While I rarely do this anymore I’ve found that it’s quite common in some games, especially those where each member of the team is absolutely vital to its success, for PCs to be run while their players aren’t at the session. Sometimes the absentee PC is given to another player; other times it’s NPC-ed. Still, I’ve heard a number of exchanges similar to this:
GM: Sorry you couldn’t make it last session, Walt. We had a brutal last stand against the Chaos Horde that was absolutely epic! It reminded me of the Battle of Helm’s Deep except that the players managed to keep the walls intact.
Walt: Sounds great! How’d my techno-knight do? Did Sal play him okay?
GM: Well, that’s what I wanted to tell you about. Your character was impaled by a Cyber-Troll’s death lance. Critical hit to the neck, too. Blew his head clean off with the secondary damage from the heat pulse.
Walt (sarcastically): Wonderful. Serves me right for actually spending Mother’s Day with my mom.
All kidding aside, it sucks when you lose a character and it was out of your control. It also sucks when you have to worry about whether the group wants to use you as a suicide red shirt to soften an enemy or whether your substitute properly used your sheet or acted the way that your character would normally act.
In current games, I tend to avoid the issue by “walking off” a PC for a session (in my games I’ll usually grant XP to a missing player, so there’s no penalty for missing the session or need to have your character present when you aren’t), or allowing the PC to be played, but is simply unconscious and removed for the rest of the session if she “dies.”
When I do “walk off” an NPC, I’ll also grant PCs access to things that the absentee PC would have given them to mitigate the loss as much as possible (e.g. this computer door lock was designed to challenge Skeeter the Decker, but since he isn’t here you guys can get through with a simple lock-pick roll).
How about you? Do you allow the possibility of absentee PC deaths in your games? If so what rules do you put in place? Have you ever been burned by allowing an absentee PC death?