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Friday, 30 April 2021

The player who couldn't make it

'You killed my character and I wasn't even there!'

It was the early days of roleplaying and we were still feeling our way, but the player was right to be aggrieved. It's like borrowing a friend's Hellblazer collection and returning it covered in coffee stains. (A sore point; we won't go into that.) Still and all, what should I have done? We'd been in mid-battle the previous session, we'd had to press pause, and that player hadn't been able to turn up to the next game.

I can't remember what I decided. There might have been a retcon, but I was pretty hardline in those days so maybe the player just had to suck it up. At any rate, they didn't die in vain. From then on it was understood that PCs wouldn't get killed in the player's absence.

One simple solution is to avoid breaking the session in the middle of a fight. I've talked before about why cutting a session there doesn't work. There are more suspenseful ways to build in a cliffhanger. For instance, suppose it's the eve of Waterloo and the player-characters are sent to evacuate an important NPC from a chateau some miles from the main battle line. They get there only to learn that an enemy detachment is also heading that way. That's a good point to break. There's tension, there's uncertainty. Before the next session the players will be thinking about what to do. Run for it? Barricade the chateau and make a stand? Head towards the enemy for a surprise attack? Negotiate? Disguise one of the party as the NPC?

The icing on this cake is that if any player can't make the next session it's easy to explain away their absence. Maybe they've made a break for it with a message for high command, or they're out scouting the enemy's position. Contrast that with having the enemy characters burst into the chateau and then breaking till next time. Quite apart from the problem of having to cold-start with action rather than character interplay, you have no easy way to account for the absent PC. They were there last time making plans with the rest of the team -- but for some reason they sit out the fight? The other players can just shrug and accept it, the way you have to give a free pass to plot details in Doctor Who, but it's not great for immersion. In every way the former solution works better.

It's easier when you have plenty of prior warning that a player can't turn up. Their character can be off doing something else and there's no need to come up with an excuse for them not taking part in the action. Our long-running Tekumel campaign used to be run by me and Steve Foster (the designer of Mortal Combat and Eureka) taking turns as referee. We soon spotted the flaw in this arrangement: our own characters were only getting to be half as powerful as the rest of the party. Our fix was to award our own characters 80% of the average experience points earned by the other characters for sessions when we were refereeing not playing, the one-fifth deduction reflecting the fact that we weren't in danger of death. If a player couldn't turn up one week, they got the same deal.

Nowadays it's less of a problem because I don't tend to bother with awarding experience points, or else I play in games run by referees brought up in a culture of "every kid gets a prize" who scrupulously award each character the same experience regardless of what they did. In settings less vivid and immersive than Tekumel, suspension of disbelief may be less of an issue and players may just accept without comment that a character blinked out of existence for a week. Whatever works for your group, just so long as you don't hand a borrowed character back in a body bag.

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