Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Fade: Dealing with Player Attrition in Your RPG




Any long-term gamer has seen it.  It starts with having to leave a few hours early, evolves into a couple of missed games, eventually leaves a vacant seat behind and within the blink of an eye one of your key players has been lost to “the fade.” 

Life happens, and there are countless reasons behind player attrition.  Boyfriends, girlfriends, jobs, geography, new friends, babies, marriage—all of these are minions of the fade.  Sometimes it’s a sad loss, sometimes a necessary one. This last year I've watched as some of my favorite gamers were pulled away by life, circumstance, new hobbies, new relationships, etc, and I knew what was happening each time.  The fade had them, and every game was on borrowed time--even if they didn't quite realize it.  

Regardless of the reasons behind the fade, player loss is a natural and inevitable part of any long-term gaming group.  Furthermore, losing a player isn’t always a bad thing. The old cliché that nothing lasts forever certainly applies, and let’s face it, sometimes change is good.   

Dealing with the sudden absence of a key player, however, can be something of a challenge for campaign-style games that stretch on for months or even years. 

Campaigns that become player or character-centric can especially suffer from the relatively sudden loss of a player.  Remaining gamers may be left to fill in the gaps of the story, or the game master may need to get creative in order to answer the question as to why the character is suddenly missing in action. Ultimately, the GM is responsible for moving the story along, and in my opinion, the long-term story is king.  The game must go on, you could say, and the success or longevity of the game should never rely solely on a single player.  

This isn’t to say that certain story elements or entire adventures shouldn’t center upon individual characters.  Well-developed characters often create ample opportunities for adventures, and these can be rewarding both for players and game masters.  But if we’re talking about campaigns that continue for extended periods, the story itself should involve characters without necessarily being about the characters. 

Writing characters out of a story can be a difficult and awkward task—particularly if the player behind the character makes an unexpected exit from the game. For temporary absences, the GM may be able to find a suitable excuse to sit out the character and let the natural flow of the story move things along, always with the intention of catching the character back up in the action when time and circumstance allows. 

A permanent absence may require a little more creativity to make sure the integrity of the story remains intact. In this case, the GM should consider taking over the responsibilities of the character— thus turning the PC (player character) into a NPC (non-player character).  The manner in which the character is controlled, including their ultimate fate in the game, should depend on the player's involvement in the game as a whole.  If the character was created for the game/campaign and the player is clearly never coming back, the GM now owns that character. In my opinion, when it comes to a long-running campaign, the characters belong to that story.  As long as the player is involved, that character’s actions and decisions are driven by the player.  But when it comes to any story, whether fiction, movie, comic, or RPG, the character is ultimately the property of that story. If the character is a highly involved, essential component of that story, it’s the GM’s responsibility to see to a satisfactory resolution to the player’s absence.

This can be a long term or short solution, depending on the character’s current involvement in the story.  Once the character arc has played out, a more suitable and permanent exit can be devised by the GM.  Depending on the story, tone and style of the campaign, the GM can and should consider everything from character retirement, happily ever-afters, mysterious departures, and even death (this last should probably be reserved only for those cases in which the player has permanently left the game and the character was designed solely for this world or campaign).  If the player has a great deal of buy-in with a painstakingly crafted character, coming up with a fitting departure that may allow the player the ability to continue in potential future games is probably a perfect option for everyone involved.  No need to kill off someone's beloved creation, particularly if there's more playability left in that character! This article, however, is aimed more at the true abandonment of characters mid-story.

Some characters certainly deserve an epic send-off (even if the players behind them do not), while others can simply fade away into forgettable obscurity as the dice continue to roll for everyone else.  The most important thing for the GM to consider is the authenticity of the story and making character-based decisions for the dearly-departed player. 

In many cases, this can turn out for the better.  Losing a distracted player may actually lead to more thoughtful and realistic actions played out by the GM.  Despite how integral the characters may seem at the time, everyone involved in the game should bear in mind that characters are merely transient.  They serve the story, and just as “the fade” is likely to claim players over time, it will certainly come for your darling characters as the story, and the dice, roll on. 

Change is inevitable in life and around your gaming table. Embracing this change, however, can lead to some tremendously creative twists and turns in your RPG. In the eighteen years I have run the Adventures Under the Laughing Moon campaigns, I have seen over thirty “regular” players come and go.  These players have certainly left their footprints in the sand, and while many are missed, the story itself has managed to survive.  Several of these characters have left legacies behind that are known by current gamers, although the players themselves are rarely asked about. 

And lastly, keep in mind with every fade out, there is the possibility of a fade in.  Say your goodbyes to the player lost, and welcome the new opportunities, ideas, and good times that come with a fresh face.

-T

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