Hey, Isn’t That My Character: Using Retired PCs As NPCs

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on April 30, 2010

A good NPC can make a campaign. A bad one, well bad NPCs are usually forgotten fairly quickly. With this in mind it’s in a DMs best interest to ensure that his key NPCs have detailed stories to accompany them. By providing these NPCs with quirks, strengths and weaknesses it provides the PC with more reason to interact and develop a relationship. This in turn makes it easier for the DM to move the story along, twining the PCs concerns with those of the NPC. Of course this takes a lot of work and as the PCs progress new NPCs are required, with new stories and reason to motivate the PCs.

April’s RPG Blog Carnival focus on NPCs. One way to build a very effective NPC is to use a PC that has for one reason or another retired.

There are a number of ways to make an NPC pivotal to the story. Using a PC’s back story is a great way to tie a particular character to a NPC and make that NPC really matter. Another great way is having the NPC be a mentor figure to the PCs. Of course some of the best NPCs are villains, and some of the best villains are retired PCs. Allow me to elaborate.

I’ve had two occasions to experience a retired PC return as a villain to great effect. The players aren’t usually ready for it and it adds a great emotional twist to the story as the villain was once a close ally.

The first instance happened back in our 3.5e days. Balador was a Paladin who gave into his vices and succumbed to the temptation that the Blackguard prestige class offered. When the player retired Balador he was still a very confused Paladin. He mysteriously disappeared when the PCs entered a mystical gate. He simply never re-appeared with the rest of the party. The player wanted a new character and this is how we said goodbye to Balador. Of course Balador had to land somewhere, he wasn’t just dead or running a tavern somewhere.

Several levels after Balador disappeared the party heard rumours of a gathering army led by a powerful Warlord named Balador. The look on the players’ faces was great, especially the one who had retired Balador. No one had seen it coming and now suddenly they had extra motivation to eliminate this villain.

The second instance happened just a few weeks ago. We’ve recently returned to a game we began in 3.5e. We updated our characters to 4e versions and off we went. The party has always had some internal division which has made the game that much more enjoyable. The internal role playing has been a lot of fun. The PCs come from different social classes and several are Dragonmarked Heirs. While there might have been some internal wrangling, all the players wanted to ensure that we didn’t allow the internal role playing to hijack the game.

As is prone to happen when switching editions, one player didn’t like the way his PC transitioned to 4e. He just didn’t feel that his Rogue, Luk worked well with the new edition. He spoke with the DM and arranged to have his PC leave the party and introduce a new character. Of course it was Luk who was stirring the pot the most with the internal party conflicts. To say that my character and his hated one another would be an understatement.

Well Luk wasn’t just retired. When he left the party he stole a valuable item from my PC and sent the party a message that he’d be selling all he knew about us to the highest bidder. In an instant the situation with Luk went from an interesting role playing scenario within the party to a villain the PCs can’t wait to track down. As an aside the player running Luk and I have known each other for 15 years and been playing D&D together for 10, so there are no hard feelings, it’s all in the game.

These two instances of using retired PCs as NPCs has been a great way for the DM to inject a new villain and new life into the campaigns. The great part is the DM has very little work to do. The player has already constructed a back story for the character giving the PC motivations, relationships and history. Additionally, the PC has grown, matured, gained allies and enemies as he has advanced in level. All that is left for the DM to do is give his new NPC a reason to be a villain.

Of course villainy doesn’t have to be the route taken. The PC could still be a good and upright individual, however now that they are no longer with the party there are competing motivations. Both the party and the NPC want the same item, but for different reasons. This sets up a confrontation down the road that is bursting with role playing opportunities.

What experience have you had with converting retired PCs into NPCs? Did it work as you intended or did the NPCs former player object?

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1 Dixon Trimline April 30, 2010 at 10:45 am

What lovely examples of using retired / discarded PCs as NPCs. Kudos to the DM for making the most out of those. The Balador story was a nice touch (and I can just picture the players’ faces), and the Luk story is pure genius. Selling all he knew to the highest bidder? Ferocious!

Given the potential for high turnover in 4E (new characters introduced all the time, short attention span theater, etc.), I can just imagine the NPC possibilities. Oh boy oh boy! I can’t wait to read some other examples.

2 pdunwin April 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm

This sounds cool. I’m actually thinking about bringing back a PC I played in the game I’m now DMing. Don’t worry, he won’t be a Mary Sue.

Thanks for the good example of how characters can have hard feelings while the players remain friends.

3 Chromed Cat April 30, 2010 at 9:26 pm

I’ve never actually done this, in respect to using a PC from the current campaign as an NPC in current campaign. Usually i’ve indentured a PC from some other game. Knowing the PC has helped greatly in making and decent and colourful NPC.

Right now i have the opportunity to do what is suggested in this blog post and damn it sounds like a great idea!

4 Jeremy Patrick May 1, 2010 at 1:04 am

It is a good idea, and one I’ve used with success as well. The only caution I have is to be careful that you aren’t stepping on any toes–if you suddenly change a Good-aligned PC who has rode off into the sunset into a backstabbing NPC bastard, the player who used to run that PC might be quite torqued and you could hear a lot of “So-and-So would never DO that!”
.-= Jeremy Patrick´s last blog ..Array, Null ARC =-.

5 Dungeon Newbie May 2, 2010 at 3:42 am

What about using the retired PC as a way to save the PCs? For example, let’s say a Fighter retired. A while later, the town the PCs are visiting gets attacked by The Dark Lord…. the same guy who destroyed the ex-Fighter’s village. Suddenly, just as the players were about to be killed, the ex-Fighter, now a demigod, shows up and with one powerful punch kills the Dark Lord. The remaining skeleton minions are, of course, easily slaughtered by a group of reknowed heroes and a halfgod who killed the legendary Dark Lord with a single swing.

6 Wimwick May 2, 2010 at 7:30 am

@ Dixon Trimline
The DM (Ameron) and Luk’s player have been planning that one for a while. I’m very interested in seeing how it changes the feel of the campaign.

@ pdunwin
In our previous campaign the DM did just that. He brought back his Necromancer and made the character the parties benefactor for a time. The Necromancer came out of the same campaign as Balador so it was really interesting. Also, it gave the other players some perspective on where he wanted that PC to eventually end up.

@ Chromed Cat
You will have to let us know how using the retired PC as an NPC turns out.

@ Jeremy Patrick
There is defintely an issue of sensitivity when you do this. You don’t want to ruin the feel the player had for their PC. In the case of Balador, he was already heading down a path of damnation so it wasn’t a big stretch for me to make him a Blackguard.

@ Dungeon Newbie
I think there are any number of ways to use retired PCs. Using them as you suggest is a great way to then have them be the quest givers for a time to propel the campaign forward.

7 Necron May 5, 2010 at 8:41 pm

As an experienced DM since the 80’s I have done this quite a few times as players get to meet their old selves love to see what has been done with them.

8 Chromed Cat May 7, 2010 at 1:03 am


Unfortunatly by the time our gaming session came around i forgot implement the transfer of the PC into the agressive nature faction i had lined up for him. Instead i caused him to die valiantly, which is a shame, because i may not have the chance to do this again for sometime. 🙁

I may however use NPCs from this Nature faction as antagonists, holding the PC party responsible for his death as an adventure hook. So the PCs will be able to explore this faction i created any how and foil the threat to the town and other less enviromentally friendly factions. 🙂

9 #1 Gnomie August 20, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I haven’t brought an old PC back into my game yet, but I intend to now!.. My current party’s halfling rogue should be plenty surprised to run into the half-elf bard he played (never resurrected) years ago as an old elf-man going all Don Quixote/Baron Muchuassen!

So far I have gone the other way; I have some friends that have never played before, so I figure the easy way to introduce them is to define the character for them. This helps them have a feel for the way a character should be played, while giving them time work out the kinks of game mechanics, with a character they aren’t really invested in.
I’ll usually approach this by giving the fledgeling player the NPC’s brief history, their motive in the interaction, their general disposition, and their tactics/abilities/resources. If there is something story mandatory, I’ll give them an imperative, (help, enlist, track, hinder, fight, etc,) and use my most discreet DM interference to keep it on track if necessary. 🙂 Oftentimes, they get it pretty fast. It makes my life a lot easier by freeing me to just adjudicate and paint the story. Side bonus, a bigger pool to cull players from!

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