This week saw a schedule change to accommodate one of the group’s travel, and left us a player short due to their (understandably) work schedule. I considered a board game or movie night, or maybe a one shot of something, but after some consideration, realized I could do a side vignette.
Having players not show for a session is a perennial issue for tabletop gaming, especially as folks get older. They have kids, family issues, work travel, etc. and cannot always make it to the game. My group regularly shifts nights as people have these things impose themselves on our lives. So how to handle it? The above ideas are good — a movie night, just a dinner and chat night, play a board game or a short pick-up in another system — or you can go for the “side quest” (more on this in a moment…) Whatever you do, do something together.
Over 35 years (!) of doing this, I’ve realized that regularity is essential to keeping a group together. The point isn’t just to be doing this one thing. If that’s the lay of the land, your group is likely to fall apart over time because there’s no connection beyond the gaming table. Do stuff together. If the game is short a player, especially one that is essential to the plot or action that night, do something else.
In this case, we — in D&D terms — split the party and did a side quest. The player who runs Zara — ostensibly the “lead” for the campaign — had work and couldn’t make it to our last minute change of time. Fully understandable. We left the game with them having gotten key pieces of information, discovered a secret organization that was dogging their actions (the Terra Arcanum), and realized that the SS was still taking an interest in their expedition to Tibet. they had ended with a meeting of some of Zara’s old friends who turned out to be connected to the Terra Arcanum, and who were arranging for aid to meet them in India, mostly because they TA is interested in Dr. Gould and his apparent Atlantean heritage.
We did a quick bit of hand-waving — the airplane was still being repaired, as the mechanic could not get parts from American in less than a month, requiring him to machine parts for the engines. They’re stuck in Istanbul for another day. With this kicking off the night, I decided that Zara would most likely seek to find herself some diversion — in this case one of the underground jazz clubs in the city. And, of course, that necessitated a wardrobe purchase — after all, she’s only got some sensible day clothes and arctic wear for the mission. This had her out of pocket for the rest of the day and evening.
As a result, she’s not available when Dr. Gould gets word from the Rabinowitz Group — the local Jewish crime syndicate connected to the much more respectable Bosphorus Hebrew Relief Agency — that the men they had tussled with at Rudolf von Sebottendorf’s home last session had disappeared. Not just the three men in custody, but the one that had died of his gunshot wounds — straight out of the morgue! (A revelation that has our big game hunter, Gustav, knocked for a loop…he’s never killed a person before!) Worse, on being released by the Turkish police, the old occultist was scooped up by four men in a black Mercedes with registry plates connecting it to the German Embassy.
The group aids them in locating the Gestapo agents that have him: they are holed up in some kind of facility in the catacombs under the city near the German embassy — a place that they can do what they need to while remaining deniable by the official presence of the Reich. Gathering a few of Rabinowitz’s finest, which included a Ukrainian woman who uses a knout to terrifying effect, they mount a rescue during a thunderstorm, capturing one of the lookouts guarding an entrance into the catacombs, them bursting in to rescue the old man from the SS.
Gathering Sebottendorf up, they make a run for it while Rabinowitz and Gustav keep the Germans’ heads down, only to wind up in a car chase and gunfight they eventually escape. After patching the old man up and getting him presentable clothes, they get him on a train to Ankara where he “has friends” and can hide out for a few weeks until things blow over.
Gould (an alcoholic) and Gustav (bereaved of murdering someone, even in self-defense) retreat to their hotel to get drunk, and we ended with them toddling up the stairs for bed…
Of course, Zara will have found some action, as well, and the start of next week’s session will cover her evening. That’s the key to the side quest — it should take a short period of time and reasonably cover something the other players might not have had a chance to be involved in. More importantly, when you come back, show what the other character was up to. In this case, it was a swanky party, but perhaps if you’re dungeon crawling, the player had separated to relieve themselves only to have encountered a [creature or trap] and were temporarily waylaid, maybe they had a run-in with an old antagonist, or they discover a highly important object or bit of information that could aid the party. They should have a short moment in the spotlight where they have to be able to get out of the predicament on their own and look awesome doing it. Keep the stakes low enough to use this teaser to have fun and show that they were doing something equally interesting or important, and nto penalize the player for whatever kept them away the game before.