Ask The GM: Time To Die

By John Serpico on


Claudio asks – My players and I are in the middle of a long campaign. There are five players in the group and the rest of the campaign is probably going to deal with three of them primarily, since the other two have more or less resolved their character’s storylines. The characters themselves don’t really have a reason to continue on in the story (aside from camaraderie), so I was debating either killing them off or finding some other way to get them out of the campaign and replaced with new characters. What should I do?

Claudio, the situation you’re in is a common one in long campaigns. The story needs more telling, but all the characters aren’t needed for that telling. The plot has shifted, or you’re heading away from one character’s homeland, or the majority of the party decides they’d just rather do something that one or two people aren’t interested in doing. While situations like that feel incredibly complicated and killing off one of the “I have nothing to do with this” characters seems like the most efficient option, there are a few alternatives you can consider as well.

But first, let’s talk about why some characters can drift away from the main narrative. Sometimes, the seeds of it start at character creation. “I’m hunting the man that killed my family” is a character backstory so prevalent that every GM reading this right now probably has at least player right now working under that motivation. Well, what happens when justice is served? Unless that nefarious villain is the big bad guy that gets taken out in the final session, one character’s raison d’etre is going to vanish before the end of the campaign.

In those situations, you hope that the vengeance-hungry character develops into more than just someone on a single-minded quest. If they take a young orphan under their wing or discover a passion for ancient artifacts or decide they want to one day captain a ship, they can begin to focus on those things after their initial quest is done. The player still has a character with a goal, only it’s a new goal that is hopefully just as compelling as the first.

Essentially, you want the character to be motivated to still exist. But more important than that, you also want the player to be motivated to be a part of the story. Because even if the character killed the bad guy and has literally nothing else going on in his or her life, a player that is having fun rolling dice and solving problems will still enjoy gaming sessions and want to be there. The worst case scenario is a player who, once his or her character is not the focus of the story, wants to sabotage the campaign through obstinance or vocal boredom. Hopefully, that is not the case you’re dealing with.

In trying to determine what to do, you need to answer a few questions before moving forward with a plan. Do the two characters have a reason to stay with the party going forward? Do the two characters have a reason to exist now that their main goals have been accomplished, even if they’re not with the party? Do the two players want to keep playing those characters or would they be open to making new ones? Will the players be destructive or selfish if attention shifts away from them?

So, with all those questions and answers in mind, let’s talk about the options you have:

Kill Off The Characters

If the characters have no reason at all to still exist and the players would like them to go out with a bang, then letting them die selflessly and gloriously might be an option for you. One or both could perish putting the final nail in the coffin of their storyline (an epic swordfight with the now-dead villain’s loyal lieutenant, crashing a starship into a space station where the last remnant of evil is, etc) or in saving the rest of the party from a dire threat. If you do move in that direction, I recommend two things. First, talk to the players before you do it. Get a sense of new characters they might want to play and also make sure they’d be ok with the Viking funeral of their existing characters. If they want their character sheets burned up in a blaze of glory and have great ideas for new characters that could fit into the rest of the campaign, this may indeed be your best option.

Retire The Characters

If your players do want to make new characters but don’t like the idea of having their existing characters dead in the world, then having them ride off into the sunset and become canon NPCs is a fine option. They could still exist in the world and the party may still hear interesting things about them from time to time, which would make the transition from old characters to new characters smoother.

Split The Party

As I’ve written about before, splitting the party isn’t a bad idea in the right circumstances. If the two players want their characters to exist, want to still play them and have no interest in continuing on with the main storyline, you could let them wander off and get into some new adventures. But everyone in the group would need to be fine with that, including you. Splitting the party means more work for you and less “screen time” for the individual players. I recommend this only if the two characters are very compelling, the things they’ll be doing are interesting, and all the players are 100% fine with it. If all three of those factors aren’t met, then splitting the party won’t work and the story will evolve in a way that no one will be happy with.

Let Them Become Supporting Characters

Just because the dungeon they’re crawling around in doesn’t relate to them specifically, both players and characters can still enjoy the crawl. If your players love their characters and have no problem continuing on in a story that isn’t completely focused on them, then let them stick around. Hopefully, through roleplaying, those two characters can express their admiration for the rest of the party and can swear to help carry their burdens going forward. Gaming is fun, after all, and hopefully the players want to keep playing and seeing what happens to their characters now that they’re free from their previous modus operandi.

So, yes, killing off the characters is an option for you, but it’s just one of many. Think about the game, think about the players, and think about how you want the story to move forward. Then make your decision.

Happy GMing!

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