I think my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition group is fairly typical: there are six of us, including the dungeon master, and our ages range from late 20s to mid to latish 30s. We play about once a week, however between work and family commitments, we’re rarely in one place at the same time. We’ve had no choice but to experiment with a number of strategies for managing player absences.
Before considering the game elements, the human element must be remembered. Job and family commitments come first; at the same time, gaming is a social activity that requires a group to do properly. It’s equally important for absent players to give sufficient notice as for the other gamers to respect the time pressures we all face.
The simplest strategy for dealing with player absence is simply not play D&D that session. This is an opportunity to try another game (surely there’s an old favorite board game you don’t get to very often) or to shoot the shit for a couple of hours. While D&D is a social game, there isn’t much chance to talk about your dating life or the problems at work while you’replaying. This can become that opportunity.
It’s a good idea to define a quorum in advance. Roberts Rules of parliamentary procedure define a quorum as a majority of the group; for a typical D&D group, that means four out of six (including the DM). It’s also reasonable to play if half or more are present.
Once you’ve decided to play despite an absence or two, you’ll need to make a plan for how to play. Can you simply write the characters out of the plot for a session? Is someone else willing to control his character? Will the game bog down as someone becomes familiar with the new character’s 5 page sheet? Watch for Player Absences, Part 2 for my discussion of these options.