There is a spoken contract at my gaming table which dates all the way back to when I first started Dungeon Mastering. Characters brought to my table are a part of a story that we, being the players and I, are telling. Characters do not cease to exist while their player is absent. If you cannot make the session, arrangements can be made to either have your character elsewhere for the adventure or played by another PC for combat and the like. While playing another player’s character has been addressed already in this blog, there is another aspect to this contract which I make clear to my players.
If you are not enjoying your character, feel free to bring in a new character. If you are not having fun at my game, feel free to leave it. I will not think less of you. Your old character, though, they now belong to the story. And they will invariably die or turn evil.
The origin of this seemingly strange rule of mine comes from a long-running Ravenloft game I ran in my teen years, during 2e D&D. One of my players, after three sessions of playing their Thief, decided that he would rather play a Cleric. He approached me after the third session to talk about it with me. As the party was currently playing through the module The Night of the Walking Dead, and were about to go through its climax, I told my player that there would be an opportunity for him to give up his character in the next session. During the next session, as the PCs confronted the villain of the module, the villain made the offer of “Join me, and you will be rewarded greatly.” The player took the bait. He joined with the villain, transformed into a monster, and managed to escape in the ensuing battle. And thus was born the Red Shadow.
Over the next two years, the party would face many enemies, but none they hated more than the Red Shadow. They would chase him from city to city, domain to domain, and drop everything else the moment they caught wind of his trail. Red returned the favor, often striking in ways that would frame the PCs as murderers and monsters. While they never got to the final confrontation with the Red Shadow, the lengths towards which my players would go to pursue him taught me a lesson. Just as the bonds of the party dynamic are founded on the trust and friendship of the players, the betrayal of that dynamic cuts deep. When it is another player who betrays that dynamic, there is still the pressure of the out of game friendship to keep it from getting ugly. The moment that character passes into the hands of the DM, however, the players become invested in destroying that personal foe.
There are more reasons beyond simply the party dynamic to favor the former PC as an antagonist. PCs can be very often fully fleshed out, and have hopefully expanded the story by their presence in it. By keeping the character in the universe of the game, the DM preserves a narrative cohesiveness. The party likely knows what drives that character, and can better predict his maneuvers. Likewise, that character knows what drives the PCs, and can be a far deadlier threat in that way. Finally, the former PC villain could easily be a sympathetic antagonist through this understanding, and might even be more of a tragic character than a villain who was never an ally of the PCs. For such villains, there might even be the possibility of redemption, which can sometimes bring an even greater satisfaction for the PCs than destroying them.
Not every PC who is set aside is suited to becoming a villain. While a Paladin can fall into wickedness, or a fell bargain can go awry, there are some characters whose role in the narrative is better suited to being the hero. While these characters can certainly make useful allies for the party, they can serve a better narrative role. One of the necessities of drama is the appearance of danger. Whether the danger is actually present or not holds more relevance to the mechanical systems of the game. The appearance of danger, however, is a key narrative tool to heighten the drama of a situation. One of the best ways to give the appearance of danger is to kill someone the PCs associate as being on their level in front of them.
For a former PC, a vague death in the background is wasting its potential. A heroic, or even anti-heroic, death in front of their former party members goes a long way to establishing a situation as being dangerous. The DM must, however, avoid making this death a dues ex machina, or a hand waving of success. Doing so brings too much narrative focus away from the PCs and is bad storytelling. Also, without the direct confirmation of seeing the character death, the threat will fail to seem as dangerous as it needs to be. While there are some DMs who use killing a PC in the party to establish this level of threat, using a former PC will demonstrate the same level of danger without having to cost the party the resources represented by that character. Furthermore, if the former PC was a friend of the party, this gives them the opportunity to avenge their fallen foe. In overcoming the danger that destroyed their former party member, the players get to feel that they have accomplished something worthwhile.
The final catch on this statement, however, is that the two invariable outcomes are not exclusive. If the former PC becomes a recurring villain, the PCs will be driven to defeat them. For many villains, this means death at the hands of the party. By killing the former PC, the remaining party members have brought that chapter of their narrative to a close. Conversely, a former PC who dies in front of their former party members may not have their story end there. If the party decides to have them returned from the dead, refusal or retirement is often appropriate. However, in certain circumstances, such as the body being lost to a villain with some necromantic talent, or where the former PC died as a result of the party’s actions, bringing the former PC back from the dead to become an antagonist can get one twice the mileage of this method. However, if one chooses to go this path, do so sparingly. While death or betrayal can provide a heightened level of drama, doing both to any given character more than a few times weakens the narrative strength and the emotional impact of this method.
- Hey, Isn’t That My Character: Using Retired PCs As NPCs
- Adventure Builder Workshop: The Villain
- Riding Off Into the Sunset: How to Retire a PC
When players at your table cast aside their old characters for whatever reason, what do you do with the exiting PC? Do you keep them around as NPCs or do you remove them completely from the story? Have you ever brought them back as a villain? How did that work out?