A Dungeons & Dragons campaign can hinge around the players (and their characters) all being present. That can’t always be the case. If you find yourself missing one or more players at an important time in the campaign – such as the session when the party plans to storm the nemesis’ fortress and take back the stolen artifact – consider a side story. A side story is an encapsulated session dealing with events at another time and place without having a direct effect on the current scene. This could be a backstory session revolving around a particular character or a scene from another part of the campaign world.
If you have three of four players showing up for the next session, take the opportunity to highlight one of them. Have that player tell you about the important and formative times in their character’s life and create a session around one of them. This doesn’t have to be a finished idea; by getting a player to think about their background you engage them and give them agency to direct the story. Temper this by encouraging them to create important roles for their fellow players to enact.
As an example, a character has the sailor background. They grew up on a small island known for fishing but found themselves in a powerful storm. During the storm they were lost at sea and saved by a divine power, leading to them becoming a cleric. The cleric player will take the role of their character at a younger age. Other players might take the role of other sailors on the ship. You could play out the cleric leaving their island, embarking on their first adventure. One of the other players might be their best friend from childhood. Another might be a seasoned mentor to teach them the basics of sailing.
If you have multiple weeks of absence you could plan a longer story or take turns rotating through the characters and their backstories. This could be a great way to inject new life into a campaign and get players to think about their characters in a new light.
Campaign side scene
While your adventuring party goes to stop the villain in their fortress, who protects the kingdom? That stolen magical artifact once keeping the restless dead at bay has been removed; what is going on now? Use this session to show what’s happening somewhere else in the world. It’s a great chance for your players to try different characters. These could be characters they create to play out the side scene or important, seminal characters in your campaign world, such as the Queen, the Protector, the Archwizard. If your group is very high or low level, mix it up and change the power level! Maybe your players will have a new appreciation for their characters when confronted with the change.
While your players are off fighting the villain something bad is going to happen. There is a magical ritual taking place to summon the restless dead and use their spiritual energy to create a magical armor strong enough to make the villain invincible (until the artifact is reclaimed). This is the opportunity for your players to take the roles of the evil lieutenants of the villain, working to accomplish his master plan. If you don’t mind evil characters for one session this could be a great way for players to understand the threat in front of them and have a unique good time.
A different take on this could be a particular lieutenant or ally of the villain turning against them, attempting to escape their stronghold and weakening the villain in the process. Now the players aren’t just experiencing the opposition, they can act against their nemesis without breaking the narrative. They struggle to escape the evil fortress knowing if they succeed the usual adventuring party will have an easier mission. You can let loose on this side session party too, allowing yourself to fight them with full strength enemies and no remorse; if a character dies, the usual party plays on next session.
Maintaining a long running narrative in your campaigns can become a challenge when player have conflicting schedules, families and other responsibilities making regular attendance difficult. But there are plenty of ways to work around player absences.
In addition to the Keep Your Campaign On Track series here on Nerdarchy’s website, there’s a digital product at the Dungeon Master’s Guild called 100 Ways to Excuse a Character Absence available at the pay what you want level.
This topic has also been addressed by Nerdarchists Dave and Ted and Nate the Nerdarch on the Nerdarchy YouTube channel, as seen in the video below.
But how about you? What tips, tricks and advice do you have for keeping campaigns on track when circumstances prevent the whole party from mustering at the gaming table? Let us know in the comments below and keep an eye on Keeping Your Campaign On Track here on the website for more insights into this situation.
And as always, until next time, stay nerdy!
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