RPG Retirement

This is a post about how, back in the day, players would set a safe and comfy retirement as one of the driving goals for their player characters. The post about the RPG Retirement Home, the safe and comfy place (probably in the Midwest) which I am driven to create so that we can spend the last years of our lives pretending to be elves 24-7, will wait for another time.

Original gangster Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine and co-founder of Eldrich Entertainment, posted recently at the latter’s blog:

End-game goals? What a novel idea, at least for what seems to be a majority of contemporary players. Just what were those novel ideas? Same as you and me in real life: make a stack of cash, buy or build the home/castle of our dreams on our own substantial property where nobody is likely to mess with us and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yes, Virginia, we really did play like that. All of us had PC’s that were “retired” or “semi-retired”; we did not use them except for special circumstances.

Adventurer Conqueror King is as interested in setting out a system for players to pursue end-game goals as I am in exploring how these goals arose out of the original conditions of play. In playing and talking to some of the OG’s, I’ve seen secondary evidence for PC retirement as the ultimate end-game goal. During one of the side chats during the campaign Michael Mornard ran in NYC, he talked about how, because clerics got their stronghold so much sooner than other classes, everyone wanted to play the class that was the easy route to becoming landed gentry. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this castle would be a de facto retirement home, but because clerics in OD&D also hit their more-or-less maximum level earlier this makes sense. (Tim’s post is mainly talking about class level limits. It also gets into players having a big stable of different characters in the same campaign as a corollary of PCs retiring, which Mornard posts about here.)

Last night’s game was the first time I’ve seen a player in one of my campaigns (Ray Weiss, author of Everything is Dolphins) expressly say that the main goal for their character (whip-wielding, whiskey-drinking Randy Buffett) was to reach a safe place and retire. After having celebrated this sighting of an old-school trope arising spontaneously in the wild, I’m now ready to speculate on the reasons why PC retirement might be sought after in some games but not others.

Character sketch for Randy Buffett, retiree wannabe.

Lack of advancement. We used the original edition of Metamorphosis Alpha as the player-facing rules in last night’s session. (Behind the screen it’s Adventurer Conqueror King, or a mutation thereof.) Metamorphosis Alpha has almost no system for a player to improve their character’s abilities through play. I’ve cobbled together a Burning Wheel-style advancement mechanic using the closest thing there is in MA – when you make five successful tests against Mental Resistance you get to improve it one point – but the zero-to-hero payoff is muted. My houserules mean that MA characters start off at the point an OD&D character reaches at name level, where further adventuring might get you some extra hit points and more spells per level but you’ll never get another hit dice or new level of spells. When MA is played as written, a new character is more like a max-level D&D character of one of the classes referenced in Tim’s article that have a hard level cap: they’re basically as bad-ass as they’ll ever be. Note that the original group of D&D characters to visit Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden ranged from 18th to 20th level, plus an intelligent sword and some level-capped characters: “Tom and Tim went as druids (probably because they liked all types of herbs).”

Recent editions of D&D place a lot of importance on offering many benefits from advancement evenly spread all the way to level 20 or 30. Given this incentive to keep adventuring, it’s not surprising that retirement isn’t on the minds of players in these games; few will ever run out of zero-to-hero. Mornard and Kask described groups in which, having reached the point where rewards from further adventures diminished, retirement became “the ultimate and totally honorable goal of the game.” Such lofty levels remain a distant dream for any of the New York Red Box D&D campaigns, but last night suggests that retirement is a much more immediate goal in MA where advancement isn’t much of a hook right from the start.

A long road to the top. No goal that’s easily achieved is worth setting for your player character. Original D&D, and Adventurer Conqueror King even more so, very clearly lays out a lot of worthy obstacles between you and building your own gated retirement community, all of which – like amassing a lot of gold and clearing a hex of monster lairs – can be achieved through play. (Interestingly, you’re assumed to do this at the point where your character’s stats can still advance by adventuring, and one of the benefits of levelling up is getting free followers to staff your castle with, so the system uses the zero-to-hero carrot to reinforce the retirement incentive.)

Last night the group had a chance to return to their home village and lord it over everything they surveyed, but they passed up this chance at early retirement because they hadn’t yet achieved true security. Retiring onto a patch of land that isn’t hurtling out of control through interstellar space, rapidly breaking down, and in the power of the deranged intelligences Mother Brain and the Captain is almost as beyond Randy Buffett’s grasp right now as a level cap is to a newly-minted D&D character.

Love for your character. Some of the strong reactions to Kask’s blog post at RPG.net and theRPGsite come from the assumption that a rotating stable of characters means that the player has no more attachment to any of them than you would the counters provided to your side in a wargame. (Some also derive from the fact that Tim is either enough of an OG to have stopped caring who he offends, or enough of a showman to know the value of controversy.)

This is obviously wrong, even setting aside the ample evidence in Playing at the World that wargamers have been developing personalities for, and emotional ties to, individual units for centuries. If none of your characters means anything to you, why would you derive satisfaction from knowing that one of them has escaped from the fray to enjoy the good things in its imaginary life? The reward for advancing a pawn across the board is the exact opposite: it levels up and can fight more effectively, and because you don’t care about it like you do a player character you’re glad to pay the price that turning your pawn into a queen has also painted a target on its back.

As a point of OSR research and intellectual interest, I’m glad to see that this campaign has generated the conditions necessary to make an end-game goal emerge organically from play. (This bears out an observation of Chris Clark’s that the most important innovation of Metamorphosis Alpha was to make the end goals explicit and urgent: whether you’ll try to save the ship or escape from it becomes a pressing issue as soon as the players figure out what’s going on.) But as a player, what makes me proud is that in just two sessions of play Randy Buffett has gone from being 3d6 in order to a person who Ray cares enough about him to fervently hope he reaches a place where he’ll never again risk being sliced apart by animated bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup.

EDIT: I just remembered that one of the first OD&D characters ever created in my White Sandbox campaign, Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, was also explicitly retired from play. The omission was probably because Lotur’s goal seemed primarily to achieve domestic bliss with his beloved gynosphinx Ontussa, which seems different but is really just a specific flavor of retirement home. To the points of a large stable of characters and threat of death, though, Lotur’s player Greengoat was also explicitly interested in making room for a character whose stats wouldn’t suck so bad and perhaps would thus not be so constantly on the edge of mortal peril.


12 Responses to “RPG Retirement”

  1. November 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Great! You can feel free to name me too buddy, maybe someone will buy a book?

  2. November 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    The Avalon Hill game Blackbeard is a pirate simulator in which there are two ways to win: the first is to run your Reputation off the chart and that’s pretty hard, the second is to retire with the most loot and that’s near impossible. There are multiple ways to retire, but all of them are expensive and require a LOT of luck. Ex. One situation you can retire is if you are captured by a King’s Commissioned pirate hunter AND have a letter of mark AND roll a specific number on a d6.

  3. 3 Philo Pharynx
    November 8, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    I think some of this depends on the nature of the campaign. A campaign designed around defeating the Evil Overlord has a defined ending. Most characters will have a reason to want EO overthrown, and won’t stop until this happens or they die. In games like this I’ll often have a coda session where the players talk about their lives afterwards. It’s like the epilogue chapter in a book.

    I’ve also had characters go into semi-retirement in the upper levels. They have things going on in their lives and spend most of their time dealing with this. But when they hear about a serious threat, they pull out the magic items and go to deal with it.

  4. November 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks for Lotur’s shoutout Tavis.
    I think the desire to have a old character retire is a natural extension of long-time play. For me, I felt that fidelity to the character was the main reason that Lotur the Cur would seek some safe form of continued existence in an off-scene happy place. The personality begins to get watered down if you pass through several personal objectives and hang around to look for more. Comic superheroes have a type of amnesia or personality shift as they go along through their years of story telling. That is why characters in current super comics seem so schizophrenic, the characters have to change constantly depending on what the writer wants AND have all this fidelity with back-story to contend with.

    So ya, Lotur fell in love with a monstrous sphinx, freed her of her geas, and had himself polymorphed into a shabby looking sphinx to live happily ever after and pester adventurers with lame half-assed riddles.

  5. November 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Glad to have the input, Mr. Goat!
    I think this points out that:
    1) my perception of player motives is demonstrably imprecise so my suggestions above should be taken with a grain of salt
    2) campaign length is another big factor – obviously a very short campaign will end before one character could retire and make room for another, while your point that maintaining a coherent character arc becomes more difficult the longer a campaign goes on and pursues different directions is well taken.

  6. November 9, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    I like the topic and I do remember thinking of building a fortress as the first step towards eventual retirement.

    I think “campaign type” is another consideration – as mentioned earlier, if it’s more of a story campaign then once the Death Star is blown then there is a natural break point and it may be time to retire some characters. In a more sandboxy game I think it’s less clear and may be driven by more mechanical considerations: a) I’m max level – there’s no where else to go, b) I’m higher level and the group has some interest in playing a lower level game so it’s time to semi-retire this character, or c) I’m tired of playing the fighter and want to try a wizard for a while, so let’s wrap up this character’s journey and set him on the shelf.

    Another consideration: Game change. I know we had a fairly high level group in Second Edition that had built a Keep and a temple etc in a particular region. When Third Edition came out we started playing the Next Generation as the children of that party and their henchmen etc. and left the previous characters retired in most ways. It is a little different in the newer rules out there with continuous benefits for leveling all the way to 20 or 30., but we were happy with that call at the time.

    In contrast we still have current versions of Traveller which still encourages some of the old school retirement thinking – make a lot of money and settle while you’re still alive and in on piece. Then you have the various superhero games where you typically have a much flatter advancement curve where you rarely see this kind of thing come up at all. I suppose that’s just Hero to Hero, with no Zero.

  7. November 13, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I really don’t get your dismissal of the ‘love for your characters’ motive. In fact, it’s a major blindspot of most of the redbox game groups, with the exception of Eric’s Chateau players. Players play with what seems like a reasonable facsimile of interest, but it’s very detached.

    It’s almost like there’s a perception that playing too involved would somehow cause you to wake up the next day a virgin, smothered in pimples, and playing alongside frustrated friends using the game to beat on your precarious self-esteem.

    I can count the number of players I’ve met as an adult who play with their balls all-in on one hand. You know it when you sit down to play with them, and I envy their fun a little bit. They’re playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

  8. November 13, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Hey! Arnold retired even before Lotur did (or simultaneous to). His occasional reappearances have mainly been due to his player’s reluctance to start over as a 1st level dude in Glantri or 3rd level in White Box. (Of course, as in Carlito’s Way, eventually there’s a price to pay – now he has to adventure to overcome a level drain.)

    As to substance, I need to mull on this.

  9. November 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    @Scott, I’m saying that players do love their characters and this is why they want to retire them. Did we misunderstand one another? I don’t generally see players as being unwilling to get involved with their PCs.

  10. December 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Maybe I misread, but I keep having trouble with the transition and assumptions in the “This is obviously wrong,” paragraph.

    I think the whole character love thing is slightly more complicated. I think we (I) love them more as they level up and become more kick-ass. A rotating stable might work in the beginning, just to see who survives. Then, you can decide which ones you like more than others. But this is one of those issues where, if you’re not obsessive about it, you probably never had that double sprinkling of crazy to begin with.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2012

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