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When a session gets dropped

We need a backup game [1]. My game group had to cancel another session on Friday, due to very understandable real life issues. We had enough notice to cancel the session completely– but that left us at loose ends.

One solution for missing players, though one we didn’t feel good about implementing on Friday, is just to run one player short. We’ve done it a few times in this campaign, and it has worked out pretty well. If your campaign is flexible enough– or if you ended the last session in a location where one character can go missing for a while– playing short one person can be a good solution.

My wife is an enthusiastic gamer; she was very disappointed that we weren’t going to have a chance to hack things for the night. Now that I look back (with the advantage of hindsight), there’s a game on the shelf for two players that we’ve been meaning to play since I gave it to her for Valentine’s Day: Breaking the Ice [2]. Of course, even if I’d remembered it, I don’t know if it would have filled her end of week hack quota. It’s different enough that I suspect it wouldn’t scratch the right itch.

If I wasn’t running the primary game already, I’d think about running a consistent backup game– probably Spirit of the Century. [You’ll notice that was my suggestion in a comment in the post above.] Maybe I’ll in a month or so, once I complete producing PTA for my other group. I hear that In a Wicked Age [3] is also good for a one session short story.

There’s enough casual interest in 4e in my group that it’d be cool to run through Keep on the Shadowfell (or something similar) on short nights. With the prepared pregens and a casual enough attitude toward character ownership [say, freely switching among the characters night to night], it’d be a perfect pickup game. It might be a little difficult to bring people up to speed in the middle of the adventure… but I bet we could manage.

Do you have a suggestion for a good backup that we should try? As a group, we’re most familiar with D&D3.5 and WEG StarWars, though we’ve played Shadowrun 3rd recently. Do you think a simple game like Cat [4] would work, even though we haven’t played it before?

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24 Comments To "When a session gets dropped"

#1 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 17, 2008 @ 6:26 am

I only have three players in my game, so we usually cancel when someone knows in advance that they won’t make it. But I had one player flaking out on me at the last minute over the last few sessions, so I’ve also been one player short several times lately. (That player came on board in the middle of the campaign, so playing with just two is what we were “used to.” And now that player has dropped out, but I may have a replacement lined up.)

Since we’re getting closer to the end of the campaign, though, I don’t want to run if a player will be absent – I don’t want them to miss anything important. So I’ve been thinking about a backup game as well.

Paranoia is still my favorite pickup game – it’s got easy rules and it’s violent enough to slake anyone’s thirst for hack & slash. Mind you, the PCs are a more constant threat to each other than anything in the game world is, but it isn’t the sort of game you necessarily want to build a long-term campaign with.

Call of Cthulhu is another RPG with a lot of well-written scenarios (some of which are very short) with the sort of PC mortality expectations that lend themselves well to backup games. I still haven’t played d20 CoC.

I think I might use Keep on the Shadowfell to fill in blanks as well. I wish I’d gotten a copy of Into the Shadowhaunt now…

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 17, 2008 @ 6:27 am

I’ll offer two.

First, Call of Cthulhu. It’s a creepy change of pace and there are a lot of published short scenarios out there. Since you’re only playing for a single evening, you don’t have to worry about PCs dying or going insane (in fact, doing just that reinforces the genre). The percentile system is easy to grok. (Edit: Heh, Darth beat me to it while I was composing).

Second, Mutants & Masterminds. There’s quite a few short scenarios for this as well, but even the old “supervillain team robs a bank” can be fun if your players just want to bust heads. There are a ton of ready archetypes available, which means you can whip up heroes and villains in a couple of minutes. M&M uses a tweaked (easier) version of the d20 rules, so your players are already familiar with the system.

#3 Comment By SmallBlueGod On June 17, 2008 @ 6:47 am

My group had a lot of issues on who could make it when for quite some time. So I started writing stories/plots that could be moved in and out of by the characters.

The most useful aspect of that setup is what we started calling “Ping pong gaming” which turned out to have great merits for a grim and gritty type campaign.

Everyone playing generated a ‘template’ character that was their character without any kind of player template on them, just raw stats. This was a one time thing. Then when they needed a new or simply different character (because we had to change the story based on players schedules) we pulled out the template copied it over and adlibbed the new characters life based on the players life.

The end result was a steady stream of interconnected short stories. Great for apocalyptic scenarios that require more than one angle to understand. It also made the death of a character something kind of cool & dramatic, rather than just traumatic.

Eventually I became inspired to write stories with just that kind of motif. This kind of gaming was well suited to White-Wolf’s ST system, but I’ve used it in 3rd Ed D&D also.

From then I tended to have a set of plots scribbled down from various angles. I would on occasion just ask the group which kind of story they wanted to play. When the players wanted to hack & slash I made sure they were playing the hack&slash short story. If they wanted to to roleplay then it was a heavy roleplay or investigation like story.

In long epic campaigns like we’re in now, if the character who’s players can’t make it has no reason to ‘become ill’, “go off on his own mission” or some-such device then we usually play a secondary storyline that I had scribbled down. Ideally something that’s happening at the same time but elsewhere in the story/world.

#4 Comment By Ish On June 17, 2008 @ 6:54 am

My regular gaming group consists of eight players, plus GM. So I have to always structure my plots and adventure pacing to allow for an absentee player, there is simply no earthly way to assure that a group our size doesn’t have one or more folks get hit with a last minute attack of Real Life®.

That said, we have found running two primary games on alternate weeks (with different DMs, and ideally fairly different genres [Shadowrun/D&D, Serenity/WoD, etc]) is the best possible solution to having a DM that can’t make it.

A good suite of “one-shot” games is a good idea too. Works best if chargen is quick and easy, the rules fairly light (or very well known), and if stories can be self-contained. M&M, Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, BESM, and kick-in-the-door plot-free D&D, have all served admirably in this role. As have more “gamer” style boardgames, such as Arkham Horror, Descent, Catan, and Diplomacy.

#5 Comment By arthwollipot On June 17, 2008 @ 6:55 am

I have a slightly different problem – I’ve recently had a player drop out of my current campaign – AFTER I made that character a central plot point. We’ve been playing along normally, with me taking the role of the character where necessary and the other players making all of the die rolls, but taking the campaign where I want it to go is getting pretty tricky with a player short. Need a new player. Soon.

Sorry, this was a little OT.

#6 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 17, 2008 @ 9:14 am

Sorry to continue the OT-ness, but…

Arthwollipot, it took me awhile to weave my third player’s PC into the main plot, and I feel your pain, because he was just getting his moment in the spotlight when he dropped out.

To get back on track, a Night of the Living Dead-style zombie one-shot is always a winner, no matter which system you use. Survival is an objective that doesn’t require much exposition – you can just jump right in. And in the genre(s) where Anyone Can Die, a lot of people “drive their PCs like they’re rentals,” which is fun for everyone as far as I’m concerned.

#7 Comment By ToddBradley On June 17, 2008 @ 9:29 am

My backup games of choice:

1) Cheap-Ass Games
2) Feng Shui
3) Paranoia

#8 Comment By sineWAVE On June 17, 2008 @ 9:42 am

It’s probably different for most people, since I only run 1-hour sessions (after school), but I keep Munchkin as a standby, although it there’s enough notice, the session is usually simply abandoned.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On June 17, 2008 @ 10:23 am

Thanks for the quick replies everyone!

DarthKrzysztof, I’ve played Paranoia only once at a con ages ago. Is it something someone with GMing experience can pick up quickly? Do you recommend the 80s version or the new Paranoia XP? Would doing Paranoia style wacky plots and infighting work well in a more familiar (to us) system, like D20 modern or FATE? Or do the rules really reinforce the gameplay?

Walt: While I’m not particularly good at running horror, I like the idea of convincing one of the other GMs in the group to prep a one-shot of it. And you’re right, embracing the madness sounds like a more enjoyable way to play than fighting the assumptions (as you often do to make a “campaign”). M&M has always been just off my radar… where do you get those cool archetypes? Are they in the main book, or easy to find on the web? Or would I need to get the core book and a villains supplement?

SmallBlueGod: That sounds interesting, but I don’t think I quite understand the template+player thing. Is the idea that the same “character sheets” go through adventures using the same game system, but different players introduce different backstories for their character when they play? Or is it like Spirit of the Century, where you might have 6 people over for chargen night, but you run with whoever shows up, two players or five? Or am I way off in the weeds?

Ish: We used to run alternating games on opposite weeks, but didn’t do a good job of setting it up to run if someone missed. [Our group is smaller; 5 people total.] It sounds like if we set it up right, each GM would be a tangential PC in the other game– not required for the session to run right. Hey, that works very well– the off GM’s probably busier planning his other game anyway and wouldn’t spend the same amount of time on character development as the other players. I’ll have to work on it with my group!

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On June 17, 2008 @ 10:38 am

Arthwollipot and DarthKrzysztof: Yeah, while it’s not the same problem, it’s awfully close. How much of your prep-work tying the new player the their destiny have you already exposed to the players? Could you rework it to depend on another character, or would that be too transparent at this point? [Like: The missing PC was the last XYZ in the world… or so he though. You had planned on having him find a lost community of XYZs, who would learn about the world beyond from the PC.]

Darth: Zombie attack does sound good. It’ll work in any system, though I’d definitely aim for lower powered PCs to make the idea better for a survival POV. I read World War Z; it’d be hard to really brief everyone well since it develops over time, but I liked the way it built up the apocalypse. Though maybe that’s more campaign like and I just need to have Zombies break down the door. Hmm…

Todd: Please chime in on the “which version and which system” Paranoia question to Darth in the comment above.

Todd and Sinewave: I love board games as an alternative… I have a lot of good ones. Unfortunately, they don’t scratch the “want roleplaying” itch the same way. [Though I suspect you could get some good roleplay in Diplomacy…]

#11 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 17, 2008 @ 10:55 am


The corebook (and every official supplement) has hero and villain archetypes.

Ronin Arts put out a bunch of Archetype PDFs. There are some others, too (Adamant and Misfit, among others).


#12 Comment By Sektor On June 17, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

A thing we once tried – and this may be too radical, but I’m throwing it in the pot anyway – was a round-robin adlibbed GM-ing session. The advantage is, you can do this with every ruleset; the disadvantage, you need to have some very self-confident players, or some real push-overs ;).

I’ll explain… The meaning of the ‘game’ is to have one player start with a completely winged premise of an adventure, preferably in a ruleset all the players are familiar with. Have someone set a timer (say, for an hour) and let that first person do his stuff. When the timer runs out, everyone ‘shifts seats’ and the next person will have to take up where the first one left off (passing on character sheets where needed).

I have to say, it was a fresh new experience, with the added bonus of being forced to improvise (I really need to work on that skill) and your buddies not being able to scoff at you (’cause they’re up next!)

#13 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 17, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

Primetime Adventures is also a good pick-up game. It’s extremely rules-light and you can do just about anything with it. Another plus is that it is designed for 2-hour long adventures (although you’ll probably run a bit longer).

#14 Comment By clem On June 17, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

Munchkin can be fun as an emergency substitute. Having a few one shot prequels and side quests in your notebook for short group emergencies isn’t a bad idea either.

#15 Comment By itliaf On June 17, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

Sektor your one-shot sounds like tons of fun. I may even suggest it in the near future for my group just so everyone has a chance to learn 4e from both sides of the table, and see what all the pc classes can do.

My game group was tried and true, one game, one DM per school semester for years but as Real Life intruded we came up with (probably too many) options to make up for missing players or DM burnout. Many of these have expanded into semi-regular features. Munchkin and DnD minis are the easiest to throw together on short notice, since everyone in my group has at least a few DDM cards to share. We also have a regular halloween game which started as a Zombie one-off (dusted off Alternity Dark Matter for the next year). Another (which I don’t DM) is known simply as “Goblins” which is loosely improvised D&D game with a party of low-level goblins. Even as it has become a regular feature, there is only the most basic plot, so no one minds if one or two people are missing. It still has enough humor and cartoon violence to make for a fun evening, with the personal spin of having a set of recurring characters.

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On June 17, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

Sektor: Round robin improvised GMing sounds like fun, but probably too radical for my group. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to ask, but a couple of our GMs feel a lot more comfortable with serious prep.

Walt: I don’t know how good PTA is for a one-shot– my other group still struggles with it after several sessions. We did make it through the pilot on the first night– while it wasn’t our best session ever, it was adequate and fun. For a pickup/emergency game, I guess that’s all I should expect.

Clem: One shot prequels and side quests is a good idea. As long as the players don’t demand continuity, you’d get the advantage of a familiar system and not too many constraints.

Itliaf: It sounds like your groups substitutions are great if they’re crowding out your planned campaigns. I want to be in your group when we’re short one player.

#17 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 17, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

I’m loathe (loathe!) to admit this, but I still haven’t picked up the latest version of Paranoia (formerly Paranoia XP). I was still working at Borders when it came out, but wasn’t gaming at the time. Still, I probably would have bought it if we’d received any copies and I could have used that sweet, sweet employee discount on it. Alas…

The second edition (the red rulebook from ’89, as opposed to the original boxed set) was the one I played most, and it’s very rules-light and easy to pick up. I don’t think the -rules- reinforce the wacky plots and infighting as much as they reinforce the mortality rate – Troubleshooters are damage magnets, not superheroes. That’s why the Computer has given you five identical clones in case of accidental loss or erasure. Rejoice in the Computer’s bountiful generosity!

It’s the setting and the environment that reinforce the wackiness and infighting. I mean, you’re supposed to execute mutants and secret society members – and every PC is a mutant and/or a member of a secret society. You can guard your own secret(s) all you like, but you’ll probably decide eventually that the best defense is a good offense. Then there’s the R&D equipment you’ve been asked to field test, which is probably more dangerous to you than to your enemies…

There were many scenarios published for the game, some of which were better than others, but almost all of them had good gags and lootable material. (Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, written by Real Science Fiction Author John M. Ford, is highly recommended.) And they spent a lot of time parodying other RPGs, as well, which can be a fun break for groups.

Glancing at the Wikipedia page for the latest version of Paranoia, it mentions that the new game supports three “styles” of play – Zap, Classic, and Straight. That’s pretty cool. Man, I need to buy it. They’ve also anthologized and updated some of the classic adventures as “Flashbacks.”

Just avoid “Paranoia fifth edition,” whatever you do. Not Recommended.

#18 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 17, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

Oh, and there’s a discussion over on Treasure Tables where they also recommend a Western one-shot. THAT’d be fun. Blood Brothers 2, for Call of Cthulhu, has “The Evil Gun,” a horror Western one-shot whose town is full of spaghetti western homages (Morricone’s Funeral Parlor, etc.). I’d use that town for another scenario or system in a heartbeat.

If I may venture OT again, that -was- the problem with losing my player – I was -just- getting to the part where his PC’s destiny AND backstory were being revealed, beginning with the first session he missed.

The character is an amnesiac and “slightly mad” warlock who made a pact with a mysterious fey queen; he knows that she’s tasked him with helping the party, but he doesn’t know how or why – and neither does the player. I think he may have left his history hazy since he joined mid-campaign, but the conflict the party was dealing with at the time didn’t leave me with enough wiggle room to go into it until it was too late.

The revelation will still be important to the other characters, but now I’m looking at removing his piece from the board, as it were, when that scene’s done. He’s kind of a pain for me to run, especially since I’ve already got an NPC in the party, and I’m not sure what else I should do with him after that point in the story. I have some ideas, but I have other story threads to chew on which seem more relevant now.

His contribution of the fey queen proved to be a valuable addition to my story. The good news is that none of his “business,” strictly speaking, is all that important to the overall plot. It -could- have been, but it doesn’t -have- to be. It sounds like Arthwollipot doesn’t have the luxury of letting his go, though, and that’s a shame.

(I did have a subplot involving a succubus that I would have “saved” for his character if I’d known he was joining, but it ended up going to another NPC. I suppose it all worked out OK.)

#19 Comment By Swordgleam On June 17, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

Similar to Sektor’s suggestion, but a little less scary to players: Toon or Kobolds Ate My Babies. I haven’t been able to actually FIND a Toon rulebook anywhere, but it’s a simple enough game that what I remember about it is enough to start up a game, even in the car on a long road trip.

Toon is all one-shots that generally last about half an hour each, and everyone takes turns GMing. Kobolds Ate My Babies goes one step further – if no one agrees to GM, everyone rolls dice, and the ‘loser’ has to GM. I haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet since picking it up last week, but it looks easy and fun.

Both are really silly and light-hearted games that feature a lot of PC death and infighting. Kobolds looks like it would take at least three players to really be fun, but Toon definitely works with only two people. According to a player of mine, running a brief Toon adventure gave him a lot more respect for what a GM does, so you might get some added rewards from your off-key game night.

#20 Comment By Tapiochre On June 18, 2008 @ 6:32 am

The players and I set up the background of their characters so that they grew up together.

When a player is absent and the current plot can’t go on without them the other players have the opportunity to play out a story from earlier in their lives.

This isn’t perfect but it can provide an in flavour scenario, that may open up new opportunities in the main plot.

#21 Comment By SmallBlueGod On June 18, 2008 @ 7:57 am

Scott: Well it was slightly more geekish and personal. The template characters were actually based on the person playing them.

We were joking around at some point (based on an RPG we came across) about what us the players stats were like in game terms. So we assigned stats round table style to one another as ‘stereotypes’ of ourselves.

Obviously we are a easy going and secure bunch. While the characters would turn out more well rounded than most games (for starting characters) this really didn’t matter considering our games were starting out at ‘high levels’ to begin with, and due to the grim and gritty nature of the game survival was not guaranteed.

This had a great flavor for contemporary games like Mutants & Master minds and World of Darkness (our current favorite), in addition to any horror based games like Ravenloft & I assume call of Cthulu (though I never got my group to play that one). This way the player would play someone who had similar skill sets & personality and life to their own. Or they could move it around for roleplaying sake & I would often give little ‘freebies’ if the player could tell a cool enough background story. This was actually a requirement for any background points or gear.

So when a character died or that story ended and we moved into the next story we just pulled out the character template sheets (all ‘human’ base stats) & applied whatever template was needed (powers, backgrounds, & advantages/level) for the new character. Then we’d ad lib why & how the characters enter the story. We (I allowed players to award one another XP bonuses for roleplaying) would award bonuses (usually xp) for creative & clever character intros. In addition if a character died in mid story (rarer that I would have thought) any XP or such would transfer over to the new character as an incentive.

If they wanted to change the characters personality around (changing it from their own template) then they would get rewarded for roleplaying, else at least the story got off the ground with some real sense of interest & characters that wouldn’t need 2 to 4 hours to create and introduce. As such I’ve used this ploy to get some One-shots off the ground when players couldn’t make it and we needed a quick sidetrack game.

This was ideal since I wanted to tell many angles of the chronicle at once. I had a lot of ‘one shot’ games in my mind. Each would add to the grand-finale with some esoteric bit of info (another piece of a larger puzzle) being the reward. While there were quite a few survivors those games are generally Horror oriented & as such there were a lot of character deaths, but damn they were awesome! It seem that when the players aren’t upset by the character’s death their looking for the coolest & most heroic way to die. Our favorite games turned out to be the ‘worst’ where nearly everyone died but the world was saved due to our efforts. Except for this one guy Ken/Ekvin. His characters never died. The antics of me trying to throw enough at him to kill his characters (& Failing) proved downright comical.

Sometimes (often) the various characters would make it through and we would move onto the next short story. Since it’s all the same ‘world’ the end result is many of the background cast are (were once) actually the player’s character.

This led to many player inspired spin-offs. At some point the group would want to revisit their old characters. To ‘see how there are doing now’ and of course more horror and trauma would ensue. Usually ending in some huge noble death or another.

We’re still ending the world from yet another perspective/short story, but eventually there’s going to be a huge battle royal type of campaign where the players will get to pick which of their now many background characters they want to save the world (or damn it) in the end.

I realize this may not work for everyone. I know I have a quick witted group of players. Some of which excel at improv, some don’t. However the central tenet of our game is “Tell me a story”. For us it’s all about being entertained by a non-stop story.

Now with that said when a player couldn’t show we either told a different story, or else something tragic (not death) & unfortunate takes the character out of commission for that game. Usually some type of unconsciousness via some unseen enemy. Though one player had narcolepsy as a flaw once. All of this has a way of making the next game the ‘save so & so’ game which was also fun.

I hope that makes sense. While I can Tell a mean short story, my mastery of the written word is somewhat tenuous at times.

#22 Comment By Scott Martin On June 18, 2008 @ 10:06 am

DarthKrzysztof: It sounds like any Paranoia edition would do OK, as long as it keeps the heat on and has good zany prompts. Good to know! Your OT backstory for your mad warlock is cool– I’m sorry the player didn’t get to enjoy his character’s time in the sun.

Swordgleam: I’ve had that same trouble with Toon– I’ve heard it’s great but haven’t found it. KAMB does sound like a zany night. They both sound like a fun break from the norm.

Tapiochre: Playing backstory does sound like a good way to do it. It sounds better if you’re down to one or two players, since everyone plays separately from the rest (if they met in the first session), right? If you still have 3 or 4 players, it sounds like there’s a wait for your slice of story. Or do you have a good solution to that?

SmallBlueGod: That sounds like a pretty cool series– a bit like Multiverser (by description, at least). It sounds more like a good campaign structure (one that can take absences here and there) rather than a backup game. Or were you playing something else at the time too?

#23 Comment By SmallBlueGod On June 19, 2008 @ 7:12 am

Scott: Thank you. I hadn’t thought about it too much but your right it actually is a cool series. I’ve been too busy keeping it moving to take a hindsighted look.

While we did little odd games here and there for the most part it was/is one long series of adventures. We have 3 different campaign worlds. I use the same techniques in each. However 2 of the campaigns are adlibbed last minute games and weren’t really what I was talking about.

Our primary campaign is about the end of the world. While it’s based in the old World of Darkness campaign world, we of course heavily bastardized it’s cosmology & mythology over the years, but the game is good for that. The campaign became a story of answering “Why is the world ending?” for the players if not the characters. I try to make it kinda like reading a book.

I think it helps that I write the games/stories as sequences of events. The rest of the game is a sort of “freeplay” with me hinting in ways to keep them from floundering. When they trigger one of the events then stuff happens and storyline moves onward. Plus it allows the players to write the story along with me. Actions always have repercussions. 😉

The hardest part is when a large sequence of events is based on one of the absentee players. In which case writing the game in ‘events’ prevents that from being a problem. The timeline of events change & I always need to rewrite a few events here and there to make sure they all jive with the over all timeline, but for the most part everything keeps moving onward.

It helps to write the opponents in terms of variables. Since I never know who I have playing on a given game-day I need to keep this tracked as a range of opponents depending on number of characters.

One other tactics the players (I didn’t care/mind their good roleplayers) did was taking over the missing character. This only caused ‘problems’ when someone died. In which case the ‘borrowed’ player was given a slight plot immunity. They would be ‘mortally wounded’ instead of killed along with their friends. While the players might have had a fatality the worst they could do to the borrowed char was knock him out or some such. He would wake up in the hospital or nearby with a concussion. etc etc. This is usually done when they players think they need the missing characters abilities. Hell, sometimes their right. 😉

#24 Comment By Tapiochre On June 25, 2008 @ 3:37 am

Scott: In my current campaign I only have 4 players, three of the PC’s were raised in an orphanage and grew up together, the 4th player was a bit younger and the others used to baby sit for him. Now he’s a strapping young fighter and capable of returning the favour.

By pitching the story back to their adolescence or even just a couple of months before the campaign got started I can select which members of the party would be in town at the right time.

There are reveals I want to introduce this way. So I’m planning a few stories in that direction anyway.

In general though if it’s a one off unavoidable drop then we’ll just relax and take a night off, but if we’ve missed a session already and this would make it two games running then we drop into a historic story.