It’s wonderful when the party that slays together stays together, but the reality is that sometimes those we start the journey with aren’t able to meet us on the other side. Sometimes it becomes necessary, for whatever reason, to exit a player or character from your game mid-stream, and while it’s rarely easy, the good news is that losing a character doesn’t have to mean breaking up the game if you handle it carefully.
If you’ve never had to do it, know that the reasons for exiting a character range all over, from simple character death to a major change in the player’s life that causes them to leave the game suddenly. Longer campaigns also wrestle with a need for players to swap characters out after they simply get exhausted playing the old ones. Realistically, that can happen in any campaign, so it’s a good tool to have in your belt to be able to transition characters in and out without disrupting the game as a whole any more than you have to.
The first trick is to make an in-character roadmap for how to exit the character from the scene. Naturally, if they’re dead, the map is pretty simple – bury, light candle, move on – although if the character is loved, it may merit at least a little scenery chewing to honor their passing.
Things get more complicated when the character isn’t dying but the player is moving on. To avoid making things awkward for the rest of the party, work with the leaving PC’s player on a reasonable explanation for where the character is going and what’s keeping the from continuing to travel with their companions. If possible, make it something that keeps the character distant and difficult to contact, just to help explain why the rest of the PCs can’t call on her for advice or make use of her skills by proxy.
Depending on the setting you’re dealing with, that can be easier said that done. Modern, sci-fi and fantasy settings often feature a sense of ubiquitous communication, whether it’s cell phones, quantum entanglement or an overuse of a Sending spell. To make it realistic that the remaining PCs wouldn’t ping their old friend on the regular, you may have to create a new life for them that involves keeping busy instead. If you can’t realistically make them unreachable, make it so they never have time to do more than briefly check in.
Luckily, that sort of schedule ties nicely into most of the best reasons for leaving an active adventuring party – there’s something even more important, or just as important and much more urgent, somewhere else. Leverage the leaving PC’s homeland, their past personal entanglements, or whatever motivation they brought to the table before your plot swept them in to pry them back out.
When you can, opt for urgency over importance, so that the other PCs don’t feel like their current aim is now second fiddle to an adventure they can’t take part in. It’s just something that that character has to take care of right the hell now, to the exclusion of all else.
Lastly, make sure it’s something the other PCs can’t reasonably help with. It should be something very personal to the character, something they might want to handle alone or with those from their past who have skin in the game, so to speak. If all else fails, suggest to the player of the leaving PC that they urge their companions to “keep to the quest,” because what they’re doing is too critical to be forsaken for personal vendettas.
The exact nature of the PC’s reason for leaving is, of course, going to be fairly unique, so definitely work with the PC’s player to make sure it matches their notion of the character and her story as best it can. The more genuine and unique it feels, the more satisfying it should be to everyone, and the less inclined some of your other players might be to poke at the story like it’s some kind of sore wound. It’s going to take some work and planning, but it will be well worth it, especially if there’s a lot of campaign left to go.
If the leaving player has time and interest, you may also want to try to plan for the three-game exit. You can subtly introduce just about any intersecting plot over three sessions, laying realistic groundwork for whatever is swooping in to snatch the character out of their current errands. It gives the PC time to wrestle with the decision between their current companions, the mission, and the new news that other urgent matters are brewing back home.
A three-session exit also helps guarantee that you’ll reach some form of downtime where it’d be more reasonable to exit a PC than in the middle of the run against the Swedish embassy (although if you can manage to ripcord someone mid-fight and have it make perfect sense, you can color me impressed). The longer exit may also prove more satisfying for the remaining players, since it feels like a story arc a little more than a random deus ex swooping in at the last second to snatch their ally away.
If you’re unable to orchestrate the longer exit because the player simply can’t make it (three sessions, after all, could be a month and a half or more depending on your schedule), ask their permission to play the character by proxy (to “NPC” them) long enough to give the exit a more natural feel. If they’re keen on it, check with them on the character’s likely reactions to the news so that you can effectively play a character who isn’t yours without it being too jarring an impersonation for everybody else to swallow.
Once it’s said and done, you’ll have a group with hopefully fond memories of the departed character to spurn them onward into whatever adventures lie ahead, and a player knowing that the character they took time to build won’t have been just swept under the rug like so much dust in the room.
Working a new character in? Now that’s a whole other challenge to master, which we’ll be covering in the next Behind the Screen!