Storyboard: Welcome back, whoever you are

I have some weird screenshots from game trailers.
It happens. Maybe you got sidetracked with an alt and another alt wound up gathering dust. Maybe you had real-life obligations pulling you away from a certain game for a while (like, say, a job that more or less relies upon a variety of game experiences coupled with apartment hunting). Or maybe one thing led to another and you just didn't think to log in for a while. Whatever the case, you've got characters who have been involved in roleplaying for a while but just dropped off the radar.

Of course, much like video game franchises, old roleplaying characters never really go away; they just go for longer period of inactivity. Unfortunately, diving back into a character you haven't played for a while prompts its own string of problems, namely the fact that from a story perspective said character apparently fell off the face of the planet for a while. So let's start small and lead your character back into the action, starting by figuring out where he or she has been for the past several weeks or months or years.

I certainly wasn't doing evil while I was gone, not at all.  The costume was just... on sale.  Yeah.Boy, that was a long bus ride!

First of all, let's establish something very basic: Wherever your character was, she was not at his home. At all. The alternative is assuming that either no one tried to reach her or she simply ignored everyone who tried until he gave up. Neither one paints a flattering picture or even a picture that makes much logical sense. So your character went somewhere. Maybe on a trip, maybe on a journey, or maybe she just fell into a pit and disappeared into a space-time anomaly.

The last one is probably gold in Star Trek Online, actually.

Given that limitation, you'll find that your life actually gets measurably easier. You know that your character absolutely must have been away for one reason or another because it's the only option that makes sense. All you have to do is figure out where she was and why she went there, possibly throwing in an explanation for why she didn't bother to tell anyone beforehand. Some characters might very well just strike off without warning; others would need to have a good reason for doing so.

Most importantly, however, you should keep in mind that there's a story behind the character's departure. Something happened, an adventure big or small, and she left to continue her adventures elsewhere for a time. You should play up the sense that your character is coming back and hoping to find home the same way she left it. She won't, of course, and you as a player can see that, but she expects things to be the same as when she left.

Building in a certain element of predictability in one's flightiness helps.So what were you guys up to?

When you get back from a vacation that your friends didn't go on, what's usually the first thing you do when you get back? You catch up.

For a player, it might not be a bad idea to talk to some of your fellow players out of character to make it clear that you're bringing a character back in some degree of style. But no matter what, your character should be trying to reconnect with old friends, chat about what's been happening, and generally figure out what's gone on in his absence. Of course, roleplaying stories can easily move a mile a minute, leaving the returning voyager to discover a very different setting from the one he left behind. But that's part of the fun of bringing someone back.

Obviously, you won't want to regale everyone with stories of your trip in great detail -- that's a bunch of roleplaying involving your waxing poetic on events no one else could be present for. But you should make it clear that your character was out and doing things, and you should be approaching the situations currently in play as something of an outsider. You don't have the same insider perspective as when you left, so don't try to force yourself in.

So, funny story.  You know how I love anomalies...While I was gone, I got this great tattoo!

There's another thing that longer absences do wonderfully: They give you a chance to develop a character off-screen in whatever fashion you desire. And considering that there are a lot of character traits that might seem like a good idea at the time but a worse idea once you play with them, I submit that developing a character off-screen is sometimes a nice way to smooth over rough spots in a character concept.

But coming back with some off-screen development has another purpose. Rather than freezing the character in amber for a while, you can bring back a character that's interesting but not quite the same as you remember. Instead of just trying to bring things back to the way they used to be, you're bringing a character out of retirement and stirring some familiar memories while still presenting new conflicts. You're not trying to rewind anything ongoing; you're bringing in someone new.

So your character was gone for a while. He went on a journey to meet his father again, something he'd never talked about in detail but was still a part of his character. And now he's come back, and he's a bit calmer, a bit more mature. He's still the same person that his friends remember, but even so, he's grown in the time they've spent apart. Everything isn't the same.

And that's at the core of bringing back a character you haven't played in a while. Whatever happens, you know that the roleplaying has continued without your presence. Let your character's life continue even if you haven't acted all of it out.

Feedback, as always, is encouraged in both the comments below and via mail to eliot@massively.com. For next week's column, I'm going to delve into some tips for designing a roleplaying event for players to run through -- not necessarily the hosting, but the planning.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.

This article was originally published on Massively.