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Hot Button: Absentee Deaths

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On September 20, 2010 @ 10:19 am In Hot Buttons | 24 Comments

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?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

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24 Comments To "Hot Button: Absentee Deaths"

#1 Comment By edige23 On September 20, 2010 @ 10:29 am

The rule- which we rarely need to impose- is:
a) If you aren’t there, you can’t expect your character to have done anything– no one else is going to run them. They’ll be a faceless minion at that point, unless they have a unique skill that’s necessary.

b) If you aren’t here and everyone else dies, then your character dies too. TPK means everyone in the party, even the absent ones.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On September 20, 2010 @ 10:36 am

We have had some contentious issues with this in the past, when that exact situation came up. Sometimes it’s difficult to walk the PC off– if only because class systems assume the role is filled, or because the PCs ended the previous session in the middle of assaulting the fortress and it’ll be too obvious that the world was changed to make up for the lack of a wizard.

For over a year the reaction to the off screen death and subsequent retcon were the subject of snarky jokes and generally unpleasant circumstances. Our final resolution involved running with the retcon (instead of compounding it with another rewrite!) and the GM having an NPC raise the PC for free and without the typical penalties the following session.

In the end, no one was happy, and the GM’s efforts were all wiped out to ease the situation. It wasn’t a good effort for any of us.

#3 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On September 20, 2010 @ 11:21 am

I’ve had this happen to my characters before. The one that really hit me hardest was a thri-kreen psion in the old Dark Sun (2nd ed) game. The guy they gave it to just did whatever he felt like, and was generally an ass about it. It finally got him killed by the party (yes, they knew it was my character, the player was that bad).

What I tend to do now is to just have the missing PC vanish into the ether. They don’t contribute, but they don’t get killed, either. They don’t get any money, unless other players feel like sharing, and they only get 1/4 to 1/2 the XP/karma/build points that the active players get that session (so long as they were there for part of the adventure, anyway).

This lets them advance a little bit so that they aren’t terribly behind the other players. If they are gone so long as to be completely outclassed, I generally have them treat their character as if they were making a new one, and they get the minimum to catch up to the others with NONE of the role-playing benefits (new contacts, new allies, etc.).

#4 Comment By shadowacid On September 20, 2010 @ 11:47 am

I thought this was something that disappeared around the same time as parachute pants and the macarena.

But seriously, I’d never do something like that to a player, their character is their only access point to the game world and to take that away without a chance of saving themselves is just unfair and toolish.

One of the ways I get around this kind of thing is by having most of my games be urban based like in Sharn when I run Eberron or Seattle when we do Shadowrun. If the PC’s are living and adventuring around a city it’s easy for one to go off and have other things they need to do while the others do the adventure for the night, without a weird suspension of disbelief in the game.

#5 Comment By Scot Newbury On September 20, 2010 @ 11:48 am

An interesting idea on this and it’s something I’ll be sure to keep it in mind going forward. Typically if we’re missing a player we scrub the session as we are a small group, a total of four counting myself, and we’re all comfortable with holding off so all can take part.

Of course it also helps that we all enjoy a variety of card and board games so we can fill the time other ways and enjoy the fellowship.

#6 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 20, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

@shadowacid – you realize that there’s a decade between parachute pants and the macarena? Unfortunately I remember both. I never owned parachute pants; I was too busy wearing sweatsuits and listening to rap music on my box radio.

@Scot – that’s my current situation, although my campaign is like shadowacid’s so occasionally two players will play if the third can’t make it as long as it doesn’t disrupt the flow.

#7 Comment By E-l337 On September 20, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

Once upon a time, our GM was running an Eberron game where one of our PCs was absent for that day. We were traveling on the road to our next destination, and stopped into an inn that night. My character, a Shifter Artificer, didn’t exactly trust the innkeeper – something seemed off. So she didn’t eat the food.

Later that night, she hears something going on outside of her room, and finds that her door has been locked. After managing to escape, it turns out that the food was, in fact, laced with a sleeping drug, and one of the party members was being carried out in a burlap sack. Obviously, she did the only sane and logical thing to do: go after her friend alone, because it didn’t seem likely that she could wake her companions up in time.

In the end, the innkeeper was feeding people to some sort of undead abberation that utilized WIS drain. After a few hits and being reduced to a 2 WIS, my shifter ran back to the inn, crying and screaming the entire way.

The PC did not survive – her mind had been devoured by the beast. And at 3rd level, it was hard for any of us to come up with a solution to this problem that wouldn’t be an immediate GM-retcon.

Since then, we have often avoided NPCing other characters. I do it out of habit because, quite frankly, I just don’t want to deal with it – I’ve had too many complaints of “my character wouldn’t act like that in combat, why would you play her like that?” to want to deal with it ever again. If you’re not there, you don’t gain XP. That becomes a double-edged sword, in a way though, because in the same Eberron game with the same character mentioned above, I was gone for a week, and missed a game, only to find that the entire group had been victim to a TPK and was resurrected, incurring an XP penalty. Except for me, because my character had never been there in the first place.

I kind of prefer it that way, in a sense – you don’t play, you don’t get any of the rewards. But on the same token, neither are you punished for the mistakes of the others in the process.

(Of course, how our GM finally fixed that XP gap is a topic for another day…)

#8 Comment By Kikatink On September 20, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

I’m dealing with this very issue right now. One of our players is overseas and missing a few sessions. For the most part he has become “window dressing” until the player is able to return to the group. I don’t feel right using him as an NPC, even though the player gave me full permission to do so. I only use him to the point I’d use a non combat/descriptive only NPC.

#9 Comment By BryanB On September 20, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

My old groups always used this method:

We asked the player if they wanted experience for the session they needed to miss. If they wanted the experience, then they had to accept the risk that something could happen to their PC. It didn’t mean something would happen to their PC, just that something could happen.

If the player didn’t want the risk, then we simply tried to move them out of the spotlight at the earliest convenience. This could be a challenge when the last session ended things on a cliff-hanger.

I once had a missing player’s PC captured by Orcs. The player did not want his PC risked while he was away. In that situation, the PC was given DM immunity from death. The other PCs didn’t know this though and spent the bulk of the session valiantly fighting for a rescue of the captured PC. It actually worked out well. The players that made it had a great session rescuing their friend. The missing player made it to the following session and the other players had quite a story to tell. :)

#10 Comment By Lee Hanna On September 20, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

My groups usually pass the missing PC to another player, but that player is on “Scout’s honor” to not have them do stupid stuff. We try not to overload players with too many spellcasters, but it happened once that three or four of use were playing 2-3 PCs and NPCs each. There is also an informal death immunity when the player is not present.

In a setting where it’s possible, we’ll have the character disappear for some invented reason. When I GM’ed Twilight:2000, I ignored the disease rules and said that missing PCs had some sort of flu, and were resting in the truck.

Longer absences can make for interesting story additions.

#11 Comment By XonImmortal On September 20, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

I’ve tried all of the above methods, and, if you’ve followed my tales of some of the groups I’ve gamed with it won’t surprise you, none worked.

Except one.

I keep a bunch of fun, short one-shots around for these occasions. This is a binder of photocopies from different magazines, print-outs from on-line, my own notes on one-shot ideas. And they come from lots of different systems so that we can try new things once in a while.

Once in a while I will let one of the others in the group GM a one-shot, so we can see how well they handle it. Are they too timid, too much of a pr!ck, too disorganized, don’t listen to the players, etc.

Only one of the trial GMs ever refused to admit to the evaluation after the game. What do you expect of a guy who deliberately misleads the group and gives bad information to direct questions?

As Rob Burlew says, “Don’t Split the Party”. Although I can think of some interesting plots that would make any sudden disappearances and reappearances part of the story… mwahahahaha

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 20, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

To me this is simple: Your character may die as long as they are adventuring.

We play it this way with my group regardless of who is GMing. We play each other’s PCs as long as an up to date character sheet is provided. You get XP as if you were there, and you get your share of the treasure too. But your character may die. So be it.

We are also a mature group though, and I know that the group will not risk my PC through stupid play. We respect each other, and we always try to play the PC of another as that person would play the PC.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 20, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

@edige23 – Ditto.

The absent player’s character is ‘off camera’, fighting his own fights, doing his own thing, and taking the same risks as the party (TPK). I try to adjust the fights as best I can, but it’s not a science.

The absent do not necessarily get the same rewards, namely XP. There’s no money in this campaign, so the monetary rewards don’t matter. But they would in a regular campaign, and the absent would still share in the gains.

#14 Comment By ggodo On September 20, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

In my current Pathfinder campaign the reasoning is that they’re a little out of phase in time, since the campaign is time-travel based.

#15 Comment By Malty On September 21, 2010 @ 2:22 am

In our group it is quite simple: If you can’t attend, the group comes up with some half-baked reason why you are not there (or only hang around without saying much), and when you do return you jump right back in with an equally half-baked excuse. All players get the same amount of experience rewards.

Not being able to attend is punishment enough. People live busy lives, and we respect that.

Of course, killing off someone absent will never happen, but then again player deaths in our campaign is always supposed to have meaning, so they are more a group decision than a dice-decision.

#16 Comment By dizman On September 21, 2010 @ 5:38 am

I usualy have them do npc tasks gather info or use some skill make weapons, gamble… It rearly happens.

#17 Comment By Clawfoot On September 21, 2010 @ 6:09 am

Not too long ago I came up against this, and I played the missing PCs as NPCs, and I hated it. The group had five players, so it was a party of six (five PCs and one NPC), so I found myself playing half the party as well as all the bad guys, and it was entirely too much. The other players didn’t want to take on playing the missing PCs, so I was kind of stuck.

I’m not doing that again. I decided instead to fall back on something I did *AGES* ago when I was running a LARP: dreams. If a player is absent, then the present PCs dream and go on a one-shot dream-adventure. This frees me up to do just about anything I want: it can be serious, nightmarish, or silly or goofy.

This means that the players can still play their characters, but I can write out whomever I need to without consequence, and nothing that happens in the dream world need be real (but it can be if I want it to be). Perfect.

#18 Comment By theEmrys On September 21, 2010 @ 7:08 am

In my game I’ve tended to offer 3 options:
1. As soon as possible the character is “worked out” of the adventure (heads back to town, stays behind, etc), but since I’m big on story continuity there has to be a logical reason for it.. not just poof they’re gone
2. You have the GM run them as an NPC. They stay with the party, but get 1/2 experience (as an NPC) and if they die they die
3. You can have another player run them. You get full experience for the session, but what happens sticks, so pick someone wisely to run the character.

This has worked well for us. Even though we play a classed system, sometimes the party likes the challenge of having a role not filled and they’re not all required so it works well. Different players take different options.

#19 Comment By DMN On September 21, 2010 @ 9:58 am

Our group has done many different things, including partial XP awards and worse yet, accidentally killing a missing player’s PC. Not fun.

When next I run a campaign (Pathfinder soon), I’ll propose that if a player cannot attend, then the character is considered “off-screen”, but can assist on a die roll once per round. The other players choose the situation to use the missing player’s character (skill check, attack roll, AC, etc), and use the rules for “aiding another”. If the character sheet is available, then add the appropriate bonus to the roll. If not, then a straight 10 is required to aid. This way, no more PC death for missing the session, but the character still provides some small benefit.

The missing player’s PC will still get full XP.

I’m sure there is some similar small benefit for other systems that can be employed.

#20 Comment By Roxysteve On September 23, 2010 @ 9:22 am

I agree that the “fade out” and “mystery XP award” methods are the most even handed way of dealing with things, and adopted it for most of my games (some of which get round one possible argument point by not having XP as such).

There are two problems that arise by using this method, that need solving.

1) TPK. This I choose to deal with by having the PC miraculously escape death by being “left for dead”. Future adventures can include this character if the timing and geography allow for it, but another issue arises even so, namely: Does the apparently (but not really) dead “body” get looted? I’d be interested in responses from people who’ve actually confronted this issue and dealt with it.

2) “Ralphing” crucial artifacts. This refers to a player in a group I once was part of who’s character was given, after much heated debate on the subject, a very special and powerful item that was absolutely required for the climactic end scene in the adventure we were playing. The player then promptly found (very good) reasons never to play again and the PCs were left without the item due to the “fade out” policy.

It caused such anguish that we coined the term “To Ralph [an item]” to cover the situation (in the same group to “Joe” something was to take an item but forget to write it on the character’s sheet so it evaporated form the game, and I’m sure to “Steve” something was to actually read the rules pertaining to an item or spell and then to insist the cost of using it be rigorously applied – sorry lads 8o) ).

How do people go about putting the item back in play without the danger of having two of what was supposed to be a unique item?

#21 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-09-24 On September 24, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

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#22 Comment By recursive.faults On September 27, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

I’ve not been DMing long and the game everyone I play with wants to play Pathfinder. Which is like D&D 3.75. To me, a beginner, there are a lot of rules and things to reference in a game which influenced this policy I have for missing players.

You have two choices:
1) Choose another player to play your character. The two of you are responsible for arranging your character sheets, backstory, whatever. They’ll have total control of your character and they will gain rewards appropriately, and can die similarly.

2) Your character is out sick that day, visiting family, busy with other errands. They simply don’t exist for the sake of this session. No rewards, no risk.

At first a lot of players wanted me to take the reins of the missing player, but I don’t like that idea because I don’t like the added burden of managing someone’s character, and I don’t want players to suddenly start taking cues from the PC the DM is running.

If someone is late, and they notify us then they get put on a basic follow mode. They don’t participate in any combat, but they’re there. I’m also notorious for getting all the on-time people to play along on playing a joke on the late guy. So the late guy shows up and the first words out of my mouth are, “Hey, glad you could make, it, make a reflex save,” and play out a trap or a monster killing them before explaining it was a joke.

#23 Comment By recursive.faults On September 27, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

@recursive.faults – I should have added, my players do choose the first option on occasion. They have also gotten killed by it too. Thankfully, the character in charge of the absentee wasn’t a jerk and was very sorry for what happened, and the one who was absent laughed and said, “Thats just part of the game.”

#24 Comment By Wesley Street On October 5, 2010 @ 8:30 am

There have been occasions in the games I’ve run that a PC is treated as a non-entity, a cardboard cutout, when his player is missing. However, in most sessions, every PC is important to the story.

Before the campaign starts I tell my players that their characters will be run, with or without them, and if that’s a problem we will find another solution. It typically isn’t a problem.

As a GM I also ensure that the fill-in player isn’t purposefully using the PC as a meat-shield. Usually a player nominates someone he trusts to run his character for him. But on the chance that I see a player using another’s PC in an inconsistent or “unethical” manner I take the character away and run him myself. But that also rarely happens.

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