Players can’t make a game? That sucks, but here’s how we handle it so it’s least disruptive to the overall game.
It happens, stupid real life sometimes sucks us away from the game. DM’s appreciate notice so we can accommodate the other players, get a sub, and generally figure out what the heck to do!
How you handle rotating player attendance though is tricky and needs a little diplomacy. It’s their characters, after all, not yours, but it’s your world and story they’re messing up. by not showing up. Typically, if I get notice 50% can’t make it for a night, I call it off. With only 4 players, two missing is just not worth it to run the game, even with substitutes. But what do you do if a player calls as the game is supposed to be starting and can’t make it?
Just yanking a character out of a story is pretty jarring though, and it’s my least favourite way to deal with it. I plan my adventures with a certain amount of party power in mind, and build challenges to suit that, so to have a character disappear and not be there can endanger everyone else’s character. If it’s reasonable why a character is delayed or missing, ok, I’ll go for it, but like I said, jars the story and play all to the nine realms.
Not to mention experience point division. Hooboy. Your character showed up for 74% of the adventure, yours 83%, yours 100%, NO THANK YOU.
Next option is to have the players who show up do double duty, playing 2 characters. Which, is ok, but if you’re a new player and are still trying to figure out your character, suddenly trying to play a second well established character in addition to yours is not fun to watch and slows the game down considerably.
I do have a few people who want to play occasionally as substutes and take on an NPC role, and will substitute for missing players, again, given notice. This works fairly well, but only if it’s one person sitting in. In a group of four, one sub is fine, two is not. Now I have to explain a lot all night long to keep the game moving and the players lose the knowledge that the other two players had about the events their characters are in. My games have a lot of detail and intrigue, note taking is a good idea, and to have missing people’s knowledge can seriously destroy a storyline.
The last option is the NPC bubble option. Characters without players follow along but aren’t the focus for the evening. They are called upon in group battles or when skill appropriate challenges warranting their speciality are required by the group, but it’s up to the DM to decide how involved they get like he would for any NPC. They do earn experience, so they’ll have to be in combat and risk death, yes (that would suck royally so I remind players to be more cautious on nights like this). They can’t earn bonus XP though, that only goes to players, not characters, who do something awesome.
That’s how we handle it, and I’ll let you know this is a problem that has probably existed since the first game at Gygax’s house. So how do you handle missing players in your game?