How to Keep Your Story and Campaign Consistent
In RPT#522, Tristan made this reader tip request:
I am new to being a GM and have only been running a D&D campaign for about 6 weeks now. I’m a high schooler and have convinced some friends who have never played before to play.
Due to schoolwork and activities it is hard to get everyone to come all together, which makes it difficult to keep a story going.
What should I do to get a story or campaign to stay consistent? And how do I manage PCs when they are gone?
Several readers wrote in with great tips. Thanks very much!
Tristan, I hope the following advice helps you out. Good luck with your campaign.
Here’s A List Of Possible Reasons
Come up with a list of things a PC might be doing while his player isn’t at the session. Even better, make sure you can introduce the PC mid-game if the player shows up late.
For example, a PC can oversleep. To the remaining players, just say, “Binkie the Elf oversleeps, so you pin a note to his shirt and set off for the dungeon without him.” If the player shows up later, you can say, “A door behind you bursts open and you see Binkie leap out, into the fray, his sword drawn. Roll a d20!”
There are a bunch of other things that a PC might be doing without his player:
- Scouting ahead
- Guarding the rear
- Guarding the party’s camp
- Giving orders (“Go to the dungeon. I’ll supervise from here!”)
- Simply missing (“Can’t find Binkie; let’s go without him.”)
- On a personal adventure (“Binkie had to help his mom.”)
- Being trained or training somebody else
- Talking to the King or some other VIP
- Taking the long way around
- Tracking a monster
- Sick or hung-over
- Wounded or limping
- Repairing equipment
- Visiting an oracle or sage
If a player is gone for a while, you can briefly explain, “Binkie says, ‘The orcs have attacked my hometown so I must leave, my friends. Fare thee well!” Then, if the player returns, “‘Hail, my good friends! My hometown is safe and we can take up our fellowship again!'”
With some practice, a GM can become good at inventing useful explanations for the PCs of absent players.
By briefly using the PCs as NPCs, you can also keep the story going.
Even if the PC is vital to the story, with practice a GM can come up with some explanation why he isn’t with the party or needs to leave the party.
In time, you’ll be able to smoothly insert and remove PCs from the game with a variety of explanations. The other players will even wonder whether you planned them all along.
You can also use the excuses as opportunities to make your story fuller: when the PC returns, he can give a brief report about things that are happening offstage in your campaign.
Create A Campaign Chronology
A campaign chronology that says what each player did on a certain game date helps.
Developing some out-of-game email correspondence also helps. We send the dwarf and the wizard to investigate legends in the local village while we plunge on into the dungeon. Gives a good deus ex machina reason why the other characters suddenly reappear.
One meta game thing I’ve seen done is that the missing PCs are present but incredibly dumb. They’re guarding the rear, feeling poorly or are stone miniatures. They don’t contribute unless the GM needs a voice in the party, and they’re basically non-entities. But when their player returns they become active.
Another possibility is to revolve the campaign around any steady players that are always there and use the others are supporting guys.
Work That Trapdoor, Baby!
From Loz Newman
One way to handle campaigns with sometimes absent players is to use it to your advantage. Set up an over-arching organisation, mentor or academy that “selects agents to fit the mission.”
The PCs currently at the table aren’t the only ones capable of fulfilling the mission goal. The story becomes broader, and thus can take hits and keep on coming back for more.
The mission goal is now set by the Organisation, and thus out of the players’ hands. In reality, the players set up their plans and – my, what a coincidence! – they exactly match the Organisation’s plans.
DMs may take the occasion to insert a bit of common sense or impose minor secondary mission goals improvised to give specific PCs a chance to shine.
Sometimes it’s a real stretch to justify why PC A is included, and vastly-more qualified PC B isn’t. Players should accept this as an attempt to give an acceptable in-game reason for an absent player’s PC not being around.
- “He’s off chasing down a lead.”
- “He’ll join you later.”
- “He’s having / had travel problems.”
If the scenario is a follow-on to the previous campaign, this can be hard to explain. So, there is only one possible solution: a cosmic trapdoor swallowed him whole and spat out the PC who’s taking his place!
“He was teleported in by a friendly mage/Mad Scientist, but unfortunately the Resonantial mass-swap Zarkoff Hyper-curve Trapdoor-Rebound-effect exchanged him with PC A. Dang, we’ve got to get that bug ironed out someday! Oh, well, no help for it. Let’s get started, we’re running out of time!”
SUIM (“Shut Up, It’s Magic!”), which means “Don’t Waste Time Looking For An Explanation, Let’s Get Our Game On!” If logic gets in the way, it’s going to get steamrollered.
I used this technique during an eight-year-long Knights of Saint Seiya game, and it worked without a hitch, all the time, every time. The players and the GMs wanted it to work, so that all the players could get maximum in-game fun. And that’s the goal.
Long live the Cosmic Trapdoor!
Let Players Run The Absent Player’s Character
Most of my players are older and we have jobs and families. Sometimes work overtakes play, so we run into this problem often. What works best for us is to let the players run the absent players characters. I like to keep some things secret (stats, alignment) so I don’t give them full-blown character sheets but just the basics.
This helps me by allowing my players to have everyone still work as a team. And it takes a lot of the burden off of me.
However, I do not let players use the PC as fodder, and it’s known that at any time I can veto what a PC does under the direction of the group if it goes against the PC’s historical actions or I think the PC is being abused.
Also, I let the absent player know that his character will be played and that they won’t be getting any XP, but will still be along for the ride and usually the rest if the players share the spoils with them.
The alternative I’ve found is to run the PC myself, but that can get tiresome and frustrating because I have enough to keep up with running the game.
This has also worked, I might add, with a party NPC that was created in the early days of the game to give the characters some extra muscle and I just forgot to have him leave when the characters could deal with fights better on their own. Our party wizard usually runs the character so that, when he’s out of spells or in a fight he isn’t very effective in, he can still join the group and not just sit and watch.
Give Them A Quiet Exit
When I was in high school, I just quietly had a character exit at the first opportunity, typically because I didn’t feel comfortable running someone else’s character. PCs always had individual goals, so it was a simple matter of facilitating a character’s exit and then allowing them to complete a personal goal whenever there was time.
I still prefer the quiet exit tactic whenever possible. In a more recent occult horror game, a missing player’s character mysteriously disappeared, returning with missing time and a synthetic kidney that helped reinforce the UFOlogy theme of the game.
You have a few other options, though. Some GMs take control of the character for the session, trying to make fair decisions while the player is absent. Others just have the character in the background (The Gamers by Dead Gentlemen Productions shows this trope in action).
Even though it’s not something I would be inclined to use, I think I may have come around to the Occam’s Razor approach used during D&D Encounters sessions. Since these are played at game shops and do have not the benefit of a guaranteed player base from one session to the next, any player absences are simply ignored.
The game continues with whoever arrives that session, and people who drop in and out are just brought up to speed at the next session. While this may not be the best option in terms of the narrative, I’ve found it actually works if everyone is amenable.
Additionally, it works nicely in situations where gaming time is limited and the extra narrative time necessary to explain an absence would be a liability.
Get your players together and discuss what’s best for all. Maybe they’re all right with letting you play their characters until a given character can make his or her exit. Maybe they’re all right with the idea of glossing over player absences. These are all things to consider.
At The Will Of A Patron
This is a chronic problem in face-to-face gaming. School, work or family obligations often interfere with regular attendance at scheduled gaming sessions.
Over the years , borrowing something I picked up playing Champions (where it can be purchased when building a character) and RuneQuest (where it was pretty much a given part of character background) I have developed a fairly genre-independent technique for addressing unpredictable player attendance.
From the outset, as part of their individual backstories (or in the case of Tristan’s already-underway game, as a specific adventure hook) I contrive to have each member of the PC party be a member of some more-or-less-powerful organization to whom the character has a part-time obligation.
This organization, in exchange for being an occasional source of information and logistical support for adventuring activities, can in turn be expected to demand the services of one or more of the PCs with little warning or opportunity for avoidance.
The PCs can all be members of the same organization (this goes a long way toward explaining how they know each other and why they are hanging out together in the first place) or for experienced or bold GMs, different – even rival – organizations (cf. Paranoia’s obligatory Secret Societies, for example).
Professional guilds, fraternal orders, temples and sects make excellent benefactors of this type. I have had the most success with the technique in a science fiction setting using the vagaries of Traveller’s Scout Service to shanghai individual “Detached Duty” Scout player characters. I had steered all the players into choosing this as a background with tales of exciting adventure and the lure of a free starship.
This sort of thing worked just as well for RuneQuest, RuneLords and RuneMasters back in the day. When the pantheon calls, the faithful must answer promptly or else there will be a reckoning. The Powers That Be know what they are doing, no matter how important the current adventure might seem to the PCs at the moment.
This then provides a handy excuse for any player (or players) who could not participate in that week’s chapter: duty has called them away to attend to official business. Upon player return in a subsequent gaming session, they might even bring with them new characters and new plot threads.
This is an excellent way to bring new players into the group. Have the relevant someone concoct a brief backstory of how the newbie and the absent character went on this awesome mission together. They became colleagues, and oh, by the way, heard this interesting rumor or found a mysterious clue that seems like it might have something to do with what the rest of the party has been up to in the meantime.
This works equally well for introducing all types of new NPCs.
The point is to build (or in the present case, add) something into the background of the characters, both individually and as a group, that provides a limited benefit to their adventuring activities in exchange for an occasional time-consuming obligation. Then use meeting that obligation as the reason for a character needing to sit out a session or two.
The downside is that this forces a bit of extra planning on the part of the GM. Each gaming session needs to be a somewhat self-contained chapter. And it must end with the characters at some place or other from which party members might reasonably be split off or re-join.
The effort is worth it, though, if it keeps the overall story moving forward.
A steady NPC presence can facilitate continuity in this regard. It can be helpful to provide some puppet the GM can use to keep driving the plot forward, even if said plot tends to wander all over the map as such things are apt to do when player-characters are involved.