What happens when one of your players can’t get to a session?
I’ve seen a variety of options when dealing with players who can’t get to a session; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
DISCLAIMER: The strengths and weaknesses are subjective, some people will not be convinced of the strengths and others will not believe that the weakness is relevant. This entirely depends on the group, GM, RPG and World you are in.
Pretend they are on another plane of existence
This is a constant thing that is done with the group that I play normally (although with 9 people it makes this one option actually useful) where anyone who isn’t physically there goes into a reserve pool and can’t be attacked, damaged or gain any extra weapons or inventory.
The best advantage is safety; players who are not involved are not killed or cheated out of a character they enjoy but allow the other players to risk their own characters.
Unfortunately, the characters are out of the loop meaning their inventory doesn’t change, they gain no rewards meaning they don’t advance within the world especially if the character needs to be involved in order to get XP.
Also if a group is selfish, then they’ll take all the treasure or rewards leaving those who don’t show up end with nothing.
Actually, there is another problem by taking them out of the loop; you can lock a character out of a future story by choosing to do something the missing player can’t get involved in when they get back.
Use the player as an NPC
If a player isn’t there then the GM could take control of the characters that the players control.
This means that the characters are still there, still acting and still involved and you remember that they are there, this means you are likely to share with them and give them information and items that they need.
The problem with using them as NPCs is that you may decide they would do one thing but in reality they would do the exact opposite. This isn’t a problem for something trivial but if it results in serious injury or damage then the player may get a little upset that, knowing that the GM will know what will happen when they do it, that the GM chose to put them in that position.
Abandon the Session
If you are at this stage then there isn’t enough players to run a session, one group I know abandons the session if there are more than 1 person unable to make it.
On one hand this means that you don’t have an issue where someone is missing out from information that they would know that would be here and living through the story-line makes it easier to remember.
On the other hand, the main issue with this is it slows the story down and gives everyone time to forget what’s happened.
In the simplest terms, you don’t advance the story but allow the players to advance themselves in a specific area.
This means that missing players miss nothing and that the story can continue.
Unfortunately, timing is key; you can’t do this if they are going through a plot they can’t escape (dungeon, offworld, mission, etc.) meaning it is a matter of luck if this becomes relevant.
At the same time, if there is a time pressure, this is completely impossible UNLESS there are things that they can do without.
Side Stories can be role played that are either in the past, a character you wish to explore or play a character you’ve written off and want to go back to.
This means in theory that you are creating something interesting for the players to do without advancing the story in a way that leaves missing players behind and enhances the world.
Unfortunately it’s the most work for the GM, creating new playable characters, creating characters that won’t directly affect the current status quo (but may in the future); there is the chance for a paradox where a character may actually die that is active in the main story if you go into the past of it.
It makes it the most complex of the options.
So what is the solution
The truth is I have to go full circle back to the disclaimer; the truth is each solution has its strengths and weakness and genuinely depends on the group you have and the RPG you are using.
Certain RPGs are not built to cope with missing players while others do and I’ve heard my fair share of “they’re not here” remarks from different RPG groups (although some RPGs lock certain items based on class to prevent this) and its possible to lose track of the situation after one or two weeks of being away and if players don’t make notes then it becomes even more difficult.