Cancelled sessions can break a long and well running campaign. Of course communicating with the players on how to deal with sessions where one or more players are missing, is important. Skipping a session needn’t be the end of the world, but there are additional solutions to allow the players that can make it to a session to play without leaving the others behind on the current events of the campaign. I want to present one such solution to you today. I call it “The Woven Dream”.
A quick summary of the idea, if you’re in a hurry
- Frame your session as a cooperative dream or vision in which all present players’ characters participate for that session
- Allow one or several of the present characters to be in the spotlight by visiting elements of their backgrounds in dreams and letting the relevant players make choices the dungeon master would usually make during these sessions
- Make a mystery out of how much of these dream or vision events affect reality
An example Dream session
Krathia, James and Lillyfey found themselves walking a road only known to one among them. This was the path Krathia had taken to get to the training grounds of the monastery she grew up in. James and Lillyfey exchanged looks, wondering what was going on, but they followed Krathia as she strode forward with conviction.
“What is going on with the trees?”, asked Lillyfey in a whisper. “It looks like they are shedding their leaves and growing spear tips in their stead”, replied James. “Odd”, they both agreed. As they got closer to the large pit of sand, ringed by a circle of stones, the green landscape fell away to a barren wasteland of stone and steel.
They stepped onto the sands and saw broken weapons and spatters of blood. “Krathia, what is this place?”. The tall, muscular Half-Orc woman did not turn around to her companions. “Steel yourselves and ready your weapons”, was the only thing she said to them.
Out of the center of the ring rose a figure made of obsidian and sand. From the swirling mass emerged a gigantic Orc woman. She leveled her spear at Krathia, “If it isn’t Krathia the weak, Krathia the feeble, Krathia the simple minded crawling back into the ring. You are not worthy of the mark of the black spear, worm!”
“This is the day you die, Ogda. Your rein of terror over these lands and the monastery comes to an end!”, Krathia yelled as she sprung into action. A fierce battle ensued, culminating in the triumph of Krathia, James and Lillyfey over Ogda the Coarse. Slowly, they all drifted back into the blackness of sleep.
With the crowing of the rooster, the party awoke in the barn they had sheltered in for the night. Still groggy and exhausted, Lillyfey and James discussed the strange dream they both seemed to have had. Their chatter stopped, as Krathia rose. Along the length of her body, clearly seen through the gaps in her traditional robes, they could see a dark tattoo of a black spear.
The Woven Dream
In a world of magic and gods roaming the lands, shared dreams aren’t too far fetched of an idea. The Woven Dream is a tapestry of dreamscapes originating in the Dream Planes. It permeates all other planes of existence and grants the ability to dream to almost all creatures. The patches and strands vary in size, complexity and density. Where people form strong bonds, especially those forged in the embers of adventure and the fire of insurmountable perils, their weaves might form intersecting patterns.
These occurrences are rare, but once the connections are formed, they last as long as the underlying bond is unbroken. It is most often said to be something the greatest heroes of the realms experience. People who are connected like that may find themselves entering and walking in each others dreams. This is not entirely without peril. Certain events in the Woven Dream may seep into the reality of those involved, including those that aren’t technically in the dream itself.
How to handle sessions where players are missing in practical terms using The Woven Dream
At first, I tinkered with exploring historical events of the homebrew world during sessions with missing players. While that worked out fine, it was still a tremendous amount of work and the payoff wasn’t nearly as great as I wanted it to be. Some players simply didn’t care and others were confused by what was going on.
Using the Woven Dream, everyone gets to be their character and gets a chance at exploring their character’s backstory. Instead of simply telling the others about that time they tamed a turtle to escape a lonely island that pirates had dropped them off on, the party gets to partake in that particular tale in front row seats.
There are many advantages in sessions that delve into the Woven Dream:
- The dungeon master needn’t prepare everything – or even anything before hand, beyond knowing the backgrounds of the characters that can participate in the session
- The party can be much more involved in describing and deciding what is happening in the dream, lessening the prep need for the dungeon master even further
- I’d like to stress this point. I firmly believe now that it’s sensible to always involve the players in describing what’s going on, how things look, feel, smell, sound or even taste in any kind of session. It might seem daunting (for both players and dungeon masters) at first to suddenly be put on the spot. Players having to come up with something that’s usually for the dungeon master to describe or trusting the players to be reasonable with their ideas can be difficult, but dream sessions are a great playground for something like this.
- One character (or more) get to shine a spotlight on something that is important to them to explore or share it with the party
- It might be a good idea, if you chose to use the Woven Dream, to get every player to give you some rough notes on what events, fears or hopes of their character they might wish to explore in such dreams
- The session can be entirely different from what you’re used to, allowing for experimentation and outlandish stories, without affecting the story of the campaign too much (for some reason I am currently imagining the party having to get through a Takeshi’s Castle style or Fall Guys type parkour with skill checks and terrible commentary)
- You could easily use these kinds of sessions as playtests for homebrew rules or other ideas that have been floating around your table but you weren’t quite sure if they might work or be fun to begin with.
In our example story, the monk Krathia returns to the training grounds of the monastry they grew up and learned in. The conflict with Ogda the Coarse may or may not have been revealed to the party before, but it replays a pivotal confrontation in Krathia’s past and background story. While the party wins the fight in the dream, this might not have been the case in reality.
What is even real anymore?
If you’ve read my post on magic items, you’ll immediately see where I am going with this part. While the Woven Dream and the Dream Planes are ethereal in nature and drift like wispy clouds through reality that simply scatter and vanish as day break rises, they do have a direct influence on the Planes of Existence.
As the dungeon master, you will get to decide what parts (if any) of the Woven Dreams and sessions get to influence reality. The characters might emerge from their nightly adventure with fresh knowledge that is actually true, newfound understanding of themselves and their compatriots or actual, tangible changes such as magic powers on gear that was mundane before, or alterations to their very person. It might also have real consequences for real people. In our example, the slaying of Ogda the Coarse in the Dream Planes might lead to her actual death in life.
Effects could be temporary or permanent. Some could have an effect that only holds power at night or in complete darkness. Sometimes it’s much more fun to simply keep the party guessing. This turns the interactions in the Dreams into an odd balancing act, a bit of a poker game. However, at the end, you should reveal some of the true effects on their waking reality. And do feel free to let those be very impactful and far reaching.
The dreams themselves can be anything as well. I recently introduced a tavern (which I will shamelessly reuse in the future) that is a halfway point for souls in transit, both dead and dreaming. It doesn’t exist in one particular place or even state, instead many dreamers or wandering souls might visit it without realizing others are doing it as well. This is a great place for the party to get a chance to talk to people who might have died during the campaign or in their backstories. The possibilities are literally anything you can dream of.
This includes allowing the players to make use of abilities or skills that they might not yet have in their arsenal due to level restrictions or other boundaries like not having the prerequisites to cast a spell or wield a certain weapon. Giving your players silly and possibly entirely overpowered skillsets or boosting their damage to 100d6 against a god into whose face they are currently flying in space, can make for fantastic breaks in otherwise bleak and serious settings and campaigns.
In our example, Krathia awakens and finds a new mark on her skin, the sigil of the black spear. This could be the sign of the leader of her monastic order, or some other form of honorific. Something she might have earned in the past but felt undeserving of due to her defeat at the hands of Ogda the Coarse and failure to protect her people. Now that she has done it, the sigil appears on her skin.
Alternative Options – Visions, Curses, Magic and more
Of course, if the idea of dreams doesn’t appeal to you and is too immaterial, you could easily achieve the very same effect and kind of session by using other means. Popular options should be visions, curses and other kinds of magic.
The only thing I’d advise against is trying to have a session play out the actual, canonical and true past events of something or someone like this. The point is to ensure that those players that couldn’t make it, don’t miss out on anything important for the campaign at large. It can also mess with the continuity of your story.
Having said that, be it in dreams or any other medium of your choice, you could still let the big thing that the campaign currently deals with be a topic. After all, it only makes sense that the one issue on everyone’s minds is inescapable even in their dreams, or even dominates the dreams entirely.
Closing thoughts & the video
There are many options to handle a session where some players cannot make it. From skipping to rescheduling, anything goes. Of course you could also simply have a session where the characters that are present go and do their own things, separate from the other characters and I do have these kinds of sessions as well from time to time. I don’t recommend having every session where someone is missing to be a Woven Dream session. I’d generally recommend them to be used when something important is currently going on in the main campaign, where every character is present and they shouldn’t miss out, or it really wouldn’t make much sense for half of the party suddenly going their own way for a few hours. Used from time to time, they could be yet another tool in your ttrpg toolkit.
I hope you enjoyed my idea and if you did, please share this with others and maybe come connect over on Mastodon or check out and subscribe to my YouTube channel.
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