What to do when not everyone shows up!

Last nights game was a very calm and quiet one as half of the players were unable to make it.  Normally when I know in advance that there will be that many missing from the game I will call it off and have a week with the family.  Sometimes things do not go that smoothly.  I knew last night that two of the six players were unable to make it as one is my daughter and she had been called into work, and the other had texted to say that work was precluding him.  It was not until 6 P.M. last night that I found out about the third cancellation.

I texted the player (who is the captain of the ship) and he said he had let me know through a Google+ message earlier that day.  Unfortunately I had not received the message as second day back at work, the last thing I was doing was G+ing.  Sad but true.  So I had three players and I put the option to them to call it off, which is not the best when you have all made an effort to get there.  They wanted to play and I realised that this was a good option at this point in time for the adventure had a load of loose ends that we needed to tie up.  There was finding out the reason a sunken ship had been so fast, exploration of a lot of ignored rooms in that ship, gaining some disrepute as filthy pirates and informing a Temple of Norgorber of a few secrets they had found out.

change made the Skull and Shackles work well
Skull and Shackles is going along quite nicely now 🙂

The players also (on the whole) had a list of things that their characters wanted to achieve as well so it was a good time to allow them out and do some of that.  There were spells to learn from spellbooks, bardic type stuff to show off with (one of the new characters) and a fair bit of healing to do after the ship was cleaned out.  The group sailed for Quent and spent around 14 days of downtime just enjoying a bit of a relax and a catch up after they had tied up the ship and the temple.

But what if this had not been the case?  What if the players were deep in the heart of an adventure and the rest of the group were really needed to pursue the main threads from the week before?  Well hear is something that an experienced or clever GM will know, they will have a mini (or side) adventure always in their pocket just for these occasions.

Side Adventures

My side adventures tend not to be perfectly planned options.  Instead I always have a page of notes with me that contain single sentence propositions that will fire me into an adventure.  Often I do these off the cuff but if you are new or a little nervous improvising it is always good to say to the group:

OK – the others aren’t here so can you give me ten minutes just to get something together for you?

When faced with the opportunity to play the answer from your players will always be yes.  Depending on the game that you play you may have source books that you can use to rip the preparation out of it like the NPC or Monster Codex of Pathfinder.  If it is something like Dungeon World or Dungeon Crawl Classics you are in luck because preparation tends to be very lean in most circumstances.  The main thing that you need to do with the set up time though is come up with the proposition, the genesis and allow the players to take you on a ride with them.

Essentially that is what my list is.  A list of genesis points that allow the players to react and take you somewhere interesting.  I will share a few examples from the list I have for the Skull and Shackles should I need it.

  • Stowaway!  Things have been missing from the chef’s stores and investigating the group find a strange creature along for the ride;
  • Underwater Palace: The ship jolts to a halt and on investigation they find themselves on a coral reef that looks just like a Disney palace;
  • Melody: The ship is be-stilled and a strange tune echoes over the still seas; and
  • Turncoat: One of the ships crew has been stirring up trouble with the local cabins over secrets on their own ship

Each of the above snippets gives me the ability to springboard into a mini adventure.  You may want to colour yours with a bit more detail like what sort of creature the stowaway is or who the Captains are that are upset by the secrets on ship.  For me those sentences are enough and will lead to a night of adventure.


It is true, I would easily get a side adventure out of all of those starting points.  How?  By listening to the players.  Let them take the lead in this type of adventure and you can respond to their directions.  When they give you an idea of what they want to do, allow them to and add to it.

Mark in a pirate hat
A few short minutes and you will be underway mateeeeey!

For example:

GM:  The sun beats down and not even a breath of wind catches the flagging sails.  A faint tune drifts across the glassy ocean though no other vessel is in sight and the crows nest reports nothing breaching the water in sight.

Captain’s player: Do I know the tune?  I have performance – singing?

GM:  You may recognise it (gets the Captain to roll) in fact you do.  It is an ancient sea tune played at a Captain’s funeral traditionally, but it has not been heard of for over a century?

First Mate’s Player rolls the die: I get a 15 for history – why has it not been played for so long?  It sounds like a mark of respect, why would they lose that?

GM: Good question, and in fact one that has a bit of a supernatural tale to it!  The last time that it was played was at the funeral of an Angel who had been sailing the dead from the land of the living to the celestial rivers of Nirvana.  It had been murdered from a human assassin and the essence that was to be buried at sea arose  from the funeral pyre as this tune played and attacked the congregation, or so it was said…

Listen and respond.  It is important to make the genesis ideas interesting or you will find yourself finishing these little side adventures quickly and they will fall flat.  If they are interesting then the players will respond with interesting ideas and the adventure will build with the addition of all the pieces.

The other key is to keep it to one night.  Do not create a side quest that is going to last longer or the players that are there may want to chase that over what they were doing!  Sure you can add other hooks into it but make sure that the adventure brings itself to a conclusion that has a feeling of finality to it for the evening.  Who knows, they may chase some hooks up at a later date to find the effects of their action.

I hope the above has given you some ideas on how to spice up something in a moments notice that will allow a game to go ahead when you get surprised by missing players.  I know it has saved me a lot over the years.  Keep rolling!

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