One challenging thing for a DM to handle is what happens when a player doesn’t manage to come to a session for whatever reason? Or more precisely, what happens to that players character for the session? Do they go poof in a puff of smoke like some kind of Houdini, to reappear suddenly the next session the player returns? Do you give them special DM plot armor? Are they controlled by another player instead? There are many questions to be answered and various solutions you can use to get through what a character does when their player is absent. The most important thing to bear in mind that as the DM, it’s ultimately your decision what happens to a players character and trust between you (the DM) and your players is paramount.
Just as a warning, the first part of this post and why I’ve decided to write it was prompted by a player having their character sexually assaulted, raped and left pregnant by the attack by their DM. After that I will be describing things in general terms and without any further sexual assault or similar connotations (as it will be largely my own experiences at that point and honestly, I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to do that to a character *ever*).
As I mentioned above, unfortunately I am writing this post because of a recent incident one of my players told me about, where a woman was unable to attend a session of game she’d been in for a while and her DM took some particularly nasty liberties with her female player character. This resulted in her character being raped and impregnated by an NPC, which naturally drew a hostile reception from the player in question who then subsequently left the game. Thankfully the other players in the game were equally outraged, who were the ones who told her it happened and it gave a hostile response towards the DM as well. To me that’s an entirely fair and predictable response, which personally would have caused me to quit that game immediately as well.
Although this is a genuinely awful and utterly terrible thing to happen, it’s amongst the worst of the things that I’ve heard happen to a players character while their player is absent from the game. Aside from the fact rape as a plot device is a cheap, overdone and overly predictable plot device for women in too many things, it’s just utterly ridiculous that the DM would even consider doing something like that. The fact it was done while the player wasn’t even there, just adds an additional layer of being completely heinous onto the usual connotations involved. After doing something like this to a player’s character, it is little wonder that there is no further trust between her and the former DM of that game.
Roleplaying games are fundamentally based on a social contract between the person who is running the game and the group you are playing with. This social contract is generally based on a nebulous idea of “fun” and everyone has some different standards in this regard. I’ve mentioned before that one persons Game of Thrones game where players die easily can be fun for them, might not work out for someone who expects something Lord of the Rings like where most characters survive to the end. Groups tend to agree on what is “fun” and yes, I acknowledge that some people tend to run more “brutal” worlds, which skew very closely to some of the things happening in Game of Thrones more than others. I don’t exactly think that’s an excuse for something like this, but if everyone at the table is comfortable with and they are all willing to explore such a thing – maybe there is room for it at such tables.
In saying the above, there is one thing I think just about everyone I’ve ever spoken to or played with has agreed with in the time I’ve run roleplaying games. It’s that it really sucks to have terrible or awful things happen to your character while you aren’t there. This is partly because if you turn up to the next session, to discover your character is now dead from some heroic sacrifice you didn’t chose to make, or has some new bionic/cybernetic limbs, a weird sexual disease (for more immature groups) or is significantly changed without your permission/consent it can be extremely jarring. Sometimes it can be downright violating for the player and yes, I realize we’re talking about characters who don’t exist – but in a well run game players can care about their characters substantially or even as an extension of themselves.
So the way you – as the one running the game – should treat the characters of absent players needs to be well thought through. It should also be expressly clear to your players right from the start of the game how you handle it. This obviously has very different connotations depending on the game and the system you are running. Something like Dungeons and Dragons is a team sport, where every character is essential to the groups function. Just removing the player’s character for a session may not be ideal or even workable: Especially if the party is about to lose its main healer or potential tank.
On the other hand in a game like Trail of Cthulhu or Shadowrun, having a rotating roster of characters with different skills can be countered just by having the players who did come adjust their plans. Sure the decker didn’t make it tonight, so maybe we can find an NPC contact who can work as our decker instead? Or maybe we change the approach to ignore being smarmy with the police and local authorities, which is normally Geofferies job. Instead the characters just go with Richard’s plan for once, which involves directly smashing down the front gate to the farm the cultists are in by car and go in guns blazing right away.
So before I go any further, allow me to get my personal anecdote off my chest and describe the fate of one of my own AD&D characters – back when I did (shockingly I know) actually play as opposed to consistently run DnD. We had started a new game fairly recently and I made a character for it, wanting to try a Thri-Kreen fighter or similar. Either way, by some confluence of events I was unable to make the first session of the game and so my character was played as an NPC/hireling. Unfortunately, before I had even got a chance to play him my character had been used for “trap finding” purposes.
I’m not entirely sure if what happened to him was identical to the above picture, but I can assure you that being squished by a boulder before I even had a chance to play my character once did not impress me in the least. Of course I can take some solace in the fact the other players met a similarly grisly end in that game as well, because it was being run rather Tomb of Horror’s like, but I was certainly pretty annoyed by the whole affair. Perhaps this experience, even though being squished by a boulder is certainly not as awful as some of the other things I’ve heard about (and just described above), is why I have such strong opinions and thoughts on what should happen to a players character when they aren’t there.
Generally speaking in my games I tend to work around absent players in several ways, which does in fairness depend on the system. I’ll describe how I handle it when players are absent from Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun and Trail of Cthulhu first. After that I’ll give some general ideas and advice you might want to try, which should be fairly system agnostic. By far the thing to bear in mind about my approach is that I tend to never kill, maim or otherwise permanently affect the characters of absent players. I just don’t think it’s fun to have these things happen to you while the player wasn’t there to make the choices that led up to it.
Dungeons and Dragons: As I mentioned earlier, this game can really feel like a “team sport” and thus all of the adventuring party tends to need to be around. Unless you have a very large group, which I would say is more than about 5 players, you generally can’t remove a PC from a group without significantly weakening them. This is especially true if the removed character is a spellcaster or the parties cleric. In these cases I play the character myself, or alternatively allow the absent player to designate another trusted player to handle them. Usually this control extends only to combat encounters, with the players who are present being the ones who take the lead on roleplaying scenarios. During combat, I will deliberately target other players characters in general and not go out of my way to deliberately murder the absent players character.
Shadowrun: Here I just outright remove the player character, force them to extract themselves, maybe have a semi “burnout” if they were a decker or any number of excuses to remove the player from the session. I then allow the other players to deal with the problem another way, such as in a recent session where the decker wasn’t able to make it, I allowed them to bring along an invested NPC decker to do the job for them. As long as you keep an eye on how much Karma that player may be lacking from missing runs, this isn’t a bad approach and because Shadowrun is so lethal is arguably the easiest way to avoid sudden “accidents”.
Trail of Cthulhu: This and its predecessor Call of Cthulhu have given me the most interesting situations to work out. Most notably in one session of Call of Cthulhu a player got cornered by a monster, which is where the game ended. This dramatic cliffhanger backfired, because the player couldn’t come the next session and left an interesting question of how to handle it. Well thankfully Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu have an interesting solution: Just have the investigator faint! Monsters are encouraged in the books to do other things than murder the character, because of their strange alien way of thinking. Here I discussed with the player what I was going to do, notably have him wake up on a stone slab with strange surgical scars, and then implement it as a part of his characters arc/mystery in future.
It goes without saying that the player was much happier with that solution, especially compared with a potential fight that would likely kill his character he couldn’t even participate in! But do note that even though the player couldn’t come, I was at least able to discuss some kind of solution with them first and then implement it. This goes back to the point I made earlier about that social contract: If your players trust you to do the right thing, you’ll get much more leeway than if you have a reputation for being unfair or just utterly merciless. If you’re wondering what I would have done if I couldn’t speak to him first, I would have had his character faint to get around the situation. Then after I caught up with him next asked him how he felt about my idea and if he thought it would add to the character.
You’ll notice that generally speaking, I prefer to put the burden of potential consequences on one of the players who did come (but who can influence their situation themselves), a disposable NPC like in Shadowrun or, where appropriate like the tricky monster situation in Cthulhu, back onto the absent player when they are next around for the game. The first and easiest way to avoid problems is just to avoid them by having the character miss the events that could cause the issue if possible. In something like DnD where this is not such an option, I might consider a character to have some “Plot Armor” that could change a deadly blow into a non-deadly one or similar.
Of course there is a distinct elephant in the room here to address: Why bother helping players characters who don’t turn up to the game? Well again, this goes back to that whole “Social Contract” thing and remembering that while roleplaying is great fun – it’s still just a game. Players can miss sessions for any number of reasons, like work, sudden other commitments, illness and similar. Killing off their character or maiming them while they aren’t around might seem like “Well, they should have been there” but the message it really sends is “This is revenge for you not coming”. Once again that social contract starts to break down when trust isn’t being freely given to the DM and their decisions. A player who feels you basically took revenge on them by using their character as a cushion for arrows, is less likely to favorably go along with your decisions or adventures in future. Not to mention that player is not going to be encouraged to come regularly, especially if they feel you’re just going to do this to them the next time they can’t come again!
Following on from the revenge feel this has and for me personally, the most important reason I try to avoid harming or otherwise using absent player’s characters is simple: Not abusing authority. As I run the game I can naturally do whatever I like in setting up different situations and when a player isn’t there, such as in DnD, I tend to run their characters. Naturally I could run their characters in a way that possibly leaves them open to being generally murdered or injured more frequently than their actual player. One thing I have always dreaded – but it’s thankfully never happened – is telling someone “Oh by the way, I totally got your character killed!”. Like with the revenge type scenario, this can feel very deliberate to that player and make them feel quite upset with you. This complication applies when you allow a player to designate another to run their character too. In fact in my personal view, it’s better a player is mad at you than another player in this situation and so this is why I usually run absent PCs myself.
So consider your approach and style carefully when you have this complication occur in your own games. In my view, you are always better off giving players the benefit of the doubt and trying to work through a solution that helps everyone. If the player has a really crucial role or similar in the party, step in and roleplay that character through the situation. Then let the character take a backseat for the others to shine for a session instead. Complicating this idea is that you might need to come up with other ways around an obstacle tailored for the absent PC in some manner, such as letting another player’s crazy plans work that session. You might need to possibly play them in combat encounters, but it’s much better to get them through in one piece for their player to resume next session.
As a general rule, death and other serious consequences that arise from the game should always be the result of a player’s choices. If that player isn’t there to make those choices, it doesn’t feel right or fair to enforce consequences on them that they may not have had a say in the generation of. In the end, even if it can be the most jarring thing from a narrative or verisimilitude point of view, having them just seemingly “disappear” is often the easiest solution by far.
Heck, I forget that NPCs exist in combat scenarios so often and my players never comment on it that it’s not exactly hard to do so for the odd absent PC. Your other players won’t be upset when next session after that seemingly game ending TPK, the player who was absent last week has their character kick in the door to save the party from the cultists about to sacrifice them. After all, that character wasn’t really there and nobody remembered to look for them after the battle! Especially when you as the DM “forgot” you were supposed to be playing them in the encounter!