What do you do when one or more players cancel on game night? – Ask The Bellhop

A player cancelling for game night is inevitable. At some point, one of your players isn’t going to show up. Sometimes it’s the GM who can’t make it for a roleplaying game, or the host of the event has to cancel the entire thing at the last minute. What do you do?

This topic is inspired by the fact that I started off 2020 with a nasty case of Strep Throat and have had to cancel a variety of different gaming events due to that illness.

Agreeing to show up to game night is an important social obligation.

I want to start this entire topic by stressing the fact that saying that you are going to show up to play a game is a commitment and a very important one.

Our Gloomhaven Group sitting down for our first session.I realize that some people out there think “it’s only gaming” but gaming can be a very important aspect of many peoples lives. Committing to play a game is just as important as committing to any other social obligation. I personally like to think of having a regular game night like being on a sports team. If you fail to show up for the game you are letting the entire team down.

When you commit to something, make sure you can actually do it to it. Saying: “Yeah sure, I’ll be there.” when you are actually thinking “This might be a neat thing to do if I can make it.”, isn’t cool. If you can’t commit when asked to take part in a game be honest about it. “I would love to play but I don’t know if I can make it regularly.” or “I will try to make it but may not be able to.” are far better answers than saying you will be there and not showing up.

Only commit to a level of obligation you are actually comfortable with. If the game group demands a weekly session, and you aren’t sure that is actually possible for you, don’t say you can do it, expecting that the group won’t mind if you take a week off now and then.  That’s an assumption you cannot make. There’s a good chance the group really won’t be cool with it and it’s honestly rude of you to expect them to be.

It’s inevitable that someone is going to cancel on game night sometimes.

Booking a game night is a commitment, try to stick to it, while at the same time realizing that things happen. Unexpected obligations come up, especially with family and work. People get sick. Cars break down. There are any number of very valid reasons for someone to cancel on a game night. No matter how good your group or how loyal and regular your players are, at some point someone is going to cancel.

An empty table set up to play New FrontiersFirst off, accept that this happens. Don’t get mad at the person who has to cancel. Don’t punish them for missing a game. Don’t deny them rewards the other players may get. They are already missing out on something they signed up to do. They most likely already feel bad for having to cancel and there’s no reason to make them feel any worse.

Next, if you are the one that finds they have to back out on a gaming obligation be sure to let everyone know as soon as possible. If you’ve got a heads up that you might need to cancel, let everyone know, even if it’s not certain. Over-communicate. The more heads up you give people the better chance they can salvage the night and plan to do something else or adapt their current plans to take account for your absence. This is more and more important the larger the group is, and the further anyone in it might have to travel to take part.

The inevitable happens someone cancels for game night, what do you do?

One of the big things that’s going to affect this particular answer is whether your game night is a regular board game night, an RPG night or, any game night where you are playing some kind of legacy or campaign game. Basically the answer may depend on whether it matters or not if you have the same players present each game session.

For a game night where you don’t need the same group of players:
Let’s start off with a game group where it doesn’t really matter if the same people are there each week and, you aren’t playing an ongoing game. In most cases, this is a pretty easy fix. The players who didn’t cancel still show up and they play something. In many cases, this can still be the same game. There are very few games out there that only play at a specific player count.

Yes, of course, there are games that are better at different player counts and if that’s a problem then you are probably going to want to pick another game to play. The host will more than likely have other options, though admittedly finding something the entire group can agree on can be tricky at times. It’s also possible to make sure people attending the event bring a backup game or two, or play at a venue where other games are available.

City of Gears all set up and ready to play.Having to play something else can really suck if you planned to play something specific, especially if the cancellation is last minute and you’ve already prepped for the game in some way (set up the board, printed character sheets, spent ten hours drawing out a dungeon map, created a hundred new NPCs, etc). Really though, all you are losing is some of your time. Most pre-game prep is still going to be there, ready for you to use the next session.

Personally I think these situations are a great chance to do something different from the usual. To break from your group’s regular routine and give everyone a bit of a break from the norm. If you usually play heavy strategy games try something lighter. Find the game that has been on the host’s pile of shame the longest and offer to play it. Try out a one-shot RPG in a very different setting than your usual game. Crack open that new Kickstarter game that you were planning on saving for another night or dust off an old classic your group hasn’t played in some time.

For games that do require some type of player continuity:
Cancellations become a bitter problem when you have some kind of ongoing campaign. What you end up doing is very much going to depend on the group and the game you are playing.

Starting off with campaign-style board games, you probably have a few options that let you still play the game you planned to play in some way. In games like Gloomhaven or Imperial Assault, you can always just play a character short. The problem with this is that the absent player may feel like they missed out on something. Be sure to talk to them and see if they are cool with you continuing the game without them. This has come up multiple times with our Gloomhaven group and the answer for us was to do casual play missions, aka random dungeons and things like solo quests.

Many board games have alternative ways to play them. Imperial Assault has a cooperative mode or a skirmish mode available for when your full group can’t make it. You may not be continuing your campaign but at least you are still playing Imperial Assault. Other games offer similar variant modes of play. Solos scenarios, cooperative app-driven modes, side quests, one-shots, and so on. Unfortunately, if this isn’t an option for your game of choice, then you may need to look at playing something else or just cancelling the game night overall.

Personally I lean very strongly on the play something else over cancelling side of things. While I know that everyone would rather be playing The Main Game. I would prefer to get everyone together and play something than totally cancel the week. This is due to wanting to keep a feeling of continuity. If you meet every week you want people to get used to meeting every week.

If you keep cancelling your game session night in and night out due to one player or another not being able to make it, eventually you aren’t going to have a regular group anymore. People aren’t going to set aside time for it and when the absent players can finally make it you will find one of the regulars has made other plans because they weren’t expecting you to actually play that night due to regular cancellations. Trust me I have seen this happen with my own groups. It’s a common problem and one that can be avoided by getting the players who are available together to do something.

Looking at cancellations on the roleplaying side of gaming:
Jumping over to the RPG side of things, the group actually has quite a few more options. One of the great things about roleplaying games is their versatility. In an RPG the moderator can make anything happen. The trick here is keeping all of the players interested and happy, including those that happen to be absent.

One possible option is to continue the campaign without the absent player or players. Again, like a campaign board game, this risks having the missing person feel like they missed out on something, but can be the best option for a game with a very structured ongoing plot, or one that is meant to be run in a time limit. These time limits can come from the format of the game, or because players signed up to only play a certain amount of sessions. You don’t want cancellations to extend that limit and potentially interfere in future plans.

And RPG table with no players and no GM.The trick with continuing to play without an absent player is what do you do with that player’s character. Now, this is a topic where you will find a ton of advice out there on the Web. Pretty much every RPG blog or podcast has covered this topic at some point and there are a lot of options. I’m just going to talk about a few of the most common and one I’ve personally done myself to good effect.

The easiest solution to playing an ongoing campaign with a missing player is that the player’s character just fades into the background that night. It’s assumed they are there doing their usual things but nothing they did has a huge impact on the plot and nothing in the plot has a huge impact on them.

Some groups like to have another player take over a character. Personally I’ve never been a fan of controlling more than one character in a roleplaying game but I wouldn’t have a problem in a campaign-style board game with this. In this case, be sure the absent player is cool with someone else playing their character for the night.

My personal favourite way to handle this is to find an in-game reason for the character to not be present as well as the player. This works particularly well if the player’s absence is known well in advance and can even be part of the plot of your game. I did this with a Dungeons & Dragons campaign where two of the players worked shift work on opposite shifts. In that game, there was a rip in reality. Repairing that rift was the overarching metaplot of the entire campaign. In that world people would suddenly get shifted through the rift to another realm, only to return at some random time later. So in our game, it just happened that every two weeks Mike’s character would get ripped into the rift, and coincidentally Dan’s character would pop out.

What about when you don’t want to or can’t continue your main RPG campaign due to having a character missing?
As I mentioned above when talking more about board games, you really want to keep the group together, you still want to meet up and if possible actually game. It’s just a matter of figuring out what to play.

One option is to play the same characters, in the same world, and play through something that doesn’t impact the main story. A side quest, a flashback, a moment that was glossed over in an earlier session that it would be cool to return back to and explore further. A similar rather fun option is to play in the same campaign world but play a different group of characters, perhaps even characters on the other side. This is a great way to flesh out, explore and experience more of a game world, seeing things through another set of character’s eyes.

Another way you may be able to still stick to your regular game is to do something for the game that isn’t actually playing the game. Maybe this is the week you work on what your character’s heraldry is. The group can sit down and map out their home base. Or maybe everyone makes a shopping list for the next time they are in town. This can also be a good time to work on long term character planning, deciding what feats people will take at next level. This is a chance to fall out into the metagame of your campaign and work on some stuff that you may not want to interrupt regular game time for.

Sometimes the best option is to just play another game.
As I mentioned when talking about board games, this is when I like to take a break and do something completely different. Play board games, play a one-shot, make characters for another system. I always try to make this other game something very different from the usual game. If I’m running a fantasy game I’ll do a cyberpunk one-shot for example.

There is a risk to playing something else, one that my home group knows far too well, and that’s the squirrel effect of getting distracted by this new game. I don’t know how many of my early campaigns ended because someone couldn’t make it so we played something else that week and then everyone had so much fun playing the new things we never went back to the old. This is a personal pet peeve of my wife.

Some talk about what to do if it’s the GM or host that has to cancel.

This really is the worst possible scenario and one that you want to try to avoid as much as possible. In this case, most of what I’ve covered already is just as, if not more, important. Be honest, only cancel for a good reason, and be sure to communicate, and communicate as soon as you know there’s a risk to the game night.

A cancelled painting event at Origins due to the host not making it.

If at all possible you want to have the game night go on without the organizer. I know a few times, though not often I’ve had people gaming down in my game room while I was sick upstairs in bed or while I was working an unplanned overtime shift. If that’s not possible the rest of the group should try to get together nonetheless. Perhaps you play at another player’s house or got to a coffee shop, gaming cafe or local game store.

Even if you can’t find a venue to game at it’s still worth getting the gang together even just to hang out or maybe share a meal, just to keep that regular schedule fresh in everyone’s head. This could be a great chance for everyone to go out and get a drink and talk about the ongoing game. A check in to make sure everyone is still having fun, maybe to brainstorm where things should go next, to reminisce on awesome moments of the past or plan for things to come. For RPG groups maybe this is a chance to talk tactics, or where players are planning on going with their characters. If the GM can’t make it the players can still plot, plan and organize.

For hosted events, the absent host should do their best to see if they can find someone to cover them. I did this for the last CG Realm event. I was supposed to be doing demos of Carpe Diem but there was no way I could do that with strep throat plus I didn’t want to spread this horrible plague to anyone else, so I asked Deanna if she would mind going to the event without me and playing teacher and host. If possible this should be planned ahead of time, so that you’ve got a backup host or venue set and ready to go for when the inevitable happens.

A similar situation happens when the GM is the one sick for an RPG session. It’s pretty hard to continue an RPG without the moderator. In this case, my previous advice of playing something else, or finding something meta you can do for your existing game stands but there’s sometimes another option that is similar to finding someone to cover you as a host and that’s getting another player to cover you as GM.

This works best when you are playing a very scripted plot and is something I’ve personally done through organized play and Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve both had DMs cover my spot and I’ve run for other DMs who couldn’t make it. This usually isn’t a problem as most organized play events are very scripted and don’t require the DM to know anything about what the group has done before. This can also work in a home game, especially when playing a pre-written module. The other option is to have the backup GM run something different in the same world as I talked about earlier.

A room full of games with no one to play them.

The worst possible answer but one that may be inevitable, is that you just have to cancel the event. The important thing here is to let everyone know as early as possible and let people know what’s next. If it’s just a one session cancellation remind everyone when the next meetup will be. If you need to reschedule, get that information out as quickly as possible. Even if you don’t know an exact date, let people know that a rain date is planned and that you will let them know as soon as possible.

Sometimes rescheduling isn’t possible and you just have to give up on that particular game. This is most likely to happen if the absence is going to be long term or recurring. Ending a game night, stopping a campaign, and breaking up a group is probably enough of a topic for another article, but the important thing here is communication. Make sure everyone is on the same page and move forward once everyone agrees with where to go next.

The best thing you can do for your game group is to have a plan in place for when someone cancels.

The most important thing here, no matter what type of gaming we are talking about, is to have a plan in place for when someone has to cancel on game night. This plan should be in place long before absenteeism becomes a problem, ideally before the campaign or first session ever starts.

Every group should sit down and have an open honest conversation about what you will do when someone doesn’t show up as part of founding that group and committing to a game night in the first place. What do you do when two people don’t show up? What causes you to cancel the game night, and what is the backup plan for when you can’t play your main game?

This is part of the social contract with your group. And no, by calling it a contract I don’t mean it needs to be a formal document, but you know what, some groups do write this stuff down. Personally I think it’s a very good idea.

An RPG group being formed.

Now I know some of you are probably shaking your heads at the thought of writing up an actual, on paper, formal contract, but one of the things that this does is indicate to everyone just how serious this is. As I said at the start of this article, I see signing up to play a game as an obligation, just as important an obligation as your kid’s hockey practice or your dinner plans with the relatives. Having an actual document formalizes things and makes it feel more official and can help cement that obligation.

What this actual plan is, is going to be very different from one game group to another. There’s no perfect answer here except for the answer that your group all agrees to. What you do want to watch for is that you have multiple redundancies in place and that it’s very clear what will happen when a cancellation comes up.

Here is an example game night cancellation plan:

I want to thank patron, local Windsor gamer,  and fan of the show Jeff Szusz for sharing this with us during our last Podcast Recording.

We have frequent cancellations and have developed a rhythm for ensuring our game nights happen regardless. With the following simple guidelines we can avoid almost all game night cancellations – with six players, if at least three of us can show up and one is a GM, we play.

We have a secondary GM with a backup game to play if the primary GM is away

We have two or more people willing to host, so we can play if one host is unavailable. We also have a favourite cafe to play at if both hosts are unavailable, which is rare.

We play games that lend themselves to PCs being missing

We embrace a mode of play that doesn’t require RPing chronologically through everything the PCs do every day – jump cut to a new scene and don’t worry about explaining why Grog the Barbarian isn’t still standing six feet to the left of the doorway where we left him last week.

We tend to play episodic games that expect everyone to be back at HQ for the beginning of each session – like a West Marches-style D&D campaign or Blades in the Dark

If we tackle a game that doesn’t favour episodic play, we remove long-distance travel as a common trope each session. It’s easier to gloss over a member of your Shadowrunner crew being busy elsewhere in the city for an afternoon than it is to explain away a missing travel companion on a quest to Mount Doom.

So what does your game group do when someone has to cancel on game night? Do you have a strict set of rules in place or some other form of social contract set up to handle player absenteeism? If you do I would love to hear about it. Tell me about it in the comments!

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2 Responses

  1. I liked this article and it is so true that inconsistency leads to lacking of game night. We’ve made a regular day on Sunday nights and allow anyone in the community to play. I do make it a point to play with some of the staple players, but I also have found that I am teaching as much as I am playing and staying on the sidelines. Either way it has been an enjoyable experience, and this was a good article.

    1. Chris,

      It’s awesome that you are out there teaching games. The world needs more game teachers like us!

      Glad you enjoyed the article,

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