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

Thomas Shey

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

There are a lot of ways to potentially have some PCs not around. The problem is that you can have three situations where this is an issue:

1. The prior session ended either in media res, or with a situation about to initiate, so there's no logical way for the PCs to step out;
2. The opposition and situation is put together in advance, and there's no easy way to kneecap them so the loss of two PCs will not turn a winnable fight to a probably unwinnable one;
3. One or more of the PCs is the only one with some particular skills or abilities that make it difficult if not impossible to succeed with what's coming up.

The first one there can come up pretty regularly in some kinds of campaigns.
 

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Richards

Legend
In our particular case for that campaign, each session was a standalone mini-adventure, so we successfully avoided the "in media res" situation. My son specifically built his adversary list so he could remove, say, a few goblins from that night's mini-adventure if a couple of people didn't show for that session. And he tried to make sure whatever goal we were trying to accomplish each night could be done a number of different ways. (In one memorable session, we were being sent to an arcane library to steal a book, and sure enough, that was one of the times the player of our only rogue PC didn't show up. So we went into the mission with only a fighter, a paladin, and a monk - and made a complete hash of it, until we finally just bribed a few students to steal the book for us.)

Johnathan
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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.

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?
I have 4 players in my group and the standing rule is to play if any 3 are present. There are some exceptions for times when it's important that everyone be present for something, but for the most part we stick to this rule.

That said, there was a time were two players had prolonged RL issues that made it so that I didn't even hit the 3 mark more than once a month for about 6 months. The two that did show up really wanted to play D&D, so I started a 2 man campaign that I ran for them when the others didn't show. This was during 3e, so I used the gestalt rules in the UA to make their characters. To explain why they were so special in the world, I had them be members of a very exclusive monastery and they were gestalt monk/other class.
 

Erdric Dragin

Adventurer
The story was completely arbitrary. Clearly a DM who hasn't done it long enough. I don't understand why the author didn't just NPC (as in, he controls the characters whom the players are missing from the table) or give the characters to the remaining players for them to run (basically some of them run 2 characters).

Just fill in what happened to the missing players via text or something.

Kinda dumb to just make the characters "vanish" and leave the adventure for the others to deal with.

We agreed long ago due the same issues that the players will have their character's be controlled by either me or someone else (someone they delegate)and we fill them in after the session what they missed.

Much simpler than what this guy did.

Also, not sure why the players were thrilled to survive a fudged combat encounter. That actually takes away the fun, it's metagame, and it's demeaning. I did that one time to my players, they told me they'd quit if I ever fudged an encounter on them again. They felt like their success wasn't really earned, that I "gave it to them" which...was essentially true.

It's like playing chess thinking you won only to learn your opponent let you win. Defeats the entire purpose.
 

Erdric Dragin

Adventurer
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.
I find it stupid. I mean it's fine if the game isn't serious on story-elements and it's just a mere hack&slash, kick-in-the-door kind of game, but I refuse to deal with contrived situations and events everytime someone doesn't show. You're taking me away from the story with such nonsensical interruptions and ex machinas, it will just lead me to the point of not even bothering to roleplay since my character will inexplicably be missing from the story should I not attend one night.

Either NPC my guy and play him as best as possible or I'll delegate someone else to play my character because I trust they'll play it right.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I find it stupid. I mean it's fine if the game isn't serious on story-elements and it's just a mere hack&slash, kick-in-the-door kind of game, but I refuse to deal with contrived situations and events everytime someone doesn't show. You're taking me away from the story with such nonsensical interruptions and ex machinas, it will just lead me to the point of not even bothering to roleplay since my character will inexplicably be missing from the story should I not attend one night.
It seems to me like those absences and the decisions made in the face of them are just more opportunities to tell stories together, ones that can be made to make perfect sense to everyone at the table, given their shared context. Of course, in my view it helps to leave one's incredulity at the door when playing a game based on make-believe.
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
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
I tried something similar, but was terrible at short episodes. ....
 

GreyLord

Legend
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...
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.

That works...until it doesn't.

I had that happen where they were wanting to play when I couldn't make it...along with most of the other party.

My character and 4 others who were not there died.

Guess who's character didn't...the one player who was able to show up.

I'm still bitter.

If you are going to play other people's characters when they aren't there, I'd say there better be rules that you can't kill someone's character for actions that they did not choose to have their character go through.

PS: It doesn't mean that I am saying you shouldn't have someone take charge of PC's of players who are not there, but if you DO choose to do that, you (the DM or through prior player agreement) better make darn sure those players who are not there (normally due to circumstances they could not control) don't have their PC's killed off in absentia. If something bad happens have the PC captured or unconscious and left behind...but never dead due to circumstances that they couldn't control and not being able to be there.
 
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Thomas Shey

Legend
That works...until it doesn't.

I had that happen where they were wanting to play when I couldn't make it...along with most of the other party.

My character and 4 others who were not there died.

Guess who's character didn't...the one player who was able to show up.

I'm still bitter.

If you are going to play other people's characters when they aren't there, I'd say there better be rules that you can't kill someone's character for actions that they did not choose to have their character go through.

PS: It doesn't mean that I am saying you shouldn't have someone take charge of PC's of players who are not there, but if you DO choose to do that, you (the DM or through prior player agreement) better make darn sure those players who are not there (normally due to circumstances they could not control) don't have their PC's killed off in absentia. If something bad happens have the PC captured or unconscious and left behind...but never dead due to circumstances that they couldn't control and not being able to be there.

I'll be pretty blunt here: while as a GM I'll try and make sure the PC is being played properly (i.e. the person operating them is not taking excess chances, understands how they work and is generally taking due diligence) if its a game where death is to be expected and the absentia PC dies, they die. If a player can't deal with that, they either can find another group or make sure they aren't missing in situations where their PC will have to be used. Most of the cases where a PC dies in most games is misadventure, not bad play, and those could have just as easily happened with the person there.
 

Voadam

Legend
I was in a campaign where when you didn't show up, a black hole erupted beneath your character's feet, you fell in, then it closed. It then dropped you out with the party the next time you showed up. You ended up in game not being aware of what happened in between and just showing up some place different with your buddies.

As a player I came up with an in-character theory from my wizard about this being tied to a big time bad guy magical ritual we had disrupted so it had wild magic space-time rips, and was connected to us and between us because we had all been connected to the disruption, then it spread to characters who joined our party as a bit of an exposure curse type of effect.

Other players (and the DM) did not think about it as hard. :)
 

Voadam

Legend
My current in-person group used to break out card or board games if enough people did not show up to our weekly game (I think less than four PCs or the DM could not run the game that week). Played a lot of Munchkin and stuff like King of Tokyo.

One guy in the group really dislikes player versus player dynamic games so he would play Munchkin with us but get upset about being backstabbed in the game so we shifted a bit to other one offs, but then things shifted to just not getting together if enough cancelled.

I always preferred getting together, although I was not interested in big several hour multi-session board games so I did not get into Gloom and such or participate when the group talked about doing a monthly board games only thing.
 

robemm

Villager
I have 2 groups. The one with 3 players is pretty easy: If we can't all play, we don't play. Fortunately, everyone is committed enough that we seldom miss a session on short notice.

The 5 player group operates with the rule that if one person can't make it, the rest of us will play, but we cancel with 2 missing. With 5 players, it's a lot easier to play with one missing than it is with a group of 4 or 3. Not just from a party firepower/balance perspective but to have enough people to bounce ideas off one another to address an in-game situation.

Does anyone play the missing player's PC as an NPC? In the 5 player group, the missing player's PC usually is described as sleeping/hiding/ill. In extremis, I'll have that PC cast some healing post-combat, but otherwise they don't interact with the game at all. The three player group has had a constant NPC from day 1, which isn't ideal.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
It depends what the session is about. We often finish on cliffhangers so it’s rare that we can pretend one character stayed at the inn or whatever.

Nevertheless, I don’t like playing somebody else’s character. At best their actions will be resolved off-screen as they are being isolated somehow. I even did the other way around with a single PC who could play; he was the one that got isolated and the whole session was about getting back to the party. There was time-travel and plane-jumping shenanigans involved, it was actually pretty cool.

But whatever happens, I try to weave it in the story. The present players are usually good sports about it and play along; I’m cool with that type of metagaming. Only when the story really calls for all characters to be present will I cancel, but this is pretty rare.
 

Xamnam

Loves Your Favorite Game
When I ran LMoP, we refused to meet unless everyone was up for it. Given the nature of the module, I didn't want players to miss relevant story beats, especially the ones that their character was tied to. That's why it took us over three years to complete, but we did. It was frustrating at times, but I don't regret that choice for that specific campaign. That's just how that party will be, and I like everyone involved enough to wait as necessary.

My preferred party size is five, and going forward, I'd like my next table to be one where we'd be willing to play as long as three can make it, with a truly consistent schedule. Obviously, play might test the idea, but going into it, I assume I'd run it with the characters of absent players being present, but fairly non-interactable. Even if I felt like I, or another player, could competently take over the character in combat, mortality would be off the table (and the character would take actions that reflect that). I would feel like I was punishing a player for having a life if they returned to a dead PC that they had no control of at the time.
 

Xamnam

Loves Your Favorite Game
I do really like the idea of small portions of parties having flashback or time-skip/portal interludes when folks want to play, but the logistics just don't work out to carry on what's currently happening.
 

Voadam

Legend
I have done a lot of solo and smaller group (two or three PCs) adventuring as a PC and a DM and really enjoyed it. Everybody gets more spotlight time, there is more opportunity for individualized stuff, and the DM can spend more time on descriptions. I am always down for it, but my recent groups unfortunately have not been and prefer to cancel if there is not a quorum.
 

Xamnam

Loves Your Favorite Game
I have done a lot of solo and smaller group (two or three PCs) adventuring as a PC and a DM and really enjoyed it. Everybody gets more spotlight time, there is more opportunity for individualized stuff, and the DM can spend more time on descriptions. I am always down for it, but my recent groups unfortunately have not been and prefer to cancel if there is not a quorum.
Yeah, I'll always take an opportunity to do this. I've done one solo, and one duo session, and they are both among my favorite play experiences. If the party's in a position where it makes sense, I'd definitely propose it.
 

Stormonu

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.
DM NPCs have been problems in the game’s past, and those who have had bad experience with DM NPCs are the ones most likely to be critical of doing so. I know a DM or two I absolutely loathe for bringing in NPC “help” that regulates the players to sidekicks.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
DM NPCs have been problems in the game’s past, and those who have had bad experience with DM NPCs are the ones most likely to be critical of doing so. I know a DM or two I absolutely loathe for bringing in NPC “help” that regulates the players to sidekicks.
I guess I'm of the opinion that, because something was bad that one time, it doesn't have to be bad all the time, when it comes to certain gaming approaches at least. If the goal is to move forward with play given missing players, it's an option to consider learning to get right in my view.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I know a DM or two I absolutely loathe for bringing in NPC “help” that regulates the players to sidekicks.
I just plain loathe bringing NPCs into the party. There's enough on my plate to track and deal with to want another distraction. The players have to push in game to get an NPC to join them, and even then it's only for a limited time period.
 

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