Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Curse of the Missing Player!

Here's another whacky idea I had.

Ever have a session where 2 or 3 players couldn't make it, forcing you to cancel? That happened with my Greyhawk game two weeks ago, and it's always a bummer.

I've been thinking about ways to keep playing with only a couple players that doesn't penalize that absent PCs. On the other hand, I also don't want to risk hosing the players who made it to the session by killing off their PCs because Ralph the cleric didn't show up.

Here's my idea. I'm going to couch it in terms of 4e, but I think it applies to any version of D&D.

If you're using the DDI character builder, have the players archive versions of their PCs for each level they have gained.

Plan ahead for your campaign a bit, keeping in mind at least the outline of NPCs, treasures, or whatever that's going to show up in the next adventure/dungeon level/whatever, basically whatever comes after the current stretch.

If you're short a few players, run a flash back. The present players bring their lower level PCs. Ideally, find a break in the campaign's past that would allow for some action away from the main events.

The flashback can do a few things:
1. You can incorporate hints and pointers to future events. Maybe a couple PCs out for a night of drinking have a run in with the wandering slayer that they'll face in the near future.

2. You can drop hints to treasures or enemies that might help the PCs in the current adventure. The PCs in the flashback find a weird stone covered with runes. When the normal campaign starts next week, they enter a chamber where the stone proves useful in finding a secret door that the party might otherwise have overlooked.

3. You can give out bonus XP. The PCs who showed up get a little bonus, but not so much that they shoot ahead of the rest of the party. Since the XP is for lower level encounters, it doesn't create a big gap.

You have a few restrictions that you might want to follow: it's hard to kill a PC (he's alive in the future!) and handing out big treasures is a little weird (I forgot about that +7 holy avenger I had in my backpack!). You might want to focus on skill challenges or lower level encounters (2 3rd-level PCs might face some level 3 minions, or a pair of level 2 monsters).

This framework provides an easy excuse for an adventure aimed at only 2 PCs without messing up the current adventure. However, the flashback still advances the game. The players get to the play the campaign without messing with the campaign's pacing or plot.


MacGuffen said...

Thats a really good idea! I recently got a couple of new people to join my group who have a baby. needless to say they are gonna miss a session every once in a while, so I need to come up with something... The characters are still really low level so maybe a back story on how they got to where they are...

Too bad I didn't back up their original characters...

Unknown said...

I do this for my White Wolf games. I keep the Mortal & Supernatural versions of the characters, even though there may be differences between the characters. Then the players that show up get additional XP, the players that couldn't get a reduced amount to show they were busy, but not there.

Unknown said...

This is really neat. Like filling in Lost Tales with Tolkien's notes ...

-- Irda Ranger

Lizard said...

This is a cool idea. When I was running a superhero game and a few players couldn't make it, I did a "Year One" type flashback story.

Lizard said...

Damn, I wish you could edit posts on this.

One solution to the "death" problem is to borrow a page from Toon -- the "dead" character is out of play, but either not really dead, or is raised offstage after the mini-arc. For cool items, it can be fun to ask players to come up with what happened to that a +5 sword, and then work that into the future stories. ("Ah, here it is!") You can even use this as a framing sequence... you open with the characters finding a magic item, and a PC (prompted by you) says, "By the gods! This is naught other than the blade I won from those trolls! I remember it as if it were yesterday..." Then the screen gets all wavy and you begin the prequel story.

Great concept, Mike, and a great way to bring storytelling ideas from other media in D&D!

Mike said...

Hi Mike!

I have a similar solution that I've used before. When only three players show up, I run a bit of backstory in "show don't tell" mode. Instead of just giving a bit of history, the players get to pick some historically significant NPCs and run through a bit of adventure from long ago.

For example, in my campaign last year, the party was hunting down an artifact of great power (a Solar trapped in a prison and driven insane) that was held by Dark Elves. One night I ran an adventure where the party played the Dark Elves who were stealing this artifact from a noble house who held it deep in their vaults.

The great fun came when the party started turning on each other (being dark elves) just as the artifact was in their grasp.

With the character builder and the Dungeon Delve book, its pretty easy to build a quick bit of back story for an ongoing campaign and have the players you have on hand play through it.

I do wish D&D 4e had a better way to handle small groups of three, two, or even one player.

Anders Hällzon said...

"If you're using the DDI character builder, have the players archive versions of their PCs for each level they have gained."

Either that or just levelling down your characters sounds like a hassle, but probably much easier in 4E than in the versions where you roll for hit points (or roll for anything, really - more variables to track).

dave said...

Really great idea. A play on the idea of running an alternate concomitant campaign located elsewhere on the map in order to flesh out the world for the players.

I've heard of that as an invention for what to do when only some of the players show up.

Asmor said...

I don't think you need to archive older versions of the characters... The character builder keeps track of every choice you make and, importantly, at which level (including retraining). So just make a backup of the character (so you don't accidentally mess it up) and level it down.