Real life has a very annoying way of interfering with one’s gaming plans. You finally find a day and time that works for everyone to come to the table, and BOOM! Someone’s got the flu. Or has relatives in town. Or went on vacation. Or had to work late. Just like that, your table is short a player, and the party is short their battlemage for the trek into the unknown dangers of the frozen steppes.
There isn’t a gaming group in existence that this hasn’t happened to at least once. So long as the missing person isn’t the GM, the game can go on for a session or two without much trouble. Sure, you may have to scramble for an explanation as to why the fighter decided not to go into town with the rest of the party, or the GM (or another player) may bumble a bit running the missing player’s character as an NPC, but odds are everything is going to work out just fine.
Sometimes, though, a player lets you know they’re going to be unable to game for an extended length of time. A semester away at college, the birth of a baby, a surgery with a long recovery period, a staff shortage at work, a military deployment – all of these things can take a player away from the table for weeks or months at a time. If you’re in the middle of a long campaign, figuring out how to handle the character’s sudden and lengthy absence can be a challenge. You have to find a believable reason for the character to be gone, and you also need to leave the door open for the player to return to the table and have his character rejoin the party. (Running the character as an NPC for any length of time runs the risk of the player coming back and being very unhappy with what happened to their character while in another’s control.) Luckily, with just a little creativity and planning, there are a number of ways to go about it; here are just a few suggestions that work well in different situations.
The Mysterious Solo Mission
You rouse from your bedrolls and tents, well-rested and ready to return to the road. It doesn’t take you long to realize that the rogue is nowhere to be found. Instead, you find a note where his bedroll had been:
“My friends, a messenger arrived in the middle of the night with an urgent mission from my father. I can’t tell you very much, for your safety as much as my own. If anyone asks, tell them I had to go talk to a man about a pegasus. I will catch up with you as soon as I can. Safe travels until we meet again.”
In this scenario, while the rest of the party may be very curious and naturally concerned about their missing companion, they’ve also been given the green light to carry on with the mission at hand. This is a great solution for parties on the move, with places to go, things to do, orc hordes to defeat. If the party is literally smack-dab in the middle of a dungeon when the player has to leave, the GM should run the character as an NPC until they’ve cleared the dungeon, then have the messenger show up as soon as they’re out – or even be waiting for them when they exit the ruins.
What is the character actually doing on that secret mission? Oh, the possibilities! Look for ideas in the background the player has created and come up with something that will be meaningful and important to the character. Maybe he really does have to see a man about a pegasus – a pegasus that is the leader of its flock, is an ally to the rogue’s father, and has gone missing. The rogue’s father is certain his son is the only one who can find the majestic creature and return him to safety. If the player will have the time and access to e-mail while he must be physically absent from the table, the GM can actually run this solo mission for him, which will let him remain involved in the game even if he can’t be there.
Kidnapped?! Oh Noes!
Breakfast is nearly over, and the sorcerer has still not joined you in the common room of the inn. While she is notoriously difficult to rouse in the morning, you’ve never known her to skip breakfast. When you go to her room and knock on the door, the door swings open, its lock broken. The room has been ransacked, and you all recognize a number of the sorcerer’s possessions scattered about – things you are certain she’d never willingly leave behind. There is no sign of your companion, except perhaps the smear of blood on the windowsill…
If the party is between major story arcs at the time the player has to temporarily bow out, a kidnapping serves the dual purpose of giving the character an exit and giving the party something to do. Unless there’s some serious dissension among the group, the party’s first instinct is going to be to search for their missing friend. If the kidnappers were able to teleport to lands far away, the party may have long and hard travels ahead of them as they search for clues and try to track their friend down.
Who did the kidnapping? Someone with a beef with the party, or perhaps an enemy from the character’s past. Look again at the character background for ideas, and once again, the GM and player can play out some of the character’s captivity via e-mail.
Split The Party
The village of Everglen, ravaged by disease and wildfire just weeks ago, has begun to bounce back under the care and aid of your party of heroes. Word has recently reached the community of the advance of the army of Engvar Trollson, an evil half-troll tyrant with designs on overtaking all the Free Lands of the West. Everyone had known he was on the march, but he has covered more ground than any had expected, and may approach Everglen by spring’s dawning. You have spent the past two days debating what to do – to attempt to cut Trollson off before he can cause more destruction, or stay put and continue nursing the village back to health so they can be prepared for the war sure to come.
As you debate your plans yet again around the supper table, the cleric comes in and sets a small crate of healing potions and other magical draughts in the center of the table. “We all know that both options are important – nay, vital – to this community’s survival,” he says solemnly. “We can do both – if I remain here while the rest of you go. I have prayed long and hard on this, and Brokk has shown me that this is the only way. Go on and fight Trollson. I will continue the fight here.”
If the party is in a situation where they wish they could be in two places at once, splitting a character off from the rest of the group accomplishes that goal while providing a perfect explanation for why that character isn’t with the rest of the party. A rogue or ranger can go off on an extended scouting mission while her companions continue fortifying a village. The charming bard can remain behind in the city to perpetuate the ruse that he’s a visiting noble, gathering information the party needs while they try to root out the highly professional and effective bandits that have been attacking caravans along the roads leading into the city. The character can send magical or mundane messages to the others on occasion to keep the connection alive.
Sometimes, no matter how good an in-game explanation you can create for a character’s sudden disappearance, the absent player leaves a hole at the table that no amount of clever GM tricks can fill. If this is the case at your game table, seriously consider putting the game on hiatus until the player can return. A number of our fellow gamers at our game club are serving in the USAF, and when we found out last year that they would be deploying, there was no question that the games they were in with us would go on hold until they got back. They just all bring too much to the table to carry on without them. So we made sure to get the campaigns to good pausing points and eagerly wait for Kevin, Steve, and Zak to return home safe and sound and ready to game. (If all goes as planned they should be back very soon!)
Work It Out
Players have the responsibility to let their GMs know as soon as possible about an extended absence. Emergencies aside, make sure your GM has plenty of time to come up with an “out” for your character. Likewise, do your best to give the GM a head’s up to when you’re coming back – don’t just show up unannounced at the table and be pissed when you learn the party hasn’t discovered where the kidnappers are holding you yet.
As a GM, make sure the player is OK with your plan for his character. Even if it does take some work on your part to come up with an out for the character, don’t look at it as a burden, and never make the player think that it’s a hassle (you want them to come back, remember?). Keep the player in the loop, and offer to do some RP via e-mail when you can. Make the whole thing a realistic, believable, exciting story twist for all involved, and it will feel like it was meant to be part of the campaign all along instead of a wrench in your gears.
For a close-knit gaming group, it can be really hard to see a player have to take a leave of absence. But you can find a way to carry on, that continues the fun of the game, and makes it all that much sweeter when your gaming companion makes his return.
What do you do as a GM when a player has to take time off from the game? If you had to take a leave of absence from playing, what would you want to happen to your character?