Phasing out characters
Erica’s migraines finally mean she had to step away from our game, which just sucks. But it got us talking about writing characters out of an RPG. How can you do it respectfully? How can you do it smoothly? How can you do it dramatically? And the more we discussed it, the more it became clear that the answer changed depending on who was leaving, for how long, and why. So let’s jump into writing out PCs in a way that gives players and the plot some closure.
When a player is leaving, but coming back
Sometimes a player has to leave for just a little while. Maybe it’s job related, something going on in their family or just travel plans. But it doesn’t really matter and we’re not going to pry into the personal lives of hypothetical players. For the sake of argument, we’ll focus on how to help them do what they need to leave the table gracefully for a few sessions.
If a player is just taking a leave of absence, you only need a one-time excuse, something to draw the character away for a while and then allow them to come back. Characters can be captured by villains, creating a plot to rescue them that you can string out until the missing player is ready to return. Or you may give the player characters a side quest of their own, a letter that arrives that calls them away to do something personal. Escaping from imprisonment or attending to their side quest can even be a one-on-one adventure for the missing player when they return, or during their hiatus if that works for them!
If a player is going to be in and out, perhaps because they have a fluid work schedule or an alter-ego as a crime-fighter, then that can be worked into the character themselves. Maybe the character is going to be periodically drawn away by a mysterious compulsion, duties that conflict with the party’s adventures, or whatever you and the player can dream up. If you bake it into the character, then the PC can show up when the player is available and bugger off when they can’t be at a session.
When a player is leaving for good
You’re lucky if a player only has to step out for a little while, but sometimes they have to depart the table for the rest of the campaign. That leaves the Storyteller with a dangling character, but you’ve got lots of options, depending on how things happen.
Sometimes a player has to quit unexpectedly. In between one session and the next; they just can’t come anymore. You’ve got a character now with no exit strategy. If at all possible, reach out to the player between sessions and work with them on what they would like to have happen to their character.
If you don’t have that much time to talk to the player — they’ve had to drop the bad news the night before game, or will be out of touch as they deal with whatever’s happened in their life — it might be a good idea to get the character out of the story quickly for a little while. I’m not saying immediately kill them off, just get the PC out of the way so that you have time to work out something with the departing player or to come up with a plan on your own. The character might mysteriously vanish — which you can explain later — or get an urgent summons to leave.
Once you’ve bought yourself some time, then you can work out the character’s fate with the departing player and explore your options.
Personally, I love taking over a player character and turning them into an NPC villain. Some players want to hold on to whatever story arcs that they were forced to abandon, but others might not be attached — or even relish the idea of their character becoming an antagonist, especially if they’re a major villain. It can be a lot of fun to watch your character become something dramatic and pivotal to the story. And as a Storyteller, an actual player character has lots of background and shared experience with the rest of the table. An adventuring party facing someone that they once fought beside is some juicy story stuff.
If the departing player doesn’t want their character to go bad, you can also kill them off. Again, if you are able, run it by the character’s player and make sure it’s okay with them before you go knifing them in a dark alley. But like turning into a villain, dying off can be truly dramatic and very fun. I mean, no player wants their character to just trip on a rock and bang their head to die beside the road — and as a Storyteller, that’s not much fun for me. But making a last stand? Trading their life for that of another character? Being assassinated by the villain? That stuff gives a retiring PC’s exit a real kick, and one that can give the remaining PCs extra drive to defeat their hated enemy.
I guess the last option is to just keep the PC around, turning them into an NPC. Some departing players may not want their character to either go bad or die, and you should have some respect for it. But it’s also fair to discuss the burden of having a full-time NPC to deal with. A Storyteller already has to set up and run battles, put together a story, role-play a hundred minor NPCs, adapt their story as the players and dice change it, remember a bunch of rules and play referee, and maybe even DJ some music. Adding a full-time NPC to your plate might be too much, especially if NPCs aren’t your strength. And I understand if a Storyteller is worried about role-playing someone else’s character and doing them justice. It’s okay to let the departing player know that you really need to give their character a permanent exit from the campaign.
If you’re unlucky enough that a player has to leave the table but lucky enough that you know in advance — like Erica’s departure — then you can plan the exit with the player’s help. Erica and our Storyteller talked about her dangling plot threads and which ones she wanted to wrap up before she left the table. Then they discussed a plan for her character exiting the game.
Her character and mine were in the middle of a romantic arc, with lots of awkward flirting and opportunities for laughs that everyone was enjoying. We didn’t want the end of that arc to be NPCed after she was gone — or worse, fall apart entirely. So we asked the Storyteller to see if he could make some downtime on Erica’s last session so that we could speed things up a bit and take the final steps.
She also had a character arc in which her tiefling infernal nature was going out of control after contact with a cursed iron horn. Erica didn’t know what was up with the horn, or how to control her fiendish frenzies, so she wanted some closure on that before she had to leave.
The Storyteller gave her that on her last session, too. (It was a busy session.) We poked the horn harder than we had ever poked before and tapped into the source of its power — an archfiend. We had to fight a giant molten iron devil, and we learned that Erica’s PC had been made a sort of involuntary bastard warlock. She was already a tiefling, and an extra dose of infernal power had been forced onto her by our BBEG, which caused her to transform into an actual devil when she got upset. So we were able to solve the mystery of her fiendish frenzies before Erica had to leave.
That last session caused a massive migraine that was rough on Erica, but she got some closure and now the rest is up to us. Leading up to this, struggling through migraines, Erica and the Storyteller got to hash out her character’s exit. Now that Erica is gone from the table, her character will be an NPC for a little while, but only until we reach a certain point in the story. The Storyteller said that we’ll be meeting some NPC allies who also stand against this archfiend, and have learned to control the fiendish curses it inflicts. Erica’s character will have the chance to study their techniques and learn to control her transformations — basically making her a were-devil. She’ll stay with the NPCs to begin the long training as the rest of the team moves on.
Since Erica’s PC will be leaving and my character just cemented their romantic relationship, he’s going to stay with her to help her learn to control her curse. I’m not leaving the table, but my character will be phased out, too. Sometimes players want to switch characters. Maybe their character has completed their personal arc and isn’t as fun anymore, maybe they have a new idea that just excites them more. Or perhaps their character died in game and the player just needs a new one.
Phasing out a character whose player is sticking around is pretty much the same as them leaving for any other permanent reason — except that it may be easier to coordinate the outro with that player. They can play their departing PC right up to the end, whether that be falling to the dark side, dying, or saying their goodbyes before they leave to pursue a different path.
But in this case, the challenge is twofold; you have to remove one PC and then add another one. Some rando showing up in act 3 can be pretty awkward. My preference is to make the new character someone who’s already part of the story — an NPC that the party may have already met, or someone who is part of a group that’s been fighting the same villain. If they’re already on the same side, then the new PC can know what the party does and don’t have to start from scratch. That makes things easier on the new player, their character, the party, and the Storyteller.
Players and characters might depart a game for many reasons and regardless of why, it often falls to the Storyteller to facilitate that transition. Mind the wishes of the player as best you can for how they want to leave. This is the end of a character and that should never be a mundane or lackluster moment. It’s worth making this part of their story meaningful.