Dealing with Player Absences
One common problem GMs face is what to do when players are absent in an ongoing campaign. What happens to the character? Do you create some excuse as to why they’re not there? Do they fade into the background with everybody pretending that they aren’t really there (like Mark from The Gamers)? Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s not all that satisfactory.
Yesterday’s session in my Deadlands mini-campaign was an interesting one. Two players were absent because they were on vacation to Pittsburgh. At first, I figured I’d just have the characters fade into the background or were off on their own.But for the epic conclusion of The Road to Hell, part one of the Devil’s Tower Trilogy, I decided to try something new.
Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer, mad scientist with a steam-augmented arm, simply faded into the background for most of the session. Following a lead that the Tremendae Gang was responsible for stealing the Heart o’ Darkness, they were able to find their base of operations. They arrived at the base and in the middle of the battle, Ruby attacked one of the heroes!
Confusion erupted for the next few rounds. Why was Ruby attacking? Was she being mind controlled? Was this some sort of illusion? Was I just being an evil GM? Ruby took a few good stabs at the Huckster before running off and getting gunned down (with a critical failure on the Incapacitation Table). After the battle, the group started poking around in the offices upstairs. Tied up and gagged in a storage room was Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer. But…didn’t they just shoot her?
I mentioned last week that four out of five players chose the Veteran o’ the Weird West edge, which resulted in the character receiving more experience points in exchange for some mysterious, unforeseen consequence. I created my own version of the table where there were two consequences: a major one like the ones on the table in the official rulebook, and a minor one that was more of a storytelling device and small inconvenience to the player.
Turns out that for Ruby’s minor consequence I drew “Doppelganger,” meaning that there was someone in the Weird West with her face. At first, I wasn’t sure how to incorporate that. I started dropping a few hints, like the local bartender thinking that they’d met even though she never had. I guess I imagined that maybe her doppelganger would turn up at one point.
The idea that eventually became the end result formed during the first session. While investigating Hellstrome Industries’ Plant 13 where the Heart o’ Darkness was stolen, they discovered a scientist whose head had been gruesomely smashed into a table with enough force to instantly kill him and sunder the table in the process. As the characters were speculating what could have caused that, one of them suggested that maybe the aggressor had a steam-augmented arm like Ruby’s.
It actually wasn’t that far from the truth. They were witnessing the handiwork of “Zik”, a former pit fighter who became a member of the Tremendae Gang. He was decked out in a number of augmentations, including a giant arm claw. After the first session, they hadn’t met Zik yet, but they did meet (i.e. were attacked by) some of the other members of the Tremendae Gang, who no doubt saw Ruby with them. They knew Ruby was a member of their gang, so why was she with this group?
In planning for this session with Ruby’s player absent, I decided that the Tremendae Gang came up with a pretty bold plan. During the night, they managed to capture the real Ruby and switch her with their own. After all, impersonating someone who is identical to you would be the perfect disguise. When the group got too close to the Tremendae Gang hideout, she made sure that she did her part to help take them down.
Unfortunately, the Tremendae gang did pretty poorly in their fight. The martial artist got hammered with 8 wounds (it takes 4 to incapacitate someone) from a hellfire carbine during the first round. Marshal Rex Tremendae started off the battle with a high noon duel with one of the PCs on the office level, but in the end he failed to escape and was knocked unconscious. Only Casper Zed, a Huckster from (surprise!) New Orleans managed to get away after activating an Invisibility hex on himself.
All in all, I was pleased with how it went, despite the fact that the battle wasn’t quite as much of a challenge as I’d hoped. Guess that’s the way the dice roll sometimes. Still, they’re going to need that luck in the next session because they’ll be heading to Lost Angels, one of the most dangerous places in the Weird West. And is that the sound of a stampede off in the distance?