Retired but Not Forgotten
We create characters to send them on mighty and terrifying adventures. Whether designing for action adventure or deep knowledge, we strive to use the rules to make these characters the best they can be. In earlier posts we have discussed ongoing character development, and even the possibility of character death and its impact on the setting. So what about the tradition of retiring characters?
The first distinction to be made is between player retirement and character retirement. Player retirement is when the player leaves the game group, and is thus a metagame issue, whereas character retirement is when a character leaves the campaign for reasons other than death.
Like most metagame issues, questions of player retirement are best resolved through discussions between the player and the GM. The first thing to determine is the length of time the player would be away from the game. If there is a possibility the player could return, the character is often removed from the party on a temporary basis until the player gets back. Any number of fictional reasons for this absence can easily be created. On the other hand if the player isn’t coming back, a common response is to turn the PC into an NPC. This allows the character to carry on a secondary role in the game, without requiring any major retcon.
The question of character development and retirement is a more interesting one. For the most part, the decision to retire a PC is made when the character reaches the higher levels, but I also want to contemplate the idea of retirement at earlier stages. There are several reasons this may happen. Early in the “Beginners Stage” for instance, it may turn out that the character simply isn't well-suited for this particular campaign. Alternately, the character may have conflicts with fellow adventurers who force them out of the party. It's even possible that the character develops strong connections to a location or NPC and decides to put down roots, settling down and turning away from the nomadic adventurer’s life.
This last case presents a great opportunity to create a NPC who is linked to both the setting and the group. The retired PC (now an NPC) might become the captain of the guard who turns a blind eye to the PCs' questionable activities. Or they might hold a grudge and become a new enemy of the party, plotting their deaths. Alternately, the newly-turned-NPC might just melt into the background of the world, living a normal life until one day they turn up again and provide a safe house for the party. The important point to remember is that the retired PC does not have to disappear completely from the world, and characters who retire in the Beginners Stage can make excellent connections to the setting.
The midlevel stage probably experiences the least character retirement. This is the “peak adventuring stage” for the characters, and typically provides the most fun for the players. Thus, at this stage, character “retirement” most often comes due to the death of the character, or it is made imperative when a player leaves the group. A less uncommon situation arises when there's a single survivor of a near TPK; the GM can go either way on this one. If the player agrees it's certainly possible to call the campaign done and roll up a whole new party, but considering other options can lend more depth to your entire campaign. Think about it: By this stage the character is probably working on some goals of their own, and by using these goals creatively you should be able to put another group in place around them or nearby, taking those PC goals and turning them into NPC goals.
Some examples: If the character was planning to recover the missing starship? Okay, off they go, a new NPC ship captain! If they planned to become the power behind the throne, they may continue to do so as an NPC, and they might even hire the PCs to aid them. Maybe they always wanted to summon an evil god? Well, retiring the character allows them to try it, without throwing the whole party's plans into the dumpster. The main point is that midlevel retired PCs should be given the opportunity to explore those goals which were set in place by the player―the only difference being that now they're pursuing those goals as NPCs.
As we move into the later stages of a campaign and high adventure gives way to the daily chores of being a hero, some players may tire of the game or their characters. If this happens the characters are retired at the top of their game, pursuing their dreams. They become the veteran dragonslayers downing free ale in exchange for war stories; the space mercenaries commanding Thawar’s Tigers; the movers and shakers that players may run into in a new campaign.
Retirement can occur for many reasons, that much is clear. Somewhat less accepted is the idea that it can occur at any stage in the campaign. The key is to let go of your character when you feel it no longer responds to the campaign in a striking or engaging way. Once retired, PCs of various levels can make excellent NPCs. Often these NPCs will become party allies or patrons of future parties, but they might also make great antagonists for the next adventure party. Stay consistent with their stated goals, and their next step will make itself clear.