As gamers we live with our characters. Some players only inhabit those fictional lives during game sessions. Others write up extensive backstories during downtimes. Others will journal as the character or write fictional stories featuring their characters. For some, a character is simply a collection of numbers on a character sheet. All of these approaches are valid and acceptable, even within the same gaming group.
Regardless of how much time and love and care and passion we pour into our particular characters, there comes a time when the character has reached a point where retiring the character is an appropriate thing to do. There are several causes that I’ll talk about in a moment that can lead to the retirement of a character. There are also a few ways to retire the character as well. Simply “stopping playing” the character can work, but there are more elegant exit strategies.
Not The Right Character
You’ve made your character, but it doesn’t gel with the themes, story elements, setting, other party members, or the approach of gaming the GM is presenting. This means you have the wrong character to play for full enjoyment of the game. If the game is a one-shot, this is less problematic, but if the game is a long-running campaign, this can be a complete bummer.
As we gnomes have talked about in various articles and Gnomecasts, having a proper session zero where the GM collaborates with (or presents to) the players to determine the various aspects of the game can alleviate or eliminate building the wrong character. Collaborating with the rest of the players is also vital here to ensure you aren’t going to step on toes when it comes to sharing the spotlight.
However, if you end up with just the wrong character for the campaign, then it might be time to shelve the character. The earlier you do this, the better off everyone will be with the game, especially the GM. If you can find an exit for your character before the GM attaches too many plot points to it, then this will cause less pain for the GM.
No Joy Anymore
Perhaps you have a character that you love (or once loved) to play, but the joy of playing the character has waned. This can come from many different angles and have quite a few different root causes. If you’ve done the proper introspection into your past love for the current character, but you’ve solidly landed in the camp of “I don’t like doing this anymore with this character,” then it’s time to move on to a fresh character.
Some campaigns get to the point where the characters are extraordinarily powerful. This is actually where I’m at right now as a player in the current campaign. All of us are supremely powerful and potent, and this is presenting issues to the GM for giving us proper challenges at the table. Things are improving in the game, though. I noticed in the past couple of sessions that the GM threw more difficult challenges and quests in front of us. This amping up of the challenge levels in the game has brought new joy (and good tension) to the game.
If you and/or your group of players notice that you’re not being challenged by events, encounters, situations, environments, or other interactions, then it’s time to have a chat with the GM. Be nice. Be courteous. The GM is probably doing their best, but maybe hasn’t quite realized that you’re getting bored with the challenges. Ask them to turn up the dial on the difficulties of future encounters, but make sure you don’t throw down the gauntlet of challenge. Doing that can almost ensure that the GM’s response will be to turn the difficulty up too high for your group.
No More Goals
If the campaign has played out and the Ultimate Goal Of The Story has been resolved, this might very well be a perfect time to retire the character(s) and step toward the next story. Perhaps your personal goals for your specific character have been resolved. If you don’t see any new goals, then try to assist other party members with their goals. If this list runs dry, and the GM isn’t presenting new quests, then you might be seeing signs that it’s time to retire the character.
Single Character Retirement
If any of the above reasons (or other reasons) are pushing you toward retiring your character, have an open and honest conversation with the GM and the rest of the players on how you want to handle it. Perhaps you want to ride off into the sunset and become a legend of the local areas. Your character can also stay in the region and become a patron of new adventurers. Don’t forget about the heroic death option, but make sure you’re playing a system or telling stories in the proper manner to make your character’s death epic and truly worthy of stories to be told for the ages. It’s also possible that the character can retire to a mundane, safe, and somewhat boring profession. Barkeeps and innkeepers tend to be popular tropes for retired characters, and these work quite well.
You can also have your character become an NPC for the GM to run. I highly recommend avoiding making the former party member into a nemesis for the remaining group. This type of betrayal rarely makes sense in the story, and can lead to hard feelings at the player level. I’ve seen this happen a handful of times throughout my decades of gaming, and it only turned out well once.
Whole Group Retirement
If everyone is on board with the same feelings of moving away from the current group of characters, then maybe it’s time to retire the entire party. Of course, you’ll want to include your GM in this conversation. If you give the GM enough heads up, they might be able to adjust their plans for the game to conclude the current story arc(s) in a satisfying manner. If the entire group retires, then each character has the same options I outlined above for retirement.
Doesn’t Kill The Campaign
Having a single character retire doesn’t need to trigger the death of a campaign. There are still other characters in the party that can carry on the story. Of course, if the entire group retires, this is another matter. To ensure the story continues in a smooth and streamlined manner, make sure you don’t ambush your group with a sudden character retirement. If you’re having feelings that you need a fresh character in the campaign, then those feelings have most likely been building for a while. It’s no surprise to you, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to everyone else.
Bringing In A Replacement
Once you’ve successfully retired a character, you’ll want a new one to come into the storyline and campaign. I strongly recommend that the new character come in at a power level equivalent to the remaining characters. Don’t punish a player with a “first level character” because they are starting over. This is punishing the player because they’ve made a decision that will enable them to have more fun.
Conversing about what kind of character to bring in while the campaign is mid-stream is even more vital than talking about character builds during session zero. There are storylines in flight. There are character arcs flowing. There are enemies, friends, allies, factions, and so much more attached to the group that weren’t there at the start of session zero. The new character will change and adjust things. That’s unavoidable. However, the new character should not be a majorly disruptive force in the course of the game.
You Look Like A Trustworthy Fellow
When introducing the new character to the group, it’s best done on neutral or friendly grounds. Finding a warrior roaming a random dungeon and then immediately inviting them into the group is fairly strange and weird. Yes, you can make this work, and it might be necessary. If the old character was “retired by heroic death” in the depths of a dungeon, then you don’t want the player to sit idle at the table while the party makes their way back to a friendly location to meet their new party member. A good approach here is to have the party discover the new character already in action and battling a known enemy. This can set up the fact that the new character is nominally on the same side as the party. A solid trope is to also have the new character be a prisoner of the Bad Guys in need of rescue (just make sure the new character’s gear is stash somewhere nearby).
If situations allow, though, I do recommend having the new character be a known factor in the world that is aligned with the party. This can be via familial relations, faction ties, friend-of-a-friend, strong rumors, legends and lore, or some other flavor of alliance. This can establish that the new character is friendly, supportive, and reliable to the rest of the party.