One of the challenges we all come across in playing a scheduled game is what happens when someone's schedule changes. As much as some of us would like to make our games the number one priority that isn't the case for a majority of people. With this in mind what do you do with a player's character when that player isn't there?
What will not be covered here is how to deal with experience. Experience is a mechanic that is dependent on GMing style. For example my GM style is to not reward experience but to grant levels at milestones. This article will be purely for covering in game ways to handle player characters.
Fade to the Background
This one is probably the easiest to pull off but requires a suspension of disbelief. In essence the character is there but does not interact with the situation that the party is currently in. If the party is wiped out it is assumed that the player passed with them. Overall the player is assumed to be there but does not interact with anything.
The problem with this is for highly narrative based campaigns with characters being invested. An event may occur that the character would want to make a decision on but cannot.
At some points in the story you are able to allow a character to wander off. You can then meet with this player at another time to cover what happened during their alone time. This can be more story coherent if you plan something to occur during your story that gives the character a reason to wander off. Maybe the character receives a letter and chooses not to tell the party.
The problem with this approach is that it is highly dependent on the character and the current situation in the game. This is not possible when the players are traveling through an isolated location like a dungeon or a hostile plane. On top of that if the character is hell bent on sticking with the party and has very few connections it can be difficult to come up with a logical reason for the player to leave. This route requires more planning.
Very much like wandering off, having the character get captured. This can kick start a new story arc and depending on the length of time that the player will be away can determine the length of the the arc. This is simpler than wandering off for the GM because they do not have to create a personal arc for the missing player. An example of this is being dragged off for a crime the character did not commit but was framed for.
Again like wandering off this is dependent on the story. Some scenarios may limit you in the ability to capture a character. In addition this should be a Deus Ex Machina to get the player away, otherwise you risk the other players succeeding in fending of the capture.
Controlled by Someone Else
With other players being at the table its possible for someone else to control the character. This can be the GM or another player in the party. This allows a full range of interaction and cohesiveness with the plot of your campaign.
As some of you can guess is that the main problem with this option is leaving the character in another persons hands. No one understands their character better than they do. By leaving it in another persons hands you are relying on their interpretation of who your character is without the knowledge of any skeletons that character has in their closet. This can be alleviated by giving the controlling player notes on how the character would react to certain events. This approach is recommended more for players who have been playing together for much longer and have worked together to build their characters.
Poor Decisions, Temporary Consequences
Sometimes a character chooses to go too far with their actions. Many of us have had one too many to drink one night. Maybe a wound was not properly treated. With actions like these you can have the player suffer a consequence to an action that may render them incapacitated or basically useless and resting. After all most people probably don't want to dive into a dungeon when feeling hung over. This can be taken further (potentially) if that player has to leave your campaign suddenly.
With the existence of magic there are plenty of ways to get around this. Depending on the composition of the party they may have an excuse for brushing off the consequences. It would require more work to argue why they shouldn't heal that member. Potentially this will require suspension of disbelief to allow this to continue and have that character catch up at a later time.
Delay the Session
Probably everyone's least favorite is to delay the session entirely. There are some points in a story that requires that player to be there. Maybe this is a character defining moment that requires a hard decision to be made by someone specifically. In this case no other way to replace the character or have them be controlled by another person is cheating that player of defining the character they are playing.
An issue with delaying is the potential of derailing a campaign. As sad as it is, a majority of campaigns never finish due to perpetual delays and scheduling issues. This can be mitigated by having a one shot played while that player is away or doing some other event that everyone else hangs out during that time.
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