We had a few people missing on Saturday and I made a strange suggestion. I thought I'd repeat it so that we can discuss it without the time pressures of a game in motion. This way Steve and Trish can also contribute... they didn't have a chance to get their oars in, but I'd really like to hear what everyone thinks.
When someone misses, we have a few options. The easiest occurs when it's a one-adventure mission; if we're in the fort and a mission comes up, we can have just the people present go on patrol (or whatever). It works well; the real situation of people being absent is mirrored in the campaign. No one has to run two characters, etc.
Of course, we rarely start and end in a base-- our campaign's not structured that way. So we have to figure out how we want to deal with absent players. In the past, we've puppeteered the missing characters; someone runs a second character during combats and the like. Last night we tried a different tack-- we just ignored the missing characters. We had some trouble last night, because ignoring the missing characters was a wild idea, thrown out without discussion-- it felt awkward.
Puppetting: When someone is absent, we run that character for them. This usually only applies in combat; usually we don't bother to roleplay the missing characters in between... because roleplaying a character is a pretty full time thing, and it takes you out of the game when you switch characters, or have to clarify which one is speaking at the moment.
During combat, there are advantages and disadvantages to puppetting other people's characters. For the GM it's easier; he can always prepare an encounter for the whole group. If there's an encounter that needs a Cleric, then the GM can assume that Kev's cleric will be around, even if Kev's out sick. There are at least two drawbacks though.
First, it's bad form to kill someone whose player isn't present, so the substitute player usually won't take natural risks with the character... and the GM will feel compelled to fudge wild die rolls in a way that he wouldn't if the player was present. Second, the substitute player won't know his way around the character as well; picking a spell is slow (since it is unfamiliar to the substitute player), computing attack bonuses and tactics will be slower and most likely off, since it's hard enough to keep track of the powers and abilities of your own character. Characterization of both characters is much harder; you have trouble just selecting the strange character's actions... you probably aren't thinking about what the PC would say and how he'd act doing it.
Etherialism: Just ignoring absent players has its own problems. First, the characters are pretty distinct, so thinking "Myrelle would normally cast Implosion... but she's not here tonight, so we need to find a different way" is a bit frustrating. It kind of feels like the players who show up are being punished for the absent player; the tools the PC normally provides are denied to the group. It's also harder on the GM; some encounters don't scale very well. You can cut the number of bad guys in half if there are twenty of them, but its hard to cut a creature in half. Sometimes someone providing a unique skill or power will be absent; if you expect the mage to cast fly on the party to get over the chasm, then the mage's absence may derail the game you had in mind. Last, but perhaps most important... it's hard to "ignore" someone; "realistically" Myrelle would save the group if the fighter went down. It's awkward to think of the group, but not think of specific characters.
That said, ignoring absent players lets you spend your time playing your character instead of running a strange one. Maybe Dennis's absence will let us see the other characters try to fill his void; lacking the armor clad knight, maybe the group will try stealth.
I'm not sold on either way. Both are workable solutions to a problem, but neither one is as good as enjoying a game with everyone. Still, we all have lives; players will miss games. I'm all for finding ways to make every game fun, even when events prevent everyone from showing up. If you have an opinion, or a better option... please comment away.
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