[RPG] How do we play with irregular attendance


Some of my players (myself included) will always set time aside to play our weekly D&D 5e games, but others are more casual about their attendance, and won't make it most of the time, except when it's convenient for them. This leaves usually only 2 players left and we tend to cancel a lot because of this and its beginning to frustrate me.

What is a good way to handle this situation? Play without them and reward those who do play? Find a new group with the players that attend more consistently?

Best Answer

Play a campaign format that is inherently flexible about players showing up.

In my group's last campaign, especially near the end, we tried really hard to get the whole group present to play – and that meant that sometimes we couldn't play for longer than we'd like. After that campaign wrapped up (and actually before that too, during the times that we couldn't get everyone there for a main-campaign session), we started doing something different that allows for that, modeled after the West Marches (blog post, youtube channel).

The basic concept is to run a series of interconnected one-shots. We've also been doing it with rotating DMs, but that's not necessary to the system.

  • There's a consistent world, which we maintain some light documentation on (a OneNote shared notebook).
  • Not every player comes every time.
  • Each player has a stable of characters to draw from. We've done 10 sessions so far, and at this point we have five people in the group, each of who has played between one and three distinct characters.
  • When we can coordinate at least a few people playing, someone volunteers to DM and prepares a one-shot (or several). Whoever can make it that time chooses a character to play, or makes a new one, and shows up.
  • The characters advance in levels and in story through the session, but they may not be around the next time. There's not a consistent party; there's a town full of adventurers with different relationships to each other, some of who are friends and have storylines together and some of who haven't interacted yet, but might on the next adventure.
  • After a session, a player writes up a recap for the shared document (we've been doing this in a character's point of view, which has been pretty fun) for anyone who wasn't there to peruse, if they'd like.

This is definitely different from a traditional campaign; it lends itself naturally to a hex crawl. But it's certainly more of a campaign than a grab-bag of unrelated one-shots.

  • Different DMs have longer storylines that play out over the course of different adventures.
  • Characters who appear in one storyline show up in another, and they interact with each other. But this rotating stable of characters lets players drop in and out without too much strife: it doesn't ruin immersion by having characters who should be deeply invested in some storyline just fade to the background, players don't miss things that they really want to be there for, they just play.
  • When an owlbear crits you through disadvantage for an instakill, you still lose a character you care about and it still has weight to it, but you don't have to manufacture some reason why some outsider comes along and joins this tightly-knit adventuring gang immediately after their old friend's death.

As a negative, this definitely limits the kinds of adventures you can have, since it's hard to break stories up into neat four-hour chunks. We've had a few interconnected sessions where certain characters are left in the middle of something, and then the next time needs to be that same set of players for continuity's sake. But if you have a few people who are regularly more available and some who aren't, it shouldn't be too long before those are the people who can play again, and in the meantime you can do something else (in the same world!) with other characters.

This is something we haven't been doing for that long, but it's been working very well so far.