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MIA: How to Handle Missing Players

Sometimes the journey ends painfully: a character falls to the evil overlord, the fall that no one could survive winds up being surprisingly accurately titled. In those cases, you can turn to your system and start working in a new character. It’s a common event that most GMs learn to handle. Other times, it isn’t the character that leaves the journey, but a player around the table. That can be much trickier to deal with.

brcarl asked [1]:

One of my groups is dealing with an AWOL player. We’ve tried to contact him a few times but haven’t gotten any response. As it’s a play-by-post group, we don’t have the option of physically checking in with him.

As the GM, I’ve decided that he’s been absent long enough that we need to replace him. (Nobody wants to run his PC long-term.) The new player I’ve got ready to go, but I’m struggling with the exiting player: I don’t want to just kill off his PC, as he was a good player when he was around. We’re hoping he’s just dealing with lots of RL issues, and I’d like the option of bringing him back in if he returns. I’d also prefer an exit that makes sense in the current plot line, and isn’t blatantly contrived (ie., he disappears mysteriously in a puff of smoke).

How should I handle this?

My geeky response was to divide missing people with two variables: Degree of Interest and Length Absent. Each has a slightly different twist on how you handle their absence.

Interested Player, Definite Return Time

This is the best case for missing players– you know the player is going to be absent for a fixed length of time, but plans on coming back. (Work and school situations often have this effect.) For this situation, you have several potential approaches.

Interested Player, Never Coming Back

Sometimes, a player has to leave behind a game they love. Maybe they have to move across the country for work or family, join a cult that forbids outside contact, or any number of other impediments crop up. If the player gives you some notice, it is good to provide some closure [2] for the character– have the session or two leading up to the player’s departure focus on the PC and resolve some of those interesting issues dangling since character creation. Bring back the villain that the character swore vengeance against. Live or die, it is great to go out in a way that matters to your character’s story.

Interested Player, Unknown Return

The worst case is when someone who really likes the game starts missing sessions. If you can ask them what is going on, that’s great. Even a clue as to whether they think the interruption is almost over or will be ongoing for a while is a huge help. In a situation like brcarl’s, that simple solution isn’t there.

Since you mention that he was a good player, it makes sense to keep the door open. Specifics depend on your setting and plot, but well written characters often have other tasks they need to accomplish– the type of tasks that we smooth over because we’re players around a table. [Or abstract because the game’s about group interaction, not ten games each starring one character with occasional crossovers.]

I’d have his character pick up one of the sidelined pieces of their life as soon as practical– when they return to town, separate for the night, etc. It’s a little awkward choosing what the character goes off to do, since that’s normally overstepping the GM’s bounds, but under the circumstances I suspect everyone will be understanding. (And if they’re good players, hopefully they’ll keep the farewell interactions short or largely off screen so you don’t have to roleplay the character for too long. Disappearing in the middle of the night and leaving behind a note can be a way to dodge the going away scene… but risks being blatantly contrived, which you’re trying to avoid.)

Uninterested Player, Definite Return Time

An easy condition and somewhat reassuring; since the player has a definite return time, it sounds like life’s just getting in the way and they’ll be ready to game in a bit. If the character is less central to the plot, or is less memorable in the ongoing “mental history” of the game in everyone’s eyes, you can probably continue without them. Treat this a lot like an Interested Player with an Unknown Return date– with the advantage that you can make sure the group’s in a good place to work him back in at the appointed date.

Uninterested Player, Never Coming Back

If they don’t care much about the game and they’re not coming back, it all depends on how generous you feel. If they’re leaving on good terms, consider giving them a nice closure series like a more interested player above. If they aren’t invested enough to enjoy the work that creating closure would give them, don’t bother. They can retire and head home, die as a good object lesson, or whatever works best for getting them off screen and out of your list of responsibilities. (Note: If a good player has a character that interacts with the disinterested player’s character, pay attention to how the character’s disappearance would affect their story. Let that be your focus for deciding what to do with the now superfluous character.)

Uninterested Player, Unknown Return

Hard to plan for, it all comes down to whether you want the character back later. If the player doesn’t seem invested, they may not care if you use their character as an object lesson. It’s awfully easy to misjudge how invested a player is though– if they come back quickly, it could be hard to explain what you’ve done.

When you can, Talk to the Player

If you’re still in contact with the player, discuss what they want out of their character’s future. A disinterested player might volunteer their character as an object lesson– so when they return they can create a character that does interest them. Conversely, some people would feel bad if their character was killed– they still feel it’s their story, even if they’ll never get a chance to play the character with you again.

So, how have you dealt with this situation? Ever done something… a little too permanent to a missing player’s PC and had to walk it back when they suddenly return? Is the etiquette different for a PBeM versus face to face absence? Any guidelines for working it out you can share? If brcarl pops in the thread with more specifics, maybe we can help him out with the specific case– or if you’re having a similar problem, there might be good advice for you too.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "MIA: How to Handle Missing Players"

#1 Comment By Rechan On September 2, 2009 @ 5:47 am

When I read the title of this article, I was thinking it was about how to deal with a player who is missing this session, and ways to dismiss their Playerless PC (beyond passing it to another PC, because that player might have the character sheet).

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 2, 2009 @ 7:07 am

[3] – I think I’ll write that article. Thanks for the idea! 🙂

I like the approach of measuring both interest in the game and the length of absence from the game. I’d much rather do what I can to accomodate the High Interest/Unknown Return player than the No Interest/Definite Return player. You can always have special cameo appearances by a great PC that will enhance that session, but if the player isn’t that into the game then the quality tends to suffer even if the player is a regular attendant.

This is not to say that everyone should be interested in the game, just that I would prefer to tell someone “You aren’t into this. Are you sure that you want to be here? You won’t offend me if you would rather be somewhere else, doing something else, or both.” Those point-blank type questions lead to good discussions that can reveal possible problems with your game as well as to help someone feel comfortable with stepping out of the group and not offending anyone.

Nice article, Scott! Well done.

#3 Comment By robustyoungsoul On September 2, 2009 @ 7:08 am

If a player is just missing for one or two weeks, Robot Viking did a TERRIFIC article on a concept called the “Super Minion” for D&D 4e – this is an awesome solution for our game which has 6 players (and a GM) at max capacity, but if one person is missing these rules could be very handy:


We intend to use these next time we have a player missing instead of the “fade into the background” method.

#4 Comment By Ameron On September 2, 2009 @ 7:54 am

My core group has run into a few of these scenarios.

One of our players recently had a baby and (understandably) missed our weekly game for a month or two. No problem we just ran his PC as an NPC. I think this is probably the most common way to handle absent players.

One of our players moved to a different city. We’ve been using MapTools from RPTools.net so he can log in remotely and still participate. Not as good as being there in person, but it means he can still play and we’re not down a guy.

One of our players recently passed away after an all-too-brief battle with cancer. We decided to give his PC a final tribute and wrote him out of the story. The DM handled this by writing a “behind the scenes” scenario on our game blog called [5]. We miss Rob but the game continues.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On September 2, 2009 @ 9:48 am

[3] – That’s a good topic; I know it’s one of the things we’ve struggled with in the past. I took a stab at it a few years ago (pre-stew) [6].

[7] – I look forward to your article; I haven’t seen a really good idea on dealing with the absent player, except structuring a campaign around absences. (Like ending each session in town, or other episodic tricks.)

[8] – That does look like a great way to simplify their absence in 4e. I don’t know how it’ll scale at highest levels, but it looks like a great start.

[9] – It is the most common, though it’s often annoying for the GM to pick up– he’s running plenty of people already! We’ve debated keeping a player in the group via webcam, but time zones and lack of money on his end made it moot.

Writing the PC out respectfully sounds like a great way of working through grief and honoring his memory. Good on your DM.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 2, 2009 @ 10:09 am

Thanks for breaking it down into the Degree of Interest and Length Absent axes. I’ve never thought of it that way.

I’ve had this happen once, and I handled it poorly. Today, I’d probably have the character hurry off, reassuring the other characters that everything was fine, but he had something critical and personal to attend to, and should be back shortly. When/if the character returns, he can explain everything (after all, he created the problem).

[9] – I’m sorry for your troubles, but thank you for writing that.

#7 Comment By BryanB On September 2, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

Good article Scott. This seems to be a more frequent issue for my groups than I would like. Damn that real life thing and its constant meddling with my gaming interests! 😀

#8 Comment By Donogh On September 2, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

Had a very small attendence at my game last night (a few players called off because of good genuine domestic circumstances), so I was thinking about the benefits/drawbacks of running a session for only two of them…

A bit of background on the game first:

Generational Structure: I run short 8-10 session campaigns with a set of characters, then after another person runs a campaign we return to the setting, but move the timeline on anything from 5-20 years, and they play the same characters again, or those characters’ children/students etc. We’re just about to head into the 9th campaign, so they’re on their fifth set of characters
Lots of politics/diplomacy/warfare: Not a lot of fighting, in terms of rolling-dice, but lots of negotiations, counter-espionage and campaigning.

Benefits of small attendence:

More roleplaying with NPCs, more immersion in setting, more attention can be paid to these character’s preferences, interests etc.
When combat does occur, it’s quicker
Less pre-game chatter (while this is fun, it can waste a lot of time, especially when players arrive over time)

Drawbacks of small attendence:

“Pre-canned” story arcs/sequences may have to be dropped entirely or severly cannibalised if “their character” is missing
In a short campaign, player end up missing a significant proportion of the story, and miss out of important and relatively unrepeatable sequences which teach campaign/cultural truths
Some story types (investigation/strategy especially) need maxiimum input/insight to work
Obviously you get on with things, but I think it’s important for a GM to allow themselves to loosen up the story a bit when they have a smaller group, and to consider getting sidetracked and/or advancing through the story more quickly a virtue

Funnily enough half-way through the 3rd campaign something happened that completely threw the storyline off course, and the second half of that campaign had to be written (and I mean completely, from scratch) between weeks! All bizarrely enough, because one of the characters couldn’t keep the pants on…

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On September 2, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

I once had a player drop out to concentrate on house-hunting. I had her PC disappear during a magically-summoned snowstorm while the rest of the party battled the baddies. Since X-Files was popular among us at the time, we referred to it as “doing a Scully.”

Despite our teasing that her PC could return mysteriously pregnant, the player, sadly, never came back.

I do like the idea of breaking down interest vs. absence. We’ve bent over backwards to keep characters of players we know are interested around or nearby, while others have just sauntered off into the sunset.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On September 2, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

[10] – Yeah, I’ve handled it poorly in the past too. Your example is closest to what I’d layout for most indeterminate absences.

[11] – Thanks! Yeah, real life interruptions seem to accumulate as we all progress through life.

[12] – I like your writeup about the advantages to a (temporarily) smaller party. If you’re playing something with more NPC interaction, it should lead to a good episode with more spotlight time per player who made it. Nice viewpoint.

[13] – Yeah, characters disappearing for a session or two is something most GMs have to master pretty quickly. A “Scully” is a great way to handle something longer, when you want to keep the door open.

#11 Comment By brcarl On September 3, 2009 @ 9:35 am

Thanks, Scott, for writing an article from my question. I am honored! Also, thanks for everyone’s great follow-ups. I love this site because the comment-leaving visitors are high quality.

I had planned to contrive a reason to have our AWOL player’s PC make an exit, but I find a lot of truth in Telas’ comment that “When/if the character returns, he can explain everything (after all, he created the problem).” There should be a moment in the adventure very soon when I can have the PC in question do the thousand-yard stare thing, and then quietly excuse himself without any real explanation.

The good news is, being play-by-post there are usually quite a few players lined up to fill the gap. We’ve already got a replacement ready to go, and I’m just waiting for the right time to introduce her.