with characters of the missing players guest-piloted by those players who are present, with DM input. The rationale is that the characters in the fiction are still doing what they're doing, regardless of whether or not they happen to have a player attached at the moment, and don't just magically disappear when the player doesn't show for a session.

So, in the OP's situation, the whole party would have been there and thus (in theory) no on-the-fly adjustments would have been required.

Though I'd be hesitant to bother with that many people missing, this is usually how we roll with only one or two gone.
 


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).
Bold emphasis mine. What happens when all 7 can play, do the players rotate who sits one out?
 

See, if a player isn't there in my games, their character just isn't there. I might go as far as saying that the characters are sick, or off doing something else, but I'd never run someone else's character or hand them over to another PC. Heck, we don't even have their character sheets to do so if we wanted to.

With smaller groups, I've noticed that combat definitely goes so much faster. Your turn comes around really quickly.

This is what I just don't get. The characters are all still there in the fiction, so why do you need to adjust the encounter?

If I miss a session, I know full well my character is at the mercy of whoever ends up playing it that night, and I just hope it's still there for me to play the following week. :)

From the DM-side, particularly if it's an all-combat session, I've found that having fewer players can in fact make things run considerably more efficiently.
 

Our rule is that if 2 or more people (out of 7) are missing, we play our alternate campaign, which is completely separate and set up for people to be there one session and not the next.

Then we just play every second Thursday unless most of us aren’t available.

Trying to always ensure everyone could make it to every session just led to constant rescheduling and running the main campaign with missing people was sometimes difficult if the missing player’s PC was important to a particular session.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
That's great if those are, functionally, options (at least ones that will matter) but with a lot of groups, the matter that is going to be addressed in a given session has already been set up, and dragging in NPCs is functionally off the table. In those cases they're down to whether tactical choices can actually make up for the numbers, and that's a big if.
The great thing about a game based on make-believe in my view is that it's pretty easy to figure out how to add in NPCs if the players need them and are willing to pay whatever price they may demand. Otherwise, they can just figure out how to deal with the challenge some other way, even going so far as abandoning it if they have to (though delay may be a better option).
 


billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
We have a quorum rule, basically. DM+3 is the quorum level in most of the games I participate in. That's half in the D&D game I run on alternate Saturdays, but less than half for either of the alternating Thursday night games.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Would there have been anything wrong with the party being defeated and captured, then having to escape?
This is a game-show run by gnomes in which clockwork monsters attack them, so unfortunately there wasn't really an intelligence behind the bad guys this time. But to your point, there are ways to make even defeat fun.

Some of this comes down to how D&D works. It's not super-tolerant of gradations of failure when it comes to combat (i.e., you have to work to capture PCs vs. just wipe them out).
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
I cancel with two players. I usually play with three, as that is what shows up 90% of the time.....though sometimes I still cancel. We only have four, so, ya, we play with 4.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
The great thing about a game based on make-believe in my view is that it's pretty easy to figure out how to add in NPCs if the players need them and are willing to pay whatever price they may demand. Otherwise, they can just figure out how to deal with the challenge some other way, even going so far as abandoning it if they have to (though delay may be a better option).

I think you misunderstood; sometimes in a group bringing in NPCs is just not done. And that's not counting the situations where the situation has already been set up as pretty much defining no NPCs will be there in the first place.

(I freely admit the "no one's PC will be played if they aren't there" stance some people have is a mystery to me since that's never been a thing throughout my gaming life, but assuming its practical to drag in NPCs doesn't seem any more sensible).
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think you misunderstood; sometimes in a group bringing in NPCs is just not done. And that's not counting the situations where the situation has already been set up as pretty much defining no NPCs will be there in the first place.

(I freely admit the "no one's PC will be played if they aren't there" stance some people have is a mystery to me since that's never been a thing throughout my gaming life, but assuming its practical to drag in NPCs doesn't seem any more sensible).
Why would a group have a stance that bringing in an NPC is "just not done?" Particularly if they have attendance challenges. Why would the DM and group contrive situations where it couldn't be done? This seems to me to be a self-inflicted wound.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
As an AL DM I have done 2 people twice. Once local once at a con. But I do a min of 3 people. And have created a new rule of not DMing the hardcover unless 4 people show.
 

Richards

Legend
My son ran a two-year 3.5 campaign ("The Durnhill Conscripts") that was specifically designed to run through the night's short adventure no matter how many players showed up. Of the five players (from two families between us), three of us never missed a session, while two very frequently missed sessions in the first third or so of the campaign. But the game setup was we were working directly for the King, who needed a team of "troubleshooters" to go on missions that, if they went awry, he had plausible deniability about. (So were were kind of like the Suicide Squad without being made up of "bad guys.") For each session (we met on Wednesdays for short, 2-1/2 hour sessions), if the player showed up, his or her PC was involved in that game session's mission; those PCs whose players didn't show up had been given other assignments that didn't earn them any XP (stuff like, "watch this inn and report back if anyone shows up wearing a red hat"). As a result, after several no-shows, we had some discrepancies in our PCs' levels. But the concept worked out very well for us, and for the last half of the campaign I don't think we had anyone missing a session.

Johnathan
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Why would a group have a stance that bringing in an NPC is "just not done?" Particularly if they have attendance challenges. Why would the DM and group contrive situations where it couldn't be done? This seems to me to be a self-inflicted wound.

So does "No one plays the PC but their player, even if they're in the middle of something or absolutely necessary" but its absolutely some people's position.
 

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