I have always said that I will not drag players through a storyline. There are goals and activities scattered throughout the game for the players to tackle, of course, but these must be chosen by the players and accomplished by the players. Right there in the gaming rules is #13 and I stand by that rule with great fervor. If the players set out to do a task they are woefully incapable of finishing then they are going to roleplay the heartbreak of crushing disappointment (a.k.a. real life) because I am not going to have some powerful non-player character step in to save their collective butts.
That much said there are situations where a backup plan is absolutely vital. When you have a game session geared around a particular player for instance and that player is for whatever reason unavailable for that particular game session, what do you do? Postpone the game? Everyone else is keen to advance the story and claim their share of rewards and
humiliation honor so why should they have to put their fun on pause? There are still a couple of characters that can try to fill the void of the missing player, but maybe that isn’t good enough to get the story where the players are going to have the most fun. Whatever is a Game Master to do?
Thankfully the well-prepared GM has precisely the answer the players are looking for; non-player characters. These delightful fellows are going to do a little heavy lifting this time, but it is still the players that are taking the lion share of the risks and calling all of the shots. This is important for any group dynamic. Whenever an NPC begins running roughshod over the players the fun begins to diminish exponentially. No GM should ever allow this to happen for more than a brief amount of time because being made to feel helpless, useless, and not worth the time or energy it took to show up is precisely the reality people play D&D to avoid feeling. The NPCs are therefore going to help nudge the story along to help offset the missing player around whom this session was meant to be key.
In our example the missing player is the only dedicated thief in the party. We do have a bard again, but the player and his character are both quite new to this gaming world so one can’t expect him to be fully on board with the nuances of the thing quite yet. We also have a ranger that can be quite stealthy, but he is still not a rogue. And this portion of the story rests heavily on being able to do three things: move silently, hide in shadows, and backstab. Sneaky stuff. None of the players present for the upcoming game can do all three of these things. To advance the story then somebody has to step in and lend a hand. Non-player characters are on the way! As an added bonus to alleviate the potential tension, one of these NPCs is quite the self-styled comedian so it gives a chance to add some levity to the story. Another NPC is a blood-thirsty killing machine, so we can add a dash of action to spice things up. Still another NPC has a wonderfully dark secret that will finally be revealed in this session because I have been waiting literally months to reveal it in exactly this fashion (this was going to happen regardless due to the nature of the NPC involved, something of a plot development rather than an actual boost to the session’s problem solving). For this game session and this one only the NPCs will take up the mantle and do what they can to help the Player Characters get through the story where another PC was unable to.
It should be noted that this is in no way a bash on those that have reason to skip a gaming session. Good heavens no. You do you, baby. This is just a reminder to all GMs that they needn’t slam the breaks on a story just because one or two players have to be excused for a session or more. Toss in those NPCs. The rest of the players can make the decisions and the NPCs will do their best to not overwhelm the story and take it over. Have those backup plans. It will keep the story moving nicely and the players will appreciate getting to know an NPC a little better for seeing them in action and knowing the extent to which they might be helpful further down the line. Players are the key characters in an D&D campaign, but it is the NPC, cleverly designed and sparingly used, that adds the flavor to make every gaming world so much more enjoyable than the players alone could make it. Add some spice. Just don’t over season.