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

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on October 25, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From April 30, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Hey, Isn’t That My Character: Using Retired PCs As NPCs.

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.

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe October 25, 2013 at 10:31 am

I LOVE using old PCs (both mine and other players’) as NPCs, either later in the same game, or in other games.

As a writer who often puts WAY too much work into the backstory of characters in one-off adventures, it’s a way to put some of that work to good use. So the 3 pages of history I wrote for a Lair Assault character can matter when the PCs in my game meet him as a retired adventurer in the next town.

I also like letting my worlds have legends and history (my Obsidian Portal pages for my games always have a “Bard’s Tale” section of stuff they may have heard in tavern tales), and this is also a great way to make players feel connected to the world: by making their old characters part of the hero stories told around the tavern fire.

As a player, there’s the chance to re-imagine a character. Back in college, I played a Mormon preacher/reluctant werewolf named Malachi Schultz in a Werewolf: Wild West game that only lasted 3 or 4 sessions. I liked his devotion to something greater than himself, though, and ported the idea of that character years later into a 3rd ed human druid named Malachi who had a bit of an elf fetish due to his desire to get closer to connect with the greater reality of nature. That worked for a while, but then when 4e came out, I reworked the religious fervor angle to create Malachi Moonriver, a half-elf cleric of Ioun who was basically a mix of Hermione Granger & Joxer (from Xena), full of youthful enthusiasm about joining an adventuring group to do all the things he’d read about, with way more excitement than sense. Effectively they were all the same character base, though each was a totally unique experience.

Finally, there’s the issue of consequences. My longest ever D&D game started the night the D&D Movie came out (we were so upset about dragons getting turned into fighter planes that we went home that night to “do it better”) and began in 2nd ed. When that group moved on a year or so later, their characters had done a bunch of things that had inadvertently made life harder for the elves of the world. So the next group (think there was one player who carried over), in the same world, made 3rd ed PCs who were all some kind of elvish (elf, drow, half-elf) or somehow connected to the Elven world, and they had to deal with the world the previous PCs had affected (the old PCs were generally seen as villains by the elves, but the new party did some research in their travels to understand a bit more of the context). A couple years after that, 3.5 had been released, and one of my old players came back, and we had lots of fun building his old 2nd ed PC as a 3.5 Epic character, since it was all technically still the same world. And even my current 4e home game, which is a totally different world, still uses a lot of the names and character ideas from that game as background legends or in-jokes that only I get.
Joe´s last blog post ..MythSpoken Gaming Special: The Quiet Year

2 sverbridge October 25, 2013 at 11:42 am

In my last campaign, I used an old PC as a future villain for the group. The player was leaving the group and I set up this great big finale for the character which resulted in the players assuming, but not knowing for sure, that the PC sacrificed their life to save them and the area. The PC was a changeling and had a cursed weapon that sucked souls, so the soul of the BBEG that the PC sacrificed to vanquish ended up taking possession of the body, through the sword, and changed the appearance of the body to look like their former self. The players were really surprised that this BBEG came back from the dead, but were totally shocked when they found out it was their beloved changeling, whom they thought had died. There is more, basically a multiple personality disorder forced through the sword, with the changeling persona buried deep in the psyche and the PC’s trying to figure out a way to get their beloved companion back without actually killing them and getting rid of the other personas. I bet that just got really confusing.

3 Sean Holland October 25, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I am a big fan of this technique as a way to tie various campaigns into a coherent world. In my M&M campaign, the Champion group I GMed for a decade ago are the superteam on the other coast. In my L5R campaign, I am about to star a campaign where all the PCs are children or relatives of the PCs from the last campaign arc. And so on. The secret is to use a light touch and not have the (N)PCs upstage the PCs, the current characters are the heroes of the show, everyone else are just guest stars.

4 Geoff October 28, 2013 at 5:10 pm

I’ve definitely made good use of retired PCs turned NPC. The person playing our cleric retired her main character for a while to play a bard. When she returned to the cleric, I had the bard kidnapped by cultists. Of course, the bard and our sorceress had become in-game boyfriend and girlfriend, so when the bard showed up as an insane thrall of the cult during the campaign’s final battle, our sorceress had major skin in the game, AND I let the person playing the cleric let off some of her desire to play an evil character by letting her roll for her now insane bard against the PCs.

Of course, they spared the insane bard’s life and are now trying to figure out how to cure him… I see hijinks in the future!

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