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Man Down - How To Handle Player Absence

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As roleplayers, we essentially create our own myths. This experience aids us when we then study other myths, allowing us to see truths beneath that non-gamers might miss. Take this Norse myth that I came across recently, for example:

According to the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, at one stage the gods decided to shackle the Fenris wolf (Fenrir), but the beast broke every chain they put upon him. Eventually they had the dwarves make them a magical ribbon called Gleipnir.

It appeared to be only a silken ribbon but was made of six wondrous ingredients: the sound of a cat's footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, bear's sinews (meaning nerves, sensibility), fish's breath and bird's spittle.

The creation of Gleipnir is said to be the reason why none of the above exist. Fenrir sensed the gods' deceit and refused to be bound with it unless one of them put his hand in the wolf's mouth.

The back-story to this is that Fenrir had been happy to be bound up by the previous chains the gods had created so he could show-off by breaking the links, but he refused when seeing this obviously magical creation. The gods promised him that they were only testing the ribbon, and that they would let him free afterwards if it did indeed bind him. He didn't quite believe them, so he insisted on someone's hand as a hostage. The gods, knowing that they had no intention of ever letting him free once bound, thus knew that whoever volunteered his fist was inevitably going to lose it.

Tyr, known for his great wisdom and courage, agreed, and the other gods bound the wolf. After Fenrir had been bound by the gods, he struggled to try and break the rope. When the gods saw that Fenrir was bound they all rejoiced, except Tyr, who had his right hand bitten off by the wolf. Fenrir will remain bound until the day of Ragnaršk.

Of course, as roleplayers, we can see the deeper truth that lays beneath this story.

Tyr's player was away that session and the other players were playing him as an NPC. You can just imagine the exchange of words at the start of the next session:

Tyr's Player: So guys, did I miss much last week?

Other Player: Not much. But we did manage to capture Fenrir and leave him tied up on some island.

Tyr's Player: Cool! Well done guys! Anything else I need to know about?

Other Player: Well, about that two-handed sword of yours...

As an aside, the other big clue that this is an "actual play" write-up of a roleplaying game is that any sensible plot would have as its objective either the destruction of Fenrir, or his alteration from good to evil - as opposed to tying him up, attaching the lead to a big rock, burying that about a mile down on a remote island, and then leaving him there until the end of the world. It just screams dodgy, player-dreamed, plot-avoiding, kludge.

But it does nicely bring us onto the theme of this article, which is how to cope when one player can't make a session.

The above story illustrates the most common technique, which we call here the "Remote-Control Manbot". Put simply, the player's character simply spends the session as a PC (rather than an NPC), but one collectively controlled by the other players. This does have some advantages, in that the PC's still acting as a member of the party, carrying out the party's wishes rather than those of the GM.

It does, however, have some obvious disadvantages, the first of which is the one we've described above, and which we'll call "Hero Syndrome".

In a fantasy scenario, he'll be the one sent forward to check for traps.

In a contemporary scenario, he'll be the one sent in to defuse the bomb. In a truly gritty, contemporary scenario, he'll be the one sent in to find a safe path through the mine-field.

In a science-fiction scenario, his usually bridge-bound scientist will somehow find himself in the engine room, just in time to heroically walk into the deadly warp-core chamber, instead of the chief engineer PC. ("It was really cool. You made this really neat speech - 'The needs of many... outweigh the needs of the few' - and then you died. Sorry.")

And in a biblically-themed scenario, he'll be the one who attacks the Roman arrest party with such ferocity that he cuts someone's ear off. ("I did what? I'm supposed to be a peaceful fisherman! ... Well it's all right for you, your PCs got the resurrection feat!")

But there are other problems with this approach beyond hero syndrome. Even where the players agree to not put "Player-less PCs" in positions of danger, they can easily end up acting in ways that their player might not have envisaged them acting.

Imagine a cyberpunk game, where Dave, who plays a charismatic "fixer" called Rikk, is back in attendance after missing the previous session.

Dave: So, guys. What happened to Rikk last week? You didn't get him all bashed up, did you?

Other Player: [Laughing] Would we do that? No, actually there wasn't any combat.

Dave: Cool.

Other Player: Yeah, all that happened was that Rikk used his looks and charisma to seduce the assistant of the CEO of Bastard Corp and came away with names, dates, access codes and everything!

Dave: Awesome! [Grabs his character sheet and goes to the contacts section]. Erm, the assistant? What was her name?

Other Player: Sorry? Her name?

GMs often attempt to get around this by not giving the other players any influence over the player-less PC, instead controlling the PC themselves as a sort of NPC ally. This will usually reduce the chances of grotesque abuses such as those we've described above, but it can introduce further problems.

Slave Gladiator #1: I'm Spartacus!

Slave Gladiator #2: No, I'm Spartacus!

Slave Gladiator #3: No, I'm Spartacus!

[Long pause].

[Even longer pause].

Slave Gladiators #1, 2 and 3: [Looking pointedly at fourth bloke]. Anything you'd like to add?

Too often, the GM played character becomes a non-speaking, non-entity, utterly at odds to his previous behaviour. In a Doctor Who game, the Doctor will stumble around in the background while Rory and Amy shove sonic screwdrivers into monsters. In an A Team game, Murdock will be nothing more than a reliable hired pilot. And in an original series Star Trek game, Captain Kirk will be... well Jean-Luc Picard, basically.

And of course, that's assuming that the poor, overworked GM doesn't just plain damn forget about the player-less PC...

Player: [To GM] Sorry I couldn't make it last night. How'd it go? Did the guys manage to figure out a way off the island?

GM: Yeah, they had to make Climb rolls to make it down the cliffs and then Swim rolls to make it to the mainland, but they all--. Ah.

Player: Ah?

So if having the players control the character isn't the answer, but having the GM control him isn't the answer either, then what are we to do? Well the obvious answer is to say that if a player isn't present, then the character isn't present either.

The ideal way to do this is to set it up in advance, by creating a campaign where characters can drift in and out. Superhero campaigns are ideal for this: teams of heroes that come and go are a staple of the genre, as are impromptu team ups (when I was younger I was a fan of both Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One).

In a more modern day urban scenario, it's relatively easy to say that someone is away visiting his girlfriend, or his elderly mother. (Or if you're doing some kind of seriously dodgy, backwoods Appalachian horror campaign in which it turns out that you are the cultists, you can combine those two explanations).

Or perhaps, in true soap-opera, actor's gone on holiday, style, the character could go upstairs to take a crap, and not come down for a couple of months. (I seem to recall that Coronation's Street's Tracy Barlow, when they were transitioning from a child actress to a different, teenaged one, took a shit that lasted years).

And if you're using my Nexus's Portable Headquarters (a rather nifty item IMHO), you could just say that the missing player was having a session with the HQ's houri, and you didn't want to disturb him.

However, these ideas only really work where the previous session didn't end mid-story, and where you have a player whose absences are known of in advance and can be plotted around. How can we handle an absence that was not known about when the previous session ended, especially if that previous session ended on something of a cliff-hanger? After all, if the heroes have just fought their way through five levels of dungeons to the throne room of the lich-king and are fighting for their lives, Sir Nevergiveup can hardly make his excuses and leave, mid-combat.

But there is an opportunity here for us to be a bit creative, especially if we bring some Rumsfeldian risk analysis to the problem. In particular, we can distinguish between Known Knowns (knowing that Bob can't make the first Wednesday of every month), Unknown Unknowns (not knowing that Bob can't make the session until two hours before it was due to start) and Known Unknowns (knowing that Bob has lifestyle factors that make it extremely likely that he will have to cancel a session at late notice from time to time).

For example, Bob might be a mountain rescuer, who's often on call, and who might at any moment be called away to rescue some idiot who's staggered up a mountain, drunk. (Substitute "Bob is a semi-recovering alcoholic who is at any point likely to fall off the wagon, go off on a 36 hour bender, and stagger up a mountain, drunk" if that's more appropriate for your group). You know he can't guarantee his attendance. So how about you give his character an extra disadvantage, a "syndrome" (illness, curse, spell, disorder caused by repeated inbreeding in an area of high mana, whatever) in which suddenly, at any time... he changes?

Perhaps he becomes a "zombie". Not literally - he doesn't die, or anything. But when the syndrome kicks in, he switches to being a semi-sentient, lumbering being, with a similar intelligence level to that of a dog. That way, you can happily use him to find traps, clear minefields and so on, without in any way detracting from the realism and immersion of the campaign. (Of course with some players, changing to the intelligence level of a dog might not make much of a difference).

Or maybe he actually turns into a dog? Kind of like a werewolf, but with the lupine form being a happy, loyal dog rather than an aggressive, deadly wolf. (I guess you'd call that a weredog). He could maintain two parallel character sheets, one for his human form and one for his dog form, and update both each time he gets some experience. (So if his PC got to be a 10th level wizard, when in dog form, it would be a 10th level dog, with lots of doggie feats, skills and abilities). That way, his character would still be useful and able to look after itself when in dog form. (Given my lack of skill in playing wizards, I fear my group would rather have a useful dog tracker / guard than a bumbling and incompetent wizard, and would thus be disappointed if I turned up).

Sure, it would be pretty bizarre if one moment he's about to enter into negotiations with the Baron de Bastard over provisions and payments, and then the next he's standing there wagging his tail and angling for a tickle behind the ears. But it would be bizarre within the game, a twist that the rest of the characters would have to frantically work around.

And it does add a lovely extra, "three wishes" type challenge to the other players - that of making sure that they give accurate and non-ambiguous instructions to the dog/zombie.

"Okay Rover, I mean Bob. Attack the bloke with the cloak... No, the other bloke with the cloak!"

Hell, if you have a gaming group that consists entirely of life-afflicted thirty-somethings, not one of whom can make any guarantees about their attendance, you could just write an entire campaign around this idea.

Plague

It is the near future, five years since the White Plague swept across the world, causing its victims - "zombies" in popular parlance - to suffer bouts of illness during which they would be only semi-sentient. These periods of illness cannot be predicted, neither in their time of onset nor their duration.

At any point, 20% of the workforce might be unavailable. Planes would fall from the sky as their crews "went zombie". Trains would suddenly come to a halt for no reason, leaving passengers stranded, bewildered and scared.

(To be fair, anyone who travels by train in the UK might say this is a quite normal thing to happen).

Fields went unploughed. Food rotted in warehouses. Civilisation stuttered, staggered, then collapsed. Now only small, shattered tribes remain, struggling to survive. And still they wonder: where did the plague come from? Why did it come? And is there a cure?

The Player Characters are people from just such a tribe, all of them infected with the plague, all subject to periodic bouts of "zombie syndrome". They must journey across this shattered landscape, surmounting its challenges in search of answers, all the while struggling with the fact that at any point, any number of them might themselves be in a "zombie" state.

Alternatively, in a fantasy game, you could have some kind of world-spanning curse or spell causing people to periodically go zombie / weredog. Of course, you might want to have some kind of 20% quorum rule. (Although I guess a session in which a single PC attempts to control 4 zombies or weredogs might provide both comedy and challenge).

And of course, if ever anyone were to get the license for a game based on James Cameron's movie blockbuster Avatar, that would come with a mechanism for coping with player absence built in. If the scenario were set in the "human" world (the base), then an unexpected absence could be explained away by a sudden-onset, extra-long "toilet break". And if the absence occurred right in the middle of some Na'vi action - a fight, or even flying, say - then that would simply be the moment that the missing player's PC's electronics went on the blink, causing his avatar to flop motionless to the ground, no matter how inconvenient that moment might be.

But what about Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, where a normally reliable player can't make it?

Well now we're in the realm of creative, on-the-fly rewrites to your scenario. In some ways, this is akin to the adjustments you have to make when a character dies, and you're forced to adjust your scenario in order to parachute in his or her replacement (as we discussed back in issue 2).

Of course, I'm a little wary of saying that, because some of the more "gamist" GMs might decide to adopt that as a strategy to deal with habitually late cancelling players.

GM: Where's Bob?

Player 1: He just texted me to say he can't make it.

GM: Nice. Oh well, we left it last session with you guys in the Great Hall of King Dunwan, with Bob's PC just about to explain to the King why you guys weren't able to retrieve his stolen amulet. Bob draws himself up before the King's throne, spreads his arms wide, and then falls down onto the steps clutching his heart.

Player 2: Sorry, what?

GM: Bob's PC's had a heart attack and died. The King shouts an order to one of his flunkies to "have the trash taken out" and then angrily informs you that no-one, but no-one ever dies in his Great Hall unless it is because he has explicitly ordered them executed on the spot. He tells you to head back into the wilderness and not return until you have found his amulet. A group of servants dash forward, grab Bob's body by the feet, and drag it quickly down the steps and out of the room.

Player 1: What about Bob?

GM: What about him? He's dead. When he decides he can be bothered to come back to my game, we can create him a new character. But I'm not going to spend my time between now and then piloting a driverless PC. Back in the game, does your PC have anything to say to the King?

Player 1: I'll say, "Great King! We will return to the great wild in search of your amulet, but we are now a man short."

GM: The King shrugs, and says: "You can find a first level peasant on the way."

On a less psychotic note, perhaps there's a hidden trap that the missing player's character immediately triggers, that teleports him away to a prison cell somewhere, with the coming session's plot now revolving around a quest to find and free him.

(Of course, if you have the sort of bickering players who would normally only conduct such a rescue because the "trapped" player would otherwise whine constantly, this idea might not be such a great one).

Or perhaps one of the party's adversaries now has a once-a-day spell or ability that turns an opponent into a semi-sentient "zombie" or dog, an effect that will, by convenient coincidence, last until the player returns.

And if none of those sound suitable? Well there's always board and card games. Wasn't this pretty much why Munchkin was invented?