Player Absence and Internal Consistency

One of the hazards of roleplaying as a group activity springs from the fact that it requires a group, and requiring a group means requiring people’s schedules to line up. Needless to say, this doesn’t always work. People get dragged away for family events, overwhelmed by school or work, laid low by illness; sometimes someone can’t get transportation, or someone else had a previous engagement, or someone else really needs to stay home and take care of the pets/younger relatives/older relative. Occasionally it’s longer term, like a player’s work schedule messing with time zone alignment, or someone moving away or going off on foreign exchange. And sometimes people just blow it off, either short-term or long-term.

Photo by Jeff Hire

So what do you do when a character clearly exists, but the player’s not around to play him? Sure, in some games you can get away with “You find that some of your teammates have mysteriously vanished, and others have mysteriously appeared”, but if what you’re going for is internal consistency, that’s usually not going to fly.

Some groups just have the absent player’s character go mysteriously silent; sure, they’re around, but they don’t tend to say much, or they follow the group quietly and don’t do much else. While this does address the immediate issue of the character not being there, it can occasionally cause its own problems; what happens when a character who ordinarily would be fully involved in planning doesn’t have a player there to contribute? Or when a problem comes up that would actively involve them?

One method people take is having someone else play the character by proxy. This often falls to the game master, since she’s already taking care of every character who isn’t a PC, but might be handed off to a fellow player with a crib sheet in order to avoid overwhelming the GM. It’s a good technique in the short term, as it means you don’t have to figure out where the character went, allowing the player to come back and pick up where he left off. On the other hand, no two people see the same character the same way—and while most of the time this will just be a minor nuisance, people occasionally tell horror stories about characters being killed or rendered unconscious because they weren’t played the way the original player would have played them. A good thing? Not so much. Moreover, it requires coordination to pull off, and the other player variant may require telling secrets that wouldn’t otherwise have come up until later.

Some groups have the character himself removed from the situation, possibly even making his removal a plot point. I’ve seen a number of forms of this myself, with future absentees being abducted, given alternate errands to do, put in magical stasis—heck, when I got a job that kept me away from one of my play-by-chats, my character was written out of the story for several months by having him pass out through magical backlash after channeling the spirit of a murdered woman. Though making it a plot point makes it easier for internal consistency, it can be difficult for the absentee player; what happens if he gets back and the conditions for his character’s return haven’t been reached yet? Or what if he’s gone too long?

And of course, many people’s solution to permanent absences (most often a player moving away or losing interest) is to kill the character in question. On one level, this works; nobody has to learn how to play the absentee character, and it explains why the character is gone. On the other hand, it has its own difficulties. The character isn’t just going to die out of nowhere, and his teammates are probably going to have something to say about his death (I had a friend who nearly lost one of her characters trying to save the life of a character who was being deliberately killed off and hadn’t told her; awkward situation to say the least). Moreover, the character might be a link to some of the other NPCs, or otherwise important to the game, and would be more useful alive than dead. And what happens if someone finds a way for the player to come back?

I’ve seen all of these work, in one circumstance or another. Which technique works for you?

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