But here we are, most of the group was already constantly in contact with the public due to our jobs anyway, the incidence rate is fairly low due to (lack of) population density in the area, and except for one player who has some health concerns and was isolating even harder than everyone else (and another who is having marital issues) who joined us online via an old cellphone and Discord video chat, we are now gaming in person once again. Except when players miss games and we have to cancel. Or they forget to check with their human resources department and their new scheduled days off are not on the days they thought they were going to be. Or when my own work schedule drastically changes the day before the game due to coworker incompetence and I have to cancel. Or one player skips sleeping for a few days to play a videogame and has to cancel.
Which brings me to the Lesson mentioned in the title of this post - you will never find a group of your friends who all have the exact same schedule or who will not have life interrupt from time to time. I have never, NEVER, played or DM'd in any group where attendance was 100%. If you have - and games that last exactly one session do not count - then I and every other grognard out there envies you, that is the rarest of the rare. Not that I am berating my or any other players (or DMs, we are merely human too) out there, as you have to admit that as fun as it is we are still just playing a game and more important things exist in our lives. Even my employer, who pays me so I can afford my mortgage and car payment, does not get me 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year - I call in sick and take vacations and holidays just like everyone else does. The players are going to miss, the DM is not going to be prepared for every session - shit happens!
The lesson, if you have not figured it out, is that you need a plan for players who miss. Or if you as the DM misses. Because chances are, from session to session, someone is not going to make it to the game. It will most generally not be the same player/DM (unless they are done playing and cannot quite bring themselves to admit it to the group), which is a relief and makes the infrequent absentees bearable (most of the players and DMs out there) but makes the habitual ones grind your teeth in frustration. What then, dear reader, should one do? As hinted at by my slips of vulgarity, I spent many years in the United States Army, and they have a saying you, as a DM, should take to heart - Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome. What was your first plan? Everyone's plan changes upon meeting the enemy (or getting punched in the teeth, however you prefer that saying), and you need a backup plan, as well as an alternate to the backup, and enough gumption to throw all of the above out on its ear and just plain wing it when required. Oh yeah, and enough talent to not only follow the new plan, but make it work.
What has worked for me is stubbornness - my current D&D group WILL make it to level 20 or their PCs will die trying. And I have outright replaced 2 of the starting players in the group, welcomed one of those back when he replaced his own replacement, tried out 3 other players that just did not mesh with the rest of the group, and added 3 more players that appear to be doing well. Plus did everything I could to keep the group together during a global pandemic that, admittedly, did not get to the level of "zombie apocalypse", darn the luck. One of the biggest things I have done from the beginning is that the players leave their character sheets at my place (where we hold our sessions), and if they cannot make a session, they have to "adult" up and let me know ahead of time who is playing their character. And if their PC dies while they are not present, it still counts. Scheduling is the other big hurdle, and sometimes all you can do is have everyone, including yourself as DM, list out when they are free to play a session. Once you have the list, sometimes the only option you have is what fits best into the most participants' schedules, and you have to be enough of an adult and look at your friend, even if they are your favorite player, and tell them it just is not going to work for this campaign, hopefully they will be available in the future. The game must go on, and when it cannot continue in its current form, sometimes the only option is to start fresh, keep only the players that really show they want to be there, maybe try a new campaign setting, or even a new game entirely, and try again. You never know, you could end up running your game for just one session before restarting from scratch (got a movie quote about that, more in a moment) or you could run it for the next 40 years. The movie quote, by the way, is about bands, and I cannot seem to find the scene by itself, but it is very appropriate to RPG groups. The scene comes from That Thing You Do, the one starting and directed by Tom Hanks from the '90s about a band of young gentlemen in the late '50s/early '60sand their hit rock song. Our protagonist, the drummer of the group, finds himself talking to his hero, a jazz pianist, who has been in the music industry for a very long time. The drummer complains that his band is breaking up, but they have this hit record and song, to which the wise veteran replies, "some bands I've been in, one album is too many". Well, for some of your groups out there, one game session may be one game session too many, and they immediately dissolve. Hell, I myself have tried to get groups together that dissolved before they got through character creation and Session Zero! But you will not know for sure until you have at least tried. Do not beat yourself up if it does not work, bit you have to at least try.
Not so much a lesson, but some other things I wish to share. Just as we were gearing up to play in-person again, WotC released Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (TCoE). My impression of it so far is that it suffers the same issue as Xanathar's Guide to Everything (XGtE) - if it really covers "everything", why would we need any other books? But here we have TWO tomes with similar names claiming "everything"? The goofy name aside, I do like most of TCoE, and am actively using several items from it - sidekicks and group patrons. To be honest, when I started my current campaign almost 3 years ago, I also invented (or thought I had) group patrons. The wife and I several more years before starting the campaign had watched the BBC's recent reinvention of The Musketeers. When we watched it, I was struck that this certain unit in the military answered directly to their ruler, got missions and support from the government, and in return said government got to restrain them from being too excessive. The perfect thing to fight murder-hoboism, I thought. I talked about this, briefly, nearly a year ago when the Eberron campaign setting book came out, the first appearance of patrons to D&D 5e, officially. It took me a while, but recently I realized that what I had done in my own game was give my players a patron. Here I was, thinking at how clever I had been, but the folks at WotC are keeping up with all of us out here in TV Land.
Sidekicks have also been of great use. Long before TCoE came out, my party went a little "awaken" crazy, and ended up with a badger bartender (who I ruled got a little extra juice in the awakening and also got a little anthropomorphized in the process, but as the badger is not joining the party on the adventures, I deemed it was fine for story purposes), the cleric's giant boar mount, and a dire wolf the ranger insisted on saving after the party almost killed it (did kill 13 of its packmates and its former master... how long does the "charm" portion of the awaken spell last again? 30 days? that should be fine). The party is already 11th level, so while the rules for sidekicks normally only allow creatures/NPCs up to 1/2 CR, I allowed the "big pig" and the wolf to be made sidekicks, just reduced their hit dice pool to match what would normally be given to a 1/2 CR sidekick at level 11, but left everything else alone. Yeah, these two have more special abilities than your average 1/2 CR creature, but at this level, it is not going to make much difference. For the boar, I went with the "warrior" sidekick, as our cleric is not one to shy away from melee combat and also the boar is very not-stealthy, having her own barding. For the wolf, even though it is a "large" creature (a wolf roughly the size of a horse), I decided to go just a bit sideways and went with the "expert" sidekick. Yes, the "expert" is more like a rogue, but it is also more like a ranger, with the tracking and stealth, and the pack tactics special ability of the dire wolf interlocks well with the coordinated strike feature of the "expert". The party has not had much time with their new sidekicks, but I can already tell they are looking forward to getting good use out of the pair. Check out both sidekicks and group patrons in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, I know my party is enjoying both of them.