Absences Excused: How to Explain Vanishing Characters

Real life is chaos. We fake being organized and we pretend that we’re in control, but no one actually lives that way (do they?). And in spite of all our valiant efforts – sometimes the worst comes to pass. Dread it. Run from it. Sometimes, a player has to skip game night. But how do you explain away the sudden disappearance of Chestgirth, barbarian lord of Clan Bicep? Read on and master the art of vanishing a character who’s player can’t attend.


The best defense against an acute, aggravated absence-affliction is a healthy dose of preparedness. Know that even the most hard-core gamers will be forced to duck out of a session here and there for little annoyances like childbirth or tornadoes (you can Skype from the hospital though, let’s be honest). So, ready your GM toolkit beforehand and make truancy a minor inconvenience.

To make it easy on yourself, try to engineer your game sessions so that they end at a convenient plot-spot where absenteeism can be explained away with ease. Towns, headquarters, spaceports, and other “crossroad” type locations make it simple to say, “that character has other business to attend to and will catch up later.” Halting game night in the middle of a dungeon-crawl, though sometimes unavoidable, will make whisking away a PC more complicated during the next meet-up.

Have the players do the work – as part of character creation, encourage your players to come up with a short list of reasons why their adventurer might have to wander away from the mission at hand on short notice. You can even pass out a few bonus XP as incentive for especially clever excuses.

Have a stack of alibi-worthy side-quests ready to go, and use them to absolve the missing party-member. This is straightforward if you’re already running a West Marches style campaign or if your setting has an adventuring society, mercenary guild, or other organization that hands out hero-gigs on a regular basis. Plus, you can cleverly disseminate information or important items when the character returns with news of her solo journey.

Also, it may be useful to adjust your thinking and mentally separate your game’s protagonists into Main Characters and Side Characters. Mains are the folks who show up every time or who can be counted on to give you plenty of advance notice when they aren’t going to make it so you can prepare for it. Sides are those who just can’t commit to the schedule or who have various life-complications that mean they will have to flake, here and there. Write your stories so that plot-lines can continue even if the Side Characters are a no-show. And try not to let them hold onto the Essential Plot Item, just in case they have to bail out the following game when you need it most.


Another method of dealing with absence is to completely overlook it. We are playing pretend, after all (with dice and little plastic people!). GM’s and players can simply adopt a policy that the character is present and participating, but has no impact on gameplay. They become a background character. They are there but not there (insert Keanu Reeves saying “whoa” here).

This approach may raise some logical problems: “Your Jedi just stood around and let us get captured last week even though we know he could have used Mind-Trick on the stormtroopers. Now, we’re in space-prison and we’re all mad at him.” But, this is the trade-off for brevity.

If the character is essential, it may be wise for the GM or another player to run them that session, at least for the part where their role would be crucial. Ideally, this would be discussed at the beginning of the campaign to avoid ruffled feathers and to address the question of “what if my character dies while somebody else is playing them?” Such co-opting does have its pitfalls.


If you simply don’t have enough butts-in-seats to play the game, or if you don’t want a particular player to miss out on a particular game – you may just need to call it off. Yes, it’s okay to cry. And be wary about perpetual postponement, for game night may disappear entirely. But now and then, it’s the right choice.

Having a one-shot adventure or testing out a different game system are all viable alternatives, if you don’t want to cancel completely. Board games, card games, party games, and video games can be a nice change-of-pace, too. And for the REALLY weird people out there, I hear there’s other social activities groups of friends can do BESIDES gaming. But who even DOES that stuff? Live music? Bars and restaurants? Psshh! We’ve already found the highest possible form of fun! I bet they’d make me take off my wizard hat at the theater – how sad their lives must be!


Here’s a big list of ideas for absentee excuses. Select whatever seems appropriate or make up a nice random table. (Many of these are lighthearted, but some are things that real people suffer from in the real world – so be cognizant of peoples’ feelings.)

  1. Alien abduction.
  2. Ancient curse occasionally turns them into a small pet / object for random lengths of time.
  3. Bone spurs.
  4. Bonk! – a blow to the head in a previous battle means they can only follow along silently.
  5. Butterfingers – drops something important in the weeds and will catch up when they find it.
  6. Community service / probation meeting / mandatory jail time / town pillory.
  7. Crafting a special item / creating something for use later.
  8. Cursed item they found lying around traps them inside itself (when the player returns, they find the secret of how to break out).
  9. Cybernetic implants need maintenance.
  10. Defensive Stance – present, but does nothing except protect themselves.
  11. Drunken / drugged stupor that requires rest.
  12. Extended bathroom break that nobody asks too many questions about.
  13. Family function that can’t be missed (without making mom angry).
  14. Family member is severely ill or injured and time is short.
  15. Favorite pub going out of business.
  16. Fear – the upcoming challenge is too daunting or the previous one too terrifying.
  17. Guard duty – protecting the perimeter, the rear, the dungeon entrance, camp, car, mounts, etc.
  18. Hunting / gathering supplies / breaking camp / etc.
  19. Joints start “acting up.”
  20. Jury duty / tax season / government census.
  21. Led astray by a con-man / faeries / seducer / visions / voices / will-o-wisps.
  22. Legal matter which must be cleared up immediately and in-person.
  23. Lost in the wilderness (works best while traveling).
  24. Magical summoning spell that forces them to fight for a far-away wizard.
  25. Malfunctioning teleporter / spaceship / A.I.-driven vehicle delays their arrival.
  26. Mandatory training session for militia / reserve troops.
  27. Mental trauma / PTSD / shell-shock that requires downtime to stabilize.
  28. Narcolepsy / fainting / sleeping sickness / unexplainable coma.
  29. Old enemy shows up and causes trouble that requires solo attention from his rival.
  30. Old friend / family member shows up to visit unexpectedly.
  31. Overhauling a vehicle / making important repairs to the base or a special item.
  32. Phobia over something nearby forces them to fall back to a safe place.
  33. Random pocket-dimension whisks them away, temporarily.
  34. Recovery time from injury / trauma (works in game systems without a fast-heal option).
  35. Religious / cultural obligation that cannot be delayed (holy day, rite of passage, etc.)
  36. Research required – studying up to find critical clues or searching for informants.
  37. Romantic interlude (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).
  38. Scout ahead and somehow get lost or captured.
  39. Shady acquaintance calls in a marker and it’s time to pay back the debt… or else.
  40. Sorrow over a lost companion or failure leads to the inability to fight on for a time.
  41. Sprayed by a skunk (or an equivalent creature) and is intolerable to be near.
  42. Stuck! — foot gets stuck in the mud / crevice and they will “catch up in a bit”.
  43. Too exhausted to continue without rest.
  44. Too slow to keep up – small injuries like sprained ankles can help explain this.
  45. Unprepared for the journey ahead, but will rendezvous as soon as they get organized.
  46. Vacation (sometimes, you just have to take a break from saving the world).
  47. Vague message arrives about “important family business.”
  48. VIP (like a prince or a company president) wants to meet and it would be rude / fatal to say no.
  49. Waiting out bad weather / closed roads.
  50. Wild goose chase that sounded important but turned out to be nothing.

And if that’s not enough, here’s a list of embarrassing / non-lethal / temporary illnesses:

  • Astral reflux – common among wizards.
  • Bad beard day – serious condition among dwarves, archmagi, and hipsters.
  • Confetti cough – a magical contagion spread by clowns.
  • Cyber-cooties – humiliating disorder that makes your chrome blush.
  • Explosive diarrhea – up to 9d6 damage to the bathroom facilities.
  • Fablephobia – terribly afraid of the current plotline.
  • Hand, foot, mouth, arm, leg, head, and torso disease – pretty much the whole body.
  • High mana pressure – requires rest from constant spellcasting.
  • iPox – transferred via computer virus.
  • Irritable Baatezu syndrome – flare-ups can be hellacious.
  • Jedi jaundice – skin turns a shade of either green or blue, rarely purple.
  • Jugglomania – the inability to stop juggling objects.
  • Lame disease – a malady that prevents an adventurer from doing anything cool.
  • Largepox – bigger than smallpox.
  • Limp quarterstaff – aww.
  • Marsh bottom – an affliction of strong odors.
  • Medusa mumps – turned to stone, but only for a bit.
  • More-disappointed-than-mad cow disease – your mother and I expected better.
  • Old crone’s disease – spread via witches and witchcraft.
  • Onomatopoeia – it’s exactly what it sounds like.
  • Outfluenza – common sickness that is VERY messy.
  • Pax pox – short-lived ailment that turns the victim into a lazy pacifist.
  • Psychic psoriasis – itchy brain.
  • Super scurvy – caused by lack of fruits AND vegetables.
  • Super-duper scurvy – all you eat is cheese and bread!
  • Swoon flu – a very intense form of lovesickness.
  • The One Ringworm – fungal infection contracted from exposure to magic items.
  • Threeberculosis – bacterial infection of all three lungs.
  • Truthcanthropy – loudly announces trivia and random facts during the full moon.
  • Viral Mermeningitis – causes scaly growths and a fishy smell.
  • Whooping fart – it’s like whooping cough, but, well…
  • Yousels – it’s like measles, but it only affects you.
  • Zombie zits – they just won’t die.
  • Here’s a few more…
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