Check for Traps
The Challenge of Campaigning

Alexander Macris | 14 Sep 2010 21:00
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Missing in Action

Even with the most well-intentioned and dedicated players, there will be times when one or more of them can't make it. An ongoing challenge for every gamemaster is what to do when one or more players go "missing in action." I have seen recommendations ranging from cancelling the game to running with the missing player's characters killed and everything seen in between. Most of these recommendations are wrong.

The first thing to know is: Don't cancel the game. The game must go on. As long as you have more than half of your group available (3 players out of 5, for instance), the game goes on. Pragmatically, in any regular weekly campaign, there will almost certainly be one or two absent players in any given session due to work, illness, travel, kids, etc. If you cancel whenever one or two people are missing, then you'll be canceling more often than you are running. Philosophically, the campaign should be larger than any one player or any one faction of players. If you cancel because of someone else's decision that they can't or won't come play, then you've handed over control of the destiny of your campaign to that person.

There's no hard and fast rule about what you should do with the missing players' characters. It will depend on the style of game you are running. If you're running a collective group, then let the attending players run their friends' PCs and give everyone full experience points, so they stay on the same advancement curve. If you're running a competitive-collective group, then you should NPC the missing player characters, and award them a limited experience award. If you're running an individualist group, then the missing player characters are absent pursuing other agendas (or present as NPCs if that's impossible), and they should not get any experience.

I have used these methods in practice and they work very well. For instance, in our weekly (collective) D&D campaign, with 7 players, we play if there are 4 players available. The attending players run the missing players' characters while they are away. When I ran an individualist Cyberpunk campaign, missing players were assumed to be off doing another mission. This sometimes resulted in them missing out on important decisions or fantastic wealth, but that's life in the dark future...

You Must Lead By Example

None of the advice above will sustain a campaign alone. You must sustain it. As gamemaster, you are the heart and soul of the group. If you show up late, you cannot expect the players to show up on time. If you do not put time in between sessions into prepping the game, you cannot expect the players to bother to remember what went on last session. If you cancel the game because you have a tummy ache, then you can't expect your players to have any more commitment.

But if you do have the commitment, running a long-term campaign is one of the most satisfying experiences you can enjoy. To paraphrase Sergeant Apone in Aliens, "Every pizza slice is a banquet! Every play session a parade! I love the campaign!"

P.S. If you've enjoyed my column this week, be sure to check out this week's features on The Escapist, which are all about Dungeons & Dragons and the Red Box!

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.


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