‘What do you mean you can't come?!?’
This is a common expression of the GM when a player can't make it to the game. What, then, is a GM supposed to do?
A glass is tapped nervously. A small chewy sweet is rolled around the inside of a dry mouth. A pencil is strained to breaking point as the owner applies unconscious pressure. Fingers flex and fist as the time ticks by.
One of the players is late. The game should have started ten minutes ago.
With a shrill tone that cuts the tension, the telephone starts ringing.
Eyes flick tentatively to meet worried gazes and then all stare at the telephone.
`Oh, my God.' says the GM, `that had better not be Bill.'
You tell me, does that sound familiar? Don't you want to throw your rulebooks through the window when a player can't make it at the last minute?
It can't be helped. Last minute changes can interfere with a game. It can make matters worse when other players have to do a lot of travelling to attend a game, or the arranged games are few and far between, and they feel as though they have wasted their time. When that one player cannot make it, there is a hole left where he should be. If it is halfway through a campaign, the continuity is warped slightly.
So let's get to the point of all this. What is a GM to do when one of his players can't make it for the evening's play?
Well, she could try the NPC trick. That's when the absent player's character is run as an NPC, still interacting with the party and generally being played as true to the original character profile as possible. This may cause a bit of a heated discussion when the player comes back, arguing that some of the actions that the GM decided on were the opposite of what they would have done. As well as that, the character could get killed, which would really put a damper on things. The best way to run a PC as an NPC is to only have them pop up when their applicable skills are needed, or when they are required as an extra hand in a confrontational situation. That way, the character is not put at any great risk, and is also not run as a personality but as more of a tool that is used when required, therefore not greatly going against anything the player may have had in mind for it.
If the evening's play is not part of an ongoing campaign, and the game is just going to be a quick one-off, so much the better. The player's character can simply have gone off to do something else, such as having a haircut or trying to buy a new coat, leaving the rest of the party to have an adventure. Fair enough, the player may be a bit annoyed that the others have received rewards and he didn't get a look-in, but hey... too bad. The rest of the gamers shouldn't have to give up a night's session because one of the group couldn't make it, and should still be able to get the rewards they earn.
If you want to be drastic, you could try having the absent player's PC hurt badly or go down with some illness that knocks them out. That way they can be unconscious throughout the entire game and the GM doesn't have to worry about their actions or personality traits. It also makes for an interesting game, with the other players having to lug the PC around and looking after them, adding to their problems. It's either that or the character can spend a bit of gaming time in hospital, although it can sound a bit silly when in the next game the player says, ‘Oh, well, I know I took a blaster bolt in the lungs and coughed blood before I passed out last week, but I feel much better now,’ and then carries on like nothing happened. Watch out when using this one.
Allowing one of the other players to control the absentee's PC can cause the same kind of problems as allowing the GM to run it. In cases like this, the players might be tempted into using the character to run the risks in the scenario. The chances are that it will be killed by the end of the game, going first into dangerous situations or generally being used as a dogsbody. The other players may get a bit cocky and decide to have a 'bit of a laugh' with the character, and have it do things that get it into trouble, and generally go against the design of the character profile. Allowing another player to control it takes a bit of the burden from the ref.'s shoulders. After all, it's one less NPC to worry about. It also runs the risk of unbalancing the game. It wholly depends on the attitudes of the players and their willingness to attempt the character correctly.
Players cannot always be relied upon to turn up for games, and it's for this reason that collectable card games are a pretty good idea. Although I have never played them myself, they appear to be quite handy to have floating about in case the game doesn't take off for one reason or the other. Having a back-up plan so that the evening won't be a complete loss is always a must, and having another game on hand, be it a trading card game, normal board game, computer game or whatever, is a good thing. This way, the roleplaying campaign won't be altered or held up by trying to fill in the place of the missing player.
Why don't you just carry on as if nothing has happened? This way, the game can continue unabated, and when the player returns for the next game she can be filled in with the details of what happened in the last game and then re-enter at a convenient moment. In fact, this is probably the easiest thing to do, and no doubt many groups already do this. Hang on, have I been wasting my time here?