How to Phase Out Player Characters in D&D

As a rainstorm rages in the coastal city of Merlint, Merk and his party stand in a dark alleyway near the Moon Castle. Merk is overtaken by a foul desire to grasp Ruaka’s sentient blade, Flindlint, for his shadowy patron, Scopos. The hexblade entity whispers to Merk and begins to materialize in the mortal world as the party readies for combat. Merk is frightened, he’s not sure whether to side with his party or his warlock patron. In a flash of black smoke, Scopos emerges from Merk’s trident and tears through Ruaka, reaching for the magma sword. Confidently, Alovnek steps forward, holy symbol in hand, and banishes Scopos back to the Shadowfell. Everyone gasps in the rainy alleyway, relieved, but Merk knows he must leave his companions behind or risk Scopos’ darkness overtaking them — and him — in the future.

Not every player character is meant to survive until they’re slaughtered by an orc warlord’s sentient falchion, incinerated by a red dragon’s fire breath, or lobotomized by a mindflayer’s voracious tentacles. Some of them yearn to retire with the gold found in dungeons, return to their life as a quiet botanist, or immerse themselves in written worlds — those are frightening enough. After all, it’s not their choice, it’s their player’s choice.

How do you phase out a player character from your campaign seamlessly? 

It’s a question I’ve heard asked constantly. I’ve constructed a few answers, many stem from my home campaigns. Some of my players enjoy cycling through characters. Maybe yours are the same.

Collaborate with the Player

The most important part of phasing out a player character is collaborating with the character’s player. If they want to leave the group and create a new character, discuss the options below with them. Don’t thrust a choice upon them, merely suggest avenues that are better than others, ones that fit with the campaign. If the group is on Avernus, First Layer of the Nine Hells, it’s unlikely the character can retire amongst the warring demons & devils.

A Glorious Demise

The party races after the hasty & injured halfling wererat as she dips into a sewer grate and slides down the ladder. Not caring for his safety, a half-orc bard leaps after her, ripping her off the ladder and bringing them both to the bottom of the pit. This marks the end of Bruno the half-orc bard. Bruno’s player wanted a new character because Bruno wasn’t meshing with the group. However, he wished for Bruno to experience an epic demise. The next session, I gave him the opportunity and he responded. Dying to defeat a villain or save your party is a great way to exit the party with no strings attached. You can ensure the character won’t return and your group can rest easily.

Time For Conflict

The example with Merk and his hexblade patron is an example of conflict igniting between party members. This is another great reason for a character to leave the party. What’s special about this method is that it opens up future avenues for the Dungeon Master. Does the departed member seek revenge? Will they ally with the group in the future? If the Dungeon Master thinks they’ll be able to accurately portray the departing character and their former player is okay with it, this can make for a great twist in a campaign. I might bring back Merk as a brief side plot in my campaign’s future, the triton emboldened and corrupted by the might of the nightwalker Scopos.

It’s Time to Go Home

Walking into the sunset is the best option for those who want their characters to survive and live happily ever after...for a time. If your character retires from adventuring, they become a civilian: a farmer, a carpenter, or a noble. They’re not exploring ancient lizardfolk crypts, tainted wood elf shrines, or forests touched by the Feywild. They’re setting down their bloody sword for a child’s hand or the touch of a partner. It’s happy, yes, but if the Dungeon Master is particularly devilish, they might utilize this retired player character in vile ways. Remember your friend, Wargen the alchemist? He’s been captured by the conniving Lord Elyas Embong and trapped in the dungeons of the Moon Castle. Are you going to let him rot or return him to his happy ending?

In Summary

Phasing a player character out of your D&D campaign can be tricky. With some coordination between you and their player, you can make the transition quite seamless. Remember the following approaches:
  1. Always collaborate with the character’s play on how they will go out.
  2. Death is always an option; go out in a blaze of glory.
  3. A disagreement between party members on how to progress can be a good exit for a PC and an excellent way for them to return as an enemy.
  4. Sometimes retiring is the best option, especially for a character who just wants to rest.
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Until next time, stay creative.

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