How loss affects roleplay
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.
Options for lost characters
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?
Point of no return
If you're reasonably convinced the missing character's player is never coming back to the game, it's fine to presume the character dead for all intents and purposes. The moment of death doesn't really matter; it's the reaction that's the payoff. Maybe your character received a missive from the commanding officer of a unit that reported his friend's demise. Maybe your character tries to search for his friend and stumbles across a bit of clothing or some other evidence of his friend's death.
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.
Possibility of return
If, however, you think that your friend might return to the game one day in the nebulous future, it's only polite to give them an avenue for doing so. This can be explained by a sudden disappearance -- perhaps the character was kidnapped, or rushed off somewhere in a hurry, but nobody really knows why. Taking this route also gives you the option of playing the search and rescue game. It's a game that OOC, you know you're not going to win, but IC, it can give a lot of opportunities for roleplay, regardless of the known outcome.
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.
When you take your leave
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.
The loss of a character doesn't immediately have to be a loss. With some planning and some creative thinking, the loss of a character can actually be a bigger boost to roleplay than if that character had actually stuck around. Not only is your character grieving or reacting to that loss, but also everyone else in that missing character's social circle is going through the exact same thing. This gives all these former friends and loved ones of that missing character a perfect opportunity to get to know each other better, because now they've got a common thread to work with and talk about.
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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