One of the downsides of being a civilian contractor instead of Active Duty military while deployed is this– everyone leaves, while I stay the same. I’ve learned a whole new appreciation for the Highlander series, and Dr.Who, and some vampire shows, I’ll tell you that.
But because of the constant in-and-out cycles of deployments, learning how to deal with losing players is something I’ve gotten rather good at. Thankfully, all my players thus far have made it home from Iraq and Afghanistan safely–everybody has made it home to their families and friends back in the States. Which puts me, as the GM, in a bit of a paradox– I want them to stay and continue the stories we have begun together and continue to have fun at my gaming table. I also want them to go home, be out of a warzone, and be back with their family and friends. This cycle happens about every six months or so and frankly, it sucks. But I’ve learned to deal with it in two major ways, and that’s what I want to talk to my fellow GMs about.
Go Out With A Bang
If you know you’re going to be losing a player, the first thing to do is give them some additional “spotlight time” over their last couple of sessions. This is basically your way as GM of saying thank you to the player for allowing you to put their PC through the wringer. It’s also your way of sending them off in a positive way that will let them remember the game fondly for years to come. Give them a bit more attention at the end, because that player won’t be around to get the attention once they’re gone. Give their PC’s actions a little more flair in your descriptions, have NPCs pick them to interact with, etc. Just give them a little more love before they have to leave.
Wrap Up Their Subplots
If you’re anything like me, your campaign is filled with the threads of subplots just hanging there, waiting for you to tug on them and make them a part of the game. I deliberately leave my games filled with opportunities to
kill the PCs... er, to increase the drama in my stories. When you know you’re going to be losing a player, that’s the time to deliberately pull a couple of the subplot threads for that character into their last few sessions in order to wrap those things up. This point ties into the previous point, but it affects the entire party a bit more directly. It might pay fr you to deliberately tell the other players, “Hey, since Bob is leaving we’re going to be wrapping up a few of his character’s plot threads. Please play nice.” Being so deliberate about this might seem jarring to you as a GM, but I have always found that telling players upfront in this kind of a metagame sense helps them not be annoyed when the focus of the game isn’t on their PC or the party as a whole. It also lets the rest of the team know that if the situation arises when THEY are the ones leaving, they’ll get the same treatment from you.
Keep Them In The Loop
The internet is a beautiful thing. It allows distance gaming via Skype and a whole lot of other options. It also allows things like game forums and Facebook to keep a player who wants to stay involved in the game access to the table, albeit vicariously. A player who wants to stay involved even though they are leaving the table is a GREAT benefit for the players who are still chucking dice with you. I have recently lost 4 players due to them redeploying back to Colorado and I am keen on tapping them to help me fill out parts f the campaign world that are still unfinished. I have one player who is going to be helping me work on the culture of my elves and druids, for example, and I’m really looking forward to that. Use the resources available to keep the players who still want to be part of the team– or at least watch and see what happens after they leave– as plugged-in and active as you can.
One of the things I did with the players I am losing right now is a Farewell Post on the Adventure logs for the game we’re running currently. We had the Whiz-Bang last session, but there were a lot of questions left as to what the future would hold. The game we’re running now has a very Paizo Kingmaker feel to it, so made sense for the PCs to take up positions in the newly-founded kingdom. I wrote a “transition” adventure post for each of them describing how they went from Active PC to Supporting NPC.
Don’t Kill Their Characters…
I think this should go without saying, but alas, here I am. Just because a PC leaves the party doesn’t mean that they immediately suffer a horrible gory death. In fact, I think that if you do this as a GM, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot. The rest of the players at your table are already emotionally invested, at least a little, in this character. They’ve fought by his/her side, bled with them, and had both successes and failures (if you’re doing your job as a GM) at their side. Turn the PC into an important campaign NPC when the player has to leave. I have done this on multiple occasions, and it ALWAYS ends up being a good thing. It’s a win-win for everybody. The campaign continuity isn’t spoiled by Ralph the Rogue simply dying horribly for no reason, all of the NPCs that knew Ralph are still attached to the game, and the PCs don’t have to suddenly go on a vengeance quest or mourn the incredibly stupid death of one of their own. Maybe Ralph decides he wants to retire and run an inn– now that inn becomes a central hub for the PCS, and Ralph gets them the juciest rumors. Or maybe Ralph get elected Guildmaster of Thieves for whatever town your game is based out of– there’s not a GM in the world who wouldn’t run with THAT plotline. A live PC who becomes a dead NPC has fare less usefulness to the campaign than one who can keep generating plotlines.
…Unless The Player WANTS You To
Of course, all of the above being said, if the player really genuinely wants their PC to stop being a part of the game world, you can always kill them off in a particularly dramatic fashion. If you have a new villain you want to bring in (more than a one-shot bad guy, please. See the above picture as example), now is definitely the time to do it. Nothing gets a party wanting to kill a villain more than putting a PC in the ground for dead-dead. If you have an old bad guy or someone the PCs haven’t dealt with in a while, this is a great way to put a great big spotlight on whatever plot that villain is attached to. There is a great, big caveat to killing a PC in this manner, however– be prepared for the revenge plot to completely derail your game until it is finished, far more so than if a PC had died and the player brought a new one to the table. There’s a psychological trick here– the PC has died, and the characters feel a sense of loss, sure. But because the PLAYER is also gone, the rest of the players at your table are feeling the loss of one of their own as well. This subtle emotional difference usually means that the players themselves will focus on the revenge plot far more than they might otherwise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you as GM just need to be prepared for it to happen. If you’re a plot or event-centric GM, make sure that the villain who offs the PC is associated with your main plot arc– you might even bring the Big Bad Evil in for a quick cameo. If you’re a more sandboxy GM, just be aware that whatever clues you put in the world for the characters to find about this villain is likely where they are going to be going, as fast as they can. Your sandbox might turn itself into a player-made set of rails for a few sessions.
When a player has to leave your table, it’s often kinda sad and depressing– you’re losing a part of what makes the gaming group you’ve got right now awesome, and most often it means your contact with that friend might be lessened as well due to the fact that you wont be seeing them as often. Using these few tips, and using the internet to help keep in contact can ease the damage to both your campaign and your friendship.