This last weekend’s game was a dismal mess of fail. Only one player that was awake and functioning showed up, along with two zombie players that between them had maybe four hours of sleep in the previous day and a half. So not a hell of a lot got done.
It was not however a total waste of time. Most of what D&D entails is social interaction. Even if things don’t go terrific in the story you still had time to hang out. Granted this social distancing crap takes a fair amount of wind out of the sails, but it is still time you didn’t have to spend on sheetrocking a basement. We can all agree that is an hour and a half well spent in real-life avoidance.
The other consideration for Game Masters is this: you might not have had many players show up, and most of them were partially asleep, but you still had ample opportunities to dispense clues about the story. Important clues. The kind of clues that tell you right away that Rosebud was a damned sled. Major story spoilers that if properly followed up on will reveal more about what is going on in the adventure than anything you have said in the last month and a half. Just because the players weren’t paying really close attention doesn’t mean you didn’t give them a fighting chance.
This brings me to my final point on these types of sessions. Having only a handful of players show up, and giving them the clues they need to move the story forward without dire consequences, as a Game Master your work is done. They have all the information they need. Whether or not they use it wisely isn’t your concern. If things in the background are going to happen on a separate time table independent of the players actions then stick to it. Let those wheels keep rolling along. Sometimes a great story is one of missed chances. This might be one of those.
The only time I would relent and cut the players some slack is if enough of them let each other know well in advance of the session that they are unable to attend. That way the gane can be postponed or at the least the Game Master might private message the missing players the missing bits of crucial information that they missed. But that is all. They don’t get to ask follow up questions because they weren’t there when it happened. You are only filling them in as a courtesy because they provided the courtesy of letting you know beforehand that they would be absent.
And for those that didn’t let you know? They can get the info from the players that did show up and weren’t fully awake. Will the clues be mangled and have bits missing? Probably. Will they neglect to have written down any notes at all and have huge gaping holes in their recollection? Also likely. Which is why you show up. And somewhere down the line when they express frustration at not knowing what the devil is going on you can gently remind them about all of the above.