So here you are, roleplaying your heart out and having a wonderful time doing so. The character you made has all kinds of relationships with other characters around him. He has two or three close friends and countless more close allies. Maybe he even has an established in-game relationship, a character that could be considered a significant other. Or maybe he's involved in a really engaging and fun storyline with a group of people, and the story that they're roleplaying out is coming to a head.
Then it happens.
Whether it's burnout, real-life problems, an inability to pay for game time, a desire to play elsewhere, or maybe just an out-of-character disagreement, one of those people that you roleplay with suddenly disappears. The friend behind the character may have given his reasons out-of-character, and they may be perfectly reasonable -- but suddenly, that storyline or relationship that you'd spent all this time on has a gigantic, in-character hole, and there's simply no explanation for it. These days, this is all too common; any time you have a new expansion launch, there are inevitably players who simply burn out. But how do you handle the abrupt, unexplained, in-character loss of a friend?
There are a few different problems with losing a friend. The biggest and most evident of these is the fact that in all the roleplay you've been doing, suddenly your character has lost a friend, loved one, or a major character in a plot he's working through. While rationally, you understand the OOC reasons for his disappearance, the IC reasons are something that haven't been discussed. So you're left with a messy cleanup to do, the dubious task of trying to figure out how your character is going to react to this disappearance.
Not only does your character have to deal with the disappearance, but the entire social circle of the missing character is also going to be left with nothing to work with. If the missing character was the linchpin in a particularly important plot that people were excited to be playing, that sudden disappearance is going to leave a lot of people very disappointed and maybe even angry that they don't get to finish playing through this great storyline they were so happy to be working with.
If the missing character played the part of significant other to your character, you're left with an even greater gap in your character's life. Suddenly that person he come home to at the end of the day, that person that he loved, is gone. No explanation, no in-character reason given.
What all of these have in common is that there is no "The End" to work with. Think of your character as a sort of ongoing story, and all the characters around you as ongoing stories as well. By having a character suddenly disappear, it's as if that character's "book" simply ended in the middle of a chapter with no explanation. There ought to be more to that book, but instead it simply ... stops. It's a jarring, off-putting situation to deal with.
It's tempting to look at these situations as an all-around bad situation, but there's a bright side to losing a character, too. Even though your character has lost a friend or loved one, that loss leaves him with dozens of options. Don't think of it as a loss; think of it as the sudden creation of thousands of potential possibilities for roleplay -- and those possibilities could be even more interesting than what your character was up to prior to his friend's disappearance.
When you're sitting there with a giant hole in your character's life, it can feel almost overwhelming. As with any situation in real life, when you're stuck in one place due to a loss or a sudden change, it's usually not the loss that's the major issue -- it's what to do after that loss. The sheer number of things you could potentially do freezes you in place while you're trying to decide which option to pick. Think of it in terms of really loving ice cream, then suddenly winning a contest in which you are presented with millions of ice cream options -- but you're only allowed to pick one. Which one do you pick? Which is best? What if the one you pick isn't the best possible one to pick?
There are hundreds of different explanations for lost characters. The first thing you should do is narrow down your choices. You can do that with one simple question: Do you want to leave the possibility of that character's return as a option, or are you pretty certain that character will never be making a comeback?
With this route, your character has a chance to grieve, mourn, and eventually move on -- and so do all the characters involved in the dead character's social circle. Future events and social situations may be colored by memories of the death and the circumstances surrounding it, so keep that in mind when you're making future contacts.
Another option is simply retirement -- the missing character has retired from active duty to some quiet place in the middle of nowhere. This leaves you the chance to actually "interact" to a degree with the missing character, treating him as an NPC of sorts. You can use him as an advice giver, unspoken ally, and source for favors -- and if in the event you find yourself taken away from the game for a week or two, you can simply say that your character was visiting the missing character.
There are of course countless other options, but what all of these options do is create an endpoint for that missing character's story, so you and your friends have a definitive event that occurred and you can move on from it. Instead of a gap, you've got the end to a chapter and the ability to move on into the next.
A word of warning: When creating an ending for a character whose player has already left the game, be nice. Make their departure a positive one, rather than a negative one. After all, if they do decide to return to the game, it's easier to work them back into the swing of roleplay if they don't have to suddenly acclimate themselves to former friends that all view them with irrevocable hatred for some reason they aren't quite aware of.
The other side of the equation here of course, is if you yourself are leaving the game, re-rolling on another server, or otherwise stepping away from roleplay with a particular character. What you have to remember is that that character has a definitive life not only for himself, but also in relation to other characters around him. That character's absence is going to leave a puzzle for other roleplayers to figure out -- or you can simply take care of the matter before you leave.
Any of the options listed above will work fine for a character who is leaving. If you take a few minutes to set up your character's departure, you save your friends a load of confusion and frustration. In addition, you can leave yourself an easy way back into the game if you decide to pick that character back up again in the future.
If you're dealing with your character having a significant other, that can get a little trickier -- it's not just a matter of creating an out that's easily explained. When you're working with departing from friends, that's generally easier to deal with -- after all, they can make new friends just as easily. But if it's a significant other your character is leaving behind, it's worth it to sit down with the player behind that character and figure out exactly how this is going to play out.
Why? Well, while players can be fine with just referring to a lost friend as "Tom, the retired soldier who lives in a remote part of Elwynn Forest," and simply using him as an NPC, doing the same for a significant other can be incredibly frustrating. People like roleplaying relationships -- it's just one of those things that pops up that's an immediate appeal for a majority of roleplayers out there. The thought of having a character "involved" with someone who isn't really there, someone that isn't really going to respond, isn't as appealing as actually getting to roleplay a relationship with a character who has a real player behind them.
Ideally, you want to sit down with the player behind your character's significant other and figure out what's going to happen. If you're the one leaving, do you expect them to remain forever devoted to a character who isn't really there? If they are leaving, are you comfortable with having your character devoted to the same? If the answer is no, then the two of you need to come up with a reasonable way for these two characters to split -- and that can be anything from death or kidnapping to a simple amicable parting of ways.
By creating a reasonable story for a missing character's exit, you're essentially putting a great big "The End" on that character's story. If handled correctly, you've also made contingencies for that character's eventual return, if it happens. Whether the player returns to the game, or whether they remain out there in real life handling those real-life things, at least your character's future can start from that endpoint and continue on from there -- and that's a gigantic relief.
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