An important consideration for any Dungeon Master is knowing what you will do if you have absent players on game day.

This is a little bit of a balancing act. You’ve no doubt spent many hours preparing the session and it’s always a little saddening to know that you’re going to have a player missing out.

As much as I’m a fan of D&D as a type of escapism from the day-to-day “real life” issues, sometimes it just can’t be helped. Players get sick, get called in to work, have Finals to worry about, and other such things that would stop them from being there. It’s a sad but inevitable truth…

But how do you preserve the story and fun without effectively making your game prep just wasted time?

The number one cause of death for D&D groups is a lack of attendance or schedule conflicts. Because of this, it commonly becomes a bit of a sore spot for many Dungeon Masters and their groups.

So let’s look at what kind of options you have when players can’t make the game for one reason or another!

Should You Call the Game Off Because of Absent Players?

Deciding whether or not to call the game off is very difficult.

I have encountered some groups in my time that only play if every person is there. Likewise, I’ve encountered groups that are going to play no matter what.

You can pretty easily see both perspectives in this.

On one hand, the group is telling this story together and it’s possible that your group feels at their best when everybody is there. Missing any part of a well-balanced party can quickly cause rippling effects that will make things much harder and riskier.

On the other hand, the DM has spent all of this time prepping and all of the other players have cleared their schedule, so why not just press forward?

How I Handle Deciding Whether or Not to Call Off the Game

I have to give a bit of a disclaimer here…

I make it very clear to the party that I will not reduce the challenge of encounters that I have planned for the game. They will need to adapt their playstyle, find creative solutions, or come back to the encounter with a full party. Giving the players the decision (hopefully well enough ahead of time) on how to continue forward can add some interesting developments to the game.

Now, there are two reasons that will prompt me to cancel the game.

Firstly, if the party is going into a big fight, I will recommend that we cancel if a player is going to miss. As I mentioned, I do not like to cheapen the experience by weakening encounters. This is especially true when it comes to facing down a Boss who has likely been greatly hyped up by this point.

If the group wants to play anyway, we will, but I make the risks clearly known and leave it up to them. I make it a point to mention that death is always a possibility, but this is still a Boss encounter.

Secondly, if multiple players will be absent.

I like to keep my player count at 5 whenever possible for many reasons, but this is a big one. If one player will be absent, we will play anyway. If two players will be absent, I present the option to the group to cancel.

A party of three can still function well and adventure if they’re clever. But if, for some reason, the majority of players are missing, I call the game off. Prepping a game for five players then only having two to experience it is a pretty underwhelming experience.

Alternatives to Cancelling

Of course, you can still hang out with your group if the game has to be cancelled!

While there is no shortage of awesome card and board games these days, it’s only natural to have some favorites. For those still looking to get their D&D fix, there are a few that I particularly recommend!

Dungeon Mayhem is a great card game for 2 to 4 players with some really fun flavor, fast PVP action, and a deceptive amount of strategy! Because the games go quickly (like 10 minutes give or take), you can easily get in multiple games!

While not specifically D&D, a friend introduced me to another fun dungeon-crawling adventure game called Clank! that I quickly became obsessed with. This is another fast-moving game for 2 to 4 players in which you have to delve deep into the dungeon to loot as much treasure as possible without attracting the Dragon. The mix of navigating the map and deck-building keeps it fresh, frantic, and exciting!

If you’re looking for something more cooperative, the D&D board games are absolutely fantastic in their own rights!

Perhaps unsurprisingly to readers who know of my love for the Curse of Strahd module in 5e, the Castle Ravenloft board game is my hands-down favorite of the lot. A game usually takes around 45 minutes to an hour and this is one of the most replayable games I’ve ever purchased.

Honestly, even though these are alternatives to playing D&D, it doesn’t somehow make them less fun.

It would be pretty fun to do some reviews of these games, so let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d like to see!

Work Player Absences into the Story

Sometimes it’s possible to work a player’s absence into the story. This adds to the feeling of the world being responsive to what the characters do and can lead to some interesting developments. This is especially true if a player is going to have to miss multiple sessions in a row due to some other commitment.

For example, in Critical Role, Ashley Johnson had to miss a large amount of games in season 1 and a lot of season 2 due to filming obligations for a TV show she was in. Matt Mercer worked this in to the group’s stories in ways that felt natural for Johnson’s characters.

In season 1, Johnson’s cleric, Pike, was explained as having responsibilities in helping rebuild the temple of her deity, Sarenrae. In season 2, Johnson’s barbarian, Yasha, is explained as just being a loner who doesn’t let herself get tied in with others. (Well, among other things that I won’t spoil here…)

While it’s not ideal to have a player missing from the game, you can turn those lemons into lemonade by creatively finding ways to use their absence to evolve parts of the story.

As one more example, I’m currently running a Curse of Strahd game with a group of friends. The group’s bard has largely been siding with Strahd thus far in the campaign as a type of survival tactic. The player works for UPS and it’s the Holiday season as I’m writing this, so he’s working crazy hours and won’t be able to join for our next few sessions.

As the party has their first violent encounter with Strahd as they explore Barovia, Strahd makes the Bard an offer to join him at Ravenloft as a reward for his loyalty. The player and I discussed this ahead of time and he was all for it.

The bard will not enjoy his time in Ravenloft before Strahd casts him back out. However, he will learn a few things about the inner-workings of Ravenloft and Strahd’s motivations as a result of his time there. I’m excited to see how this plays out in the group’s roleplaying!

Sometimes, it just takes a little bit of creativity and communication to make the absences less awkward and turn them into something that adds to the story!

The Simple Way to Deal with Absent Players

Sometimes it can be way too much work to explain why a character has suddenly vanished.

Like, if the party is halfway through a deep dungeon, what could suddenly be so important that the character gets called away? They can’t exactly just head back out on their own in most cases. So, how do we explain this?

With some creativity and suspension of disbelief, it could be made possible. But in these situations it’s typically easier just to have the character fade into the background.

If some roleplaying is super-relevant to the character, the DM may do a bit of narration, but that should be the line. If the cleric misses the campaign, the party should not have an auto-piloted heal-bot following them around. Unfortunately, that character (and their abilities) are not in play.

Loot and Experience

This varies from DM to DM based on how sympathetic they might be, but absent players generally do not get a share of the reward for a session that they missed.

The party may decide that a particular magic item would be best used by the missing character, but that’s entirely up to them. Similarly, the party may decide to still give the character a cut of any gold that they find, but that’s a party decision.

If you are tracking experience points, the character should not get experience for the session that they missed. Missing out on loot and experience is often enough to compel players to only miss games when they absolutely have no choice otherwise.

If you use milestone leveling, it’s entirely up to you. If the player has missed several games between milestones, you may rule that they haven’t contributed enough to justify leveling up. However, I find that it’s typically far easier for everyone involved to not to do this. Upon reaching the milestone, everybody (even the missing character) gain a level.

What to Do With Players That Always Cancel

If a player always cancels, particularly if it’s often last-minute cancellations, it might be time to have a private conversation with them.

D&D is an endlessly fun and engaging hobby, but it still relies on everyone making the time commitment to play together.

This doesn’t mean you have to ban them from the group, but having a conversation about their schedule and priorities is certainly warranted. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the player is trying to make it work, but is stretching themselves too thin in the process.

It may be a scheduling issue that can be easily overcome. Would it work for the entire group to find a different day/time that allows everyone to play? If so, problem solved!

But if there’s not a way that the game can be moved to accommodate the player’s schedule, you might politely ask them to just let you know when they are able to recommit. Be direct about the cancellations’ effect on you and the group, but stay respectful.

I’ve had numerous players throughout the years that end up having to bow out for a little while. A large project at work or an exceptionally difficult class this semester are perfectly understandable reasons to step away from the table for a few months.

It’s not about punishing the player. It’s about keeping the game moving, setting expectations, and being respectful of everyone’s time.

Conclusion – Absent Players

Player absence is an inevitability.

Part of being a great Dungeon Master is having a plan for how to handle absent players. Ultimately, you will need to find what works best for your group.

Remember: at the end of the day, we’re all setting aside time to get together, play some games, and have fun. If you keep this as your guiding principle, you’ll find the solution that works best for your table.