The Show Must Go On (True or False?)

Veronica Blessing

No, I’m not Ron.  No, we’re not switching days, at least not when I’m ready and prepared on Sunday night. Being able to switch blog days is one of the marriage perks.  If you’re looking for Ron (and really, who wouldn’t be?) you missed him. Go back to Monday. And if you weren’t looking for me, why the heck not?

It is an issue every gaming group has had to address. Regardless of dedication, sooner or later even the most hardcore player is bound to decide he’d rather go zip-lining through the jungles of South America then make Friday’s session. Or maybe her Mom is visiting from Tucson and missing the weekly game night is a necessary sacrifice. Life happens, and regardless of what fills it, everybody has one. So what do you do when life gets in the way of gaming?

When I decided I wanted to tackle one of the greatest questions in roleplaying in this week’s blog post, I thought it would be an open and shut case. Personally, I’m a story purest. A good RPG adventure, though presented by the GM, is actually written by the players. Each character, and by extension each player, is a vital part of the plot. Since I don’t believe handing a well crafted, intricately designed, character off to another player could ever do a story justice, the story cannot truly be told without all players present. Easy-peesy.  Right?

Apparently not. When I ran my topic by Ron he immediately started throwing wrenches at it, in true Ron fashion. As usual, he had some pretty decent points. We play these games for fun. So why should 4 (or so) other people all stop having fun because one person decided the gall bladder just HAD to go? Shouldn’t the player in question have the right to say whether or not he wants the game to stop and wait while he helps his father through emergency surgery? What if there is a story-related reason why that character is missing? Is it OK then?  I’ve been in games where players knew they would be missing sessions and created characters with background related reasons for occasionally dropping off the map. Heck, Ron and I even created two characters that shared a single physical presence in space and time so we’d have an excuse to switch off being the player. What makes that situation different?

I started thinking back to previous groups I’ve been involved with and how we handled the issue. The majority simply took the week off when someone was not available. Players who expected frequent absences would often drop out entirely; straightforward, but in hindsight decidedly lacking in creativity. I played in a few groups who had pre-designated alternate games to play when someone wasn’t going to be around. One group held a board game night. One group ran one-shot story games on off nights (like InSpectres, Primetime Adventures, or Fiasco). At one point, Ron and I actually started a Spirit of the Century game in which we had every single one of our roleplaying friends make characters (now THAT was a character making session, lemme just tell ya!). On nights when someone wasn’t available to play in our usual game, or if we were ever just bored, we could drag out our Centurions and run a one shot.

At the end of the day, I think the answer lies in social contracts. My friend Jess Hartley brought this up at a Game Master’s Conference once and she was dead on correct. The social health and prosperity of a group hinges heavily on a series of previously agreed upon items. One of these is whether or not continuing the game sans a player or two is acceptable. If the group agrees to soldier on regardless of player availability then the decision has been made. Not addressing the topic, however, and making such decisions on the fly can lead to hurt feelings. I’ve seen this end groups and that is rarely a good thing.

So I put this issue out on the blog or forum (see Justin, I DO know the forums exist!) table. What does your group do when there is a player missing?

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4 Responses to The Show Must Go On (True or False?)

  1. Tim Hannon says:

    This seems to be a hot topic this time of year; I’ve heard this discussed on multiple podcasts and blogs just within the past week. I think it has to do with the school year winding down, not to mention other family events, like graduations, birthdays, etc.

    In my groups, I have several “table rules” to cover these issues. First off, “The Real World Always Comes First”: if you have a family event or other commitment that conflicts with gaming, IT TAKES PRIORITY! It’s just a game, it’ll wait.

    Second, “The Quorum Rule”: if at least half the regular players are unable to attend, the campaign is put on hold for the week. So if I’ve got 6 regular players, and only three can show up, we do something different. It’s almost always a game, but we will do something, just not the regular campaign. Grab a board or card game, meet up for a drink somewhere, or just hop onto a video game server and have fun.

    Third, I think of my campaigns like an ensemble TV or comic series, like Star Trek or The Avengers. The Hulk doesn’t show up in every issue of The Avengers, and Worf isn’t in every episode of Star Trek. It doesn’t mean that the character isn’t important to the series, it just means that, this week, he’s not important to the plot. He’s off doing … something. Somewhere. Doesn’t matter what, it just matters that he’s not around this week, so we talk around him. In a campaign, this can be a little tricky, but if the players buy into the conceit, it’s usually not a problem.

    Occasionally, I will have planned a “hero night”, where the session is centered around a particular PC. If that player can’t show, we’ll do a hold, as noted above.

    I’ve used these basics for years, and they’ve covered most of the basics. If you establish these rules early for your group, you won’t go wrong. :)

  2. Dan Scheppard says:

    As we get older and our lives get more busy, we mostly decide to go on with games when we can, despite absences. It’s ultimately not that important that the story explains a character absence. It’s more important for everyone who can make it to just get down to the gaming. Depending on the group, it can also be easy for someone to run a one-shot or do board games, or watch a movie. Those times always remind me that it’s more about being with friends than the game itself.

  3. Marc says:

    For me, I think there are basically two simple rules.

    1) Real life comes first, so nobody gets grief when they can’t make it.

    2) The GM decides if the game can go on for that week without a given player. Sometimes that player is the lynchpin for a given session, so playing without them doesn’t make any sense, while other times (most times really), the character can just sort of recede into the background, in a form of stasis until they come back.

    A subrule is that a player can say they don’t want the game to go on without them, but still it is the GM’s call.

  4. Paul says:

    As with what you said in the OP, we’ve done board game nights, movie nights -both in and out-, taken a break, etc., but in general we were able to handle it.

    I was running a Warhammer campaign in mid-2011 for an actual face-to-face tabletop group -I generally run Play-by-Forum games, right now, as it’s been exceedingly difficult to find a group in Fountain. Two of the players -married- were supposed to have friends over earlier in the day, three hours before the game was supposed to start, and they explained the friends might hang out for a bit; it’s their house, no problem. Their friends didn’t show up until right as we were set to begin gaming.

    Three of the other players had shown and were ready to go, even if two of those players were bored with the way the campaign was turning out -I had a plan to begin fixing it that night, because the character-driven stories were not working.

    Finally, two of my best friends in the world decided they were going to stay home in Denver, because one of them was tired of role-playing -I suspect actually tired with life- and the other one wasn’t going to play chauffeur if he wasn’t coming. However, neither of them saw fit to inform me of this.

    We had been taking breaks from the game the previous two weekends because of family issues, and I’d gotten into trouble with one of the other players by giving my opinion where it wasn’t needed or requested -my fault, I take all the blame for that-, and I suspect the group was really not having all that good a time, in general. I had tried to get someone else to run a game, because I was exhausted of running games -like Lee, I’m almost always the go-to guy for running a game- and really was dying to play, and it was beginning to tell.

    Well, two weeks before I had made the decision that, if I was going to keep running games, I was going to switch up to one a lot faster than the one I was running, so I could potentially keep people’s interest, and give me a reprieve from the same old fantasy grind the other game had become.

    Well, the wife in the married couple had been gone for fifteen minutes already, so I asked her husband to see if everything was cool and if she might be ready to get started with the new game, soon. Thirty minutes later, after having to call my best friends to find out where they were, and that they were staying home -BOILER #1- and then having a small conversation with two of the three at the table and finding out my Warhammer game was really beginning to suck and no one was going to enjoy the new game -BOILER #2- and that my eldest teen had already glommed onto the married couples console to play video games -BOILER #3-, the fourth boiler was lit when the married couple would not return. I promptly packed my gear, grabbed my sons, and we were out the door.

    If people are tired of a game, they need to tell the GM when they get tired, not months afterwards when things have gone too far south to change direction appropriately and carry on. Because of the rudeness, insincerity, and lack of respect, I’ve not been back to that gaming group since June 6th, 2011, and will not be going back.

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