Dear DovahQueen: One of my players misses a lot, about once a month. My GM and all the other players are all right with this situation, and I am too, except for one thing: keeping them up to date. Do you have any tips for summarizing sessions for missing players?–Johnny Chronicler
Dear JC: This issue is one that’s extremely common simply due to the nature of the game. It’s not always easy to coordinate a scheduled game-day that works for a whole group of people, and it gets even more difficult the older we get as our lives tend to force our d20s to take a backseat. I’ve experienced players with chronic absenteeism many, many times, and for a variety of different reasons. It’s easy to look at some of these occurrences as an issue that can be overcome, but may I suggest that it could instead be used as an opportunity to present unique story arcs that you wouldn’t normally be able to accomplish. That said, sometimes all you need is to just run that player’s character in the background as an NPC and to catch them up next week. I’m going to give you a two different options to make it easier to handle such situations.
For starters, I honestly believe that every session should already start with a summary of the prior regardless of attendance, and this is useful for a variety of reasons. I like to think of it in the same way that our many of our favorite shows start off with an intro or recap. Oftentimes, they utilize a song to help reinforce the tone while they rehash the narrative. So, at the start of my sessions, I like to give the players a chance to earn a very minor amount of XP by giving a detailed recap of the prior session. If they hit all the important details, they can have the award, and sometimes I’ll help them remember the details they may have missed that I want to make sure they have noticed. To keep the recap from becoming tedious or chore-like, I’ll play a song behind it that I feel foreshadows the story and tone of the game. Most recently for me, my story was dark-fantasy/low-magic and focused on the imminent death that overcast its shadow over the whole story. Thus, the song I used was Wolves by Down Like Silver which you can find here if you’re interested. This also makes it easier to keep the recap short and sweet since all songs have a set duration. Plus, it helps serve to get everyone into the right mood for the session. If you’re already doing something similar to this at the beginning of every game, then you’ll already be prepared to handle filling-in a player who may have missed a session.
An alternative take is that you might *not* want to inform that player (or character) about what happened in their absence, and you can use this make the story more dynamic. When a player is able to let you know ahead of time that they’re going to have to miss the planned session, I like to use this as an opportunity to take that character out of the game for a larger reason that pushes the story. Make the absence matter in a way that is engaging, rather than something that detracts from the game. Obviously, it can be kinda lame to just say, “Rush Mello was kidnapped; you have to go save him,” so I wouldn’t necessarily lead with that, but it could be a good way to handle it depending on your narrative. Instead, take this opportunity to plan a one-off solo adventure with that player another time. Maybe Rush leaves a note on the bed saying that he’s got business to take care of, but he’ll be back in ten days. Then you can meet with that player later and have a little side-quest just for them. If you or that player simply isn’t going to have time to meet, there’s nothing wrong with just declaring that a side-quest occurred and having the party experience the outcome. Movies, games, and television often have interesting story arcs about the main characters being separated for some reason, but the structure of our tabletop games rarely allows for such storytelling. Consider using the absence of a player to further the story rather than allowing it to merely chug along without them. Some stories may only be made better by these circumstances. Think about how much fun you could have if the character was captured by a shapeshifter. Maybe when the player returns in the following session, you whisper to them: “Hey…are you cool to play as a doppelganger for a little bit until the party finds and rescues your real character?”
In a perfect world, all players would be able to make all sessions and life would go on. But this is the real world and that’s just not always gonna be the case. I think that knowing how you could handle absences beforehand will go a long way to help you in keeping the quality of the story from being diminished when these things inevitably happen. But if you’re clever about it, you might be able to make them add an element to your narrative that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
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