[RPG] How to handle varying party size/players


So, I've been running some games as DM for my friends.

One of the big problems this has caused me is the variance in who can come to each session.

We're spread across several towns and can get together maybe once a month – and even then it's not with everyone (I now have 8 players who want to be active, and recently decided I can handle max 5 at once before progress is just too slow).

What would be the best way to deal with this variance in who and how many can come, and still have a campaign/party that makes sense? Usually I'll find a weekend that's best for as many people as possible, get some confirmed attendees, and scale encounters based on that.

As a case study/example: Last session I began the Sunless citadel adventure from "Tales from the Yawning Portal".

Due to unforeseen circumstances, only 2 of the 5 "confirmed" players came (Paladin and Bard).

I decided to start them going, and they loved the improvement in pace compared to a group of 5, but now I'm unsure what to do for the next session, when more (& likely different) people should be there.

So far I've had 2 ideas on how to make this make sense for the players;

1 – I run the next session without these 2 players, to "catch up" the early adventure. Quite a few rooms were missed out, so I think there's still plenty to keep the other PCs occupied. Cleared rooms/areas would stay that way.
2 – Next session, other characters get handwaved up to meet the advance party and we carry on. I'm not a fan of this, as they would miss out on XP, story points, and all the traps things to be found in the dungeon.

Both of these assume the "other" characters have got a tip about their mates going off without them, and decide to go follow. I have sworn my Paladin & Bard to secrecy from the others as to what happened, so there are no spoilers if I choose either/a better option.

Do either of these ideas have merit? Am I just insane to try and involve all my mates in a limited-group-size activity?!

Some things it might be worth mentioning;

I've previously tried writing winging bespoke quests based on who was coming – but these didn't tie together, often didn't get finished (or finished too soon), and only showcased my lack of writing/DMing experience. Hence, I got the Yawning Portal book (so it's only my DM skill that can fail).

Before the first game I ran for them, none of these people have played any edition of D&D before – but most have plenty experience with other board games, and non-tabletop RPGs.

I have yet to get the exact same selection of players in 2 different sessions – Ironically it's my 3 "core" players, who are almost always there, who didn't turn up last time.

For clarity; my main concern is that as many people as possible get as much of the story as possible – that isn't just a summary of what happened last time, where "no way would my character have been OK with that" can come up.

Best Answer

I have been in a similar situation and found it best to just handwave away the disparity and pretend people were there all along. Give them commensurate XP and gear (None of the fancy gear) and let them pick up from where the others left off.

If you try to give the missing players extra attention to explain how they join up what you are inadvertently doing is punishing the players who turned up both weeks.

As an improvement to this advice:

Since you know it is going to happen you might prefer to run your campaign in a series of short stories, each session ending back in town where the group simply comes together based on whatever quests are on offer at the time.

This means you can't run really complex campaigns, but completely gets around the random nature of your attendance.