Spoiler Warning! Underdark Without Nightvision is a based on my experiences on playing Out of the Abyss campaign as a human ranger (deep stalker) and will include a host of spoilers. Thread carefully!
After a long holiday hiatus we got back into the Underdark. To solve the problems with the leadership amongst our groups and to (eventually) escape the abyss. Or in fact the group did get together but I was absent.
So this time I’m going to talk about player absence.
From what I heard the session was a good one and I’m almost sorry that I wasn’t there. I say almost because I’m having an awful flue and I haven’t been sleeping well.
But what to do when the game ends with a cliffhanger that has one of the characters deeply involved and that player doesn’t show up during next session? I believe this to be a problem all gamers can relate.
As a GM I try to avoid these kind of situations. It usually leads into difficult situations where you either end up moving the session or just totally screwing the narrative with a “main character” out from action. (Funny side-note: apparently Kryptonite was introduced in a radio show version of the adventures of Superman to allow the Superman’s voice actor to go on a vacation.)
Since we are older now and do not have such a free schedule than, let’s say ten years ago, moving the session is not always an option. With this campaign there are six players (me and DM included) so I didn’t want them to miss a sessions just because of my problems but neither did not want the high stakes situation we were in the middle of during last session to resolve without a conflict.
In past times I’ve had somewhat successful experiences with Skype. If a player cannot come to the session but has time and possibility to participate via Skype it is always an option for me. Not a preferable one but (again) more preferable than moving the session.
I wasn’t up for Skype either so we I gave our DM an “autorun guide” for my character. I explained my motives for the debate about leadership, who I would back up and why. I didn’t have any idea where the game was going after the conversation about leadership so I just explained that all my character wanted was a strong leader – if this kind of a leader would emerge I told my character would follow their command.
But what about situations where you have no idea what is about to happen and a clear autorun cannot be “scripted”?
In past I have used a number of different methods of explaining the missing of a player. If the character is wounded they might be in such a bad shape that they need to lay low. Or maybe they have been captured by the bad guys. Or maybe they just do not participate to action in that session. Or maybe they cannot even be contacted/found.
As I apparently cannot talk about rpgs without mentioning Apocalypse World I bring it up now. There are two excellent guidelines for the MC (that’s Master of Ceremonies): “Be the fan of the characters” and “play to find out what happens”.
While GMing I have been following those rules by choosing an interesting event that might happen to the character. Most times it we have played it a bit backwards – first the other characters notice that the PC in question cannot be contacted and if they get concerned about the character they will learn what has happened via gaming. The story will keep on going with a new “side quest”. And if the PCs just ignore the character’s absence I have written a “love letter” (again, check Apocalypse World) for the player to find out what happened to their character while they weren’t watching.
The important thing here is to remember that even though players sometimes miss sessions they quite likely would prefer not to. So it is in no way necessary to punish them via their characters. You might do that, sure, but you should do that in a way that comes from the narrative and advances the story. You know “fail forward”.
If the players can agree that something bad might come out of their characters absence they will be likely to embrace the fact that at least it should be interesting.
Or you could just let the GM autorun the character as an NPC and get on with it.