NPCing someone else’s character
We recently posted about graceful exits when someone can’t play at the table anymore. Erica’s migraines mean that a loud, raucous game session with clattering dice is agony, so she’s had to retire her character. But the exit point that she worked out with the Storyteller is a little ways down the line, so she’s leaving before her character actually exits the story. Since NPCs aren’t our Storyteller’s forte, I’m going to play Erica’s character until it’s time for her to step out of the narrative.
Obviously, whether I’m the game’s Storyteller or a player, if I have the responsibility to play someone else’s character, then I want to do it right. NPCs are my forte, but it can still be challenging to play someone else’s creation. If you’re running a character when a player misses a game, or if they’re gone long-term, here’re some thoughts on doing them justice.
Ask the player
If you’ve got access to the original player, hit them up for some advice. What are their character’s current goals and drives? Oh, they’re focused on the villain that killed their childhood best friend right now? When you’re playing the PC, brood on that a bit. They’ll be pushing to take the party in whatever direction might lead them to their vengeance — even if your own character disagrees! If the character’s current goal is to further a new ability, then play them as spending downtime in study or practice.
If you can keep checking in with the missing player, you can fill them in on the game they missed, then ask how their character would react so you can keep that in mind for the next session.
Follow their example
I’ve been in this game with Erica for more than a year now, so I’ve seen her play the character this whole time. Our characters even have a shared backstory, so we made them in close consultation with each other. What that all means now is that I have a pretty good idea of who the character is and how she acts.
Erica’s character is enthusiastic and excitable. If we encounter anything new or strange, I know to NPC her as being fascinated and interested. Her character takes notes on everything, and that’s easy to play. Basically, I have a mental list of what would Erica’s character do? in broad situations. So as the game goes on, I have a good idea how to have her character react.
Downplay the character
Look, role-playing another character can be a lot of work. As a player, I have my own full-time character, and adding Erica’s as an NPC that I control doubles my workload. Storytellers already have a million jobs at the table, and have to play every other NPC in the world outside the PCs; tacking on a full-time NPC would add a lot to their plate. So sometimes you can just let the PC-turned-NPC be quiet for a little while.
Now, there should ideally be a reason that a character becomes withdrawn. Circling back to working with the player on the character’s goals and drives, maybe there is something going on in the story that occupies the characters’ thoughts. Perhaps they’re wrestling with their desire for revenge instead of running after it, leading them to spend time soul-searching. If they’re working on that new ability, that’s great! They’re already set up to be focused on that so you don’t have to speak as two characters all the time.
By the same token, you can focus your energy on one-on-one interactions. Your borrowed character may have separate conversations with party members and NPCs by themselves, which means you don’t have to play them as an NPC and play your own character at the same time. Switching back and forth is easier than both at once.
While moving an NPC to the background makes things easier on whoever is playing the character, it also risks everyone forgetting about them. If the rest of the party finds themselves saying, “Oh yeah, [insert character name] is there,” then they’ve faded a bit too far into the background.
Consider coming up with one or two things that the PC-turned-NPC can do each session, or each day in game to remind everyone that they haven’t been phased out just yet. Maybe each night before the PCs all settle down to rest, you can have your borrowed character spend a few minutes chatting with another character — one of those one-on-one interactions. Or you might describe what the NPC is doing with their downtime: reading, practicing a fighting style, playing an instrument, etc. It doesn’t have to be a fully role-played scene, but just a little bit here and there so that the character remains in everyone’s thoughts.
Hopefully you never have to play someone else’s character for long. Maybe a session when someone’s out sick, or like me, for a few sessions until we can more permanently retire Erica’s character. But whether you’re a player in the game or the Storyteller running it, handling someone else’s creation is a delicate thing. You want to do it right for everyone’s sake. But the player themselves can help you pull it off, either with advice or by their example, and you can always find ways to downplay the character and lighten the load.