The death of a player naturally forces a GM to reassess his campaign and plans. But this sort of tragic event is not the only reason why this might become necessary – a player might move away, or might simply tire of the campaign and want to play something else, or might even give up roleplaying altogether – because they are getting married or have joined the army or something. I’ve seen all of these happen in the past (including the two reasons for retiring from RPGs), and with the passing of Stephen (see Remembering Stephen Tunnicliff), I’ve been forced into just such a reappraisal. I thought, therefore, that some reflection on the processes involved might be of value to our readers.
The first issue that must be considered is whether or not the campaign is even viable without the player. Was the player so central to the campaign that it is better to simply close it down? Are there still enough players to maintain the style and genre? There is no one answer to this, it will vary with number of players remaining and from campaign to campaign.
In many ways, losing a player is like losing a cast member from a successful TV show. There are times when the programme doesn’t even break stride (Dick Sergeant/ Dick York in Bewitched comes to mind), times when the programme collapses completely (can you imagine Happy Days without the Fonz?) – and there may even be rare occasions when the change is for the better (though I can’t actually think of an example off the top of my head).
A second, related assessment asks the same questions concerning the PC that belonged to the departed player. Was the Character so central to the campaign that it cannot be salvaged without that character? Are there still enough PCs to maintain style and genre? Each player brings something unique to a campaign, usually expressed through the way they run their character – can that be replaced? Can some other player step into the role, or can the role be written out completely and replaced with someone else?
Once again, every campaign will be different in this respect.
Character Options: Immortalize, Commemorate, Retire, Replace, Discard
If the decision is made to remove or replace the missing player’s character, the next question is what to do with that character. Especially in cases such as the one in which I find myself, there is a strong desire to create some form of lasting memorial to the player through the character, immortalizing them as a permanent fixture within the campaign.
A less extreme approach is to give the character a grand exit that will commemorate their role within the campaign, though that usually works better with advance planning.
More prosaic still is to simply retire the character – have him hang up his spurs and exit, stage left, or ride off into the sunset.
If the character is too central to the campaign, there are two alternatives, both of which come under the general heading of “replace” – you can either keep the character, giving it to a new player, or you can bring in a new player with a new character to fulfill the same role. I’ve employed both approaches in the past – Blackwing, in the Zenith-3 campaign, is currently on his third player; and when Nick (one of my players) dropped out of the Fumanor campaign briefly, a new character stepped into the breach.
Finally, there is the option of simply killing the character off and letting the campaign progress as it will.
Ideally, the decision should be made in advance, after consulting the player, and with their cooperation. Where the departure is sudden, however, this is a choice not available to the GM, and he will have to make the best choice that he can on his own – perhaps after discussing the matter with the other players.
So, with the preamble out of the way, it’s time to get down to cases – considering my campaigns, both active and inactive. I’ll start with my D&D campaigns and work my way through to the others.
The Rings Of Time
This D&D 3.x campaign was already shut down due to a shortage of time – prep time somewhat, and play time in particular. In this case, Stephen was 2/4ths of the central plotline and one of the two players. His involvement was absolutely central to the campaign, and for this reason, it will never now be restarted.
The Tree Of Life
When I first approached the notion of playtesting D&DNext, I wanted to do with the playtest exactly what I would do if I were really using the game system – building an ongoing campaign from it. This is the campaign that I came up with. With the game system now moving on to a new phase of playtesting, this campaign was shut down because it would have been incompatible with what WOTC wanted the playtesters to do. The plan was always to restart the campaign when it became appropriate to do so, but Stephen was going to be integral to that, so I am no longer sure about doing so. Ultimately, it probably depends on whether or not a new player can step into his shoes.
Fumanor: The Seeds Of Empire
Since Stephen was not a player in this campaign, there is no decision needed.
Fumanor: One Faith
This campaign started out as a solo campaign for one player, but added a couple more as it progressed, one of whom was Stephen. The future plans for this campaign called for it to bifurcate, half the plotlines following the original central character and the other half revolving around Stephen’s Bard. The other new PC was intended to share in Stephen’s adventures. Quite obviously, I have two options: I can maintain the campaign plan as it is, or I can scrap it and integrate the other players into the primary strand in a more traditional structure.
For quite a while, i was in two minds about which course to choose. Ultimately, three considerations came together to settle the question definitively. The first was the realization that the Bardic strand of the campaign would not work without Stephen’s Bard; the second, that the other new PC, on his own, was better suited to the non-Bardic strand; and the third, that if I had the Bardic Strand happen in the campaign background and increased the significance of events therein, I could immortalize Stephen’s Bard as a key element of either the big finish of this campaign, or as a central element of the next.
It means a minor revision of the campaign plan, and the scrapping of about half the adventures planned, but it is by far the best answer for both this campaign and for the desire to immortalize the contributions my friend had made to my games.
Shards Of Divinity
We had a new player join the original Fumanor campaign about 2/3 of the way through, but Shannon was a relative novice when it came to campaigns of the intricacy and complexity of the games I run. He found himself out his depth and dropped out after a little less than a year. Part of the problem, he felt, was that he had not been part of the campaign from the start, and was always trying breathlessly to catch up with the other players. So he asked me to come up with a new campaign for him to learn in. The result was the Shards Of Divinity campaign.
Stephen’s character was a member of the supporting cast, one who was about to come into his own as the campaign moves into a political phase. Without him, the tasks facing the PCs in fulfilling their ambitions will be more difficult, but Stephen was not central to this campaign. It’s my thinking at this point that I will simply give his character a new Contract to fulfill (he’s a thief who has recently turned Assassin) and quietly write Stephen’s character out of the campaign.
Fumanor: The Ultimate Chaos (working title)
It came as no surprise to my players when I started compiling ideas for the Next Fumanor campaign shortly after play got underway in the current campaigns. The plan was for each of the three Fumanor campaigns to contribute an epic-level character for a big finish to the entire campaign set. From the original campaign, Ian Gray would reprise Aurella, the greatest mage of the known world; from the Seeds Of Empire campaign, Nick would contribute Tajik, his Orcish Cleric; and from the One Faith campaign, Stephen would contribute his Bard.
Those plans have obviously been knocked in a heap by Stephen’s passing, but using the revised plans evolved for dealing with his loss in the One Faith campaign permits the original idea to be perpetuated, at least in spirit. We may well need a third player to join the campaign, though; fortunately, we have one who believes he is ready to step up into the “Big Leagues” in Shannon, after two years or more of the Shards Of Divinity campaign.
The Warcry Campaign
This started out as a solo campaign for one player, and although Stephen and one other player subsequently joined it, they were always peripheral to the overall campaign. So this campaign will continue without Stephen. The question then becomes, what to do with his character? At the moment, they are in the middle of the multipart epic “Daughters Of Darion” plot arc, in which the titular PC has to locate husbands for his daughters, and interrupting that will be quite difficult and badly disrupt the overall narrative of the campaign. At the same time, that plot arc has more than 2 years left to run, and Stephen’s character would be a complex and difficult-to-handle NPC.
If the campaign is going to be damaged, regardless, the next goal must be to minimize that damage. The best answer is to impose a short, sharp shock – get it over and done with as quickly as possible and then get the campaign back on track. That, to me, suggests an intermission in the middle of the plot arc – and right now, when they happen to be in between adventures, is the best time for such an interruption.
Having made that decision, I then have to think about an adventure that will lead to Stephen’s character retiring or dying or something suitably dramatic. It was always intended that the campaign would eventually travel to Stephen’s Character’s Homeworld and confront his arch-enemy there. If I write the character out of the campaign, that plotline will never be needed – and there’s been a lot of work put into that plotline. I always intended to slot it in somewhere – it doesn’t appear in the campaign plan that I outlined in my discussion of adventure names – so why not here?
With a few tweaks, it would give Stephen’s character an epic send-off, writing him out of the campaign. The only difference would be to ramp it up and give the character a predetermined pyrrhic victory instead of letting the character find a solution that enabled him to continue in the campaign.
Zenith-3: The Regency Campaign
Stephen was not a player in this campaign, but his past characters remain an indelible part of its history. More than any other campaigns of mine, this one bears his imprint. His characters, especially Behemoth, will remain a lasting legacy.
The Adventurers’ Club
This campaign has a much more ensemble feel to it. Stephen was one player out of 4, so it should be possible for it to continue. Nevertheless, it is now at the limit of viability, in my opinion – I’m only one half of the refereeing on the campaign – losses for various reasons (it started with 8 players, of whom I was one) are now seriously threatening that ensemble tone. It’s almost at the point where players and co-GMs might want to discuss the possibility of players taking on a second character, or of bringing in one or two new recruits.
None of these decisions is entirely up to me, since I only co-referee the campaign. They will need to be discussed with my co-GM before a final decision is reached.
In terms of characters, Stephen’s character is central to both the current adventure and to the next one that we have planned. I think that we can probably rewrite the next one to focus on a different PC, probably Saxon’s priest; Ian Mackinder’s Sea Captain would be a more logical focus, but he is already the central focus of the B-story. The difficulty we will face is that Ian is not a very strong detective when playing games; he may love the detective genre, especially Sherlock Holmes, but that is not his strong suite and never has been. In that B-plot, he would very much have been relying on Saxon and Nick’s contributions in that area; now he will have to rely on Nick alone. Will they be up to the challenge? We may have to resort to some NPC assistance or even to being a little more generous in interpreting situations and feeding the players clues.
That leaves the current adventure, which really is all about Stephen’s Character. I had come up with the plotline and Blair and I had rejected it as being just too evil – but then Stephen asked us to come up with a plotline in which his character gained a Noble Title, and since that was at the heart of the plotline I had devised, we basically said to each other, “He’s asked for it.” The question to be asked is whether or not we play out the adventure, or simply tell the players what the outcome of it was and move on to the next adventure – which is not yet completely written and ready for play. My feeling is that we should continue, and tweak the ending so that the character gets to retire with his title intact. Another of our mutual friends and ex-players, Michael Price, is perhaps the most capable of emulating Stephen’s sensibilities, and the possibility of asking him to fill in for the rest of the current adventure is also something Blair and I need to discuss.
The old show-business maxim is “The Show Must Go On”. A roleplaying game is not the same thing; there is no reason why you can’t shut one down following the loss of a central player and start a new one in its place. But, at the same time, there is a natural desire to respect the investments in time and effort that have been made by the other players (not to mention yourself) and an inclination to immortalize or commemorate the PC whose player is no longer at the table.
There are times when the right thing to do, and the best thing to do in terms of the campaign, is to give in to those inclinations. But there are also times when the best thing to do is to write the character out, either with a bang or with a very quiet whimper.
All too often, GMs only have one solution in their dicebox to deal with the sort of eventualities listed at the start of this article. Hopefully, this has expanded the repertoire of tools available for coping with this particular problem. If you need assistance in replacing the player, of course, you can consult our ebook, ‘Filling The Empty Chair’.