There’s a certain talent required for running a game in dealing with the unexpected. Not to downplay the importance of solid planning and logical rule jiggery, but things rarely go as planned when you have crafty and unpredictable players. Sometimes you have to toss your plans out the window and find a logical route to a more difficult challenge that avoids making your players feel like something has gone terribly wrong. Of course, my bigger problem isn’t crafty players, but having people not show up to the game in the first place for any number of life related reasons. Designing a campaign to be flexible from the ground up has made it far easier to run when faced with the adversity that real life presents us.
I think this most recent campaign started with nine players, with that many it was fair to assume that one or two of them would be missing each week. This has constantly been my experience with D&D campaigns over the past decade or so. It’s just not a priority for some people, and it’s hard to argue that other life elements should take a backseat to the glory that is D&D. Lately people have up and left the campaign entirely, which is fine, it happens. We’re now down to six regular players, and losing two of those can seriously swing the power levels of the game. This occurs far more often than I would like.
So what can be done? Plenty.
- Pre-game planning
Every game day I start sending out text messages around noon for a game that starts at 8pm. If there’s one thing I can rely on my players for, it’s two hours of notice before a game on their status. The game is generally balanced for six, but I can tone down a session in two hours to accommodate four without struggling. Having a hard cut-off time for people to respond is essential for my group these days. In the past, we would wait for upwards of an hour after the game started and people were at the table to hear that so-and-so wouldn’t be making it. I hate that, my players hate that, and it doesn’t allow any time to play with the game balance, which means you’re doing that as the game is live. Don’t put up with it.
- Sometimes it’s better to cancel than run poorly
When I get any less than half the party showing up for the game, you’ll be able to find me at the local bar drinking and flirting with the waitresses. While it sucks to hear that the game isn’t going to be happening on a given night, it sucks even more to get people driving out of their way to sit awkwardly at a table for an hour, and THEN find out. I’m not wasting my time on a session when half the players are missing, and neither should anyone else. First off, re-balancing for a single session can already be tricky, it takes a fair amount of time. Second, with half the party missing, making decisions that affect the future of the group can be a point of contention during the next session. Third, there’s a break in the suspension of disbelief if three of your six go missing suddenly, or have to be RP’ed by the DM.
- Plan for the small group and scale up.
There’s plenty of sessions that I run with four of my six players, and that’s just fine. Very few situations in my campaigns require all of the players to be present, and that’s generally for the climax of an adventure when they encounter the main protagonist. Most of my encounters are designed to be challenging but not overbearing. Letting players have the flexibility to utilize their skills without feeling like they need to go all out every single time in order to pass an encounter. Scaling isn’t just the hit dice of monsters, or number of creatures in a room.
Scaling up means planning for whatever low-end you decide you’ll run, and adding pieces that make sense to increase difficulty. This can be monsters, traps, puzzles, and of course, rewards. Monsters are simple, quantity works most of the time. For powerful creatures, minions are an excellent buffer for larger parties. Other times, taking a simple monster and giving it unexpected abilities will do the same. This also has pissed off the more rules-bound players, but fuck those guys anyway. If you think you’re getting the upper hand on a DM by memorizing the monster manual, I seriously hope you get what’s coming to you.
Traps are usually included in my game when someone can effectively deal with them, otherwise it’s just punishment with little recourse. I’ve killed players that pushed headstrong into traps, it’s not worth the hassle sometimes. Loot is also fun to toy with. Nothing in my game goes unused by the enemy so my players know the amount of people they get to the table directly correlates to the loot they’ll received after a battle. Yes that goblin shaman has a Rod of Fireballs, and he’s a psychopath that has no concern for his goblin fodder currently biting your ankles while on fire. Have fun with that! If that Rod of Fireballs doesn’t fit the party composition, scaling down to Gloves of Burning Hands can do the trick nicely.
- Bending the rules
This is what DM’ing is all about, well, if you’re a subscriber to old school rules in which the foreword for 1e and 2e books basically lays out that the rules are a guideline, and should be taken in context for situational play. I aim to keep a game entertaining, challenging, and playable. Sometimes you miss on the power scaling, sometimes your content is being plowed through waaaaay faster than you intended. Sometimes you need to take a step to slow it down, fudge a roll, or introduce an unexpected element. Sometimes a player is so tricky, they find a way to break an encounter from the beginning, and you have to change a rule to prevent that from happening. None of these things should be common if you’re planning well and you should keep your bent rules to a minimum. It DOES irritate players, but the few times I’ve done this a conversation later explaining why usually makes up for it. The DM rule is law, the books are your guide, the players are your sounding board. Trample lightly on expectations and rule unfairly rarely.
It might seem like awful advice, but it happens. Players and DM’s alike have run into a situation that requires what is essentially cheating. Do it quickly, keep debate to a minimum, and move along. You’ll breed nothing but contempt if you let that conversation fester for the length of a session.
The ultimate goal at the end of all this is to keep the game interesting, the story moving forward, and the challenge appropriate. At the end of a session if someone needs to talk to you about how the game is run, invite it, doubly so if you know you might have made a call that was grumbled about. Just because you’re running a campaign doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable to scrutiny. You’re still just as human as the rest of the players at your table, probably.